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Posted: February 4, 2024

A hard man is good to find

By Peter Christensen

Op-Ed Commentary

I had not seen much of my brother for many years as after we left home we went off in very different directions; he to the city, me further into the hills and here it was 25 years later, time just went by. I decided to put on a week trip in the high country as a way to get to know each other so I offered to take him and a mutual friend Harvey on a week-long hunting trip into the Purcells.

I owned four horses and could borrow another two, it takes a pack horse per person for a hunting trip. Packing horses in mountain backcountry is hard work. There’s lots of heavy lifting. You get banged into trees or pack boxes and are constantly on the move and on watch.

You get on and off your horse 20 times a day. Camps are set up and taken down, meals prepared, horses turned out, hobbled, moved during the night and brought in early to be fed, brushed out, hooves cleaned, shoes checked, camp dismantled and put into boxes, horses saddled and packed.

It is good to have a companion along who knows the work. I had experience in the events of a day on horses in the backcountry having worked as hunting guide and backcountry Park Ranger so I knew what to expect, but I liked it. The days went by fast and the country was beautiful.

At the end of our hunting trip, after unloading the horses, setting the gear out on a rail to dry and feeding Brother Hans, Harvey and I were standing by the corral watching the horses roll and shake off some dust.

I was feeling a bit tired and cranky because both these men, though I loved them, when it came to doing outfitting work they were pretty useless. Harvey because he did not know how though he tried to help and Brother Hans because he treated our time in the hills like a guided trip, which I guess it was. I had expected a little more from him. As the horses made their way to the water trough and to the hay Bother Hans says to me, “You know Peter, you are a hard man!”

I didn’t say anything though his comment bothered me for a time. It raised questions.

Yes, I suppose I was a “hard man” in the sense that much of my work had required that one to be strong and tough minded, able to put frequent bangs and minor injuries aside and keep working. But I do not think that is what Bother Hans meant. I think he was saying that I had no empathy, that I was intolerant of the shortcomings of others. There was some truth in what he said.

Admittedly there were some years logging, building a homestead and guiding when I did not sympathize much; work and struggle made me self-oriented. It wasn’t until when in my mid 50s I had the first of two open heart surgeries, as a result of an aortic aneurysm, that I knew first-hand what it was to feel weak and vulnerable.

The aneurysm was not an injury one could work through, I was darn lucky to be breathing and for a long time after the repairs I was very weak and dependent on others.

Major trauma, if I can use that term, is not like a sprain or a heavy bruise: major physical trauma does psychological damage. My sense of invincibility was deeply depleted.

The desire and ability to take risks either emotional or physical felt damaged and not surprisingly the desire for empathy from others was awakened. Shit, I cried about small things. I was a physical and emotional wreck though as time passed I did gain strength and that deeper, injured sense of self healed. Lessons were learned.

I believe as a result of the experience I became more sympathetic toward other people.

My brother passed on from cancer a while back and the other morning Yvonne and I were going through old photo albums and there was a picture of Hans, Harvey and myself standing by the corral after our trip into the high country. I told Yvonne the story of what Hans had said to me about being a “hard man” and, how after a few traumas and setbacks I had changed my outlook.

She rather abruptly interrupted and said, “Brother Hans was lazy when it came to physical work, he would stand back and let the whole thing happen as if he was on some kind of holiday; after all he was a manager. You had to be hard to get those things done, that’s just the way it was. You must know that!”

– Peter Christensen is a Columbia Valley based writer and poet.

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