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The Heart of a Hunter

2/14/2008
Nearly one year to the day columnist Lynn Burkhead (right) had surgery to correct life-threatening artery blockages, he found himself rediscovering the heart of a hunter in the rugged wilds of Colorado with good friend Dave Price, Jr. (left). Brian Strickland

I have a confession to make: I didn't hunt much at all a couple of years ago.

Now that may seem like an odd thing for a hunting blog columnist to admit to, but I can assure you that it wasn't by choice.

To make a long story short, in the summer of 2006, I had planned on an epic autumn of hunting adventure after drawing a highly coveted archery elk tag in the Rocky Mountain West, not to mention two premium archery whitetail tags in the Midwest. Add in Texas whitetail deer hunting to my to-do list, and I was already trying to figure out how to explain my taxidermy bill to my wife.

I guess I'm living proof that as the Bible says, "Pride goeth before the fall."

The reality is, I'm glad to be living proof — especially the living part.

Because instead of figuring out a way to pay my 2006 taxidermy bill, I had to instead figure out how to pay another type of bill: a hospital bill for quadruple bypass heart surgery.

At the not-so-tender age of 40 — as I was physically preparing for my long-awaited elk hunt and mentally trying to figure out where to put a 370+ bull on the wall — I began to experience some episodes of chest pressure in mid-August.

As a Type II diabetic (and one who tries to very carefully control that condition with medication, diet, and exercise) I had obvious reasons to be concerned.

Even so, after more pressure episodes produced a couple of ER visits, an EMT check, and an overnight hospital stay, I was told I had not suffered a heart attack, that no cardiac events had been detected, and that testing for any potential heart problems had failed to turn up any cause for alarm.

Thankfully, God used a young physician in only his third week of duty at our local hospital to cause me to probe further.

One more chest pressure episode later, I found myself in the heart cath lab, awaiting news that would confirm that nothing was wrong with me (my wife humorously takes exception to that) and that I would soon be driving west to hunt big bugling bull elk.

That news didn't come, however, as a new cardiologist relayed the most disturbing news of my life: I was a walking cardiac time bomb, thanks to silent heart disease that had produced four major blockages threatening my life.

Two days later — trim, fit and at the ripe old age of 40, not to mention on the very day I was scheduled to leave out on my elk hunt — a heart surgeon performed open heart surgery on yours truly.

What followed was a fall of physical and mental recovery in '06, as well as a season virtually devoid of hunting for the first time in nearly three decades.

And while I must admit I missed getting into the woods, I was grateful to simply be alive — to watch the sun rise and set again with my beautiful wife and kids by my side, and to have another chance at life.

Why do I tell you these things in a Hunting365 column?

Because on the eve of Valentine's Day 2008, it occurred to me the heart really does matter to any whitetail, big game, waterfowl, or turkey hunter out there.

First, while I'm not a doctor and I must stress that you should NEVER substitute any of my advice for that of your own physician, please never ignore any symptoms or risk factors you may have for any type of health or heart ailment — no matter your age, physical condition, or plans.

Had I ignored my symptoms a couple of years ago and stubbornly proceeded West for my backpack elk hunt, I'm certain you wouldn't be reading my column today.

Second, listen to your body ... and never be afraid to seek a second or even a third opinion. Had that young doctor not intervened in my case on that late August day, it's doubtful that I would be alive today.

Third, schedule an appointment with your doctor to see where you are in terms of overall health, cardiac fitness and risk.

While deer hunting or turkey hunting on level ground might not be as strenuous as an elk hunt in the rugged Rockies, the excitement, the stress, and the physical exertion of chasing whitetails and wild gobblers is nothing to trifle with, either.

And don't be too macho to see a doctor — and to make sure that your body and ticker are capable of handling the rigors of another year spent in the outdoors.

Fourth, take care of your body. It's the only one you've got. And while none of us can do anything about certain genetic risk factors, we can all work on our diet, our exercise habits, and other factors such as smoking and stress management.

Finally, let me encourage you to enjoy each and every day that you're blessed with here on this third rock from the sun.

Since my health crisis a couple of autumns ago, I've recovered physically. And in the process, I can't tell you how precious life, my Christian faith, and spending time with my wife and children have all become.

I've also gotten back into the woods again, as I've rediscovered how much I enjoy the incredible right and privilege we have to chase the wild critters that fly, strut, rut, and bugle.

In January 2007, on one of only two hunts I was able to go on in the immediate aftermath of my surgery, the first duck I shot with my stack-barrel shotgun was a banded mallard drake.

The fact that one of my best friends, Brian Strickland, was there, only served to make the moment more memorable.

In April 2007, again with one of my best friends, Doug Rodgers, along for the ride, I used my Mathews Switchback to clobber my first ever turkey with a bow.

That Rio Grande was not only my first bow bird, but it also featured a double-digit beard and the best spurs of any turkey I've ever tagged.

Last fall, with Strickland and another great friend, former fighter pilot Dave Price, Jr. next to me on horseback, I rode deep into the wilderness of a Colorado mountain range to spend nine days chasing bull elk.

At the end of that hunt, while no big elk rack accompanied me back to the trailhead, I had enjoyed creation as rugged as any I've ever trod through.

I had also witnessed — with no tag in my hand — a 200-inch velvet mule deer traipse by me at less than 100 yards; I had watched a band of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep scramble their way through a steep mountain pass; and I had enjoyed all of this only in the presence of two friends who feel as deeply about the pastime of hunting as I do.

In the end, a year removed from the unexpected surprise and blessing of my surgery, that Colorado wilderness hunting trip was enough to celebrate my life and recovery. Not to mention serving as additional fuel to help stoke the wildfire in my belly and to rekindle again my zest for God, for my family, for my friends, for my hunting, and for my very existence on this planet.

That memorable trip also served as a gentle reminder that for the heart of a true hunter, it isn't the kill that defines a great time in the field.

It's simply being out there to enjoy it all that matters most.