We pierced the veneer of outside things. We suffered…and had grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had seen God in all his splendours, heard the text that nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man. – Sir Ernest Shackleton
The arrow flew intuitively, almost of its own volition. For that moment, my bow and I had become one. Upon impact, the bear whirled on his hind legs and thundered back into heavy cover. I was deep in the wilderness of Colorado’s high country, in dawn’s early light. Little did I know, the adventure was just beginning.
Many years ago, a hunting mentor spoke these formative words: “Luck is the combination of preparation and opportunity.” Never before had the relationship between opportunity and preparation been more apparent to me than on that crisp September morning.
Needless to say, the idea of “getting lucky” has taken on a whole new meaning. In the field, I consider it over and over again: “Luck IS a combination of preparation and opportunity.” Mostly, the preparation is our portion, as students of the land, the animals, and ourselves. Opportunity is largely up to God. We train and we trust. We train that we might be ready, and we trust that we are sons of the Living One who has our best interests at the center of His soul, all the way, all the time, whatever the outcomes may be.
My hunting pursuits began over 15 years ago. I didn’t grow up in a hunting family or in a hunting culture. Far from it. Argyle socks filled my drawer, and my wild adventures were confined to small pockets of untamed land gridlocked in a maze of suburban sprawl. God’s wooing drew me into wilderness and hunting, the prize of which is much more primary than meat in the freezer (though that is a high value in our family culture).
Wilderness, and chasing wild in its infinite forms, has become the central context for my validation as a son and my initiation as a man.
As this hunting season drew near, my good friend Brian and I drew a pair of rare and coveted archery tags and the dream of harvesting an elk and a bear on the western slope of Colorado. I was going in for three days prior to Brian’s arrival, both for final reconnaissance and, more importantly, for the time of annual solitude with God that my heart craves. Heading out in my truck, I began praying and consecrating the trip, connecting my heart with the Father and sloughing off the shroud of stress that the previous days and months had cinched around me, then settling in for several hours of open road.
Driving into the Arkansas River canyon and happily leaving cell coverage, I eagerly fired up the Scriptures on an audio app I’d downloaded, anticipating my soul being rinsed clean and fresh during these precious hours of transition. I started with Psalm 1 and then moved into Psalm 2, and then…silence. The app just went out—so much for the grid independence the app promised.
But the verse that it stopped on was Psalm 2:8, which, in The Message, reads:
You’re my son, and today’s your birthday. What do you want? Name it. Nations as a present? Continents as a prize? You’re my son, and today’s your birthday. What do you want? Name it.
For a good 30 minutes, I brawled with the app, trying to coerce it into working, until finally it dawned on me what Father was saying: for this hunt—and not only for me, but also for Brian—this was OUR verse from Him.
“You’re my sons and this is your birthday. What do you want?” When I hit cell reception again, I texted Brian and shared the verse. “Happy birthday, buddy,” I texted. “Make sure you ask Father for what you want for this hunt. I’m starting to ask Him now.”
Hours later, I neared the spot we intended for base camp and felt my apprehension rise. I’d prepared for months for this bear hunt. I’d read several books on bears and trained my body for the backcountry through countless workouts on stairs and off-trail ascents with a 50-pound pack. With the exception of an eight-day backcountry filming trip, I’d shot my bow 55 days in a row, and I’d brought all my working knowledge and experience from past years—mostly failures and a few successes—to this hunt.
But this was a new level of apprehension. I knew I was pursuing—with only a bow and arrow—an animal that, if provoked, was far more capable of harvesting me than I was of harvesting it. Furthermore, this vast country was uniquely rugged and bear-enticing. Graced with undulating hillsides of ancient oak brush, this region attracts bears from up to 200 miles away. A hunting buddy who’d been there a previous year described that when the wind blew, ripe-acorns falling from heavily laden branches pitter-pattered like raindrops on the ground cover. Such prolific food offered ripe hope for an archery hunter heaven-bent on a close encounter.
Physiologically, this season in the high country for bears is called hyperphagia. Bears feed up to 22 hours a day, putting on as much fat as possible to sustain their hibernation during brutal Western Slope winters. With these optimal conditions, the collision between opportunity and preparation could come at any moment of any day.
The first morning, I hiked into a drainage to a secluded watering hole we had identified on the maps that we hoped would attract bears in the heat of the midday. Grazing leases for domestic cattle dominate this section of National Forest, and groups of cattle regularly shuffle through the drainages, feeding on grasses and also depositing endless cow pies. In the heat of the day, the stench of smoldering cow pies was noxious. I harnessed my senses and stayed as still as I could, settling in for hours of vigilance over the water hole. Between the heat and the stench and the still-lingering racket from the world inside of me, it was an appropriately challenging baptism back into the wild.
After five hours, I sensed movement and, out of the corner of my eye, glimpsed first sight of a bear. I was caught off guard as I’d seen so few bears in hunting situations before. This was a small bear, and I immediately registered it could be a cub. Colorado hunting laws prohibit harvesting a sow with cubs, and though I was tempted to draw my bow, I thought, If this is a cub, the mother is surely coming behind it, and I am not going to arrow a cub and end up with an angry sow hunting me. But if it’s not a cub, I don’t want to pass on what could be my only chance.
Feeling the pull of opportunity, I began to draw, knowing I had a fraction of a second to make a decision.
Here was the moment: I had this bear in my sights…and then discretion edged its way into my soul.
I lowered my bow, choosing to pass.
In my past as a bowhunter, I have at times been quick to fling an arrow. Quicker than I’d like to admit. And in recent years, I have specifically asked Father to grow discretion in me, that I might be quick to assess a shot but slower to release an arrow. I have learned the hard way: with both a bullet and an arrow, once it is released, it can never be called back.
As quickly as I decided, the bear moved on. Sure enough, no mother ever came, suggesting in fact it wasn’t a cub. (I have learned since it was most likely a two-and-a-half-year-old bear, which is the first year of independence for a young bear. Typically, two-and-a-half-year-olds are small and easily mistaken for cubs.)
Several days stacked up void of any more bear encounters as I covered mile after mile, boots on the ground, glassing and looking for both bear and elk sign. In drainage after drainage and hillside after hillside, I noticed that most of the scrub oak were completely barren: no acorns. Even the chokecherry and serviceberry bushes, though lush with leaves, were virtually naked of berries. The reality began to sink in: though this section is typically a berry and acorn bonanza, something was wrong. There was almost no feed. And without feed, there were far fewer bears in the area than seasonal population data suggested. (We later learned there’d been a Mother’s Day freeze that had decimated the acorn and berry population. Bears that typically traveled from hundreds of miles to feast in this particular section had headed to different country in search of food.)
As I prepared for Brian’s arrival, I realized the likelihood of harvesting a bear this year was plummeting. Discouragement crept in like a slow-moving winter storm. I’d spent six years accumulating preference points and six months training for what perhaps was the hunt of a lifetime, and I would very likely go home empty-handed.
In the darkness of the third morning, I headed to explore another remote drainage. Praying and worshipping under the flume of the Milky Way and the unwavering stance of Orion, my perception of God’s presence heightened. I felt our Father’s nearness, His overwhelming kindness, and His unfaltering leadership over my life. Quickly, my soul ignited with presence and I knew I was receiving the greatest treasure of any hunt: an overwhelming awareness of God Himself that often prevails after several days in the context of wilderness and solitude. This kind of encounter with God is the ultimate prize of backcountry hunting.
Then I heard these words from a Father to his son, from my Father to me, as his son: “Son, I invite you to let the primary mission of this trip be to help Brian harvest a bull.”
The clarity of Father’s voice in that moment provided joy-filled reorientation: the discouragement vanished as the path of Life was illumined. Everything in my soul shifted from the pressure of strategizing about arrowing a bear to ease and joy in the abundant goodness of my Father. I knew the Father was interacting with me and inviting me to chose love for my friend Brian, and to love Brian’s dad and his brother, who also had highly prized hunting tags. He was assuring me that while my day would come in the fullness of time and in His abundance, I could relish coming through for Brian. (Brian and his dad had both patiently invested 16 years of preference points and cashed them in for this particular opportunity.)
By then, the first light of day was brilliantly coloring the horizon, and in this intimate space, I sincerely felt like it was being painted just for me. A deep sense of peace now pervaded my hunt: I had my orders for this mission. I consecrated my motives afresh to God, and as Isaiah said thousands of years ago, set my face like a flint (Isaiah 50:7).
Brian would arrive shortly, and the second chapter would unfold. Little did I know that giving my yes to the Father on that September morning would bring far more than I was prepared to handle.
Oswald Chamber says this,
The call of God can never be understood absolutely or explained externally; it is a call that can only be perceived and understood internally by our true inner-nature. The call of God is like the call of the sea—no one hears it except the person who has the nature of the sea in him. What God calls us to cannot be definitely stated, because His call is simply to be His friend to accomplish His own purposes. Our real test is in truly believing that God knows what He desires.
The call of God is ever being whispered into the place in us that truly wants to receive it. The writer of Hebrews suggests that God is enticing and disrupting us so that, in His goodness, He can become even more the Author and Finisher of our story (Hebrews 12:2). Where is it that God is inviting your willingness to let Him author you into a story far better than you could ever ask for or imagine? Where is it your Father is asking, “Would you give me your heart and follow me?”
What is your wild and how is He inviting you to chase it?
To be continued…