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Woodland Trails: Writer reflects on career, outdoors

I never saw it coming, but it's here whether I like it or not - this is my last weekly column for this paper. Many people are losing jobs today - I guess it can happen to a freelance writer too. The problem is, there's still a lot of work to do and I'm not going to be here to do it anymore. From this desk anyway.

But life goes on, and being an optimist I am looking past the present and hoping for a better future on those woodland trails for all of us. Especially for the critters that inhabit the places we all love so much and like to spend time in: the wild places, the remote places, the quiet places, places that refresh our souls and give us a newness of spirit. It's that time of year. Spring has sprung!

"Winter's done. Waxwings murmuring in the cedars. The Brule sucking around the rocks. Dabs of fog rising here and there. A woodpecker hammering a rampike. The Bois Brule winding at the bottom of its deep valley, saying, 'I've got 'em if you're man enough to take 'em from me.'" Familiar Gordon MacQuarrie musical prose.

I should be standing in the Brule River Wednesday. Feeling the power in the wild waters with a silver bullet on the end of my line as the steelhead come forth to replenish their numbers is magical for me!

It all started for this writer when Dave Carlson, then outdoor editor for the Eau Claire Leader Telegram, bought my first story almost 30 years ago. I had told him I had always wanted to write, thanks to the encouragement I got from Mary McCloud in ninth-grade English. I sent Carlson three stories and a photo. I was surprised when all three ended up begin published in the Leader's fall hunting special with a half-page photo of my Chessy named Jesse retrieving a dead mallard on the cover!

Crunching the numbers I guess I have written almost 2,500 columns that have appeared in the Hudson Star-Observer, River Falls Journal and Pierce County Herald. But the thing that I am most proud of is that I have never missed a column in those 25-plus years from this side of the fence.

Looking back, I can say that it has been an honor for me to serve you and give you something to read and relate to over the years. Many people have told me they loved the stories about hunting the backwoods trails with my kids as so many of you were raising kids in the outdoors just as I was.

And the dog columns -- especially the ones when good dogs were put down and buried. I had one guy tell me that his wife had been crying for a week after reading a column I wrote about having to put my "best ever" dog, Bing, to rest.

My kids would tell me that they were most proud of the writing awards. First-place Wisconsin Newspaper Association awards and a second that my son, Josh, joked about saying I was losing it! The awards didn't mean that much to me but it made the papers look good and the kids liked going to Green Bay for a weekend and playing in the Packer Hall of Fame!

And there were many people along the way that supported, helped and encouraged me. Joan Bennett, who told me to be sure that I always wrote from my heart and not my head because people could tell if I was sincere or not if I did. The late George Kremer, Steve Dzubay, Pat Hunter, Bob Zientara, Bob Burrows, Sean Scallon, all the proof and the copy editors and especially Doug Stohlberg who always stood behind me! My parents, Earl and Marian, who let me roam free as a kid. And my oldest brother, Bob Bennett, who could tell a story like none other!

And there were all the great people I met on the outdoor trails and my old friends who hunted and fished with me over the years and were part of the stories. Far too many to mention, I want to thank them all for putting up with me. For letting me share their stories, bad jokes and some strong beverages around a campfire looking up at the stars before we retired to tents and snored the nights away.

From that first duck camp on Black Brook Flowage to the fishing trips to that big farm pond you may know as Lake Michigan. And especially my two great kids! My son, Josh, and my daughter, Erin, who let me sit with them in deer stands, duck blinds, boats, trout streams and turkey woods over the years!

The good part is that I can now free up all my Sunday nights. That was usually the time I would sit down in front of the computer. But I can also remember sitting in front of a typewriter hammering out hard copy that needed to be hand delivered to the RFJ and HSO papers! Now does that date me or what? Every week they have been delivered despite illness, divorce, deaths, job layoffs, storms, vacations, regular jobs, in good times and bad - they got through every week.

All I ever wanted to do was to convey a simple message: To conserve, preserve and realize that we are part of the natural world and not masters over it. We do not really own the land anymore than we own the wind, water or air we breathe. We are simply caretakers of it, and how well we manage it will show up in the health of the planet. And it all starts with each one of us and the choices we make individually. Recycling. Avoiding throwaway junk. Training good dogs. Stewardship of the land. And on and on.

So now I am going to have a lot more free time. No deadlines to meet, no timetables to congregate, no story to come up with next week! It's time for a change. And I am looking forward to change.

Now I can focus more on my ministry work at church with DivorceCare and marriage counseling. My old high school friends would be surprised to know that I have even presented the Sunday sermon at churches in Osceola and Cumberland and help to plead and lead several people to the Lord. That seems to be appropriate conversation as I sit here at my computer on Easter night. Ohh, and I have a favor to ask. Could someone be sure to let Father Jerry know that last part about me!

I never pictured my outdoor writing career ending happening this way. I always thought I would write until I was an old geezer with my teeth in a cup next to my bed. I figured I would be found under a tree out in the woods with a tape recorder on my lap, passing along sage old wisdom and advice from years of experience in the great outdoors.

And years do bring wisdom. From the hunters and anglers who all go through the same scenarios as they progress in life. First having to bag or catch that first one of something, be it fish, fowl or game. Then taking a lot as they prove their skills. Then getting a trophy. Then being selective. Next going high tech before returning to primitive means of harvest. In the end, they just go out to be out and share their knowledge with the next generation.

Yes, there is great evidence in the power of change. With the power of the Holy Spirit in me I know that I can embrace change as it comes. This column was never about me. It was always about the wild things and wild places that needed to be talked about and shared so we have something to pass on to future generation. As I sit here this last time, I know deep in my heart that I'm going to miss all of you and the time we shared on those outdoor trails.

"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot." These have been the delights and dilemmas of one who could not. Thank you, Aldo Leopold, for letting me paraphrase your wise words over the years!