The Edge of a Season

My St. Joe River Longbow "Phoenix" and my brand new Lucas Forge Packer knife.

My St. Joe River Longbow “Phoenix” and my brand new Lucas Forge Packer knife.

“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”
― Terry Pratchett

Steve collapsed by the fire with a sigh and a stretch of the leg that butted his heels to the rim of the cast iron pit. “Well, you see anything, Chief?” He asked, watching water evaporate from his boot soles.

“Yeah, seeing is one thing, shooting is a different story altogether.” I said, staring at the flames. “I had a spike come in around 9:30. Nice high points. I liked him. Missed just beneath the boiler maker.”

Steve removed his Fedora and shook the water into the fire. The droplets hissed as they turned to mist. He gave it a look, stuffed it back on his head, and let out a long, tired sigh to wick away the frustrations of the day. “Well that sucks. At least you saw something. Thom and I – not so much. How far away was he?”

“Too far.” I laughed. “That was the problem. I figured him at 20 yards and paced him at 30. That’s pushing it for me. I felt confident at the time but never would’ve dropped the string had I known.”

Steve raised his eyebrows and nodded. “I gotcha. Hard to tell in the woods sometimes.”
“Yeah. I suppose. Arrow fell right off the table.” I said, making a diving motion with my hands. “Never did find it.”

“You lost the arrow too?” He laughed. “Lots of leaves around here though. And all this rain softening the ground sure ain’t helping us any.”

I nodded in agreement and slipped an old, plastic-handled Buck knife from its kydex sheath to change the subject. It was your garden variety Walmart special – five inches of blade with a gut-hook out the back. Steve noticed it immediately and a smile formed at the corners of his mouth.

“Who gave you that ol’ thing?” He chuckled.

“Oh, some ornery old curmudgeon with a bushy white stache.” I replied, thumbing the blade for sharpness. Finding none, I handed it back to its former owner and prepared for the ribbing I was about to receive for its lack of care.

He slid his glasses down his nose, examined the blade, and then glanced at me above the rims. “You know what the secret to a good knife is?” He asked. “Keeping it sharp. You need to take a stone and strop to this thing.”

“I know. I suck something awful at sharpening a knife. I can sharpen broadheads but can’t seem to apply it to a blade for some reason. At least not without one of those little black Smith sharpeners or something to that effect.”

Steve chuckled. “Well you do ’em both the same way. Just run the edge along the stone lightly until you get a burr, then a bit lighter to remove the burr, then hit it with the strop.”

I nodded, taking it back. “Yeah, I need to work on that.”

“That knife sucks anyway.” He grinned. “That’s why I gave it to you.”

“Hey! You told me it was a good one!” I sputtered.

“Well, the other one you had was worse. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
“I know. You’ve been telling me to invest in a good knife since I’ve known you. It’s just one of those things I never get around to buying. Something more important always seems to come up.”

“I hear you, Partner. You should get one someday though. Every man ought to have a good knife. Something he can take into the woods with him and depend on the rest of his life. And a good one will last if you take care of it.”

That was the last evening of camp and Steve went back to Georgia the next morning, leaving the rest of us to deal with the end of archery season and the inevitable blaze orange vests and caps. I tend to stay out of the woods during this time. Most trade their longbows for the firearm of their choice but I never had much interest in those things. Being in the woods without my longbow always felt odd. I’d heard too many bowmen utter the phrase: “…it was a nice deer, but I really wish I’d have got it with the longbow…” early on to consider anything but a stick and string. A proper piece of private land to hunt would’ve probably changed my mind, but sitting in natural cover, on public land, during gun season raised the hairs on the back of my neck a bit too high. I decided to leave the woods to the guns and prepare for the holidays instead.

Staying out of the woods without a deer in the freezer wasn’t easy for me. It left me with too much time to think about mistakes I’d made and the deer I’d missed. I must have replayed the encounter dozens of times in my head – each time thinking about what I should’ve done differently. When that had run its course, I started thinking about how little I’d prepared for the season and continued down a spiral of moping that ended with my questioning why I even bothered with a license in the first place.

Thanksgiving came and went and I’d all but given up on bowhunting for the year. December was looming and my 36th birthday with it. Christmas would follow soon after. My mind was stuck between getting closer to 40 and the stress of holiday preparation at work and home. My desire to hunt (or do anything for that matter) was minimal at best by the time my birthday arrived. A single message from Steve would change all that. We had chatted little since camp, which wasn’t like either of us. He too was preoccupied with work and the holidays and irritated he couldn’t spend as much time in the woods as he’d hoped to.

I was just getting out of work to meet Jessica and the kids for a special birthday dinner when I got the message. It contained five words: “Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas.”
I stopped walking and stared at the screen – face scrunched in confusion. I appreciated the birthday wishes but it was only the 5th. Christmas was a ways away. I assumed he was being sarcastic about our lack of communication and responded in kind.
“Christmas? I’m assuming you’ve finally had enough of people and are planning to spend the next several weeks in seclusion?”

“You’ll figure it out.” He messaged.

Dinner with the girls was wonderful but I couldn’t stop thinking about Steve and his cryptic message. I tried to goad him into a response but it didn’t do any good. Steve was really good at keeping a surprise, a surprise. We were different in that regard. I couldn’t wait to spill the beans and didn’t have enough fingers and toes to count how many gifts I’d ruined by either sharing too much information or just giving it to them prematurely. Steve was fully aware of this little quirk. He could see me squirming all the way from Georgia and was loving every minute of it. I was sure of that.

It was dark when I arrived home and checked the mail. The plastic door flopped open to reveal a single package. I pulled it out, assuming Jess had ordered a Christmas gift, but the dome light revealed something else entirely.

“Lucas Forge.” I read aloud, revealing the sender. “Why would Lucas Forge be sending me a package?”

The answer was obvious. It hit me squarely in the chest. I sat in the driveway for several minutes, staring at the package until a lump formed in my throat. My phone lit up on the console. I swiped the screen and found a chat bubble waiting for me.

“Well?” Steve typed. “Did you get it yet?”

“What on Earth did you do, Steve? This is too much. I can’t accept something like this.”

“So you like it?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t opened it yet!”

“Well quit whining and OPEN the thing!”

I pulled into the garage, unlocked the door, and flew into the house – package tucked like a running back. I couldn’t get through the tape and into the box fast enough. What I found beneath the cardboard flaps rekindled the fire that had all but gone out. There, beneath a navy cloth, was a well-oiled, cross-draw sheath with a handle poking out the end. I could feel my eyes start to water as I removed the knife from the cloth and carefully slipped the blade from the leather.

It was a Lucas Forge “Packer” model, approximately 8″ overall with an Osage handle and 3 3/8″ blade that featured an aged patina finish. I fell in love with it the moment I held it in my hands and was shocked at how comfortable it was – as if it were made just for me.
It had also occurred to me that I had seen this knife before, on Steve’s Simply Traditional page a few days prior but hadn’t thought much of it at the time. He had always been a fan of Lucas Bullington’s work and owned one of his knives. I assumed he’d just purchased another for himself. I couldn’t have imagined he’d purchased it for me.
I put down the knife and immediately picked up the phone. “You know I don’t like gifts like this.” I said. “You did this just to make me feel uneasy didn’t you?”

Steve laughed. “So you like it?”

“Like it? I love it! It’s unbelievable. It’s also way too much. Again, how do you expect me to accept something like this?”

“Just don’t cut your damn self. You know what they say about giving someone a knife and them cutting themselves with it, right?”

“No. Never heard that one.”

“Well…don’t cut yourself. He puts quite an edge on those. You’ll cut your eyeball if you look at it hard enough. And please, for the love of God, keep it that way!”

“It would be disrespectful to do anything but, my friend. Thank you. This is unreal. Honestly…I can’t thank you enough.”

“It was my pleasure. Just so you know, I tried to match the handle to the limbs of your St. Joe, but Tracey didn’t have any more of that flamed hickory they used to make it. That’s kind of a rare wood I guess. I went with the Osage to match your riser instead.”

“It’s perfect. I love Osage and it looks great with the rustic blade. By the way, is this the same knife you posted the other day?”

“Yessir!” He laughed. “Hid it in plain sight. I wondered if you were paying attention.”
“You’re too sneaky for your own good. I can’t wait to use this thing.”
“Well get back into the woods this weekend! Take it with you. You’ve still got time. I’d love to see you use it on something.”

“You know what? I think I’ll take Friday off and do just that.”

“Well good luck, happy birthday, and don’t cut yourself.”

I hung up the phone, brought the knife downstairs, and slipped it into the pocket of my hunting pants. I spent the rest of the evening touching up my broadheads, waxing my bow string, and washing my fleece hunting suit.

I couldn’t wait for Friday to arrive. When it did, winter had come with it. I woke up well before my alarm, drove to my favorite piece of public land, and stomped off into the darkness with an eagerness I hadn’t felt since opening day. The temperature was in the low 20s, there was a foot of snow on the ground, and the wind burned my face and neck with every gust but none of that mattered. I was in the woods with a longbow in my lap and a new knife on my hip. Life couldn’t have been any sweeter.

This story was published in the Winter edition of STICKTALK magazine. You can find other stories like it in the pages of STICKTALK, which can be delivered to your door four times per year (digital version also available) for a mere $20 joining fee. Not only will you get the magazine, but you will be a member of one of the finest archery organizations in the U.S.: the Michigan Longbow Association, which is the largest (and probably the only) longbow-specific organization in North America.

The Sights and Smells of Motivation — A Trip to the Traditional Bowhunter’s Expo

Archers line up at the practice range at the 2018 Traditional Bowhunter's Expo.

Eager archer’s line up at the test range to try new bows at the Traditional Bowhunter’s Expo in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

I recently celebrated the New Year and motivation is already the theme. It’s been a month since I’ve navigated this particular piece of the Web, but it feels a great deal longer.

I’ve been working on a book. Some know that. Many don’t. I have been for some time now, which is one of the reasons I’ve been so infrequent. It began as a collection of works cobbled together in chronological order. I had a couple handfuls of material saved in a folder on my desktop — both published and unpublished — and sifted through them until I’d pieced together something that made sense. I then opened them all, gave them a quick read, pasted them into one document, and left them there to marinate.

A week passed and I grew very excited. I couldn’t wait to slap on chapter numbers and send them off for editing, but it didn’t work out that way. Some of those stories hadn’t been read in years and had been penned by someone who thought he knew what he was doing, but obviously didn’t. Unraveling the tapestry of mixed tenses and inconsistent styles required far more labor than anticipated, but I discovered something between the threads that would change my perspective on the process — wonder. This younger Nick was a different man and his writing, while not as polished or experienced, was filled with wonder. He was seeing everything for the first time and with a passion, I had not felt in years. The realization upset me.

Was I falling out of love with the thing that had been the epicenter of my life for nearly a decade?

No. But I needed a reboot.

Fortunately, the Traditional Bowhunter’s Expo would be the kerosene to keep the lantern lit. I had looked forward to the Expo with great anticipation since my first trip. It was a fantastic experience that left me in a state of euphoria several weeks afterward. There were few places in the world offering what the Expo offered; seminars, apparel, literature, arrows, and racks filled with custom bows. If you were a stir-crazy archer in January, you were attending the Expo at the end of the month. Period. Many considered it an archery holiday and would drive across the country to scratch whatever itch they had developed since hunting season.

The St. Joe River Bows booth at the Traditional Bowhunter's Expo

The St. Joe River Bows booth at the Expo is always bustling with activity.

Yet, there I was, less than an hour away and not that excited about attending. My intention was to work and nothing more. I’d promised to volunteer at the Michigan Longbow Association’s youth range and take a shift or two at the Expo’s test range, as well. I knew I’d enjoy both — working with the next generation of longbow enthusiasts in particular — but didn’t feel the way I used to as I crept down 131 South towards Kalamazoo.

A younger Nick would’ve risked a speeding ticket to gain another hour’s worth of thumbing through archery tackle with fellow toxophilites for creative ways to spend his paycheck. Present day Nick was planning to get out of there with a full wallet and didn’t plan on stringing a single bow. Times had changed. I was in a deep funk. A deep funk, indeed.

But something peculiar happened, as I pushed through the Expo Center’s glass doors and caught the familiar scents of wood, wax, leather, and glue. Nostalgia washed over me and my heart beat a touch faster as I navigated rows of vendors setting up their booths for the hustle and bustle of a busy Saturday. The rising heart rate continued, as I arrived at the MLA booth and into the warm embrace of my longbow family. The sound of the popping balloons and happy screeching of the young culprits responsible filled me with a pride too difficult to explain in words.

As the day progressed, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of my reservations pre-arrival. “How could I have not been excited to be here?” I thought. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like this?”

I carried these thoughts with me throughout the day, which ended with my shift at the practice range. The job responsibilities were simple but of the utmost importance: usher people in and out of the range and make sure they were following the rules at all times. I’ll admit that standing on a line and watching other people shoot bows isn’t what most would consider an “enjoyable” experience but it was something I looked forward to year-after-year. I’ve never been able to figure out why but would guess it had something to do with the sounds of the activity. The gentle “swish” of a released string combined with the soft “thump” of an arrow connecting with foam was very pleasing to the ear and therapeutic when repeated. I was in an enlightened state by the time the 15-minute warning echoed over the loudspeaker. I was back on the highway and somewhere between Gun Lake and Grand Rapids by the time I snapped out of it. I was still calm, but there was a fire in my belly I hadn’t felt in weeks.

I knew then that the funk was over and I couldn’t wait to get home and shoot my longbow.

Have you ever lost interest or burned out on this wonderful sport? If so, what brought you back?