Hunting legend Peter Ryan takes his son to stay in a back-country hut, and remembers a turning point 10 years prior.
This essay appears in Ryan’s new book Hunting Life: Moments of Truth. It describes a traumatic birth; please take care.
Our son is 10 years old. If he wants to do something I let him give me a hard time; I want to know that he really means it. If he pushes enough, it happens.
He started out fishing, which is just hunting in water. It’s a fine thing for a boy, an entry into patience, technique and fieldcraft as well as the natural world. It’s also a great way to see whether a kid really has an interest of their own or is just trying to please you.
On this day, after much pleading, we’re at a remote hut on the South Island of New Zealand, a long way from anywhere. In a week you can expect to see not one human being. It’s far up a braided river, along a track that’s as rough as guts. Here at the top of the valley the mountains loom high overhead. Waterfalls cascade off the mountainside and fingers of beech forest stretch down almost to the valley floor.
One part of the track runs hard against a bluff on one side, with a 100-metre sheer drop on the other. I’ve stacked the truck so that he can’t see that part. He’d probably be okay with it, but if he were to tell his mother things might get more complicated than they need to be. He’s quiet, watching hard.
There are a few hundred private huts like this scattered across New Zealand. Unlike the huts on public land, they usually come into play when the musters of autumn mean days spent bringing the stock down from the high country. They’re not funded by taxpayers, but are part of life on a big working farm. The bottom line is that they can be a bit rundown, but always full of character and history.
The hut itself is a classic: corrugated iron, the proper old Bristol Crown stuff, chains across the front to stop stock from rubbing and making trouble.
Rusty old rabbit-traps hanging on a nail and a few cast antlers struck in the rafters. A pile of ringed beech and an axe stuck in a log, for once with no dings at the head of the handle. Farm boys can actually split wood properly. Water off a little bit of spouting on the roof, and an old-fashioned long-drop out back. Inside it’s lined against the cold, and there is a huge old fireplace with some empty beer bottles on the mantle. Four bunks, a hut book and a couple of 10-year-old magazines. That’s it. Jamie takes the pine bunk opposite me. We’re home.
We have some company. He’s a veteran, an old mate and one of the nicest blokes you could ever meet. Let’s call him Hard Case. Possum fur is what he’s here for.
Our days settle into an easy rhythm. Breakfast and lashings of hot tea, then saddle up to set out the traps. Scope out the lay of the land, looking for leads coming down into the new grass. Hammer a sturdy fencing staple into the base of a tree to hold the trap, then run a splash of flour, sugar and cinnamon above it on the trunk. Tag with a ribbon on a branch and trek on, one after another. A big set might be 100 traps, and that will keep you busy day in and day out. We’re not going that big.
Once the first set is out, it’s time to split wood and get chores done. Then an early dinner. No freeze-dried this time; venison sausages while there’s still light to see by, it’s so much harder with just a candle or two. There’s even a beer. You have to love a hut you can drive to, even if the track is a bit sketchy. The old fireplace invites a cracking blaze and we oblige. A good fire brings out the boy in every man.
Then it’s goodnight to young Jamie in the bunk opposite mine and a yarn by the fire with Hard Case. We flick through some of the ancient hunting and fishing magazines lying on the pine table, and find that both of us – or at least the younger versions of ourselves – have articles in there that we’ve long forgotten. Then it’s time to blow the last candle out. There is the odd scuttle in the walls, but otherwise the world is absolutely silent. Half an hour later the fire is still flickering away and sleep is elusive. It’s easy to watch the small flames and get lost in memories.
The young doctor was doing his best to chat about the weather, the new extension to the hospital, anything he could think of except the real reason for our walk. You can’t fool me, mate. I have ammo older than you. There was no getting around the fact that if things were fine we wouldn’t be taking Jamie, just 20 minutes old, to intensive care. I still had blood on my hands after a difficult birth. He wasn’t looking good. And I was scared.
In the big lift things went quiet as some frail passengers got on board. I wondered how VJ was feeling down in the operating room, and wondered about our boy, so new to the world. It occurred to me that he may only have an hour, and that it might be best to steel myself for that. And then it occurred to me that those thoughts have never been any damn good to anyone.
No, if all our little man will have is an hour, then I will love him and hold his hand for that hour, let the chips fall as they may. There is a Latin expression for this: dorsum nudum. “I bare my back.” It’s a choice we all face at some time. Fate, do your worst, I’m ready. If I’ve ever done a brave thing, that was it.
It has taken some awful moments for a slow learner to grasp the true nature of love, however late in life. That it takes a terrible courage to seek nothing in return. That you must fall without fear. That nothing else will do.
But Jamie grew up strong and sure. When he was five or so he begged for “cave man stuff”, so I shaped a piece of red stag bone for him and bound it to a wooden shaft. His mum decorated it with wild animal motifs. No, it wasn’t sharp. And, yes, learning responsibility is a good thing. He combed our stubble field for mice with predictable results, but ended up skewering a hay bale. A morning well spent, in my book. I wonder how far back that little exercise goes?
Tomorrow we’ll take him out and scout up a rabbit or two. I promised, you see. And on that happy thought sleep came at last.
By the third day we find our rhythm. Walk the set and add more traps to the line. We have company sometimes, a dark-phase fantail that follows us branch to branch, hawking for insects as we pass. Jamie sees it and calls it “pīwakawaka”, making me wish my Māori vocabulary were better. A bush robin hangs poised on a mānuka twig as we push through foxgloves and gooseberries, then off over the shingle and streams rushing over the rocks. At times a restless, lonely breeze sighs in the branches of tall mānuka.
You always leave a hut better than you find it, so there’s a fallen beech to cut and carry, avoiding the punky stuff. There’s deer sign in some of the clearings; not a lot, but enough that you’d expect to pick one up if you persevered. But there’s so much to do. These are not prime possum skins so we pluck as we go. Jamie does his well enough, marvelling at the darks, pales and rusties. They have a persistent smell, not unpleasant but not something you’d seek out either.
The evenings back at the hut are light-hearted, but it’s easy to see how the trapper’s curse could set in for someone working alone. Long winter nights with nobody to talk to could drag. Who can sleep for 12 hours?
Jamie is humming with excitement. Far off in the grass he spots a cast antler, heavy and well-stained with mānuka, and he seizes his new prize with obvious pride. I know where it is going. Since he was three or four he’s kept a collection of feathers, shells and the odd bone. The hoard has got big enough that I’ve put an old set of drawers down in the shed for him to store it all in. The Museum, he calls it. I’d given him cast antlers before, but this was his find. It makes a difference.
His collection might seem a little odd, but it’s not a new instinct. Some male deer have strong canine teeth, a relic of their ancestral past when many carried tusks, just as Chinese water deer still do today. For thousands of years these eyeteeth were the most precious thing on Earth. They were coveted, used as currency, as jewellery, as status symbols. They were so prized that copies were made from bone – in other words, counterfeit money. They have been found where there were no deer, meaning that they were worth travelling long distances to trade and exchange. Grandeln, as the Germans call them, were wealth and currency for longer than coins or anything else we have used since. And of course our modern word “buck” for a dollar originally meant a deer skin. So maybe Jamie’s instincts are not so unusual.
I’ve given him a small folding knife. It was cheap but has nice wood scales and brass bolsters. It’s not sharp, and he only has it when I’m with him. He’s never hurt himself or anyone else so I guess he’s learned something more from it than just how to cut things. That knife is our little secret. It’s important to him, more than I knew at first, not because he gets to cut baling twine but because of the silent message it carries – that I have faith.
Towards the end of the week we see signs of rain coming. For the next 12 hours straight it drums hard on the tin roof. We busy ourselves with chores until they run out, then stoke up the fire to read and doze in front of. After dinner Jamie takes the pen from the hut book and, using the flickering light of the fire, makes a tiny signature on the wall. It takes a moment to see it for what it is, his small mark on the world. And in another moment I see, far above it and disappearing into the darkness, another name, another James from a century ago. Jim Muir, legend among hunters, explorers, frontier guides. It occurs to me that the old-timer might be pleased. And then it occurs to me that our snug little hut is not so different from a cave after all.
We wake to a world of white. Overnight the temperature has dropped and there is snow all the way to the head of the valley, dusting the hanging beech forests like a Christmas card. Later that day we bring the set in. There’s not much left to do so I take Jamie out with the .22 looking for rabbits and hares. We try a few stalks, but, with the sun going down behind the mountains, time and visibility are short. On the way back to the hut we cross a small stream that would flood Jamie’s boots, so he grabs my arm and I swing him across. One day I won’t be able to do that. Why does he want to be here? Why does he want to chase these wild creatures? Like any mystery, he wants to be with them, to see them up close. And then it occurs to me that he will remember this trip for the rest of his life.
The next day Hard Case and his dog come with us for a final tramp upstream. He glasses from a clearing while we wander off with the rifle. In an open patch of grassland I spot a rabbit, maybe 50 metres out. This is where all of Jamie’s practice on the range will come into play. I set up the rifle for a prone shot and he slides in behind it like a pro. I drop down beside him. The rabbit has other ideas by now. It has made a short run and is now at maximum range for the little rifle. Our luck is out. Then, quite obligingly, it stands up on its hind legs to see us better. Our luck is in.
As Jamie is getting ready I notice that Hard Case’s dog has come looking for us. She’s wandering our way but not close enough to the rabbit to be a problem. That shows how little I know. In the exact moment that Jamie is about to squeeze off, she decides that a boy lying prone is an open invitation to play. She literally walks up his back just as the shot breaks. A miss. Our luck is out again.
It’s time to go home. Jamie shows off his dark antler to his mother and little sister, and we all admire it. Later, after his first hot shower for a week, we tuck him into bed and it’s clear he has the wobbles. With a small tear in one eye he whispers, “I miss the hut.” He says that, but we swap glances and both know he means something more. He didn’t bring any game home but he found something bigger. He just doesn’t know it yet.
Son, that chase will hurt you … but in it you can find the best of who you are.
Hunting Life: Moments of Truth, by Peter Ryan (Bateman, $39.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.
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