In 44 years of writing about the outdoors, I've made a lot of friends, some of whom I've never even met. The internet not only made my job easier, it created cyber pen pals. One of my favorites is John T. Baker.
At 77, he still works every day and jogs or walks four miles several times a week. This self-taught naturalist has introduced four generations of his family to the outdoors, mostly at the Baker Family Heritage Farm near Breckenridge. It's been in the family 120 years.
Baker's e-mails are filled with colorful memories from a bygone era, told in vivid detail. Like the Gillespie County deer hunt in 1956, when Baker was 16 and his father, an obstetrician-gynecologist who slept whenever he could, was 52.
"Back then, hardly anybody used blinds to sit comfortably," wrote Baker. "We just picked out a tree and sat down with our backs to the tree trunk, facing into the cold north wind."
Baker's dad pulled up a large tree log for cover and laid his borrowed rifle on top of it. He promptly fell asleep. He was awakened by the sound of a buck standing three feet away, snorting and stamping its hoof at the apparition invading its territory.
"The deer was positioned eight inches from the rifle barrel, which was pointed at the correct place for a perfect shot," Baker wrote. "Dad slowly inched his hand up to the rifle, not picking it up. He just eased his finger into the trigger guard and fired. The buck fell right there, three feet away. It was his first buck.
"Dad was so excited, both over his first buck and the unique method of success, you would have thought he had delivered his first baby."
Baker enjoyed 30 years of hunting with his dad and his uncle Obed Baker. "I cherish every moment of those adventures together," he wrote. "Gosh, I still miss both of them."
Obed Baker once guided Panhandle hunters for lesser prairie chickens, which were so plentiful in the early 20th century there were no closed seasons or bag limits. Hunters from the cities rode trains to the Panhandle and killed birds by the dozens.
The Bakers enjoyed hunting but maintained great respect for the game. In 1958, he was headed for his deer lease near Bandera in a new Cadillac Fleetwood when Obed spotted a whitetail buck hung in a fence. The deer made a lazy jump and its rear legs came down through the upper two wires of the barbed wire fence. The wires kinked and the deer was trapped.
The buck was alive but exhausted from struggling to free itself. Baker found a pair of pliers in his gear and cut the buck loose. He scooped up the comatose animal and loaded it into the Cadillac's back seat, then drove to the camp where he and the ranch owner placed the deer in a barn, on a bed of hay with feed and water. Two days later, they opened the barn door and the buck ran away, apparently none the worse for its harrowing experience.
John Baker, 18 at the time, wrote his uncle Obed's tale, verified by the rancher, in a notebook, which he still has. John Baker has made a crusade of introducing his own children and his nieces and nephews to the outdoors. His daughter, Shawn Baker, a doctor of physical therapy, elaborates.
"From the time of my earliest memories, we were always camping, hiking and climbing mountains in state and national parks," she wrote. "Every place we went, dad made it interesting (and still does) as we explored, looking for all of nature's wonders. I could write a book about my dad and our wonderful adventures together."
Shawn's brother, Johnny, a teacher, historian and author, was equally influenced by his father. "My sister and I were always doing something outdoors with dad," he wrote. "At least two days a week we were at the Baker Farm where dad talked about the history, the plants and the animals. We're still making breathtaking memories."
John Baker said he was hooked on the outdoors at an early age and has spent his adult life trying to pass along lessons learned from forebears. He's floated various stretches of the Rio Grande an estimated 80 times.
"I've enjoyed all of it," he wrote, "but the best part was teaching the younger generations about all wild things and how we must be good stewards of our natural resources."
FRIDAY, NOV. 24--Sandhill crane season begins in Zone B.
FRIDAY, NOV. 24--Mule deer season begins in the Trans-Pecos.
SUNDAY, NOV. 26--First split of duck season ends in north and south zones.
SATURDAY, DEC. 2--Second split of north zone duck season begins.
SATURDAY, DEC. 2--Panhandle pheasant season begins.
SATURDAY, DEC. 9--Second split of south zone duck season begins.
SATURDAY, DEC. 16--Sandhill crane season begins in Zone C.
MONDAY, DEC. 18--Second split of dove season begins in north and central zones.
MONDAY, DEC.18--Woodcock season begins statewide.
FEATURED PHOTO: John T. Baker, son Johnny and his daughter, Shawn. with the skull of a buck they found hung in a fence. Baker has taught four generations of his family about hunting, fishing, natural history and stewardship. (Courtesy photo/John T. Baker)