Farewell to 2020 and Farewell to Some Outdoor Heroes

Joel Vance, outdoor writer/editor, mentor and beloved leader among outdoor communicators.

We’ve just about made it to the end of 2020, a year that many people regard as “annus horribilis,” the Latin for Horrible Year. It was a year for bitter politics, an impeachment, and to top it off, a global pandemic that has now killed (as of a week ago) over 320,000 Americans, with deaths continuing at the rate of 3,000 or more per day. 

A surprise for the year was how Americans re-discovered the great outdoors during the pandemic. After people found themselves in lockdowns, working from home, learning about Zoom calls, they found that they could escape many of the pandemic frustrations by heading for the outdoors. People bought recreational vehicles and hit the road for fishing, touring and fresh air. It now remains to be seen if this surge in popularity for the outdoors sticks, or if people will return to their usual more-organized recreations after people are immunized and we can go back to pre-pandemic pursuits.

2020 marked the passing of heroes of the outdoors. Among the departed is Gen. Chuck Yeager, the WWII fighter ace who became the test pilot who first broke the speed of sound, among the many accomplishments of his long career with the Air Force. He also had a long love of the outdoors and is remembered fondly by the many people who had opportunities to hunt or fish with him.

Here in Montana, we lost Jim Posewitz, a giant of conservation, as well as a leader, author and ethicist. Posewitz died on July 3 at age 85. In addition to his body of work, he left behind living monuments, such as the free-flowing Yellowstone River and the Wild and Scenic Missouri River through the Missouri Breaks.

I’ll also note the recent death of one of the greats in the world of outdoor writers. 

Joel Vance, who died on December 9, at age 86, was a beloved leader, teacher and mentor to outdoor communicators around the country.

Joel grew up in Missouri, and earned a degree at the University of Missouri Journalism School and his first job out of J-school was at a newspaper in Montgomery, Alabama, covering civil rights. 

His journalism career was interrupted by military service, fulfilling obligations after Army ROTC in college. 

After completing military service, he returned to journalism, first as a sports writer, before embarking on a long career as an outdoor writer. While he wrote stories about hunting, fishing, bird dogs, especially French Britannies, and even church lutefisk dinners during grouse hunting trips to Minnesota, for many magazines, along with a bunch of books, he is best remembered as editor of the Missouri Conservationist, the publication of the Missouri fish and game department. 

Joel was an active leader of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA), serving as president and over the years earned about every award and honor OWAA has. He led or taught many writing workshops, and was introduced at one of them as “the editor from hell.”

Joel had a regular column with Gun Dog magazine for many years until declining health forced him to mostly retire from freelance writing in 2015. Joel continued to write weekly blogs, musing on many topics, until a couple weeks before his death. 

I got to know Joel when I first went to an OWAA conference, and introduced myself to him, first because I’d read his work for many years in Gun Dog, and also because we were next to each other, alphabetically, in the membership directory. 

When I recently published a new book, Joel was one of the first to order a copy, insisting that he pay the full price, not wanting a complimentary copy, which I had actually planned on. He wrote me a brief note, “Savoring the book. Fine writing. I’m envious of your proximity to legendary hunting and fishing and the many years you have to enjoy them. With admiration, Joel.”

To be honest, I don’t know how many more years I have for hunting and fishing, but from Joel, the editor from hell, “Savoring the book. Fine writing,” is something I’ll treasure.

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