Every year, I think hunting for antelope just can't get any better, and every year it does. The days are warm, the nights are cool, the aspens are golden and so are the memories. Let me explain.
In my grandfather's day in southwestern Wyoming, antelope were few and far between. In his journals for the years 1908 through 1915, he records the event every time he sees an antelope. There are no more than a dozen accounts, and usually he saw only two or three animals at a time.
Years of unregulated hunting by everyone from mountain men to miners to ranchers like us had nearly brought an end to one of North America's unique and most beautiful animals. But with the active support of sportsmen, ranchers and the newly created Wyoming Game and Fish Department, antelope returned by the hundreds, the thousands, and then the hundreds of thousands. By the time I was the same age as my grandfather had been, I was a young field biologist counting thousands of them myself.
I can remember very clearly my first antelope hunt. On a warm fall morning over 40 years ago, with my dad and my grandfather's old .250 Savage, we eased through the sagebrush country near Pinedale. Before the Upper Green River Valley was covered up with gas wells, dusty roads and subdivisions, it was the antelope capital of the universe. We hunted the same places that my dad had hunted -- the same places humans had been hunting antelope for thousands of years. But on that particular morning, one doe stopped to look back at us, and I killed her with one clean shot.
A lifelong love affair with antelope hunting was born.
That great love of my life was followed by another even greater. When my wife Kim and I found one another back in 1970, one of the first things we discovered we had in common was a love of antelope hunting. Together, we hunted the same places my dad and her grandparents hunted, and we took our own children antelope hunting when they were only a few months old. We were concerned for a while that perhaps taking them hunting at such an early age might be too intense for them, maybe a little too gory. My daughter Jenny helped us put our fears aside when she was about three.
She walked up to a doe I'd head-shot, lifted the head with one of her My Little Pony sneakers, and said, "Well, we can't eat the face!" We worried a lot less after that.
Now, we take kids, grandkids and the whole family when we go antelope hunting. We can't go to the Upper Green country anymore. It hurts too much to go there, and you'd probably end up shooting some rig hand from Louisiana if you tried to hunt. That's one of the ironies of life in Wyoming in the 21st century. Many -- too many -- of the places that I loved as a kid are now what they call "endangered places." I fell in love with them long before they were. The roads were few and far between. So were people. Not very many people knew the desert when it was wild, and fewer of them ever loved it. We did, and we still do.
But like a lot of Wyoming families, we found a new place to hunt, and it's home now. It's a good place, a place we've come to cherish and use carefully. It's a good place. It's publicly owned land as far as the eye can see, and there are tons of antelope. There are even some big ones.
But we don't spend a lot of time looking for a trophy buck. We're not about big heads -- ours or theirs. We're about teaching the fifth generation of Wyomingites in our family to love this experience as much as we do. We teach the 7-year-old to love the golden aspens and the pale fall sky. We teach the 6-year-old to love the excitement of the hunt and the seriousness of taking a life to feed your family all winter long. We teach the 5-year-old the basics of anatomy as he helps field-dress the antelope.
We're about passing on the love and the legacy of wild critters and wild country from one generation to another, in one Wyoming family.
Walt Gasson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
This story first appeared in High Country News on November 3, 2008.