Northern Wisconsin has lost a woodsman and the Whitetails there are resting a little easier: Richard Dakins of Birchwood, better known to me as Uncle Dick, passed away on this week. Uncle Dick was actually my Uncle Roland’s uncle and it was through Roland that I got to know Uncle Dick. During his life, Uncle Dick was a logger, a farmer, a Mail Carrier, an outdoorsman, and, most of all, a family man.
My first memory of Uncle Dick goes back 40 years or so. I was about seven years old and visiting my Uncle Roland and Aunt Linda’s farm. One day we were driving to town and met a tractor coming down the road. We stopped to chat, and I was introduced to Uncle Dick. The next thing I knew, I was sitting with him on the tractor rumbling down the road. That sort of thing didn’t happen in the suburbs; I was thrilled! It got even better when he let me steer! The tractor stayed straight and true because his guiding hand was never far from the steering wheel.
Way back in our pre-deer hunting years, our family tradition found us celebrating Thanksgiving on the farm. Thanksgiving in Wisconsin means deer hunting. When I was ten or eleven, we were invited to join the Dakins family for their hunt, and I got my first look at how a deer drive should work.
Deer hunting was serious business for the Dakins family and the work began weeks before the season. Uncle Dick would plan the logistics of the hunt while Joycell, his wife of over 60 years, would oversee the process of feeding everyone. Woods were scouted. Stands and drives were planned. Loaf after loaf of French toast was prepared and put into the freezer. The hunting day always began early as the hunting party would gather for breakfast. As many as seventeen hunters might take part in the season, so this was no simple task. It was a highlight for me as the excitement of the coming hunt fueled the story and strategy sessions that took place crowded around that kitchen table. Once the stories were done and the plan was set, the hunters would pile into the trucks, and the hunt would be on. That’s when I fell in love with Whitetails and found myself one-on-one with Uncle Dick.
As a novice hunter, I didn’t carry a gun for a year or two. My job was to follow Uncle Dick, not get lost, not scare any deer, not get lost, keep quiet, and to not get lost. Those first years of trekking through the woods found me struggling to keep up with Uncle Dick’s long strides. He would pause while I caught up, and then the lessons would begin. It seemed that Uncle Dick was always teaching me something during those drives. It may have been something about the trees or wildlife. Frequently it was on the value of using a compass. Sometimes the lesson was illustrated by something that happened along the way. Soon it became clear that he was offering lessons about life as much as about hunting. His words and actions always made clear the importance of doing things right and how strongly he cared for his family. Like a good compass, Uncle Dick’s lessons would be pointed in the right direction.
As I put more experience under my belt, I was allowed to be on my own. Before each drive began, Uncle Dick would make sure I knew where to go. He would draw a map in the snow with all the landmarks clearly defined. He would remind me of the proper direction to go. He knew how long it should take and where to expect my poster to be standing. With a reminder to be safe, to follow my compass, and to shoot straight, he would leave me ready to make my own tracks through the snow. Through his guidance, I never got lost on those hunts.
As I write this, my mind is overwhelmed with many fond memories from my hunting days in Birchwood. For me it will probably always be the benchmark of what Deer Camp should be, but as it happens too often in life, things got in the way, and I haven’t hunted there for years. Still, I have often found myself recalling my days trailing Uncle Dick through the woods, and, despite the invention of GPS, I still pin a compass to my orange vest every fall. During a grouse hunt once, I made a mistake and ignored my lessons from Uncle Dick: no compass! The result was a VERY long walk in the snowy darkness with soggy socks. A recurring thought during my ordeal was that I didn’t want Uncle Dick to hear the story.
I wish I was heading back to make another walk through the woods instead of to say goodbye to a real man who had his priorities right. As we gather to celebrate his life, I am sure there will be story after story of his adventures of fishing in Alaska and Canada, hunting elk out West, and hunting deer right in Wisconsin. The heart of those stories will reflect what he treasured most: his friends and family.
I have been lucky enough to have gotten guidance in my life from some real men. My Dad, my father-in-law, and my uncles all know how to do the guy stuff: sports, hunting, fishing, fixing things and all the other testosterone-filled tasks that define manliness. These men also know that being a real man means making their wives, families, and faith the foundation for their lives. As I found out, Uncle Dick was no exception to this. I am very thankful he took the time to pass on what he knew to be so important: A good compass will always show the way to go.