On the Edge: My Quest for Balance

I was a long ways from the comforts of home and I was in a position I hadn’t desired nor anticipated when I had rolled out of my sleeping bag that morning. It was late afternoon on an archery elk hunt 12 miles into the backcountry of Oregon when I’d caught a glimpse of a bedded bull 45 minutes prior. I had calculated my chances of navigating the terrain between us – a craggy cliff and a jumble of boulders and steep drops that appeared from nowhere – and ultimately decided it was my only chance. To go the easier route – still steep, but not so treacherous – would have meant putting the wind at my back causing the entire effort to fail before it began. Now, here I was, clinging tightly with my left hand to a clump of sage while my left foot perched precariously on a ledge not large enough for my other foot. My right hand held my bow, my day pack hung like dead weight off my shoulders and my right foot dangled in space with nothing below it for 45 feet. I asked myself again why I was trying such a foolish maneuver and I had no answer for myself. I was on the verge of tears and the hunt had stopped being fun quite some time ago. The bedded bull was no longer my concern – I rattled rocks and didn’t care, I let the wind go where it would without putting forth any effort to keep it from hitting my back, I simply wanted to survive.

Like many other hunters, I recently watched the film Searching for West that documents one hunters desire to find the balance between being a hunter, being a father, and being a husband. For me, as a hunter, a father of two boys, and a husband, this film was one with which I could relate. The battle for balance in our lives is a difficult struggle and is something that I’ve given more thought to since watching that film.

Family trips can be a big help in balancing family.

Posing for a picture with my boys at Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation headquarters.

My wife comes from a non-hunting family but she has always seemed supportive of my adventures. I have sometimes feared, though, that I couldn’t be sure that she feels I’ve done a good job balancing family and hunting. After all, I’m usually gone for a 7-10 day hunt every September – one-third of the month pursuing individual pleasures in the wild lands of Idaho.  How can I be sure that that doesn’t cut away at the layers of sweetness that surround my better half? Would I be okay with her being gone for ten days at a time? I’m not even sure if that’s a fair comparison, but it’s a question that makes me uncomfortable.
Ten days doesn’t sound that bad. I’m probably gone only a day or two more than that the rest of the year – less than two weeks every year. I’m sure there are a lot of people that spend many more days than that away from their family every year in pursuit of individual goals. Runners spend almost every evening running – that time adds up. Any hobby consumes a certain amount of our time – and that is time away from family. But, then, pointing fingers is not conducive to finding balance on a personal level. Balance for me will be different than balance for someone else. Balance is hard to define and because of that it’s hard to know when we’re successfully balancing family and whatever our hobby might be. Have I already achieved it? Or, am I clinging desperately to the edge of a cliff – no longer finding joy in the pursuit that has knocked me off balance without my being aware?

Pointing out a deer track in the soft dirt of an old logging road.

Last year I was on another elk hunt – this time in Idaho – and I’d left my wife at home with our two year old and three month old. I was on day six and there were still three days remaining on my hunt, but I kept fighting loneliness. I’d planned the hunt all summer – sometimes I had lied awake in bed wishing I was up on the mountain with bugles sounding off around me. And then I was two-thirds of the way finished with my hunt and things hadn’t gone as I’d planned. The elk were difficult to find, the weather had been hot, and I kept battling waves of loneliness. I tried to remind myself that before I got married I loved the lonely hours I’d spent by myself on the mountain. I loved to lose all my thoughts and troubles in the vast darkness that surrounded me. But I kept coming back to the fact that this night I was missing my family. I am no longer single and some of the pleasures I enjoyed when I was single I will never enjoy again – lives change. People change. I was finding less pleasure in the world that surrounded me at that moment and more loneliness and anxiety. I was finding the fulcrum of my balance.

2011 – my wife’s first deer.

Perched on that ledge, and fearful my life would end because of a bad decision to pursue an animal I simply could not get to, I only wanted one thing: I wanted off that ledge. I had gone down that canyon as a proud individual perfectly confident in my physical abilities. But at that moment, I was scared and I knew it was going to take some luck to get out in one piece.

I didn’t know it then, but I was learning the fulcrum point between keeping a hunt fun and pushing my physical limits. Everything must be balanced.

As I hung to the rock face I knew there was no escape behind me, above me, or below me. My only hope was a shale slide that was in front of me – a steep slide that if I could reach it with a good jump I would hit about 8 feet below my current level. The slide was still quite steep, and I didn’t like my odds, but I didn’t see any other choice. A myriad of things could go wrong – my pack could hit the rock wall as I leapt and I would fall short – meaning a 45 foot fall, or I might roll my ankle – or worse – upon landing. It didn’t matter – I jumped.

This memorable hunt from 2010 had been the first time I noticed real excitement from my wife during a hunt.

Six days was a long time to be away from my young family. I had been fine at day five, but day six was hard. I knew the next three days would be harder. I was sitting on a water hole on day seven and the flies were buzzing, the day was still and hot. My eyes itched from allergies and lack of sleep, and my clothes reeked of sweat from the days past. It’s moments like these that extreme hunters tell me  to endure and push through – but I kept thinking, “I’ve been a week without seeing my family.”

I wasn’t interested in enduring and pushing through. I was no longer that interested in seeing if a bull would come in to this wallow, I just wanted to see my family. That is all. Would things have been different if I’d been in elk every day? Perhaps – I can’t say for sure. But, I had reached my tipping point and I knew I had to leave the mountain.

On a hike during a family camping trip this summer. It’s all part of finding balance.

When I landed, I skidded down the slide a dozen feet or so before finally coming to a stop amid the dust and a clatter or rocks. My feet on somewhat solid ground, my legs shook as the adrenaline released from my body and I looked up at the rock cliff from which I’d just come and smiled a weary, thankful smile. It felt good to be rid of that predicament. I had a long climb out of the canyon that would be done mostly in the dark, but I was pleased to be off that ledge. I knew I’d get back to camp, get a nights rest, and I’d be re-energized to tackle a new day.

Hunting is a way for me to recharge my batteries, but by the seventh day I had overcharged them, and I was needful of a break. I knew that given a week back with the family, I’d be ready to go for a weekend jaunt, but the long trips are just not worth it for me at this point in my life. Five days – my fulcrum point. Beyond that and I’m tipping the scales against myself and I can be assured that I’ll find myself in a situation I don’t want to be in. This is how I found balance.  Balance isn’t always about completely giving something up, but it’s finding our limits and making sure we remain within their bounds.

Comments

5 Responses to “On the Edge: My Quest for Balance”

  1. Mark on September 5th, 2012 9:41 am

    Once again, a stimulating piece, Tom. I have a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old at home right now, so I will be facing the same struggles this season. I am trying to keep most of my hunting close to home, and limiting the number of multi-day trips that I make this fall. However, next year is a different story. I’ll be chasing elk in CO and I know that being away from my family for 7-10 days will be the hardest part of that hunt!

    Thank you for sharing this piece. It is always encouraging (and challenging) to know that there are other guys struggling with the same issues.

  2. Tom Sorenson on September 5th, 2012 9:58 am

    Thanks, Mark. Our families are pretty close in age – my kids are 3 yrs. and 14 months.

    I’ve noticed I do a lot of keeping hunts closer to home as well. A lot of day hunts these days. I was just gone for a 5 day hunt this past weekend so my wife took the kids up to her folk’s place…I ended up tagging a bull on opening day, so I was then at home for 3-4 days by myself while they were gone…I can vouch that that isn’t too much fun.

    Good luck on your CO hunt – that is one state I would certainly love to hunt someday!

  3. Arthur on September 6th, 2012 2:03 pm

    Tom,

    With an almost 4 yr. old at home, and a 11 month old as well, I completely know what you’re going through.

    It’s hard to find the balance, but it has to be done. I’m thankful that I have an understanding wife, and, with that in mind, I’ve still made a conscious effort to hunt on the weekends, not during the week, if possible.

    It’s a delicate balance, but I think – simply us having those thoughts – makes us better husbands and fathers.

  4. Tom Sorenson on September 6th, 2012 3:37 pm

    I think that’s a good point, Arthur. Just being aware of the need to remain balanced is a good sign.

  5. Family Hunt: Get the Best of Both Worlds : Base Camp Legends on September 24th, 2012 8:05 am

    [...] other day I found myself fighting the urge to go for an evening hunt.  I have written before about my struggle to find balance between family and hunting, and I know I spend a lot of [...]

Feel free to leave a comment...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!