“Let’s go hunting.” It was as simple, and complex, as that. My brother, Randy, and I had been chatting on the phone. I think he knew I was in trouble. Of course, he knew that I had received my diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer. He also knew that the prognosis was bleak. And, I think he knew that I was despairing of not living out my so-called ‘allotted time’ – not walking my daughter down the aisle, not ever seeing my grand-kids, not celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary…The list went on.
Honestly, I wasn’t despairing about not seeing another hunting trip. But, Randy’s statement sent a slight thrill through the body that had been cut open twice and, most recently, poisoned with drugs designed to kill the mutated cells. He was suggesting a trip to the Western US, a region we both loved. I thought for just a moment and then asked, “What about going to Africa?”
Though my brother had been on a Safari, I had never seen the continent where many hunters are said to find their dreams fulfilled. It took only the briefest discussion for us to decide to investigate whether a Safari was possible – financially for both of us, physically for me.
I first went to Frances my, [very] long-suffering, wife of 40 years. We discussed the financial cost, and then we discussed the big question – would I be able to handle the physical side of the Safari. This latter issue might seem like an odd concern for those of you who know that Frances and I had just spent 10 days in the Himalayas, trekking all the way up to ~16,000 feet in elevation. Also, just prior to my diagnosis, I had been a runner for 20+ years. So, why the discussion about being physically able to hunt?
The answer was that the treatment for my particular cancer had knocked out most of my endocrine system. This left me without the capability of producing the molecules needed to keep living, especially when in the midst of physically-demanding activities. But, there were medications that could help.
Shortly thereafter, Frances and my children used the Arnold penchant for sarcasm-in-love and indicated their vote for the Safari with this shirt:
So, Randy and I planned our trip, with my brother making the suggestion that we hunt with Blaauwkrantz Safaris out of Port Elizabeth, SA.
In the midst of the planning, I realized that I needed to let the folks at Blaauwkrantz know about my situation. I was a bit concerned that they might not be very excited about my particular malady, especially given that my prime species would be the Vaal Rhebok, an animal found only in mountainous regions.
My concerned message was met with “Mike, we will take very good care of you.”
Remembering my sarcastic bent, you will understand that I interpreted this to mean that they would send me out with a PH capable of carting my carcass out of the mountains when I fell off my perch.
That latter inference was accurate in that my PH, Arnold Claassen, was a former Rugby player. And, since he was capable of carrying whole Impala down hills, he could have easily handled my limp body.
Fortunately, Arnold never had to test his human-body-carting capabilities on our Safari. Though, early in our Safari, as I struggled up the slope to find the Vaal Rhebok, he noted my gasping and asked if I wanted him to carry my rifle. I stopped, popped another Hydrocortisone tablet, and demurred.
We found our trophy, and Arnold didn’t need to roll me down from the top of the mountain.
You may be asking what the point of this post might be? Here it is. If you are facing a diagnosis that is dire, and you are a passionate hunter, consider going hunting.
No, I don’t believe hunting saved my life, thus far giving me almost three years of clear scans. I believe that is attributable to God and modern medical treatments.
However, my wife and children’s love, my brother’s love, and the care of Arnold Claassen and all those at Blaauwkrantz provided this cancer-challenged man with an adventure that lifted his spirits in a way that no other experience likely would have. The memory of that one adventure has continued to buoy my desire to fight this disease.
By the way, Randy and I head back to Africa in 2020 to share another Safari, this time in Mozambique – and Frances is going along for her first taste of Africa.
I intend to keep Kicking Cancer’s Ass.
“It is curious to hear the nonsense that is talked and to see the nonsense that is written about the distances at which game is killed…I always make it a rule to pace off the distance after a successful shot, whenever practicable…and I was at first both amused and somewhat chagrined to see how rapidly what I supposed to be remarkably long shots shrank under actual pacing.” (T. Roosevelt. Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail)
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My address for the next three nights will be Burnt Pine Plantation near Newborn, Georgia. Brian Mask, General Manager for over a decade at Burnt Pine, and everyone of his wonderful staff have already made me feel like family — a well-fed member of the family!
I’ll be sharing many more experiences from this beautiful property, but if you want to hunt whitetails, turkeys, Mourning doves or any upland game – in a comfortable, beautiful and friendly atmosphere – you need to head out to Burnt Pine.
By the way, I’m not greedy about the type of whitetail I want to harvest – one like either of these will suffice…
The low point of my thoughts coincided with 1) an elevated wind strength and 2) the appearance of the young buck. On previous hunts, I had only brought does back to our house at Elmdale. This had been fine with my Mom and Dad because, to quote my Father, “They eat better.” However, I really wanted to accomplish what my older brother had. I wanted to take a buck. I wanted to be able to feel the bone-like antlers and to keep them as a trophy. I never expected to be able to shoot a deer like the one my Dad had hanging in the back room of our house. My Dad’s deer had been taken the year before. It possessed a beautiful seven-point rack complete with the graceful antlers characteristic of the Texas Hill Country. The rack carried by the deer in front of me was not that size.
In fact, “my” buck carried only a forkhorn on one side and a short spike on the other. My Dad pressed his arm against me as a signal to raise my rifle. The buck had his nose in one of the bushes that made up a hedge in front of the stand. As he nibbled unconcernedly at some of the remaining fresh growth, I placed the crosshairs of my .243 Winchester behind his shoulder. Just then the West Texas equivalent to a gentle breeze hit like a sledgehammer. My sights swung wildly past the tail of the deer. I swiveled my scope back to the aiming point for a lung shot just as the wind let up and the tree righted itself. The unbending of the tree caused my gun sight to pivot past the shoulder, neck and then jaw of my intended target. “Oh, Hell!”, I would have thought, if I had been allowed to swear. Again I corrected and again the wind hit. Again and again, I watched my crosshairs skim from one end of the deer to the other. I knew I was running out of time.
At last, the buck tired of the browse 20 yards in front of our hide and started meandering down the well-worn deer trail. For the final time I pulled my gun from the rear end of the buck to his shoulder. As the gust began to subside, I tried to keep the gun sights from sliding forward while simultaneously squeezing the trigger. At the report and kick of my gun, the buck disappeared from my view. I had hardly brought my gun down from its slight recoil induced elevation when my Dad began congratulating me on a great shot. He said, “You must have hit him in the spine to drop him so quickly”. I couldn’t believe my skill, but then what should I have expected from one of the greatest eight-year-old deer hunters in the country? My brother would never hear the end of this exploit. I had not only collected my first buck, but I had done so under the most trying of conditions. I had placed the shot almost exactly where I was aiming, in spite of the gale-force wind. As I stepped down from the bottom rung of the ladder, I was already imagining and savoring the sight of the neat hole, a bit higher than intended maybe, but still just behind the shoulder. In fact, I was staring at the exact spot where my bullet must have hit as I drew near the buck. I was puzzled as I slowly knelt by the deer’s side. Where was the wound? My Dad’s voice cut through my musings, “Michael, where were you aiming?” “Just behind his shoulder”, was my reply. “Hmm, well you hit him in the head.” My eyes slid up the buck’s neck to his head and it was then that I saw the evidence of the .243’s work. No wonder he had dropped like a rock.
To say that my brother was unmerciful, is the understatement of the past century. He glibly pointed out that I had only missed my target area by about three feet and from a distance of 20 yards. He also correctly surmised that I might just as easily have shot my buck in the butt. I think my response was that I would rather shoot him in the butt. I really didn’t mind the ribbing too much. I think my Dad summed it up pretty well when he said “Son, you will never lose the enjoyment of taking your first buck”. He was right. The memory of that gusty morning is as sweet 53 years later as it was the moment I carefully stepped from the last rung of my first treestand.