Outdoor Christmas gifts that last a lifetime
By JIM MATTHEWS
When my two sons were children, they would get squirrelier by the day as the hours ticked closer and closer to Christmas. Their mother would have to keep shooing them out of the closets and they were constantly snooping under beds. This season really is for kids in a lot of ways, but so often the presents they find under the tree lose their allure in a matter of days (if not hours), and the anticipation can be better than the present.
It shouldn’t be this way. Outdoor presents can light a flame in children that influence a lifetime, having a treasured affect that lasts beyond the flying ribbons, bows, and wrapping paper and lingers long after the initial glee.
I distinctly remember three presents I received as a child: my first pocket knife, my first fly rod, and my first firearm. Each item was more than something I wanted, it was a signal from my parents that I was growing up, and they were giving me a gift that carried with it a responsibility. More than that, they carried a promise of time together and mentoring, something where so many of today’s gifts fall short.
The pocket knife was first, when I was eight or nine. I'm sure that my mother and father had a fairly long and perhaps heated argument about whether it was a good idea for me to have the knife at that age. Mother worried that I would cut myself (which I did, of course), and dad suggested that I would survive a cut or two and learn some responsibility and how to use a piece of equipment that could be dangerous.
The Camp King, as that first knife was called, was a wondrous tool. It was the classic Boy Scout design with a large blade, a bottle opener-screwdriver, a can opener, and a leather punch. My father taught me how to use each blade, and we carved together around the fire on camping trips. That knife lived in my pocket and it whittled down more eucalyptus branches than you could imagine, carved up apples, added holes to belts that were too small or too big or just needed another hole, and popped the tops off more strawberry sodas at the local gas station than I can remember.
That first knife started a love affair with knives that live on to this day. Hunting knives of all designs, filet knives, small Swiss Army knives, and a variety of pocket knives all are part of the functional collection that I carry in pockets, camera bags, and in my hunting and fishing gear. I handle knives daily, and I think about that first knife often.
The first firearm followed not long after, more at the suggestion and pressing of an uncle, my hunting mentor, than my father. It was a .410 single shot that I have to this day, a J.C. Higgins (Sears) gun with a firing spring was and is so weak that it often will not fire the shell.
On one hand, a .410 is really a dismal shotgun for a kid. Sure, it is fairly light kicking, but it is difficult for anyone but an experienced shooter to hit game with this diminutive bore. This can have the effect of discouraging a youthful hunter. On the other hand, it makes them learn something very important about hunting: success is rarely measured in the weight of the bag. Success is about being in the field as a part of nature’s process, spending time with family and friends, and being safe with something that has immense power. All of these things are humbling and good lessons for kids to learn early in life.
The fly rod was a surprise. It came at a time when we mostly kept all the fish we caught and ate them. Fly-fishermen often released their fish. I knew this because I had been reading a lot of fishing books and liked the concept, even though I knew nature could handle the harvest. When I unwrapped the Garcia rod, it was a clear message from my dad that I could be my own man. I didn't have to use spinning tackle and bait and keep the fish I caught. I could tie my own flies, learn about the trout and their habits, and then catch and release them on my own terms, in spite of what friends and relatives would say. For years I lived with their wrath about letting all those fish go.
Just months before my father died, we camped with some of our oldest camping friends at a place in Colorado we had been visiting since I was a child. My father was mostly content to sit in camp, visit, play cribbage, and fish for an hour or two a day. Some of the best fishing water was right by our camp, but it was difficult water to fish. I fished hard all day long, sometimes not even stopping for lunch, and drew an audience when fly-fishing the complex water by camp. On one of our last days, I caught a large brown trout I knew lived in a foamy pocket while my father and our friends watched. I also did something I hadn't done in a long time -- I kept the fish for dinner. It fed all four of us, just as the fly rods, the guns, and the knives had fed my soul for so many years.
I hope that is what you have strived for in the gifts given to the children in your life today.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]