Forgiveness in the Field

Inspired by this recent post by Brody Henderson as well as recent sermons from my church, Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette, CO available on YouTube here.

 

As hunters there is a lot of pressure on us to not make mistakes. Both self-imposed ethically and also, the consequences in the age of social media are serious, not just to us, but when one of us screws up, it affects all of us.  In spite of that pressure, and perhaps occasionally, because of that pressure, we all make mistakes. Some mistakes are bigger than others and some consequences are bigger than others, but we’re all going to fail at times.  

It’s also important to remember to forgive yourself, which is often more difficult than forgiving others.  

After my elk hunt this year, I find myself forgiving my friend for not making the same decisions I would have made if roles were reversed.   Also, I’m trying to forgive myself for cutting out of my second camp earlier than I should. 

Even in forgiving my friend, I feel the need to forgive myself.  It was my assumptions and not his words that got me into the mess I was in.  He never committed to helping me, he only said I could tag along.  I should have known better.  I should have set clear expectations with him earlier so I could have made other arrangements.  It’s not fair to him to expect him to make the same decisions I would have made.  

Mostly though, I need to forgive myself for abandoning my second camp when I did.  I let the circumstances of attempting to get to my first camp irrationally influence my decision making regarding the second camp.  When all the hunters pulled out and left, when several of them told me the elk were doing the same, I allowed that to justify my fear of being out there alone and decided I too should pack up and leave.  I should have stayed there.  I should have trusted my ability to survive in the extreme cold.  I should have trusted my orienteering skills and my Garmin GPS as a back-up.  I should have spent at least a couple days wandering through the woods looking for elk.  

After getting stuck on the side of a mountain, miles from the next person the day before, my fear was understandable.  However, that fear was something to be conquered, not something to be conquered by.  That night was the first night I had ever spent alone camping and it got down to zero that night…

…and I was fine.  That should have buoyed my confidence.

This trip also finds me trying to forgive an unknown hunter.  While glassing some sagebrush I came across a dead 3x4 mule deer buck.  He hadn’t been dead long, there was steam coming from his body cavity and he was still in rigor.  The shot placement might have been a bit low, but it wasn’t that bad, he couldn’t have run that far after being shot.  However, there he laid, and there was not another hunter around me for twenty miles. If he’d been shot late the night before, he should have been tracked the next morning.  If the hunter had come upon him, already chewed up by coyotes, they still should have punched their tag.  Maybe this hunter couldn’t find him and did the right thing by punching their tag, but the feeling in my gut is this deer should have been found (you could have pulled your truck within 100 yards of it).  However, after a certain point, anger serves no purpose, I am choosing to give this hunter the benefit of the doubt and forgive them.

At the end of the day, forgiveness means you’ve learned a lesson.  One you hopefully won’t make again.  Whether it is forgiving yourself, or needing to forgive someone else, you’ve walked away from the situation wiser than you were before. This isn’t just good for you, it’s good for all of us.

Life is All About Conflict

Once upon a time, life was nothing but conflict and struggle. Struggle to keep yourself and your children alive, struggle to find food, struggle with disease, struggle to stay warm and dry in the winter, just struggle and more struggle.  In modern times, we’ve solved many of these issues that we dealt with for thousands of years but what we cannot solve is the fact that we’ve evolved to overcome adversity.  If there is no adversity to overcome, we need to create it.  This is why many people run marathons, do crossfit, take incredibly challenging jobs and this is why many people hunt.  These people have found healthy outlets for their need to struggle.  However, there is a growing segment in our society that wants to deny their nature. I won’t go into all the areas where this is happening, because you could write a book about it, but there is a general emptiness and unhappiness that resonates from people who deny their nature in the name of “progress” or modern times.  Sometimes their goals are well intended, but you don’t undo hundreds of thousands of years of evolution just by saying, “this isn’t the way it should be” and then getting mad at those who don’t comply and calling them nasty names.

There is infinitely more peace and freedom in accepting your nature than in trying to deny it.  

Paraphrasing John Lennon, peace is here if you want it.  I don’t mean it in the same way he did, I don’t have the same faith in human nature that I think we will end all wars, but I do think internal peace is here if you want it.  And who knows, maybe if more people find that internal peace, we can end all wars. But you have to have some peace in your own heart before you can make peace out in the world.

We crave that conflict and struggle.  But instead of looking inward for conflict, we glue our eyes to social media to find out what crazy thing Donald Trump or Maxine Waters has said today so that we can get outraged.  We crave those dopamine hits from the anticipation of our anger no differently than a drug addict or porn addict crave their next hit.  We focus on the brokenness of the world so that we don’t have to face the brokenness of our own hearts and lives.

Life is about conflict, but you have the choice of where to go to battle. You can go to war with the world and you will continue to struggle and never get ahead.  You will never find peace because you will never conquer the world, in fact you will only sew hatred and vitriol as you fail at saving the world.  Or, you can go to war with your own heart.  You can heal yourself, find your true nature and embrace it, becoming a happier, more loving and better human being.  Not only will your life improve, but you will improve the lives of the people around you.  

I cannot tell you what this looks like for you, only that I can easily tell the difference between those who go to war with the world and those that go to war with themselves.  I can tell you to look at biology, evolution and history for clues, but there are too many variables and one size does not fit all.  I can tell you that all human beings are spiritual creatures and you should pursue that, but, in spite of my own beliefs, I cannot tell you which path to take.  I can tell you that you should put down the phone and turn off the TV and the laptop every now and again.  It’s good to ingest as much knowledge as possible, but unless you spend some quiet time in reflection, your ideas are not truly your own, but rather a regurgitation of something you heard or read somewhere.  Go get quiet and make up your own damn mind.

I can also tell you that while you alone cannot change the world, you can change the world around you.  Redirect some of that energy you spend on politics or sports on your children, your spouse and your friends and family.  Your relationships will improve which will provide you with a happier and more emotionally stable life.  

Hunting is one way I exercise my true nature.

Hunting is as human as sex.  Those who would tell us to give up hunting are the same ones constantly pushing sex in our faces.  Sex is part of being human, it’s part of being a mammal, but so is hunting.  We are, thanks to technology, more often predators today than prey, but sometimes, we’re still prey.  I live in bear country, but every time I go off into the mountains and sleep in a tent, I inevitably hear from multiple people, “Aren’t you afraid of bears or wolves?”  Usually I answer, “no”, but this hunting trip I’m about to go on, I have to admit that I am a little afraid.  If all goes well, I will have an elk on the ground and I will be focusing on dressing and butchering it to pack out.  Bears are looking for one last meal before hibernation and it doesn’t get much better than a dead elk.

That fear makes me feel human.  And feeling human, truly human, is one of the most liberating feelings there is.  Rather than running from that fear, or letting that fear control my life, I am embracing that fear.  When I am in the mountains with bears and wolves, I am at the place in the food chain God intended me to be.  I am not in some high-rise apartment in New York protected by armed guards having my food delivered to me.  I am taking risks that others cannot or will not take and because of that, I will have rewards that others will not reap.  

I’m not really much of a 21st century man, but I’m trying to be where it makes sense.  My wife is currently the breadwinner in our family and I do my best to support her.  I usually am the one who quits work early to pick up our daughter and my ego is not bruised by any of this.  However, though I pray I never have a need to, I will not hesitate to resort to violence if necessary to protect my family.  I will leave my family for a period of time to go hunt.  I will be the Christian leader of the household God calls me to be.  Not everything that has been done for eons needs to be replaced.  In fact, I’d argue, we need to keep tweaking how we do things, but in America at least, I wouldn’t call for an overhaul of any institution or cultural more.  

Conflict is natural.  Conflict can be good.  Conflict, when handled properly, is how things grow.  So, the question you have to ask yourself is, “Am I engaging in conflict that is going to make me be a better person?  Or, is the conflict I’m engaged in really only designed to make me appear like I’m already a good person?”

Hunting is Not About Left or Right. Stop Politicizing it, Please.

Recently, Frank Miniter wrote an opinion piece on Fox News called, “What the Left Doesn’t Understand About Hunters”. In reading his article, I felt for him and his frustration, but I think it is misdirected.  His new neighbors, who have moved to the country from Brooklyn, may indeed be left-wing, but I think the trouble with their lack of understanding is that they’re urban, not that they’re lefties.  They didn’t grow up around hunting and their only experiences with hunters are through negative media portrayals.  This is understandable, but I hope that his new neighbors are open-minded enough to learn about hunting and conservation.

Our nation is becoming more and more urbanized, if for no other reason, than that is where the jobs are.  Farming is increasingly becoming a corporate affair and other rural jobs are drying up faster than ever.  For those of us who love rural life and activities, this is the true cultural divide in this country.  Many of us don’t understand why someone would want to live in Manhattan and many Manhattanites wonder why anyone would want to live in the middle of nowhere.  It’s understandable, but the real problem are the people making enemies out of the folks they don’t understand.  

Hunters, historically at least, may lean to the right, but to tell you the truth, most of us would rather talk about hunting.  For the sake of transparency, I will tell you I’m a pro-public lands libertarian.  However, one of my favorite places to hunt and quite frankly, just one of my favorite places to hang out, is my buddy’s farm and winery in Henry County, Kentucky. My buddy was kind enough to let me come hunt his farm many times when I lived in Kentucky.  I would drive up to his place with Rand Paul and Ron Paul bumper stickers on my truck and he’s not only a registered Democrat, but he’s currently running for office as one.  He and I have a lot in common, politics isn’t one of them, but he definitely understands hunting and hunters.

Within hunting, there are several political issues such as environmental policies and gun rights and increasingly, such as in New Jersey, some are attacking hunting straight on.  In the case of New Jersey, I don’t believe this is a left vs. right thing as much as it’s an urban vs. rural thing.  The population centers in New Jersey are making decisions for the rural areas without the benefit of experience or knowledge in these matters.  Furthermore, they’re making these decisions on an emotional level rather than as a result of scientific data.  As hunters, I think we should be united on these issues.  I have written before about, especially in the West, the difficulties of being a hunter when it comes to voting.  Democrats are often trying to strip you of your gun rights and Republicans are often trying to lease our public lands to energy development.  Only having two choices doesn’t bode well for anyone, especially the hunter.  We may be small, but if the Democrat hunters stand up for gun rights and the Republican hunters stand up for our environment, I believe we can have an influence.

As one of my favorite music sites recently wrote, “if we can’t all agree on Dolly Parton then we’re never going to agree on anything ever again.”  While I believe that to be true, I also believe that if we all can’t unite around hunting, if we can’t put our other differences aside to focus on protecting this one, non-political thing that means the world to us, are we ever going to have peace in this country again?  If hunting is as big of a part of our identity as most of us claim that it is, can we not be hunters first and conservatives or liberals second (or later)?

Forging New Traditions

Restless Native is one of my favorite podcasts and its host, Brad Luttrell, on almost every episode, says we have to stop talking about “heritage” and “tradition” because new hunters don’t have a heritage or tradition.  I don’t like agreeing with him on this point, but he’s right.  At least in general, he’s right.  The younger generation especially, they’re going to do things differently, use different equipment and come to hunting in new ways.  However, I do think these new hunters are interested in tradition, they’re just interested in doing it on their own terms.

A perfect example of this is the backcountry fitness trend.  Sure, the folks who participate in this are using gyms and modern chemistry in the form of protein powder, pre-workout drinks, and other supplements.  However, the idea behind it all is getting deeper into the backcountry, getting out there where there are animals, but no other hunters and being able to haul that animal to camp on your back.  If that doesn’t take you back in time, before the age of four-wheel drive trucks, ATVs and side by sides, I don’t know what does.

Another example, though I admit I have no data to support this, is the interest in bowhunting seems to be rising.  Although a lot of these guys are using modern compound bows, more and more are switching to recurves and traditional bows.  Both of these hunters, even the compound bow hunter, are learning and mastering ancient skills that humans have used for thousands of years. Sure, a compound bow has a lot more range than a spear or atlatl, but the bow hunter connects to his or her ancestors and the animal in a very real and spiritual way.

Like a lot of things in life, I find myself caught between two groups, in this case, the old guard and the new.  Being an adult onset hunter myself, I was not initiated into any particular tradition.  Much like the fact I chose the Chicago White Sox as my baseball team when I was a kid (my dad hated baseball), I have chosen certain traditions and honored certain aspects of the hunt based on what I want to get out of it.  With baseball, it was as easy as the fact Bo Jackson was so incredible to watch, but with hunting, the connection is much, much deeper.  Coincidently, Bo Jackson’s life-long passion is bowhunting.

Many folks in the outdoor world talk about using food as the gateway into hunting.  It is true, that the desire to produce one’s own food and for stewardship of the earth are pushing new people into hunting.  It’s also true, that food is steeped in tradition, in everything from cooking to sharing a meal with loved ones.  Hunting, however, takes a lot of time and money and gardening and shopping at Whole Foods is a lot easier.  What are the traditions that are going to keep these new hunters in the field year after year?  Is it camaraderie?  Hunters have said companionship is a major draw for years.  Is it being alone and connecting to God?  Is it testing one’s self against the elements, other hunters on public land, and connecting to our ancestors through a shared experience?  To hunt is to be human in much the same way to love is to be human.  Not everyone does it, but it certainly makes life a richer experience.  

As Joe Byers recently wrote in Outdoor Life, there is a new kind of hunter.  However, new doesn’t mean alien.  These younger and mostly urban folks are still human.  Maybe grandpa didn’t give them their first rifle when they were ten, but they’re not getting into something as ancient as man himself without a desire to connect to something deeper and greater than what modern life has to offer.  I think food and the other things our community is using to attract new folks to hunting is great, but unless we support and nurture their ability to connect to spiritual aspects of hunting, many of them are not going to stick around.  They have to be able to have the experiences, even if it doesn’t look exactly the same as it does for the rest of us.

 

Everyone Has Faith in Something, Even if That Something is Nothing

In my last post, I used a phrase I find myself using a lot these days, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  But what is evidence?  There’s empirical evidence and there’s spiritual evidence.  This is not to say that what I feel is scientific evidence, it is definitely not.  Feelings are not facts.  However, when there is a lack of empirical evidence and you’re putting your faith either in the existence of something greater or putting your faith in the presumption there isn’t something greater, what are you looking at to push you one direction or another?

Some people find it easier to believe in nothing because there is no evidence to show that there is something greater.  I get that, because “seeing is believing” is definitely easier.  We can’t see gravity itself, but we can see the effects of gravity, therefore we know it is real.  That is how I feel about the existence of God.  All the hard sciences are just studies of the universe God made and quite frankly, evolution is a much more powerful creation story than what you find in Genesis.  I know all the arguments, I love evolutionary biology, I find studying the way God made the world to be endlessly fascinating.  If Genesis was a biology text book, it’d be boring, but it’s a spiritual text book.  How God actually created the universe is such a wonderful example of what God is capable of that’s well beyond our human means of understanding.  

What I ask is, when you’re looking out onto a Pacific sunset, or watching the sun rise over the mountains, or see a baby calf nursing on her mother, when you look at your child, when you see all the beauty and love this world has to offer, don’t you feel something?  I know it’s easy to say that’s just an emotion, but why do you think you feel this way?  What is the evolutionary purpose for appreciating beauty and feeling connected to it?  Is it scary to think there may be something bigger behind your soul?

Forget Christianity for a minute.  Forget all organized religion.  Just walk into the woods, walk up a mountain, and look out on a magnificent vista.  Tell me we’re alone as intelligent, spiritual creatures.  I dare you.  I don’t think anyone being honest can do that.  You can believe in something greater or not, but every human is an agnostic because we don’t know, we believe in something or we believe in nothing, but not one of us, at least for the last 2,000 years knows scientifically.  This is the very purpose of faith.

Almost everyone has faith (I’m allowing for a few poor souls who may not). Faith that the sun will come up tomorrow.  Faith that their spouse is being the person they claim to be.  Faith that our children will grow up to be good people. Sometimes that faith is not rewarded, but we still have it until we choose not to have it anymore.  Maybe one day science will be able to prove that God doesn’t exist.  If that’s the case, I’m sure there will be a lot of folks who lose faith, but until that day, we’ll keep it.  And I highly doubt that it will ever be able to be proven or disproven, but I have been wrong before and there’s a good chance I could be wrong again someday.

For several years, I tried to let my doubts take over.  I tried to let my logical, data driven mind rule my consciousness.  I really tried hard.  However, when I went into the mountains, when I got away from my fellow man in the urban centers and looked up at the stars in a clear sky, I knew in my heart I was wrong. I tried to block it out, but it was way more powerful than me.  I realized that the choice I was making was no choice at all, but simply trying to ignore what I knew to be true.  I think people do this every day, not just in regard to the existence of God, but people ignore all kinds of things they know to be true because they don’t want them to be true.  

Ultimately, faith is a choice and it’s one you have to make on your own.  No parent, no pastor, no astrophysicist, no blogger can make this decision for you.  I just implore you to go spend a couple days in the wilderness, turn off your phone, quiet your mind and see what you can connect to.  We spend our lives so connected to so much that sometimes the most important connection we can make gets crowded out by thousands of insignificant little things.  No matter what you choose, take a minute and reprioritize your connections, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The Importance of Spending Time with the Right People in the Outdoors

At the beginning of the year, I had the worst hiking partner I’ve ever had. We only went on three hikes together and he ended up disliking me as much as I disliked him.  We had a ton of things in common such as our faith, marriage, we were both recent transplants to Colorado, roots in the South (albeit different parts, but he lived in the area my family is from which is how I knew him) and our love for hiking.  However, his topics of conversation focused strictly on our differences and he brought a lot of negativity, anger and hatred to the trail.  He also sought out different things from our experiences.

Different strokes for different folks are fine, but I’m not the kind of guy who wants to hike up a mountain just to get a good look at the city.  I also like to use the wilderness as a way to heal my heart from the frustrations and conflict of daily life.  I think wilderness has the power to bring us together, but this dude just wanted to fight all the time.  Like a lot of people today, he didn’t want to hear an alternative opinion, he wanted to hear his opinion communicated back to him.  

If you ask hunters, most will tell you that spending time with family or friends is one of the best things about hunting.  I imagine hikers, climbers and others would say the same thing. Taking on an adventure with someone is a wonderful experience, not just in the time together, but also in needing to work as a team to accomplish your goals.  It could be as simple as one person carrying the tent and the other person carrying the food on a backpacking trip, or it could be roping up and helping each other cross a river or fast-moving creek.  No matter how easy or difficult the task, working together for a common cause creates a solid bond between people.  

It’s a fine line to walk between inviting new people into the woods with you and also hedging your bets so that you get the experience you want to have.  A lot of folks will not take a new person hunting for risk of having a bad experience.  One person can ruin an entire trip through any number of different methods.  I definitely understand why someone would not take a stranger on a long hunt, but you can always try people out on small game hunts or bird hunts.  I invite pretty much everyone I know to hunt small game with me.  The more the merrier I say, but I admit, when it comes to a long, big game hunt, I only want to be around people I already have a relationship with, who I believe I can get along with for an extended period of time and know that I can trust them with my life.

The R3 community is focused on growing hunting and two of the three R’s involve inviting new people outdoors (Recruitment, Retention, Reactivation) so it’s of utmost importance we invite new people to go hunting or fishing with us.  I feel the same way about doing this as I do launching any other collective project – it’s important to set expectations and prepare the people ahead of time.  An easy way to do this is simply to let people tag along the first time.  On a small game or bird hunt it’s simple because you’re most likely going home every night.  They’re simply walking through the woods with you or hanging out in a blind. Also, many states have programs where you can go hunting one time before you have to take Hunters Education.  It’s a way to “try before you buy”.  If you live out east, you can also take someone out for the day deer hunting as many folks go home every night there too.

After a day or two in the woods together, both you and the new person will have an idea of whether or not this is going to work for the two of you.  If you have a great time, try something bigger, but if you don’t?  It’s okay. You tried.  Maybe that person just doesn’t want to hunt or maybe the chemistry just isn’t there for the two of you, but hopefully they’ll have a better understanding of hunting and will be pro-hunting in the future.

Keep your traditions and continue to hunt and fish with your loved ones, but don’t be afraid to add some fresh blood.  Just make sure you set expectations before you do and everyone should have a good time.  And who knows?  Maybe you’ll be responsible for someone new starting their own traditions with their friends and family.

Chronic Wasting Disease - To Worry or Not to Worry?

Right off the bat I will tell you, if I can use data and logic to make a decision rather than feelings, I will do it.  However, often times science is unsettled and you still have to decide. This happens many times in life and that is when we use our “gut”.  I once heard the “gut” described as our subconscious brain analyzing past experiences, acquired knowledge and current stimuli and guiding you to the safest outcome.

My gut tells me not to worry about eating meat from an animal infected with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).  But, let me break this down because this is not a black and white issue.

·     There is no record of a human ever contracting this disease from deer or elk.  This doesn’t mean it is impossible, of course. Recently a man in New York died and they believe the cause might have been Creutzfeld-Jackob Disease (CJD).  He was an avid squirrel hunter and it is theorized that he contracted it through infected brain fluid or tissue.  However, they have not confirmed the diagnosis through autopsy (which is the only way to diagnose).  

·     CJD is an incredibly rare disease (only a few hundred cases have been recorded, almost all of those tied to mad cow disease in the UK) and of those very few cases, they believe over 85% are caused by factors unrelated to genetic or environmental causes, leaving only 15% of cases to be caused by genetic or environmental factors.  

·     CWD was first identified in 1967 in a wildlife research facility in Fort Collins, Colorado.  CJD is a very fast acting and noticeable disease.  If hunters were dying disproportionately from this disease, we’d have a record from the last 51 years.  This is not saying a hunter hasn’t caught it and died without being diagnosed, but if it has happened, it’s been incredibly rare based on the number of hunters, their friends and family in this country eating venison and elk every year.

·     CWD is extremely rare, even in places like Northern Colorado where it was first discovered.  Less than 6% of deer and less than 1% of elk in these areas are affected.

As I always say to people, on a number of different topics, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.  However, that is not to say you should make decisions out of fear of what could be true.  Therefore, I am going to eat meat from my harvest in the field this year, but I am going to take the following precautions:

·      I am not going to eat the brain.  This would probably be true even without CWD.  I’ll eat damn near anything off an animal, but the brain is not appetizing to me. Even though I would eat the eyes, I am also leaving those for the coyotes and other scavengers.  

·      I am going to bone out the neck meat.

·      I am going to have the carcass tested before feeding it to my family.

However, I will eat some fresh backstraps at camp and I am bringing some bones home with me for use in osso bucco, bone marrow consumption and finally, for bone broth.  If my animal tests positive, I will of course dispose of the meat and bones according the rules of Colorado Parks & Wildlife.  

CWD is a big problem in our cervid population and it is something every hunter should worry about in regard to the health of our herds.  If you want to wait on the test results before consuming your harvest, I won’t argue with you (unless you’re my hunting buddy, but that’s what we do, talk about hunting), but I am not going to concern myself with CWD when less than 1% of elk carry a disease that has no evidence of being transferred to humans.  Eating a fresh meal in camp is one of the time-honored traditions and sacraments of the hunt.  I am choosing not to deny myself an opportunity to commune with my ancestors in this tradition over such minuscule risk.

Why Aren't We Talking About Class When We Talk About Obstacles to the Outdoors?

DISCLAIMER: As is often the case, these blog posts are inspired by things I’ve read, things I’ve seen or things I’ve heard.  There are some comments that inspired this post but I am not going to say who said them because they were a part of another conversation and I do not think they properly represent the opinions of the speaker.  The person who said it is someone I have a great deal of respect for and I do not want to besmirch his name without him having a chance to expand upon those thoughts and quite frankly, it was only the spark to this post, the fire behind it was already burning.

 

Hunting versus other outdoor recreation.  Hunting joining other outdoor recreation to form a coalition. Urban versus rural.  Upper class versus lower class.  When it comes to facing outdoor issues, alone or together, there are a lot of delicate moving parts.  For all that people have in common with each other, the little things that define us also have the power to destroy us.  

“I try to buy everything I can from Patagonia because they care about where they source material from.  I’m not buying crap from Walmart.”  

That’s paraphrased, it’s been a minute since I heard it, but that’s the gist of it.  

Well, that’s nice, I’m glad he can afford to buy a bunch of very expensive clothes.  I’m also glad he doesn’t have kids and doesn’t have to buy new clothes for someone long before they’re worn out because the kid has grown out of them.  There are many of us who really can’t justify spending that kind of money when something from Columbia or another lesser priced quality company will do.  There are many of us who can’t even fathom being able to afford Patagonia.

Many urban environmentalists have never been to small factory towns or coal mining towns, unless possibly to exploit them (i.e. news stories, documentaries). They don’t understand the people who live there.  Jobs are plentiful in cities, they don’t understand these folks just can’t get other jobs if the mine shuts down or the factory moves to China.  They don’t understand that these people shop at Walmart, not because they don’t care about third world slave labor, but because it’s what they can afford.  In my hometown, if you want to buy a Patagonia or North Face jacket, you’re going to drive an hour to either Indianapolis or Louisville.

Whether you want to rock climb, canoe or hunt, these things cost money… lots of money.  Urban kids at least have access to some groups who can assist with this, probably not enough kids have enough access, but due to population density, there are folks out there working on it.  The poor, rural kid from the coal town?  Not only does he see someone wanting to put his dad out of a job, but he sees these rock climbers with their expensive gear coming in and having fun in his backyard. He doesn’t see himself in these rock climbers because everyone he knows goes to work in the mines and comes home too tired to go climb rocks for fun.  

Rich, poor, urban, rural, we all want clean air, clean water and beautiful mountains.  We should be working towards renewable energy.  Clean air, clean water and public lands should be non-partisan issues. However, as we work towards a more sustainable future, we cannot steamroll over hardworking American families to get there.  Just because you won’t feel the effects of shutting down that oil pipeline while driving your Prius in Boulder, doesn’t mean that there aren’t any.  

As we move forward, trying to work together for the outdoors, I think we need to be more conscious of the class issues.  We talk constantly of diversity, of different forms of recreation, of women becoming hunters and we talk about getting more diversity into the outdoors because it’s all white people.  If we do talk about poor kids, it’s about using city parks to reach those urban kids of color.  I’m all for all of those things, but we’re not talking about the economic hurdles into the outdoor space.  If someone is talking about this, I’m not hearing it.

We have fewer and fewer hunters, we hear about it all the time, but tags are just as hard to get.  Why? Because wealthy hunters can still afford to go out-of-state to chase game.  It’s getting harder and harder for the average Joe or Jane to get into hunting, but if you have the money, you’re all set whether you want to chase whitetail in Ohio or Dall Sheep in Alaska.  This is true across the entire outdoor space, not just in hunting.  My family and I wanted to go whitewater rafting this summer, but it was going to cost $400 or more for the three of us to do it. Sure, we could have afforded it if we weren’t prioritizing other activities, but some families don’t have the choice to prioritize, $400 for 90 minutes of fun is just not a possibility.

So, what’s the solution?  I don’t have all the answers but there’s three things I see immediately.

1.     We need to accept this is an issue that stands in our way of recruiting new folks to the outdoors.  We need to talk about this every bit as much as other forms of diversity.  Whether you’re black and urban or white and rural, money is one of the roadblocks you’re facing to getting involved in the outdoors.  Even if someone takes you on a summer camp in the woods and you fall in love with the outdoors, when you go back to the city what’s going to happen? You’re going to dream of going back to the mountains but not know how you’re going to get there.

2.     Everyone, including the urban dude in the Subaru and $400 Patagonia jacket, needs to realize that not everyone’s reality is their reality.  There is poverty in the United States and there are a lot of families that are working poor and it’s not just in the cities.

3.     Especially those of us with rural backgrounds, we need to step it up.  This could look different for different people but everyone needs to do something.  Maybe this means taking a cousin or old neighbor out and loaning them some gear, or giving some of your old gear away to someone who could use it, help out with your local Boys Scouts (who now accept girls) or maybe, if you still live in a rural area, you could start a chapter of Fathers in the Field at your church or bring some other organization into your area.

I’m committed to doing my part through my work in Fathers in the Field, partnering with Colorado Parks & Wildlife with their hunter recruitment programs, expanding some of the things the Mile High chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation does and looking for any nook and cranny to make a difference.  I challenge all of you to do what you can as well. Not everyone can save the world, but everyone can make a difference, even if it is only in one person’s life. 

The Build Up - Dealing with Anxiety

There is a lot of media out there about preparing for hunting season. There are videos on gear, articles on techniques and podcasts on scouting.  The thing no one addresses, at least directly, is the anxiety.  

Anxiety over the fact that what you’ve waited for all year is finally coming. Anxiety about taking time off from work and away from your family.  Anxiety about the weather and what you’ll have to deal with.  Anxiety about if you’ll see any animals.  Anxiety about sleeping cold because the national forest still has a fire ban in effect.  Anxiety about finding a campsite because you hunt public lands.  Anxiety, anxiety, anxiety.

I am supposed to do a dry run this weekend with my buddy.  He has a first season rifle tag for elk and I was going to drive up, go along with him and help him out while getting outside for a couple of days to hunt.  The weather doesn’t look like it’s going to cooperate.  I drive a Ford Focus, I am afraid if I get in there, I won’t be able to get out.   This is driving me crazy.  I will call the rangers the day before and ask their opinion about this weekend, but as far as my hunting season coming up in November, I just broke down and rented a full-size pickup for twelve days.  I hated spending the money, but it’s now one less thing causing me anxiety.

My situation is exacerbated by the fact I am putting so much pressure on myself to come home with meat.  One, this is just my personality, I’m hard on myself.  Two, as I’ve written, this hunt is almost a lifetime in the making. Three, finally, I’ve spent a lot of time and money to do this and if I come home without meat, I’ll feel like I’m letting my family down.  That one is the one that drives me the most.

There are only two cures for anxiety: excitement and preparedness.

Of course, I’m excited.  I’m also thinking positive.  Much like Janis Putelis of the MeatEater crew who believes that a positive attitude will help you have a more successful hunt, I think staying positive will help you make better decisions, stay in the field longer, and most importantly, enjoy yourself while you’re out there no matter how difficult it is.  The flipside of looking forward to this for many years is I’m very, very excited and I can’t wait to get out there.

Being prepared takes a lot more work, but it too can be part of the excitement. Okay, so renting a truck is not that exciting, but I miss driving a truck and I’ve never owned a truck anywhere near brand new, so I’m looking forward to driving a new, full-size truck for a week or so.  I’ve been pouring over both paper maps and OnX Maps online getting a feel for where I’m going.  I’ve always loved maps, so this is fun for me.  Every minute I spend preparing causes me to mentally travel through time to the hunt and I’d rather be thinking about hunting than work or any other every day stress.

What’s not so fun is making a list of everything I’ll need for the trip and checking it three times.  Or planning all my meals out.  It’s annoying, but it is necessary and knowing that it’s done and correct puts some of my anxiety at ease.  

All you can do is all you can do.  At some point you have to let go.  I probably won’t reach that point until I’m up there and I have camp set up. Only then will I be able to take a deep breath and settle in for the adventure.  

I’ll post more on my process as the next few weeks go by.  I plan on filming my hunt, so there will be an added layer of pressure for me, but I have low expectations for myself.  It’s all about documenting my first elk hunt so that, just like this blog, I can share the experience with others who have never done it or who never had to figure it out on their own.  

Hey Guys, Can You Tell Me Where to Hunt?

If you’re a hunter and you’re on social media, you’ve inevitably come across this situation.  Someone posts some variation of the question, “Hey, I’m looking to hunt this area.  Can anyone tell me where to go?”  Then the comment section is mostly filled with people ripping this guy a new butthole for not doing the work themselves.  

I admit, I’m as tired of seeing this as most people are, but I have mixed feelings about both the question and the response.

First off, as an adult onset hunter who has depended on the kindness of my fellow hunters for a lot of information, I’m sympathetic to those needing help getting knowledge.  You don’t know if the person asking the question is a new hunter or perhaps they’re doing an out-of-state hunt and they can’t come in early to scout.  However, I’m also a big believer in doing most of the work yourself.  When I have the patience, I’ll respond kindly by suggesting they invest $30 in OnX Maps so that they can see topography, watering holes, possible feeding grounds and other things animals gravitate towards.  

Secondly, I’m empathetic to the hunters who are being asked to, essentially, give away their spots.  Most of us hunt units that we return to year after year and the last thing we want is more people competing for the same animals or even worse, setting up in our spots. There are exceptions to this, such as discussed on a recent MeatEater podcast where they were hunting a unit that was only able to be drawn every seven years. Some folks had just hunted it and were willing to give some help because only so many people are allowed in each year no matter what.  

So, I have the following advice to give…

…to the folks asking the questions: 

·     Do your homework first.  This allows you to ask specific questions instead of “hey, where should I go?”

·     Be clear. If you’re a new hunter or coming in from out-of-state, say that.  Ask nicely and don’t expect much of anything.  Stating your case and saying, “any help you can give a visitor would be appreciated” goes a lot farther than a vague question that implies you couldn’t even be bothered to put any thought into what you’re asking for.

·     Expect vague answers.  Yes, I know I said to ask specific questions, but don’t expect anyone to give up too much information.  

·     Build relationships.  Instead of asking folks from your group, who are strangers, for information.  Say, “Hey, I’m going to be in this town for hunting season, if anyone’s around and would like to get a beer, hit me up.”  Maybe after talking hunting with you for an hour over a beer, the person will volunteer some tips to help you have a better hunt and you won’t even have to ask.  

 

…to the folks responding to the questions:

·     Don’t be a jerk. This is pretty much it.  If you don’t want to offer some kind of advice, just scroll past the post.  If no one responds to the post, they will get the same feeling as if forty curmudgeons tell them to “do your own damn work.”  If they say they’re a new hunter though, please show some kindness.  You don’t have to give up any specific information, but it’s an excellent opportunity to mentor them a bit and point them in the direction of finding things out for themselves.  Post a link to a website that sells topo maps, or suggest OnX, or tell them, “post rut, bull elk really look for sanctuary spots, look for those.” 

Hunters can be a lot like the identity politics crowd, “yeah you bow hunt, but you don’t know how hard it is for me because you shoot a compound and I shoot a recurve.”  Point being, we can be our own worst enemy.  Asking for help from your fellow hunters can be a tough thing to do, but I hope people keep asking smart questions and I hope people keep sharing their knowledge with newer hunters. While I fully support having an internal dialogue within the community on a number of topics, we also need to remember we’re all on the same team and, most of us anyhow, want the same thing.

Where It All Began & Where I Am Now

Since starting Mountain Climer, I have done my best to focus on spirituality and ethics, but those topics can bleed into a number of different areas. I have also tried not to make this all about me, though admittedly, these are my thoughts and opinions and I can only speak from my own experience.  But largely, I have tried to not make this blog self-centered.  

That’s going to change… a little bit.

I’m still going to keep focused on spirituality and ethics, however, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my story.  Mountain Climer in and of itself represents a journey, but it’s also a part of my overall journey.

 

Where It All Began

 

I am an adult onset hunter.  I had interest in hunting, fishing and bush craft as a kid but I had no one to mentor me and show me the way.  I spent as much time as I could in the woods, even joining Boy Scouts when I was twelve and I enjoyed that for about a year before a new scoutmaster changed the direction of our troop from outdoors to indoors.  

I have always been a voracious reader, especially American history. When I roamed the woods with my BB gun and my dog, I pretended to be Daniel Boone or some other early American explorer.  I always dreamed of walking into the woods, building a crude shelter and living off of the land for a while.

Then, when I was in high school, I had gone on to other pursuits, including playing in bands.  However, there were two films that I saw during those years that really stuck with me and put a burning desire for the Rockies in my soul: A River Runs Through It and Jeremiah Johnson.

I really don’t remember how I came across A River Runs Through It, I believe it was when I was sixteen and working at Blockbuster and it just happened to be one of hundreds of movies I took home during the two stints I worked there.  The imagery and the story both captured my imagination.  Even now, twenty-two years or so later I can’t fully explain why it fascinated me so, but I longed of going to Montana and learning to fly fish and I have loved trout ever since.

The first time I saw Jeremiah Johnson though was unforgettable.  It was Christmas break of my sophomore year of high school, I was fifteen and there was a significant amount of snow on the ground for Indiana. I got into a fight with my dad, as teenage boys are known to do, and I decided to walk to my friends’ house across town.  At the time, especially in the snow, it seemed like a long trek, Google Maps now tell me it was 4.5 miles, but in the days before cell phones, I had no idea if my friends would even be home when I got there.  

About halfway to their house, I was cold and tired.  I decided to stop at this girl’s house that I knew from school. We weren’t particularly close, but we ran in the same circle and her house was convenient.  I rang her doorbell and her dad answered the door. He told me she wasn’t home, but he could see that I walked and invited me in to warm up.  He said he was just sitting down to watch Jeremiah Johnson and I was welcome to stay and watch it with him.  I told him I’d stay for a bit, but might not stay for the whole movie as I was anxious to get to my friends’ house.  

I stayed for the whole movie.

As has often been the case in my life, I wanted to go back in time and live in a different era.  I knew it was a hard life, but I wanted to test myself like those folks did.  I wanted to roam the Rockies in search of furs and meat and live off the hard land.  I knew one day, though I may not live off of it, I would live near the mountains and traipse through them with my rifle looking for meat and furs.  

 

Where I Am Today

 

I live in Colorado.  Over twenty years later and that’s as close as I’ve gotten.  I’ve hunted small game and I’ve hunted whitetails in Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky, but this coming year is my first year in the mountains. I’m still greatly handicapped by my lack of experience and my lack of funds.  I drive a Ford Focus and at this point, I have no idea when I am going to be able to afford a four-wheel drive vehicle so I am at the mercy of my friends when it comes to hunting in the mountains.  That’s okay, for now I’ll beg to tag along with folks or borrow a truck and someday, after we buy a house, I’ll buy a used four-wheel drive truck to get me up into the mountains.  Or more importantly, a truck to get me out of the mountains.

This life is a journey.  There are a lot of things I wish I was better at or farther along on, but I’ve made my own decisions and as Frank sang, “I did it my way.”  No excuses, no regrets.  

Most importantly, I’m excited for what’s next and what’s after that.  

Fathers in the Field

Somewhere around my mid-twenties, I started thinking about volunteering with Big Brothers and Big Sisters (BBBS).  I am not sure why I didn’t do it then, perhaps I was afraid, perhaps it was because we were still fairly nomadic or perhaps it was because I knew I wasn’t ready yet.  No matter the reason, by the time I hit my mid-thirties, I wanted to do it.  I went through the lengthy process to become a “Big” and the good folks at Big Brothers-Big Sisters, Los Angeles matched me up with A.J. and we’ve been friends ever since.  The two years we had together were one of the best things I’ve ever done and even though I moved away, we’re still in touch and I will always be a friend to him.

As great as I think BBBS is, I found it limiting in some ways and also, there wasn’t great support.  I had some really great Match Support Specialists in our two years, but I had a couple crappy ones as well, fortunately A.J. and I connected and his mom was awesome in that she was supportive, helped when I needed it but otherwise left us to our own devices.  I also wasn’t sure I wanted to mentor another kid because I still wanted to be in A.J.’s life, even if one thousand miles away.

All that having been said, I will never stop believing that fathers are important and I will never stop fighting against this cultural attack on men and fatherhood.  As a society, we are focused on raising strong girls, which I not only support but am doing every single day (even if our more traditional values are at odds with society’s), but boys are getting left behind by being told they aren’t important, or that they’re “toxic” and that they don’t need a dad nor do they need to be one.  So, several months ago, I signed up with a wonderful program administered through our church called, Fathers in the Field.

Fathers in the Field is a faith-based mentoring program for fatherless boys and is much more intense than BBBS.  This is intentional.  BBBS required two contacts a month for a few hours at a time.  Fathers in the Field requires weekly contacts and requires two of those contacts be trips to church and one being a service project, preferably for an elderly woman (it has to be helping people, it can’t be highway cleanup). Unlike BBBS, these boys are not allowed in the program if they have a man in their life, meaning if their mom has a live-in boyfriend, they’re not allowed in the program.  While not all of these men are going to mentor the boy, the idea is that they should and the program doesn’t want to stand in the way of that.  

I’ve written about nature as a healer and I’ve written about the fact that while the outdoors is not a “male” space, it can be a great avenue for male bonding nonetheless.  There’s a lot of real-life knowledge that be gained from the outdoors, for both boys and girls, but the outdoors also provides opportunities for certain life lessons that boys need to receive from other men.  Fatherless boys are also in need of healing and sometimes being able to get away from other people and all the trappings of civilization allows those things to be brought to the surface so that they can let God into their hearts to heal them.  

This morning, after church, I’m going to meet my Field Buddy.  While this is a meet and greet and both he and I (and his mom) have the right to veto the pairing at this point, this is usually nothing more than a formality.  All I know is his name is Robert and he is 14.  I’m nervous, I don’t know anything about what this kid has been through, but I’m excited because I’m looking forward to being able to take this kid to the gun range, on hikes, fishing, small game hunting and eventually, big game hunting. I also know, for all my faults, I have a lot to give to a kid who doesn’t have anyone else to receive it from.

Wish me luck, and if you’re so inclined, say a prayer for us.  

 

Fathers in the Field is a nationwide program, if you’re interested in getting involved, please contact your church and/or the national Fathers in the Field office at www.fathersinthefield.com

Hey, I'm Irish! Hey, I'm Native American! The Importance of Food to Tradition

I’ve often written about how hunting connects me with my ancestors as well as the natural world around me.  Sometimes people, okay, mostly vegetarians and vegans, criticize this because they say we should move on from that, we don’t need to live that way anymore. Yet, many of these same people can be seen drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day or waxing poetic about their Spanish ancestors.  As humans, we have some deep seeded need to know where we come from and this is why genealogy services like Ancestry.com or 23 and Me are huge businesses.  Wanting to connect to our ancestors is normal and is something cultures have done since the beginning of man.

If I’m asked to self-identify, I’ll use words like, “father”, “husband”, “hunter”, or “American”.  If we’re talking culture, I’ll proudly talk about how both sides of my family have been in Appalachia for over 200 years; my father’s family almost exclusively in East Tennessee and my mother’s family from Virginia and western Pennsylvania. And like many folks from this region, it’s safe to assume that the majority of our ancestors came from what is now the Scottish Lowlands and Northern England and it’s also safe to assume there’s some Native American in our lineage, usually Cherokee.  This is important to us, just as it’s important for the guy who has lived in Chicago or Boston all of his life to tell you he’s Irish, even when his ancestors arrived at Ellis Island during the potato famine. 

People also take pride in carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. This may be as extreme as participating in Scottish Games or it could just be growing tomatoes “like grandma used to do”.  We accept all of this as not only normal, but it’s looked upon favorably to connect to these traditions and this is especially true when it comes to food. The folks who call themselves Irish like to eat traditional foods and drink Guinness or Bushmills.  In my house it’s a mix of hillbilly traditions and my wife’s Polish traditions, but so many of those things are centered around food and drink.  

So, I have to ask, if food and drink are so important to us in carrying on those traditions, if we like to garden like our grandmothers used to do, why is it so hard for so many people to view hunting in this same way?  Why is it that their traditions, especially when it comes to eating meat dishes, are cherished, while ours are attacked as barbaric? Why is spending all day in the kitchen preparing corned beef and cabbage so different than spending all day in a tree stand trying to catch a whitetail?  

It might be hard for people to understand our traditions, they are ours, not theirs, but food and tradition go hand in hand.  Think of how many years Jews have sat down with their families to enjoy a Passover meal together – sharing food is sacred.  Perhaps the struggle the anti-hunters face is their inner conflict of knowing that they’re a lot more like us than they want to admit. I’m not the first person to suggest that the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, but perhaps it is time to think about inviting people over to your house some time-honored traditions of eating your harvests.

The Politics of a Western Hunter

According to Fox News, Sen. Jon Tester (D) of Montana is campaigning as a hunter but hasn’t held a hunting license for six years. Once upon a time this was a common story, both Republicans and Democrats touted their outdoor skills, well maybe not Dick Cheney, but most politicians did.  Nowadays, hunters are not a big enough demographic to kiss up to in most parts of the country.  

Sen. Tester is a perfect case study for the politics of the western hunter. He is known for being very pro-public land, however, he’s also known for supporting gun control. Western hunters and fishermen depend on public lands, but western hunters also depend on their rifles, shotguns and muzzleloaders, as well as large handguns while in grizzly country. As is too often the case, Democrats support public lands, but not gun rights. While Republicans, at least most of them, support gun rights, but want the federal government to lease every acre for mining or energy development. The Western hunter does not have many politicians, if any, who truly represent him in Congress.  

This is not a new problem but there are still no easy solutions in the current political climate.  

Organizations like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers have been successful, particularly in the west, in bringing together conservatives and liberals on the issue of public lands. However, there is still a great divide even within that organization on many other issues, including guns. Many outdoor enthusiasts will say they don’t believe in doing away with the Second Amendment, but you will hear things like, “but you don’t hunt with an AR-15.” These people obviously have never hunted feral hogs or coyotes.  

Other times you have hunters themselves contributing to the problem. Whether it is a group like Hunters Against Gun Violence who believe in gun control, or the hunters who show up at protests with signs like, “All you need to hunt is a shotgun,” hunters are undermining other hunters. A waterfowl hunter who hunts on private land in the Midwest is thinking only of himself if he is not actively engaged in both of these issues on behalf of his fellow hunter. Different animals and different terrain require different tools for the job. If the Midwestern hunter doesn’t protect the rifle of the western hunter, then the western hunter will not stand up for the Midwesterner when they come for his shotgun next.  

Politically, what has changed? Where have the Blue Dog Democrats gone? Where have the Teddy Roosevelt Republicans gone? Perhaps the solution is to go backwards, to a time when there were issues that would cause rural Democrats to cross the aisle to work with rural Republicans. The 2016 election showed that rural America is still a political force to be reckoned with, but it also showed that the partisan divide has never been wider.   

That divide extends to Western hunters. Some, who either are bow hunters or support some form of gun control, will vote Democrat. Others, who love public land but love their Constitutional rights more, will vote Republican. This is par for the course for hunters who love to pit themselves against their fellow hunters: traditional bow vs. compound; bow vs. gun; one caliber vs. another; or Western vs. Eastern. Hunters have needlessly attacked each other for generations.

However, if hunters do not find a way to unify on many of these issues, they may find themselves in a position of having guns and no place to hunt or having plenty of places to hunt but no guns to hunt with.  

The Importance of Rituals to the Hunt

Ever since the first man killed his first game, there have been rituals associated with the hunt.  Perhaps it was simple superstition.  Perhaps it was a sacrifice of gratitude to the gods.  Whatever it was, humans are ritualistic creatures and although we only know of some of these rituals, it is safe to assume almost everyone had one.  Today, most of those rituals look very different than the rituals of the past, but not always.

Before we go any further, we should define both “tradition” and “ritual” because people often use them interchangeably.  Although traditions can be religious in nature, ritual is more specific to spiritual matters.  So, for the sake of clarity in this article, we will use “ritual” to describe spiritual matters and “tradition” to describe non-spiritual matters.

Most rituals, even for Christian hunters like myself, originate from our pagan ancestors.  Some of these rituals are pre-hunt and some of them are post-kill.  As humans, we have always asked for blessings before the hunt and given thanks for our success after it.  This is not so different than the pre-planting rituals and the post-harvest rituals in our agrarian history.  We need food to survive, so we ask for assistance and when we’re full, we express our gratitude in hopes that our appreciation will be looked upon kindly when it comes time to ask for assistance again.

Studies show that today, most American hunters identify as Christians, but I think it is important to recognize that when it comes to hunting, our faith overlaps quite extensively with our pagan ancestors and those modern-day pagans who hunt.  A few months back, I had the pleasure to sit down with Chas Clifton, a wonderful writer who I became acquainted with thanks to his essay, “The Hunter’s Eucharist” that was published in David Petersen’s classic A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport.  We had a wonderful, albeit rambling, two-hour conversation centered around hunting, but one thing he said to me has stuck out ever since.  “The hunt is complicated, so I think the only way to approach it is to ritualize the shit out of it.  Because otherwise it becomes too complex to realize that you love something, but you kill it.”  

Here we will look at three of the more popular rituals.

·     Prayer– This is undoubtedly the most popular no matter the hunter’s personal spirituality and it takes many forms. Saying a simple prayer, asking God to keep you safe and help you ethically harvest game really makes too much sense not to do.  However, some hunters are more elaborate.  When I was in my 20’s and early 30’s white tail hunting every fall, I used to say a little prayer as I buried a small bit of tobacco as a sacrifice before walking into the woods in the morning. It’s a ritual that I borrowed from the Cherokee to not only bless my hunt, but to connect me with my distant Cherokee ancestors who held the white tail in such high regard.

·     Blooding– People are starting to have mixed feelings about this ritual thanks to diseases such as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), but many people, myself included, still find meaning in using the blood of the freshly slain animal to mark your face (there is no evidence that disease can be passed through the skin, but I would advise you to be careful to avoid the eyes and mouth).  This is especially true for hunters on their first kill.  According to Patrick Durkin, “This rite traces back to the 700s A.D. as a tribute to St. Hubert.”  However, this ritual most certainly pre-dates Christian Europe.  This can be used as an initiation to a group and also as a way to connect yourself with the animal and with your ancestors.

·     Eating Raw Flesh– Thanks to the worries of diseases such as CWD, this one is quickly going out of fashion.  In fact, many hunters do not want to eat any meat at all in camp, even cooked, until it has been tested for CWD.  This too is a ritual based on ingesting the essence of the animal you harvested.  Many animals we hunt have many admirable traits and this is seen as a way to give yourself some of their strengths.  Personally, going forward, I am not sure what I will do, but I will say it depends on the animal and location; bear absolutely not, North Slope Caribou in Alaska absolutely yes.  The question for me soon will be whether I eat Colorado elk in camp.  

No matter what you choose to do or not do, adding a ritual to your hunt will give it more meaning.  Getting spiritually connected to the land isn’t something that just happens, it’s a relationship and that means you have to give in order to take.  Whether you are a monotheistic Christian or a polytheistic pagan, it’s really the same thing, you want God or the gods, to know your heart is pure and that you are grateful and humble.  You’re not an observer or a user of nature, you’re a partner or participant in nature.

Trailhead Diplomacy in the Age of Divisiveness

I’m not sure who came up with it first, but I first heard of “Trailhead Diplomacy” on a MeatEater podcast.  The idea is that hunters should engage in a kind and civil conversation with other folks we see out in the woods, be it hikers, photographers or any other non-consumptive user.  Anyone, in my opinion, of sane mind should support this idea but it brings up two questions for me.  First of all, in the best-case scenario, what does this look like?  And two, in 2018, is it even possible?

I think it’s possible.  Maybe. If we’re willing to do the work.  

If you’re thinking about online, then no, it’s absolutely not possible. Any post by the Department of the Interior or other government agency regarding the outdoors, even if it’s announcing something good, is met with vitriol and hate for Sec. Zinke and President Trump.  Even if it’s something as mundane as celebrating Public Lands Day, which neither of those men have anything directly to do with (this example I saw but a few minutes ago).  People hole up in their echo chambers online and talk much tougher than they would in real life.  I’m not saying don’t keep fighting the good fight online, but you’re gonna have to get off your ass and do it face to face because, in person, I know it’s possible. 

If it’s possible to go from vegan to hunter, then anything is possible. From Field to Plate recently posted they took a vegan hunting and Tovar Cerulli is another great example of a vegan turned hunter.  I have to admit that these cases are outliers and trying to go about converting vegans is probably not the best use of our time or sanity.  

So, this begs the first question, what does this look like?  In 2018, we often don’t engage any strangers, let alone when we’re carrying firearms in the woods.  A lot of us, myself included, like to talk to as few people as possible when we get out into the mountains.  Are we actually going to do this at the trailhead?  

I think we have to do this whenever the opportunity presents itself, whether it’s at the trailhead, the bar, church or your local PTA meeting. Any chance you have to engage someone in speaking about the outdoors, do it.  Most non-consumptive users are still omnivores and can still be won over but it might take a little time and effort.  We just have to reach them on a common level and this is probably the biggest struggle hunters have had historically in communicating our passion. As Brad Luttrell of the Restless Native podcast is fond of saying, these people don’t understand legacy or heritage, you have to give them something they understand.  

There’s two excellent ways to reach these folks: through their hearts and through their bellies.  

Reaching folks through their hearts can be difficult, but it’s what I’m trying to do here at Mountain Climer.  Folks have to have open minds and open hearts in order to be reached. They have to be seeking a spiritual connection to the land and to their ancestors.  They have to be interested not in the American legacy that Brad is talking about, but their human legacy as a hunter.  They have to know that most of the things in our culture don’t fill their God-shaped hole. These people, when reached however, are the ones who have turned around and asked me to take them hunting.  These people will then turn around and be ambassadors themselves.  Once these people connect on this level, there’s no turning back for them.  I know, because I am one of them.

Food, on the other hand, is the much more accessible route.  I see this every day in my work in the restaurant business selling wine.  People want all those buzzwords I talked about before: local, organic, free-range, hormone free, etc.  More than that, people want to know where their food came from and they’re taking great strides to get involved in the process themselves by gardening, learning to butcher and seeking out co-ops where they can buy food directly from local farmers.  These people may or may not decide they want to hunt for themselves, but they will respect hunting and support it because they now understand it and appreciate our connection to the land and our food.  

However you decide to do it, just be yourself and don’t be afraid to reach out to someone new.  If you speak from the heart and share your stories, you will connect with people, even in this age of divisiveness.  

Hillbilly Harvest - The Story of My First Kill

Recently, my buddy Sam posted to social media about his first game kill and only a few days later he got his first deer.  I was over-the-moon for him because he grew up in the city and found bowhunting as an adult and he has put his heart and soul into not only archery and hunting, but conservation as well.  While far from identical, our stories overlap enough that I feel invested in his success just by rooting for him and staying up to date with his journey.

Reading his thoughts about his first successes in hunting lead me to thinking about all the animals I’ve killed and how I felt about the two, less than normal, experiences I had with my first kills.

My first hunting experiences were coon hunting in the thumb of Michigan with my buddy Clark and his friend Blaine.  Blaine had two coon dogs which we’d let loose on some sugar beet farm and the three of us would traipse through the woods, in the dark, one of us carrying a .22 and the other two of us carrying beers.  The rule was every man got three shots, whether it was three misses or three kills, after three shots, you handed the rifle to the next man up. I killed dozens of raccoons on these trips to Michigan and to this day, I don’t think there’s a way to have more fun in the world than coon hunting like that.  

I have to admit, I didn’t feel a whole lot when I killed raccoons.  We were essentially performing pest control services for the local farmers and the pelts we brought in went in with the pelts Blaine got trapping and that supplemented his income in the middle of the recession.  The first one I killed, I felt something, but it was nothing more than a twinge of sadness.  Raccoons are nasty animals and after I saw them get tangled up with Blaine’s dogs, I had no regrets about putting them down.  

The first game animal I killed is a story my wife is fond of telling.  When we lived in Louisville we had a pretty productive garden but nothing I did kept the rabbits out.  I tried all kinds of things including fencing but those wily animals continued to eat our garden and I never could catch the thing.  

One morning, I woke up and, wearing only my underwear, walked into the kitchen to make coffee like I did every morning.  When I looked out the back window I saw the rabbit in the middle of the backyard.  I quickly grabbed my air rifle that I kept in the kitchen and loaded it with pointed pellets. I eased open the back door and pushed open the storm door that didn’t have a screen in the top.  Using the middle bar of the screen door as a rest, I positioned myself on the back porch and took aim at the small rabbit.  I fired one shot that severed the rabbit’s spine at the neck and he went down.  I then went to put on some gym shorts before I walked out into the backyard to retrieve him.  

While the emotions of that moment have dimmed with time, I still remember the mix of sadness, remorse and satisfaction I felt.  I remember saying to the rabbit when I walked up on him, “You son of a bitch, I didn’t want to kill you.  Why couldn’t you have just eaten out of someone else’s garden?”.  I was genuinely sad, but I knew I had done the right thing.  It’s a strange feeling and it’s one that I don’t think you can truly understand unless you’ve been there and done it.

In some ways, it’s strange what we do.  We willingly put ourselves through emotions that most people spend their whole lives trying to avoid.  I think we’re better for it though.  I think this world is a complex and contradictory place and knowing how to navigate how we feel about complicated things helps us better understand other people and the world that we live in.  You don't get better at things by avoiding them, you get better at things by enduring them.  Some people might find it strange that by harvesting my own meat I think I better understand the world, but I know in the deepest places of my soul that its true. 

The Value of Working Hard

Hunting is no different than anything else for most people.  People only work as hard as they have to.  Many western, public land hunters hunt within a mile of the road, causing logjams of people at trailheads and campgrounds.  On one hand, I can’t say I blame them.  For those of you who haven’t done it, can you imagine carrying out an 80 lb. pack, three or more miles, over rough terrain, off trail, perhaps gaining and losing several thousand feet and having to make up to four trips to get the entire elk out?  On the other hand, what’s the better experience?  What’s the situation you’re more likely to remember for the rest of your life; fighting for space and game with a bunch of assholes (because any hunter not in your party is an asshole) or getting out beyond the assholes and having entire drainages or canyons to yourself?

Technology is another way hunters have started to cut corners.  I’m not anti-technology, in fact I think tools like OnX maps are fantastic to have in the field.  However, too many hunters have grown to rely on GPS systems and don’t carry a paper map and compass.  When you’re hunting in the mountains, it’s pretty simple to read a topo map, it’s not a difficult skill to obtain and it could save your life if the battery dies on your GPS.  If you have but a weekend to go out and get meat, do what you have to do, no judgment, but if you’ve got time to give yourself an enriching experience, I suggest you put in the extra effort to do so.

I’ve written several times about how the hunt connects me to my ancestors, but it’s not just the taking of the animals that connects me, it’s the whole experience.  It’s sleeping outside.  It’s reading the mountains and the weather.  It’s the pursuit of the animal.  It’s the dressing and carrying it out on my back and the butchering I’ll do at home. It’s the whole experience from the time I leave my house until the time the meat shows up on my family’s plates.

Ultimately, no matter what you’re doing, you get out of it what you put into it. I think most of us take short-cuts every now and again, myself included.  I’m trying to be better at being more thorough, whether that is in things I want to do, or things I have to do.  As Jesus said, “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:41).  You may not always get the reward that you’d like when you go the extra mile, but you’ll always gain something, even if that’s just the pride and satisfaction of doing something the right way.  Odds are though, you’ll learn something and be a little bit tougher than you were before.

Start 'em Young

Yesterday we took our daughter fishing for the first time.  It was a little bit of a mess but was still very much a success.  A lot of the frustration came from the inaccuracy of the Colorado Parks & Wildlife fishing app – neither of the first two spots I chose worked out.  The first was impossible to find and the second spot didn’t have any fish in the lake.  However, thanks to the kindness of a volunteer in Rocky Mountain National Park, we found someplace to go later in the afternoon.

Before we go any further, I should say again, I did not grow up fishing or hunting.  I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself on hunting, but I haven’t fished since I was twelve, and can probably count on my fingers how many times I’ve fished in my whole life.  I barely know what I am doing.  However, I’ve done a little research on trout and I bought some gear designed for fishing for trout with bait (I do aspire to learn to fly fish) and I got my little one set up on her Paw Patrol rod and reel I got her for Christmas last year.  

Initially I cast for her and taught her to be patient, watch the bobber and keep the line tight.  She, much like me at her age (and for most of my life), wasn’t very patient and kept reeling it in.  I spent some time teaching her to cast, and as expected, she struggled at first. After a little frustration, a few tears and a pep talk, she finally settled in to learn how to do it and within a few minutes, she was throwing the line pretty well, if not consistently. One of the things I told her was frustration is a part of fishing and hunting and they both required patience and perseverance to overcome it.  

So, at this point, she pretty much knows everything I know about fishing. 

The burden is now on me and my wife to learn more about fishing and to take her as often as possible.  I know it’s not rocket science, but it’s also not easy.  Neither of us had a fishing or hunting mentor to teach us how to do these things and now we have to mentor our daughter.  I have a lot of faith in my ability as a small game hunter, I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve had a fair amount of experience in this area in my adult years.  I also have faith in my ability to hunt big game in spite of my lack of experience because of my intellectual pursuit of hunting and my time with my rifle. Again, I’m no expert, but I believe in my ability to figure it out and bring home some meat.  These things I’ll be able to teach her as she gets older and by the time she’s ready for hunter’s education, I’ll have about four years or so behind me chasing elk, pronghorn and bear and I should be able to stay one step ahead of her for a while, but fishing?  She may pass me by before her sixth birthday.

I’m doing what I can not only for myself and my own love of hunting and fishing, but for the next generation.  But for every kid who doesn’t learn to hunt and who has the desire to hunt, like I did, it’s an uphill battle as an adult.  We have to start ‘em young.  We don’t have any other choice.

The Future of the Outdoors on Social Media is Now

I am a lot of things, mainly a father, husband, friend, hunter, conservationist and I’d like to believe, a thinker.  One thing I am not, however, is a media expert.  I know some media experts and I’ve learned a thing or two from them, but I think the thing that matters when it comes to the future of media and social media is human behavior, which I do know a little bit about, and I believe the technical aspects will follow human behavior.  

We used to live in a world where we could hold our beliefs fairly privately, go to the voting booth and not tell people who we voted for.  That same world allowed us to learn from our mistakes without, for the most part, screwing up our entire life or reputation. Unfortunately, those days are gone and they’re not coming back.  

Examples of this are in our newsfeed every single day.  Sometimes, the crime is egregious, such as Michael Richards being recorded saying a word he shouldn’t have used.  I understand why people were upset at that, however, earlier this week, a professional baseball player was questioned about a five-year-old social media post in which he supported the 2nd amendment. He had to give the obligatory, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” but refused to back down from his support of the Constitution.  

Those of us involved in hunting, or most of us anyhow, are always involved in two hot button issues: guns and hunting.  

The world is now such that if you were to go apply for a job, you could be denied because there’s a photo of you teaching your child how to safely shoot a gun on your Facebook page.  All that needs to happen is there to be someone in Human Resources who is anti-gun or a vegan.  It’s not fair and it’s not right, but that’s the world we now live in.  Some of us, we choose to be outspoken about our rights, our passions and we’re not afraid of the consequences.  I honor and respect that choice and it’s a choice I’ve made myself. I applied for a ton of jobs in the time we’ve lived in Colorado and didn’t even get a phone call for about a dozen that I was perfectly suited for.  Is it because of my social media presence?  I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in at least a few cases.  

Another recent issue is social media censoring or banning conservative content.  I keep hearing conservatives say, “Why won’t a billionaire conservative step up and create a platform that honors free speech?”.  It’s a good question, it really is.  The good news for outdoors enthusiasts is that some non-billionaires have stepped up to the plate and created a platform for us, it’s called GoWild. 

GoWild is more than just guns, hunting and fishing.  It encourages you to share your gardening, hiking, ATVing and other experiences as well.  They want to see you and your kids outside.  It’s also a place where you can share without worrying about hate mail and threats from those who disagree with you.  If someone is not into hunting, the way the app works, they’ll probably not see your picture unless they’re following you.  If you don’t like a picture you see, you scroll right past it. However, if you see something you don’t agree with, the folks at GoWild encourage its users to talk about it in the comments.  Maybe it’s a new hunter or a young kid and no one told them what they’re doing isn’t ethical. Instead of having them banned or saying nasty things to them, we (the users) encourage them to think about what they’re doing and to make better decisions in the future.  They’re trying to keep some of the old school mentality of using mistakes as an opportunity to grow and be mentored rather than an opportunity to shame the person.  

One of the cooler things about the app is the ability to connect with folks outside your core group.  While most of us hunters prepare for hunting season all year long, the things we do also overlap into other hobbies.  We backpack, canoe, target shoot, train our bodies, and just generally love being outdoors. We also appreciate the responsibility of producing our own food and often have gardens.  These other activities, the way the app is built, allow us find common ground with other folks who might not be hunters.  This is of the utmost importance, because as I and many others have written, we’re about 5% of the population and both hunters and animal rights activists are small minorities fighting for the approval of the vast majority.  

So, the question is, are you going to focus your social media energy on apps owned by California urbanites who are trying to control what you see and hear so that it fits their agenda or are you going to engage with others in the outdoor community in a way that grants you the freedom to share what you choose to share?  I’m not saying you should leave Facebook or Instagram, those are still great places to be connected to people personally and professionally and share parts of your life, I’m simply asking if you want to be a part of the solution to the attacks on our lifestyle and be a part of growing the next generation of conservationists?  

We might be waiting for a long time for a place of political free speech on social media, but for a place where you can share your grip ‘n grins without fear of death threats on your family, the future is now.

 

DISCLAIMER: I am in no way professionally involved in GoWild other than as a user.  I do know a couple folks from the company and they are based in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky so I would be a big supporter of them even if they had a knitting app because I’m always supportive of good people doing good things.  However, my passion for their product and the community it fosters is legitimate and I encourage anyone reading this to go to Apple, Google or wherever you download apps and give it a try and I also recommend checking out their podcast, Restless Native.