Starting when she was almost 3, my daughter Leah joined me in turkey blinds and goose blinds, and on deer stands and scouting hikes. I can’t count how many times she heard me say: ‘‘When you’re 12, you’ll hunt and I’ll watch.’’ Then, before I knew it, Leah turned 12. It’s hard to believe that was 16 years ago already. It’s just as hard to believe she graduated high school 10 years ago and college six years ago and already has already been a Navy officer for six years.
Since then, we’ve hunted together often with bow and gun, including two bowhunts for elk in Idaho in 2008 and 2009 before her Naval career sent her overseas for three years. We hiked steep, rugged mountains together for two weeks, and chased bugling bulls until our lungs heaved and our knees wobbled. We shared many thrills, and man many memories from those Western hunts. Still, I remember clearly that Leah wasn’t always eager to shoot archery. She got serious about archery when she was 10, and took a summer archery class in 1995 taught by our hometown’s parks-and-rec department. Because she was the only student to reliably show up every Tuesday and Thursday night, Leah often received one-on-one instruction from a devoted instructor.
Leah and Patrick Durkin in September 2008, bowhunting elk in Idaho.
By the time she was 11, Leah was a good archer, but because she couldn’t hunt for another year, her interest in practice was half-hearted. While I shot the semi-nightly rounds from atop our garage roof to simulate tree-stand shooting, Leah often worked on the computer or jumped rope with friends. In the of Spring 1997, though, with her first bow season only months away, Leah’s focus returned to archery. Because her fingers weren’t strong enough to pull the heavier draw weights of a hunting bow, I got her a wrist-fitted release. Remember, this was the mid-1990s. Many compound bows of that era had 50 percent let-offs, and finger shooting was still common. We also put up two 15-foot-high ladder stands in the maple tree alongside our driveway to get her accustomed to shooting from small platforms. I sat behind her, holding the back of her safety harness for several weeks until she felt secure standing up and shooting. Eventually, she stood on her own, entrusting her balance and the safety belt to do their jobs.
Within days, Leah was shooting her bow at Wisconsin’s 30-pound minimum, zapping her six shots into a softball-size group at 15 yards. The heart/lung section of her factory-reject 3-D deer target was soon heavily pocked. By summer’s end, she was shooting her bow at 34 pounds. Although she could probably pull more for warm-weather practice, I assured her it’s tougher to draw a bow in late fall with cold-stiffened muscles — especially when your heart races with a deer’s approach.
Leah Durkin, age 12 , checks out her first bow-kill near Waupaca, Wisconsin in 1997.
Leah’s first bow season opened Sept. 20, 1997. We got out only once opening weekend, even though the woods are just a short walk from home. We didn’t see a deer that first hunt, but we returned on Tuesday evening after school and work. I climbed up, hung a portable seat astride the top of her ladder stand, and helped Leah settle in. An hour later, Leah stood to stretch her legs. Shortly after, she whispered, ‘‘Deer!’’ I followed her eyes and saw two whitetails walking and feeding on acorns along the woods edge. As they headed our way, I told Leah to get positioned for a shot. After that, she was on her own.
I long wondered how Leah would handle the pressure and decisions of pulling off a shot. Would she know when to draw the bow to avoid the deer’s notice? Would she even be able to draw it in all the excitement? Would she pick a spot on the deer’s lower chest for her entire focus? Would she wait for the broadside or quartering-away shot? Would she squeeze, not jerk, the release’s trigger? Would she follow through with her string hand, and not drop her bow arm? Within minutes, I would know.
The author’s daughter checks out a young aspen that was torn out of the ground by a rutting bull elk.
From a distance, we thought we were watching a yearling doe and its fawn. As the deer neared a narrow shooting lane, Leah pulled her bow to full draw, struggling only slightly. Little did she know 70 seconds would pass before she could shoot. Although the first deer through the shooting lane – a fawn – was exposed and broadside, Leah waited for the bigger deer to step out. Finally, when it walked into an opening at 14 yards to eat some acorns, I grunted. The deer paused, lifted its head, and seconds later Leah’s arrow pierced its lungs. Leah’s knees and shoulders shook uncontrollably as the deer made its short, final run. ‘‘I have to sit down,’’ she said, and plunked onto her seat. Minutes later, she tagged her first deer, which turned out to be a large buck fawn. I shook my head in amazement. It had all looked so easy, so effortless. Nine years of field experience and three years of shooting practice told Leah otherwise.
Patrick Durkin cut his daughter’s name into this Idaho aspen in September 2008, and she checked it out when returning in this 2009 photo.
I’ve experienced many proud moments with Leah since, including her high-school commencement speech as class valedictorian, her No. 1 ranking of nursing graduates at Marquette University in May 2007, and her commissioning a day earlier into the Navy. I can’t say any of those accomplishments stand apart from the rest. All were well-earned. All bring equal amounts of pride. And if I’m a lucky father, Leah and I will share many more proud moments in the years ahead.