From the time he was 3 years old, Mike Harmeling remembers being so excited to go hunting he couldn’t sleep. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t old enough. He was by his dad’s side, out in nature.
Today, Mike, 33, looks forward to the day his 1-year-old son, Baylor, will be able to join the two of them, but he still loves spending time in the wilderness with his dad, Jeff, 65.
Jeff loves it, too. He looks forward to annual hunting trips with Mike, and occasionally a trip with his other son, Daven, who lives in Washington.
“There isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing than hunting with Mike,” he said. “Each year, I’m reminded what a remarkable person he is, and I get to experience a tremendous sense of pride in the person he’s become. Spending time with him doing what we love to do is pretty special.”
Randy Hunt shares these sentiments about his two kids—Evan, 25, and Heather, 20.
“It’s great to have one-on-one time, whether you’re out on the hill or in the camper in the evenings,” Randy, 56, said. “Everybody’s got busy lives and are going in different directions. It’s a dedicated time that we can all come together.”
This is just as true for the Bailey family. For 38 years, multiple generations have hunted from the same camp up Buzzard Creek on Grand Mesa.
“My dad started this, and each year anywhere between three and 13 family members from three generations get together,” said Dave Bailey, 79.
Raised in Collbran, Dave even returned each October for the 32 years he lived in Virginia.
“My dad will still be going up to hunt 10 years from now, even if I have to set him up in a chaise longue,” said his son, Mark, 52.
Is it genetic?
Jeff started hunting with his dad, uncles and grandpas in northern Wisconsin at age 10 and has memories of hunting trips he couldn’t go on as early as age 5.
He recalled eagerly awaiting his father’s return to see if he “got anything.”
Jeff said he believes hunting is genetic in some respects.
“Otherwise, how do you explain someone who’s 5 years old, never having been out there, being so excited?” he said.
Randy grew up in the outdoors. An avid outdoorsman, his father took the family out almost every weekend— hiking, camping, fishing or hunting. His wife, Bretina, also comes from a family of hunters. It was only natural that they shared their love of hunting with their kids early on.
“I started going to hunting camp when I was a baby,” Heather said. “I got my own permit and license when I was 12 years old.”
Mike remembers getting his first doe at age 12 like it was yesterday. Even as a little kid, “going hunting was better than Christmas,” he said.
Mark loved tagging along on outdoor adventures with his dad and grandparents. For him, when the first snowflake fell, it meant hunting season had arrived.
Food for the family
For the Hunts and Baileys, hunting has never been about killing, but putting food on the table.
“We’re definitely in it for the meat,” Randy said. “We like to fill our freezer and keep nice, natural meat. It’s healthy that way.”
Heather appreciates how each person in her family has a role in providing and preparing the meat.
“We couldn’t do it without everyone in the family,” she said. “Me and Dad go out and hunt. When we get one down, we gut it and my mom comes out and does all the field dressing. She actually skins and cuts up the deer and elk while me and my dad haul it out, and my brother usually cooks it.”
These hunters agree—dinner is an important part of the experience.
“We don’t usually eat dinner together at home, so here we just huddle around the heater and talk about the day,” Heather said.
Jeff and Mike have hunted on the Grand Mesa with the same two sets of fathers and sons since 2000.
“Being up there with those guys is better than hunting,” said Mike. “From dinner on is the best part— [telling] jokes and sharing stories, most of them not about hunting.”
Jeff said men are sometimes vulnerable at hunting camp—they share life stories that aren’t talked about anywhere else. One week each fall is dedicated to this experience, transporting them to a special world of their own.
The drama of the hunt
While most hunters are disappointed when they return home with nothing, Heather still finds the experience rewarding.
“It’s really hard if you don’t get something…but it doesn’t really matter because you were up there,” she said. “It’s dead silent and it’s when you’re most in nature.”
Relaxing on a hill next to her dad is one of her favorite activities.
“It’s fun hunting with my dad as we get older. He falls asleep a lot,” she added.
It’s also the birthplace of many of her favorite stories.
“One time he was snoring and there was an animal,” she said. “I was old enough to make the decision on my own so I shot it while he was asleep and it freaked him out.”
For the Harmelings, the challenge of locating animals and seeing them up close are some of the most thrilling parts of the hunt.
“I can sit in the woods the whole day just in the hopes of seeing something,” said Mike. “To see deer and elk living in their natural habitat where they’re normally not disturbed is different than seeing them anywhere else.”
Dave almost got too close to an animal on a hunt.
When he was 22 and hunting on Battlement Mesa in blowing snow, a fellow hunter above him hollered that a bear was coming his way. He saw a black bear in the brush just 50 feet away. Then it charged.
“I was getting ready for him and went to shoot but there was snow on my scope,” said Dave. “I ended up shooting him when he was just 15 feet away. He did a somersault and landed one step away.”
Despite this terrifying event, Dave and Mark still like to watch animals and take pictures.
“Hunting with Mark is a special tradition I look forward to every year,” Dave said. “It would have left a void if he didn’t like to hunt.”
Describing the meaning of their annual hunting trips together is easy for Mark.
“For as long as I can remember, I have admired my dad and wanted to be like him,” Mark said. “He has such a wealth of knowledge about the outdoors. It’s a time just for us that ties us together.”
Although she’s away at college and studying to be a wildlife biologist, Heather has never missed a hunting season; and with the exception of a couple of years while he was overseas in the Air Force, neither has Randy.
“Hunting has been a huge influence on [Heather],” Randy said. “It’s exciting that she’s grown up in that environment—she loves the outdoors and wants to be out there working with wildlife.”