What a year. 2016 was the year the Cubs won the World Series, the year voters chose electrolytes over water, and the year the music died. On a personal level, it was both the year I met an unusual amount of large men with big red beards, and the year I applied my dad's mantra of "when in doubt, go for it," as much as any in my life.
I kicked off the year by attending the Archery Trade Association (ATA) Show in Louisville. I'd been to the SHOT Show once before, so I knew a little of what to expect, but since I'm more passionate about bowhunting than any other method, it was a really cool experience. I went to promote new archery products from Michigan-based companies on social media for Michigan Out-of-Doors, which also resulted in a full gear review of the Kwikee Air quiver for the Fall 2016 issue, but more on that later. Much of what I did at the show planted seeds for what I'd do the rest of the year.
The highlights of the trip were meeting some of the hunting podcast hosts I listen to like Mark Kenyon of Wired To Hunt, Will Bradley and Phil Mendoza of Natural Born Hunter, and Brian Call and Aron Snyder of Gritty Bowmen. And as a member of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers for years, I reintroduced myself to executive director Land Tawney, who I'd met a couple years earlier at the SHOT Show and had been connected to on Facebook since. He introduced me to their new chapter coordinator Ty Stubblefield - a big man with a red beard - and we grabbed dinner with the guys from Exo Mountain Packs and S and S Archery to talk about our mutual interest in starting a Michigan chapter for BHA. The previous morning, I went to a workout session at a CrossFit box in Louisville with one of my hunting heroes, Cam Hanes, with a group of like-minded (but much fitter than I) hunter-athletes. It was my first exposure to CrossFit and, amongst all the hunting celebrities there, it was really cool to meet a guy named Travis Johnson from Texas, who was my workout partner for the session.
Later that month, I went on my annual winter backpacking/scouting/hunting trip in the Pigeon River Country. I'd recently been appointed by the DNR director to the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council, which means a lot to me since it's where I do most of my outdoor adventuring. It was around this time, too, that I joined the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association. I snowshoed down an unplowed two-track and uphill into the bush about mile and half to where I often hunt. I observed deer trails, snowshoe hare tracks and a big bull elk, but the weather kept the squirrels in the trees for which I'd brought my bow. As with all of my winter backpacking trips - which I've done annually since 2010 - it was about spending time in the wildest woods I can find at one of the most beautiful times of year when nature tests you the most. I pitched a tarp, built a fire, slept next to it in my sleeping bag, and spent most of the night alternating between sleep and tending the fire while listening to coyotes. It's a time that makes you realize that life can be as simple as this: if you're cold, get up, get moving and build a bigger fire.
A few weeks later, I got a call from Ty Stubblefield from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers: They were forming a Michigan chapter! After some organizational calls, a group of us like-minded public land hunters and anglers committed to getting the chapter off the ground. None of us knew each other, but bonded by common interest many of us have since become friends committed to the cause of public land and clean accessible waters. In its first year, the chapter testified against anti-public land bills, submitted op-eds in defense of public land, hosted the Full Draw Film Tour at Jay's Sporting Goods in July and doubled in membership. Much of that work was spearheaded by Jason Meekhof and Bob Busch - another large man with a big red beard - who joined me in a backcountry bowhunt in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in October (check out the two previous video blogs to meet them!).
After I'd posted a picture on Facebook from the CrossFit session with Cam Hanes and Dan Staton at the ATA Show, a friend from Central Lake - Candace Gregory - contacted me and suggested I give it a try at Spartan CrossFit, where she's a coach. I'd thought about CrossFit for a while, and the ATA session stoked that interest even more, but I wasn't sure I was ready for it: I'd only been trail-running for a year after letting my physical fitness lapse for the previous decade. But 2016 was the year of going for it, so I went for it. I joined and it's been one of the best decisions of my adult life, both from the physical fitness side of it and the people I've met through it. I also signed up for the Train To Hunt competition in Pennsylvania in June, which Will Bradley (large man with a big red beard) had told me about at ATA. It provided the motivation to stick with CrossFit, trail-running and practicing archery when I needed it.
In the Spring, I went turkey hunting with my friends Alvin Sitkewicz and Joe Sullivan from the Michigan Gone Wild show on the HUNT Channel. It was my first real turkey hunt (I'd been once before without a call, which amounted to walking into the woods, sitting against a tree with my bow, and abandoning the hunt to go trout fishing). They use a run-and-gun style that relies on extensive scouting and knowing every patch of public land, no matter how small, in the county. They got some turkeys close but I didn't get a shot with my bow, but they helped a new hunter connect the next day, which is much more meaningful.
The next day I backpacked into my usual hunting area to scout more trails, potential food sources and landscape features. I tried out a hammock-tarp setup for the first time and it worked great. I was as comfortable as I could be and got one of the best night's sleep I've ever had in the wilderness. I woke up to see a cow elk feeding across the field from me, and until I draw an elusive Michigan elk tag, simply seeing them and watching their movements as far from the road as I can get is usually the highlight of every trip afield.
2016 was also the year my wife and I became paddlers. I bought her a kayak for Christmas last year and bought one for myself in May. We'd rented canoes and kayaks before, but wanted the freedom to paddle where we want, when we want. We spent multilple relaxing weekend days paddling, floating, and fishing the Huron River this summer, but I also took mine on a solo overnight trip down the Sturgeon River on a rainy day in May, my first. I launched it on the Sturgeon River to paddle into the Green Timbers roadless tract of the Pigeon River Country, and this is where I learned to portage. There were sweepers and fallen logs all over the river, requiring frequent portaging, tight paddling and slow going. I only had one night so I camped out on a bluff on the bank, fished a little and hiked three miles back to my SUV to drive back within a mile of where I camped. The functional fitness movements I was learning at Spartan CrossFit came into play when portaging my 50-lb kayak over my head for the mile hike uphill back to my vehicle.
Tomahawk Archers, the archery club I belong to north of Toledo, covers one of the best habitats for the threatened eastern box turtle. And since the club has a genuine commitment to conservation, they hosted a 5K Trail Run to raise funds and awareness for restoring box turtle habitat, so of course I signed up for my first organized trail race. It was fun but tough on the rolling oak hills across the club's field archery course, but it was a great experience that I plan to repeat. I even won 3rd place in my age division, but the comraderie of runners encouraging each other was the best part.
That was in play at the Train To Hunt competition at the Ambridge Sportsmen's Club near Pittsburgh in July, too. You can read about the full experience here at MichiganOutofDoors.com, so I won't repeat it all in this blog, but it was a watershed experience for me and I count the people I met and a weekend of hanging out with my dad as the best part of it. I'll be competing this year again, but in the trad division along with one of the most interesting of the many new people I've met this year, one Derek "Tex" Grebner, Train To Hunt's 2016 Traditional Archery Champion.
This event provided the cover story for the Fall 2016 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors, my first as editor. Having written for the magazine since I started at Michigan United Conservation Clubs in 2012, it was a dream job come true and a tremendous responsiblity. We overhauled the branding, content, design, and publication schedule, working with my good friend Dave Behm of Solo71 Design in Chicago to get the look right. We're taking a risk with the magazine by featuring the emerging trends and unique stories in the outdoors and bringing them to our readers (like hunter-athletes and the rise of female hunters), rather than just featuring generic pictures of the animals we hunt and a few how-to's. It's generated both compliments and criticism, but most importantly, it's generated renewed interest in the magazine's content, which is paramount. My only regret is that in accepting the opportunity, I apparently have gained the animosity of a person within the outdoor media industry for whom I previously had a tremendous amount of professional respect. With each derision of every action I take he posts to social media, though, that respect has eroded. That's all I'll write about that. I'm confident in the course I've taken, the pursuits I engage in, the interests I have and the beliefs I hold, so if that rubs someone the wrong way, oh well.
In preparing for hunting season, I shot my bow every chance I got, from a basement target to the grass strip where I set up a target next to Spartan CrossFit. The most valuable sessions, though, were the field archery competitions like the Alaskan Big Game Target Shoot at Tomahawk Archers, the 3D portion of Train To Hunt, and the Rinehart 100 at Saginaw Field and Stream in early September. I got to reconnect with Ray Bickel of Vassar, Michigan, there. Ray graced the Fall cover of Michigan Out-of-Doors as the champion of the Pennsyvania Train To Hunt, where I met him.
Next was an unexpected opportunity to attend the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW) Conference in western New York. I'd been nominated for a Toyota Scholarship to become a member and attend the conference by Dave Mull, an editor at Great Lake Angler Magazine and Midwest Outdoors Magazine and, you guessed it, a large man with a big red beard. And a very cool guy and kayak angler I hope to learn a lot from. The conference was great, for the same reason that most of my experiences in 2016 were great: the people I met.
Now it was time for what I'd trained and scouted for all year: bow season. For the bow opener, I took four days to backpack bowhunt in the area I'd been scouting and hunting for the past three years. I can't describe it any better than I did in this Instagram post from when I got back to civilization and phone service:
"After 4 days of still-hunting public land hills, a dozen spooked deer, 3 blown stalks, 2 misses (both does, misjudged range & arrow stuck in ground 5 yds short on one, other hit a branch, both arrows recovered confirming clean misses) 1 passed up spike, listening to elk bugle and coyotes howl and watching a 6x6 bull, getting poured on one day and sweating out the next, on my last day, I decided to creep to the edge of a small ridge this afternoon to see if I could glass any bedded does. I crouch-walked to the edge, glassed, dropped below, glassed again and saw a doe walking through brush on the valley floor. I dropped behind a slash pile halfway up the hill left from an old clearcut and watched it bed down 60 yards away and downhill. I remained motionless for about a half hour until it got up and started feeding toward me. At about 30 yards I realized it was coming uphill on a trail that would take it right past me, with no cover to draw. I finally got a good look at it in my binocs and figured it was probably one of this year's does, but I confirmed no buttons. (My personal goal is to let little bucks go and take any doe). Laying back against the hill behind the slash pile, I drew. I held my draw for about 45 seconds (seemed like longer!), to the point I shook. When it put its head down, I sat up and it caught the movement. So I stood up quick, centered my pin in the vitals and shot. I was off 6 inches to the left, so with the angle it hit it at rhe base of the neck. It dropped on the spot. Venison. I thanked it, apologized to it and promised to eat everything, then field-dressed while two bull elk fought less than 100 yards away. I called my dad and he came out, not to help drag which wasn't necessary but just to be there, which seemed fitting because he was with me at Train To Hunt, and no way I do acquire that protein without TTH and Spartan CrossFit, from going 4 days of hard still-hunting without tiring to holding my draw to draw kneeling then stand and shoot, and especially to keep going, keep hunting after failure after failure."
Obviously, I can get a little longwinded on Instagram (@michiganoutside). Two weeks later, I made a ten-hour drive from Ann Arbor to Ontanogan to meet Jason and Bob at a backcountry campsite 5 miles deep into the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. You can listen to the full story (or full of something story, at least) in the video blogs preceding this one. It was awesome and I got another first: squirrel with an arrow, followed by two more and a chipmunk, all delicious.
At the end of October I got outside for some grouse hunting with my colleagues Dan and Amy from Michigan United Conservation Clubs and Jason and Marc from National Wildlife Federation. Actually, I was hunting squirrels and rabbits with my recurve (didn't get a shot on the one rabbit I saw), while staying in formation to flush grouse for everyone else. Despite taking some ribbing for being dressed "like a camo ninja," it was a blast.
November 15 is a sacred holiday in Michigan as the Opening Day of firearm deer season. For me, that means heading up to the Big Wild Bunch deer camp with my dad, brother Kellen and cousin Scott, where we set up a canvas wall tent on public land in the Pigeon River Country. The area we hunt was crowded with other deer camps this year, much more so than previous years, so I drove two tracks looking for areas that looked empty enough to still-hunt without bumping into other hunters, really scouting for potential places to pitch camp next year. I saw a few deer, none big enough to shoot with my 4-on-a-side restricted tag while still-hunting (I'd used the unrestricted tag on the doe in bow season), and spending more time in a climbing tree stand than I like to. I'd always rather still-hunt, but that's unproductive with crunchy leaves. Playing euchre with my family at deer camp, seeing the supermoon high above our canvas tent illuminating the pines along the river and the hills beyond, and finding an elk shed were more than enough to make up for crowded woods and pressured deer that didn't want to move.
I got out bowhiking on #OptOutside Friday after Thanksgiving in the Bald Mountain State Recreation Area for my last hunt of the season. It wasn't much of a hunt, just walking slowly along deer trails with my recurve in unfamiliar ground looking for rabbits, squirrels or deer, none of which I saw. Still better than spending a second in a shopping mall. I had hoped to get out again over this holiday break, but that didn't happen. So my 2016 hunting season yielded a small doe, three squirrels and a chipmunk, all delicious. I've been rationing the venison so I still have enough left for one meal a week for a couple months.
End of the year posts like this are usually only interesting to the person writing them, but it's my blog so I get to write it. It's clear to me, reflecting on it, that the best moments that I had outside were the result of trying new things which led to meeting great people. As much as I value my solitary backpacking trips, hunting excursions, trail-runs and practice sessions, spending time with good people who have similar interests made my year.
My dad's mantra has always been, "When in doubt, go for it." I took that to heart this year. 2016 saw my first trail race, first real turkey hunt, first hammock camping trip, first kayak camping trip, first OCR (Train To Hunt), first 3D archery shoot, first ATA Show, first magazine issue as editor, first bull elk fight witnessed, first squirrel with a bow. Joined Spartan CrossFit, joined Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, joined Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, helped found Michigan chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, appointed to Pigeon River Country Advisory Council. I hunted for 21 days, camped out 14 nights, kayaked 9 times, fished 7, and went on more trail runs than I could track.
What will 2017 hold? Only time will tell, but I don't think there are any large outdoorsmen with big red beards left to meet.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and a member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, Surfrider, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the or any other entity.