The road less traveled led to a friendship unparalleled

When I was in my teens, my best friend and I were seeking adventures and, being steeped in the traditions of our teachers at Vermont Academy, we were immersed in outdoor education. We learned entomology and how to read the rivers and mountain streams for the miracles that crawled at our feet. We turned over rocks and studied the variations of mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies. We were immersed in studying what water temperatures were the preferred for rainbows, browns and brookies. We dissected one of the rainbows to learn what particular insect they were feeding on and what was hatching from the aquatic world beneath us. We learned to match the hatch and how to mend a line to overcome the crossing currents.

As a rebellious teen, I struggled to find anything that could hold my attention. Flyfishing was the first activity that fascinated me enough to do so. This was when I first recognized that my spirit required constant stimulation from the natural world.

Photo by Bradley Carleton.
Chessie, the best duck dog Bradley Carleton has ever owned
Photo by Bradley Carleton. Chessie, the best duck dog Bradley Carleton has ever owned

I was a terrible ball player. Baseball, football, soccer — you name it, and I managed to embarrass myself regularly. Fast forward 20 years, and after sowing my wild oats in New York City for a decade, I found myself taking all night drives back to the only place that ever felt like home, Vermont. I had attended a Ducks Unlimited dinner in a fancy venue in Greenwich, Conn., and, for the first time, I was exposed to wildlife art.

I was captivated by a painting by artist Chet Reneson of Lyme, Conn., titled “The Bay Gunners.” It captured two men standing outside of their Barnegat Sneakbox boat in a tidal marsh with a strong wind blowing snow sideways. They were tucked in behind a rough blind camouflaged with cattails. Their guns were in their hands. I could feel the stinging wind on their frost-covered faces. The artist captured the visceral moment of these two men, unprepared for the flock of bluebills screaming into the decoy spread on the opposite side of the blind. They were clearly unprepared for the opportunity. I stared at the painting longingly, knowing that I could not afford the price but promised myself that one day, I would live this dream.

This magical piece of artwork spoke to the deepest part of my soul. I knew how I wanted to live out the rest of my life. I moved home to Vermont and began to wander in a jagged forward progression toward my dream.

For many people who lived conventional lifestyles based on gaining financial stability at the expense of pursuing their passions, I was an outlier. To the embarrassment of my peers and family, I fumbled toward my dream life with singular focus. My spirit cried to engage with nature through flyfishing, waterfowl hunting, ice fishing, turkey hunting, foraging and a childhood love of deer camps.

I had no idea how I was going to get there. I only knew that I had to, in order that my spirit would find the connection that made me feel whole. Like I belonged. I took so many wrong turns trying to balance a conventional lifestyle with my needs. I was a banker, a stockbroker and a restaurant host. With each of these attempts to conform, my spirit would wither.

Eventually, at the ripe age of 65 years old, I surrendered. I had been a part-time waterfowl guide for 28 years and would frequently call in “sick” when, during the full moonlight, I heard the Canadian geese flying over my house. If I learned that the hexagenia hatch was flooding the cool night air rising off the river, I knew what had to be done.

I met friends along the way who shared these passions and became the kind of friends that you could trust with your life. They understood the intrinsic value of watching a brook trout slam an elk hair caddis in a remote mountain stream. They understood the intense vocal connection when communicating with a boss tom turkey. They knew how to become the lonely hen and knew when to putt, purr and cluck. These people knew how to appreciate the stark beauty of stick season, the sting of whitecaps on our faces when the north wind sprays over the bow as we cross the bay in the dark on our way to the blind.

I am grateful for having chosen an unconventional lifestyle. This is the path that led me toward a life that feels like I am living in the painting I identified with so many years ago.

A couple of years ago I met a kindred spirit, a most generous older gentleman, Tom, who shared his love of all things outdoors. His stories cemented a friendship unparalleled. I went to his home recently. He had been cleaning out his office. There were stacks of books and paintings leaning against a wall in his garage.

Tom turned to me and said, “I have something for you.” He handed me, not one, but two Reneson paintings. The second one he handed me left me breathless. The print was titled “The Baygunners.” I knew in the very depths of my spirit that the “road less traveled” was, indeed, the right one.

(Bradley Carleton is executive director of Sacred, a privately owned limited liability corporation that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature through hunting, fishing and foraging.)