Refuge Notebook: The influence of a father on a career in the outdoors

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2011

New Year's Day for me is not only a day for reflecting on the events of the past year and anticipating those of a new one, it is also the date of my late father's birthday. Born on January 1, 1910 -- the year Halley's Comet made a spectacular reappearance -- he wondered if he would live to see the comet when it returned 75 years later. He saw it return in 1985 but chuckled at its then rather lackluster return appearance. I also thought of my father earlier in December when I read a newspaper article about the overall declining number of hunters in the United States.

In a list of likely causes for the decline (for example, fewer places to hunt, increased fees), one that caught my attention was that "fewer kids venture outside" and "more children are growing up in front of computer screens rather than romping through the woods." The article made me reflect on my own childhood and the role my father unknowingly played by frequently taking me with him outdoors to enjoy the natural world. It was those early experiences that eventually helped me to choose a career in the then newly developing field of wildlife biology.

My first vivid memory of the outdoors, probably around the age of 4 or 5, was my father taking me to one of his favorite fishing holes. He led me along a well-used path through a forest until we came to a distant creek bank; I felt like we were in some vast wilderness area. Fortunately we lived in a rural area. Woods, abandoned farm fields and cattle pastures surrounded our small house built for my grandfather at the edge of a small coal-mining town in the early 1900s. To add to the mystery of the area for a young boy was a small stream, a cattail marsh and a creek.

As a boy, my father often took me fishing at the creek near our home. We walked there together -- I carried a can of earthworms dug from our garden -- and we fished for suckers, bluegills, rock, smallmouth and largemouth bass in the spring, and bullheads (catfish) in the summer. Today my father would be considered as someone with "utilitarian" wildlife values because one reason he often fished was to supplement our dinner table. However, he also enjoyed the peace, quiet and sunshine he experienced in the outdoors, perhaps because he spent much of his early life working underground or in noisy factories. We spent numerous hours sitting quietly together on the creek bank observing nature: the different trees and flowering plants; a variety of birds, frogs, and turtles; water snakes, muskrats and once I vividly remember a passing weasel. Sometimes my mother and sister fished with us. We also took long walks together as a family along the creek.

Later, my father began taking me hunting for squirrels and cottontail rabbits, also within a short walking distance of our home. White-tailed deer and wild turkeys that were decimated by the mid-1800s had not yet become re-established or reintroduced in the area. Unknowingly, my father taught me about the feeding patterns, habitat preferences, and behaviors of squirrels and cottontails. He taught me to safely use his old single shot Stevens shotgun and Savage .22 rifle. He also stressed upon me to carefully shoot only after I was likely to humanely kill the quarry with the first shot. I still have a vivid memory of my father's old brown canvas hunting coat, and I can still recall the odor of gunpowder when he snapped open the old shotgun and the ejector popped out the empty smoking shell casing. Like the fish we caught, the squirrels and rabbits that we took ended up on our dinner table.

After graduating from a small high school (10 classmates) and serving four years in the military mostly in Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, I saw how natural surroundings and wildlife had long been decimated in other parts of the world. Observing this destruction, I was inspired to help maintain the wild places and creatures still common in America. I returned to civilian life and began, with the help of the GI bill, a university education in wildlife science. Later I married a remarkably adaptable and resilient girl, also raised in a rural area (we would move 13 times in 10 years, some moves half way around the planet before coming to Alaska), and we had three children who also appreciate the outdoors.

In my wildest daydreams as a young boy, sitting on the creek bank with my father, I never envisioned a future that would eventually allow me to work with many unique species of wildlife in interesting places from the Midwestern and Western states of the Lower 48 states to Africa and Alaska. I attribute those unique opportunities to the enjoyment of the outdoors and the natural world initially ingrained in me as a boy by my parents and sister, but especially by my father, who first and often took me into the outdoors.

Recent studies and books (Example: "Why Fathers Count" by S.E. Brotherson and J.M.White) stress the importance of fathers in family life. We are fortunate that the Kenai Peninsula offers numerous and nearby outdoor opportunities -- hiking, camping, canoeing, fishing and hunting -- for parents to spend time with their young children. I encourage fathers and mothers to spend time outdoors with their children. Time spent together outdoors could give them cherished and lasting memories that may influence the choices they make later in life.

Ted Bailey is a retired Kenai National Wildlife Refuge wildlife biologist who has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for over 34 years. He maintains a keen interest in the Kenai Peninsula's wildlife and natural history.

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