What Mark Do You Want to Leave?

By R.G. Bernier

To know a man is to know what activities he chooses to pursue and the manner in which he pursues them,” Lee Nisbet wrote. It wouldn’t take anyone very long to discover my love for and passionate pursuit of the whitetail deer.
However, there was a time early in my deer hunting career that, because of poor judgment, immaturity and selfish ambition, I believed my deer hunting conquests would be something of value to be left in my wake. I romanticized this and was of the opinion that it really mattered. I had bought into what deer historian Rob Wegner glamorized in his prose of yesteryear's deer slayers: “ … nostalgic memories of their daring feats will linger on; memories of their endless pursuits of mammoth bucks, their victorious conflicts with the hooves and horns of their wounded quarry and the shattering effect of their deer kill statistics.” Indeed, I had unspoken aspirations of becoming the best whitetail deer hunter there ever was. This egocentric notion can best be understood by a conversation that transpired in the baseball movie The Natural. Roy Hobbs, talking to his boyhood girlfriend Iris Gains, said, “My life didn’t turn out the way I expected. I could've been better. I could’ve broken every record in the book.” Iris responds, “And then?” “And then?

And then when I walk down the street, people would’ve looked and they would’ve said, ‘There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game.’” The reality to that conceit is summed up rather glaringly in the book of Peter: “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls.” Iris was spot on when she told Roy, “I believe we have two lives.” “How…what do you mean?” Roy asked. Iris said, “The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” Nisbet continued from the opening line: “It is through activities that our character is formed, deformed and reformed. In reflecting on our activities, we recognize who we are and what kind of person we’re becoming.” I asked myself if I were to succeed and come to complete fulfillment of all of my illustrious deer hunting dreams, then what? What have I actually accomplished beyond self-realized goals, bragging rights, influence and perhaps someone one day saying as I walk down the road, “There goes R.G. Bernier, the best deer hunter that ever was?” Is that the mark I want to leave? Is that a legacy that will have any effect on my children, grandchildren or future generations of hunters?


Thankfully, those idolatrous aspirations have long since been put to death. Yet, it doesn’t take much of a look to realize that many of the same non-endearing qualities that I once personified plague far too many like-minded hunters in some form or fashion. After all, what’s another giant whitetail killed at your hand if it came at the expense of your children wondering why their daddy is gone again? How significant can even the largest set of antlers be if a lonely wife is left home counting the financial cost and smarting from feeling cheated by an animal? Regrettably, we live in a culture that now glorifies records rather than character, achievement instead of nobility, and seeks immediate gratification regardless of how little the investment to attain it. Gen. George S. Patton, despite his vanity, was intuitive enough to recognize this: “All glory is fleeting.” The people that we try hardest to impress, those whose applause echoes in our mind and shores up our insecurities ultimately become as fickle as a thermal breeze when we fail to live up to the unrealistic hype. Where will those people be when you take your final breath?


Although I continue to pursue whitetails with unbridled passion, let me assure you that there’s not a deer walking the planet that can compete with my love for my family. My sweetie-pie (wife of 33 years) is my best and most cherished friend. My children are gifts that I treasure. And my grandchildren, well they are just the greatest, period. If you want to see me get genuinely excited, it won’t be as a result of a big deer — not that that won’t quicken my pulse. But to really get me energized, just tell me my grandkids are coming to visit. In his poignant hunting film Searching For West, Western big-game hunter Mark Seacat engages the viewer through his own emotional story about his journey that has taken him from hunting high in the Montana forests, which consumed many days a year, to a much different perspective on his personal pursuits. Seacat, facing internal conflict between his personal hunting goals and his desire to be with his newborn son, West, makes a decision that undoubtedly will have a lasting impact on his legacy. In the narrative, Seacat said, “In 10 days, archery season opens, and people are expecting me to be hunting.” Yet as the battle within continues, he reminds himself, “Commitments are more important than hunting. Like the birth of a son.” He goes on to lament, while fully immersed in the hunt, “I’m missing this time with my newborn son; time that I’ll never get back.” As the season wears on without success, having switched from archery to a rifle, he is a man alone in the wilderness facing harsh elements, the possibility of an empty game pole and the continual mental battle waging within. Mark then asks himself, “Do I continue to hunt like this? Do I go after these personal goals that may or may not be important to my family?” I can easily relate to those internal struggles. A few years ago, facing a decision as to what was most important to me with but three days left of a deer season, while still holding an unfilled tag, I asked myself, “Do I continue to hunt or leave to be home in order to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with my family, especially my one-year-old grandson, who traveled down from Canada with his parents for the occasion?” This was yet another landmark moment for a very goal-oriented guy who desperately wants to succeed. Without looking back and certainly having no regrets, I hurriedly packed my hunting gear, said my goodbyes and hastily left deer camp to spend three priceless days with those who loved me most. Mark came to that conclusion: “I then realized those goals were becoming detrimental to the experiences I could be having back home. It’s crazy how life changes, how your priorities can change so quickly.” A newborn son or even a one-year-old grandson can definitely change the way a man thinks. Mark continued: “It was this moment that taught me that I needed to be better at being a father, that I needed to be better at being a husband and hunting was something in my life that could wait.”


It is never easy to recognize the impact that you might have on another life. Sometimes, that influence doesn’t fully mature until years later, after you’re gone. All you can ever truly give someone is yourself, which encompasses your time, wisdom, influence, know-how, loyalty, love and generosity. I smile inwardly as I watch my hunting partner, a man in whom I’ve invested seven seasons of teaching, unravel a complex tracking situation and be standing within 30-yards of the unsuspecting buck. I’m pleased when I receive notes from readers thanking me for sharing with them what I believe to be the best week to hunt — and they succeed. It’s gratifying when those you’ve invested in ultimately find deer hunting success as a result of those efforts. It’s fulfilling to learn how appreciative countless hunters are of shared behavior insight and captured deer images that I’ve brought out of the wild and into their lives, all to help them better understand an animal I’ve had the good fortune to be intimate with for a good portion of my adult life. It’s humbling when your daughter kisses you on the cheek and whispers in your ear, “Thank you for being a great dad.” And it is heart-melting when your three-year-old grandson says, “I’m Gramp’s buddy boy.” None of these or any other such instances would have ever come to fruition had my chief end been to selfishly drag another buck out of the bush.


The 14th century Scottish hero William Wallace voiced an inspiring rally cry to his fellow Scotsmen: “Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” Death is indeed final, and however you and I are ultimately remembered, beyond gracious platitudes respectfully offered by graveside mourners, has everything to do with how we lived. It’s inevitable that upon my passing I will leave a bunch of stuffed deer heads, antlers and hunting mementos. But if that is all — if that is all my life amounted to — it sure wouldn’t be much. After all, despite those trophies being meaningful to me as a result of the memories they engender, I’m realistic enough to know they will probably be wrangled over, sold, given away, relegated to a dusty attic, placed in a yard sale or destroyed. No, I want my mark to count for more than just dusty old deer heads. The question was asked of me, “If today was your last day, how was your mark left?” Although I could attempt self-aggrandizing prose regarding the significance of the life I’ve led, I won’t. I cannot. This judgment will be left to historians, reviewers and those whose lives I’ve affected — friends and loved ones. I can only hope that their memories will be generous. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the whitetail deer being such an integral part of my life and livelihood, I’d not wish any mention of it on my tombstone. Here is what I desire to be etched in my final remembrance: Loved the Lord his God faithfully Loving husband Benevolent dad and granddad Loyal friend If I live up to that inscription, the mark I aspire to make will have been securely left as a legacy meaningful to those who loved me.