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. 

Preparing for the Hunt - Fall 2018

I am embarrassingly behind.

There are a lot of good reasons for this, but no excuses.  I’ve been dreaming of hunting the Rockies damn near my entire life, long before I ever sat in a tree stand in Indiana and now, my first year I get to do it, I am way behind.  Sure, we’ve not even lived in Colorado for a year, there’s lots of growing pains there, I was out of work for about seven months which limited my income and took a heavy toll on my mental state.  Lots of good reasons, but none of them are going to matter come November when I’m huffing and puffing up and down the mountain.

I can’t do much about the fact I can’t afford a truck at the moment, so I have to depend on the kindness of a friend who is hunting the same units.  I can’t do much about spending more time at the range and shooting through ammo I can’t afford at gun clubs I can’t afford. My family responsibilities have kept me from scouting as much as I’d like, not much I can do about that. However, there’s no excuse for not being in hunting shape.  I have over two more months to get better, but it won’t be enough.

I know this first year chasing elk and black bear is going to be a learning experience.  I’m not expecting to go out and get a Boone & Crockett bull, I really just want to be out there hunting and bring home some meat.  I have listened to endless podcasts, read articles and books and I feel like I have a lot of intellectual knowledge about these mountains and about these animals, but I have no experiential knowledge.  Am I going to be able to turn all that data about thermals and behavior into instinct right away?  Probably not.  Am I going to be able to stalk up on a big bull real close without spooking him?  I highly doubt it.  

I’m looking forward to screwing up.  Well, so long as I bring home meat I’ll appreciate the screw ups.  I don’t care if I come home with a raghorn bull or young cow, meat is meat and elk is good.  However, I know all those screw ups will not be in vain, I will learn from them and next year I’ll be a better hunter (and in better shape) and I’ll be even better the year after that.  Hunting for me is about the journey as much as it’s about the food on the plate.

So, having said all that, what am I going to do?  In the immortal words of the Gorilla Biscuits, I’m going to “start today”.  Well, I actually started a few days ago, but once you realized you’ve screwed up, all you can do is change course in the present.  You can’t fix yesterday, all you can do is learn from it so that you make better decisions today and tomorrow.

When Those Disconnected from Nature Attempt to Interact with the Wild

Yesterday, it was reportedthat the Oregon man who harassed bison in Yellowstone was convicted of the crime.  Earlier in the week, it was reported that the Governor of New Jersey, through executive order and not legislative action, ended bear hunting on public land in spite of New Jersey having the highest bear population density in the United States.  These are just the two latest examples of people ignorant of the wild making stupid decisions in or about the wild.

Forgive me if I sound like I’m preaching, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t endlessly irritating to me.  

In the case of the man from Oregon, most of us have seen this play out in person, especially if you’ve been to Yellowstone.  I’ve been to Yellowstone three times in the last year and if I’m being honest, I don’t need to go back no matter how beautiful it is.  I’ve had multiple bad experiences with people; everything from interfering with wildlife on the roads to incredible rudeness at Old Faithful.  However, this happens at every park and most recently I saw people lose their minds at the sight of a black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains, completely shutting down a road and wandering of within a few feet of a sow and her cubs just so they could get a closer picture.  

I’m mindful of the fact that for a lot of these people, it may be the first time they’ve seen a bear or a bison in the wild.  I understand and share their excitement.  It’s still incredibly cool to me after all these years and numerous bison and black bears I’ve seen – it never gets old.  However, people need to be aware that this is not the city, nor the suburbs.  These are very large and very powerful wild animals, they are not pets or domesticated farm animals.  More so than that, we’re on their turf, not the other way around.  

While this problem is multi-cultural, as a few scenes from the first season of Yellowstone shows, I expect more of Americans than I do our foreign visitors.  Most folks around the world have little to no wild places or animals and no way to know how to respect such places and things. Americans, on the other hand, should be taught about the North American Wildlife Model in either history or science class.  I know that this is probably never done, but it should be.  While it is impossible for one to know everything about every place and everything in a country as large as ours, if you’re touring national parks for the summer, shouldn’t you know at least a little something about what you’re getting yourself into?  Shouldn’t you research how to be safe and show respect wherever you go?

Furthermore, these are the same people susceptible to slick public relations campaigns funded by organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and PETA that cherry pick data and play on people’s emotions rather than presenting a scientific argument.  Then these people vote, either directly in some states, or at least for candidates who support radical anti-wildlife regulations.  This is how the people of New Jersey got Governor Phil Murphy.  

New Jersey and California are great examples of what is to come, especially here in Colorado as the liberal Front Range continues to grow with California refugees (most of whom are not like the Climers).  These states have incredibly wild areas but are politically controlled by densely populated urban areas.  Many of these urban people hike, climb, etc., they should understand how our wild places and wild animals are managed, but they don’t for the most part.  Most of us, myself often included, only care about and learn about things that directly affect ourselves.  All these people know is they want to go for a hike during the rut and not see hunters, they don’t understand the consequences of letting things “return to the wild” without human management.

Predator-Human interactions are increasing all the time.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  Obviously, these areas have healthy populations, but once that population grows to a certain size it will pass its carrying capacity, or the ability for the land to support the population of animals.  This is when bears, mountain lions and other predators will start migrating to new areas to look for food and once an animal, like a bear or mountain lion, learns that houses and cars are a great place to find food, they’ll keep coming back to those places.  This costs a lot of money to citizens, government agencies and insurance companies, not to mention the risk of direct human interaction with these creatures, especially small children.  Once an animal learns this, the only option is for the local government is to catch it, and in most cases, put it down.  

As I always say, these are nuanced issues with many causes, correlations and factors, but it is important that for the safety of citizens and visitors that we understand these issues and contribute to the management of our wonderful resources.  For those that wish us to leave things be and let “nature take care of its own”, beware of becoming a victim to the Law of Unintended Consequences.  

BEWARE: The Anti-Apex Predator and the Pro-Apex Predator

The Wyoming Grizzly Hunt and the Virtue Signaling of Animal Rights Activists

As I have discussed on this page many times, the real world is nuanced. Human beings like simple solutions to problems so that we can carve our reality into simple little boxes that we can label with words like; good, bad, right, wrong, conservative, liberal, etc., etc. Unfortunately for us, Mother Nature, God, the forces of the universe, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t play by our rules or feels the need to make things easy for us.  Therefore, it’s probably best we just roll with it, put in the extra time that’s needed to learn about something and then think critically about it. Making decisions based off of how you might feel about something without gathering data is going to lead to a lot of bad decision making.

Which leads us to the topic of the day, something else I’ve said many, many times: beware the man who hates the coyote too much and equally, beware the man who loves the coyote too much.  Now, I’m picking on the coyote here, but this could really apply to any apex predator such as wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions, etc.  The man who wants to kill every wolf is equally as foolish as the man who thinks there’s no justification for killing one ever, or, both the idiot hunter (I hate to say it, but they exist) and the animal rights activist.

Recently, a few animal rights activists made nationwide news by claiming they had won one of the few grizzly bear tags handed out in Wyoming this year. They claim they are only bringing their cameras and not using that tag to kill a bear, therefore showing their great virtue to the world.  There are only a couple problems with this. First of all, it shows an ignorance of our wildlife management system.  A tag does not equate to a kill nor is it a guarantee of harvest.  Many hunters get tags every year that are not filled, we refer to this as “tag soup” because that is all that we have to eat that year. This particular tag for grizzlies in Wyoming has one more layer to it: there’s a quota.  Once the quota is met, even if you have a valid tag, your hunt is over.  The good folks at Wyoming Fish and Game are looking to limit the number of bears taken to a very small number, just to manage the population in their area.

The second problem with this is that these folks are doing almost nothing to help grizzly bears or other animals.  The cost of their tag will help fund conservation, which is more than what most animal rights activists are willing to pay for.  However, what they’re really doing is nothing more than signaling to the rest of the world, “look at me!  I’m a good person!”.  It’s narcissistic and selfish, it’s not pro-animal by any means.  It’s about them, not the animal.  

I do hope they bring bear spray and perhaps lay off the lavender-honey body spray.

Even if you disagree with hunting as “sport”, and I hate to use that term, but even if that’s your position, there should be plenty of gray area still. Farmers or ranchers killing wolves to protect their livestock for example, though I imagine there are some omnivores out there who do oppose this, in spite of the fact they’d complain about the rising cost of beef should those cows not be protected.  This argument, obviously, will not sway the habitat destroying, bug killing animal rights activists (assuming they all drive cars and live in houses).  

However, on the flip side, is the angry hunter who takes his wildlife management philosophy from early Metallica, “kill ‘em all!” they cry.  These people will cite statistics about calving rates and how wolves are “killing all the deer” and yet, most of them still put meat in the freezer every year.  Wolves were reintroduced to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) in the 1990s and there is still plenty of good hunting in the GYE.  Have they had an impact?  Absolutely.  There are studies that say the entire ecosystem is better off because the elk and deer are now not overgrazing the area and several other factors.  There are studies who don’t quite go so far as well, but I have yet to see a study (doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist) that says wolf reintroduction was awful and a terrible idea.  The only folks I hear say that are this small group of hunters.

I believe that predators need to be managed by state fish and game agencies and the US Fish and Wildlife Service just like all other game animals.  I’m okay with wolves and grizzlies sharing the landscape with me.  In fact, I can’t wait to see my first wild wolf or grizzly and I keep hoping every time I go to Alaska that this time will be the time.  I am not a great hunter, but if I am going to become a great hunter, then I need to compete against the best and that means natural predators other than blaze orange wearing dudes shooting 6.5 Creedmoor.  

Maybe you don’t fall into the exact same spot on this issue (or some other issue) as I do.  That’s okay. There are a lot of respectable places to land in the middle.  It shows you’ve thought about the issue.  However, I just don’t have a lot of time or respect for those on the two extremes, of this issue, or most others.

Are We Really Being Honest with Ourselves and the Public When We Use “Whole Foods Buzzwords”?

This post was inspired by the 2nd hour of The MeatEater Podcast Episode 125: Live from Tempe featuring Steve Rinella, Janis Putelis, Matt Rinella and Dr. Karl Malcolm and can be found here as well as on iTunes and Stitcher.

I’m obsessed with ethics and morality.  If I’m honest with myself, I can honestly say that a time or two it has probably been more of a vice than a virtue and in my younger days it probably came across as judgmental.  Maybe I still come across that way sometimes when I believe in something as passionately as I believe in ethical hunting.  While I feel the need to stand up and speak out on what I believe in, especially here on this page, I do think there are more approachable ambassadors for hunting than me and that is why guys like Steve Rinella, Randy Newberg and others are so popular and are really inspiring both current hunters to do better and to bring new folks into our ranks.

Recently on The MeatEater Podcast, there was a conversation about the sincerity of many hunters these days who throw around, what Steve Rinella called something like, “Whole Foods Buzzwords”.  It’s true, growing up, I never heard anyone use words like “organic”, “free range” or “humanely killed”.  I grew up in a fairly rural area and I think we just assumed at the time all meat fit these three criteria.  It was only in the last ten to twenty years that many less than humane practices have come to light and we’ve started talking about the humane treatment of our domestic animals.  The guys on the show started questioning these words and I had to admit to myself, that although I meant it when I’ve told people how much better game meat is and why that is, I had definitely been looking at the issue with rose colored glasses on.  

So, let me break down a few of these buzzwords when it comes to wild game:

Organic – This is relative to the animal and the place where you hunt it.  Are you hunting caribou in the Brooks Range?  I’d call that pretty organic.  Whitetail or turkeys in Indiana?  Damn near impossible to call that organic when it is living amongst and around so much agricultural land.  You have to honestly ask yourself, what is this animal eating given where it lives?

Free Range – Unless you’re hunting a high fenced farm, I’d argue wild game is free range.  Some animals move very little (whitetail) and some migrate hundreds of miles (caribou), but if their movement is unrestricted, they’re free range.  You could argue that human infringement such as housing additions and energy development impede their movement, and I’d agree with you, but barring removing humans from the landscape, I think it’s hard to argue against this.

Humanely Killed – This was the topic on the show that really hurt me and stung my pride.  I’ve always made the argument that a double lung shot was as humane as it gets but as the guys on the show so eloquently pointed out, (1) agricultural practices have evolved a long way in this area and are much more humane these days and (2) how many times do you put your animal down by dropping it where it stands?  I have to be honest and say hunting is sometimes incredibly humane and sometimes devastatingly inhumane.  

As the conversation evolved, they came to the same conclusion that I ultimately have come to through the years, that there’s something you cannot put on a label or whittle down to a buzzword, what separates hunters and wild game as a food is our connection to the animal, our connection to the land and the bonds that are strengthened through the food at our dinner tables.  It’s doing the work and getting your hands dirty, just the same as you’d have more pride and more of a connection to a car you built from the ground up than a car you bought off the lot.  When you eat that food, you think of all the hours scouting, the nights in the cold tent, the camaraderie of your loved ones you went with, the field dressing, the pack out and finally, for many of us, the butchering.  You remember the folds of the earth, the feel of the wind, the ache in your back and the smell of the animal because there can be much more to food than how it tastes on your plate.

Dr. Karl Malcolm touched on something and the end of the conversation that I constantly preach about: gratitude.  He shared a story about his family and their practice of saying something they’re grateful for at the dinner table and his three-year-old daughter saying she was thankful for the moose that they were eating.  While I know there are plenty of people who are thankful for their food no matter where it comes from, I do suspect most Americans take this for granted.  I’m not throwing stones, it’s easy to do when you’re so disconnected from the source.  You go to the supermarket and there’s hamburger meat already ground up and packaged in a one meal container.  Or you go to a restaurant and you just verbalize you’d like a filet cooked medium and twenty minutes later it shows up in front of you. Our modern world can be magical in that sense, but there’s magic in doing it yourself as well.

There’s something powerful about putting food on your own table whether it is an elk steak or vegetables from your garden.  There’s a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of time that you sacrifice that you could be doing something else and so many opportunities for it to all go wrong, whether that is your mistake or Mother Nature not providing the right conditions.  That food is something to be proud of, something you are more willing to share, something you’re more likely to remember and, in my opinion, it just tastes better. While it’s important to have this conversation on a wide platform where words like “organic” are going to be thrown around, I’m not sure there’s a better way to share our love and passion for wild game than at the dinner table.  Our stories and arguments are much more convincing when we can tell them over the fruits of our labor, if for no other reason, our non-hunting loved ones can see how grateful we are for the animal and the chance to interact with it in order to feed our families.

Public Lands and Manufactured Outrage in the Era of Trump

DISCLAIMER: I hate that this is even necessary, but unfortunately, in the current culture of “agree with me on every issue or you’re my enemy”, I must disclose that I did not vote in the 2016 election.  I lived in Los Angeles at the time and there was not one single candidate on the ballot for any office that I could morally support pulling the lever for.  I thought of writing in a candidate, but figured that was the same thing as abstaining.  What follows is merely me trying to separate the truth from the propaganda.

We currently live in a time of divisiveness.  There is a loud group of people who troll the internet looking for people who say things that are either careless or that don’t fit their narrative and world view and then try to destroy their lives in, what I can only imagine they view as an all-out war. This war is not fought on the battlefields, but it’s fought on social media and, though in a slightly different way, through the mainstream media as well.  Some of these people are simply fools thinking they are doing the right thing, but a majority of them know better, or should know better, but feel like changing the world to fit their views needs to be done by any means necessary.

This has happened in the outdoor world as well, namely surrounding the issue of public lands.  Anyone who knows me knows how important public lands are to me and my family, however, I do not believe that telling lies to achieve my means is morally just. The theme has always been that conservatives, or Republicans specifically, don’t care about the environment, they only care about big business.  Some of this reputation is warranted, however, let us not overlook the contributions of two Republican presidents who did an immense amount for the environment; Theodore Roosevelt who, along with several other high-ranking conservationists, created public land in this country and Richard Nixon, who signed into law the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and created the Environmental Protection Agency.  

Many sportsmen where hopeful when Donald Trump was elected president and when he chose Ryan Zinke as his Secretary of the Interior.  Zinke had a pretty good record in Congress on issues we care about and Don Jr. is an avid outdoorsman and has the ear of his father. Things have not gone as well as many had hoped, especially the liberal contingent of the outdoors community (though this is not surprising).  I have disagreed with several policy decisions they have made (including the first topic I will discuss below), however, I feel like their wins have gone mostly overlooked, unreported and or flat out lied about and even their failures have been maliciously lied about.  So, I am going to break down two of the most controversial decisions of the Trump administration’s outdoor policy and try to separate fact from fiction.

1.    Shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Escalante Staircase National Monuments

First off, let me say, I couldn’t have disagreed with this decision more, however, when Patagonia changed their homepage to say, “The President Stole Your Land” they outright lied to their consumers.  The land that was removed from the national monument is still federally managed land owned by the American people, albeit under the control of the Bureau of Land Management and provided less protections than a national monument designation afforded it.  Not one acre of federally managed land under the Obama administration is gone, in fact, Zinke, along with several other folks helped add to the number of acres of federal land when they managed to gain land in New Mexico that opened up the previously landlocked Sabinoso Wilderness Area to recreation and hunting.

Maybe you want to make the argument that hyperbole was necessary to get people to pay attention.  Except when you lie to people, it’s like the little boy who cried wolf, eventually people stop paying attention to you.  Right now, Utah Sen. Mike Lee actually wants to transfer all public land to the states, who in turn can sell it off to private parties. This, while highly unlikely to pass, is much scarier than changing the designation of two monuments, yet, it’s getting next to no attention outside the usual circles.  Where’s the outrage from the mainstream media on this one?  I know the idea of losing the land permanently is much sexier than just opening it up to mining, but it shouldn’t be (also, if you’re against mining, you should probably put away your iPhones and MacBooks because these things, as well as many parts of your automobile and homes are not possible without mining, at least be honest about your reliance on mining while you’re fighting to innovate and create more sustainable options).

Whether or not it was “illegal”, as Patagonia claimed, remains to be seen.  I’ll leave that one up to the lawyers and judges.

2.    Turning Management of All Wildlife Refuges in Alaska Back to Alaska Department of Fish & Game

This was only sexy for five minutes, but the amount of horse doo-doo spread by the media, social media and lobbying groups like the Humane Society of America was enormous for this short period of time. This outrage was entirely from people who didn’t understand wildlife management, how the states manage wildlife, hunting or the realities of Alaska.  The good people and scientists of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game already managed over 85% of the land in Alaska, most of which is federally managed land, and all this did was restore the responsibility of caring for the other 15% back to them.  

Most of the claims were completely based in the imaginations of animal rights activists, such as one national story claiming that people would now bait bears with “doughnuts and bacon”.  This never happened before and it will not happen now.  Other, small exceptions were exaggerated, such as it being legal to shoot caribou as they were swimming or shooting bears in their dens. These things are done, but in isolated places by indigenous groups with traditions of doing these things out of necessity.  These folks also have exceptions to hunting seals and other protected species for sustenance and tradition, this is nothing new.  I am not going to Alaska this fall to shoot caribou in the water, nor is any other hunter from the Lower 48, and though I can’t say this for sure, nor will any non-Native from Alaska.

For more details on this issue, please see Sam Cotten’s excellent rebuttal here, or check out Steve Rinella’s response on the MeatEater podcast.

Personally, I think Trump and Zinke have done some good things and some bad things.  I’ve spoken up both in support and in criticism and I suggest you do too, no matter whether you agree with me or not.  However, please be honest about things.  If you speak before you fully understand an issue, that’s forgivable, it’s a mistake, but one that we all make every now and again.  What is unforgivable is maliciously giving people false information in order to sway their opinion, their vote or their donations to your cause.  

Either win on the facts and the truth, or it’s no win at all and it’ll end up hurting everyone and the very things you seek to protect.

Moral Relativism and the Outdoors

The last couple days I’ve been following the story of a white, female Huffington Post contributor tweeting about her response to a black man, driving a BMW that has an NRA and “Tea Party” bumper sticker on it and how he didn’t fit her idea of what a black man should be. While some people are getting pretty worked up about it, I’m more interested in seeing the interactions themselves because it tells an interesting story about where our culture, or at least a significant segment of our culture, is today. People who do not have an underlying code of ethics will decide each situation based on the outcome that they desire rather than making a decision on what is right or wrong based on a code of ethics. This leads to a significant amount of contradiction and a vacuum of logic and reasoning.  

This type of thought process, or moral relativism, has not yet infiltrated the outdoors world in any significant way, but I see it on the horizon. Why? Because we are members of this “subculture” of hunters and outdoorsman, but we’re also members of the culture-at-large. We also have some folks who are willing to set themselves apart from the rest of us because they do not share our methods of take, our traditions or our other values. Some of you may say, “but dude, you have written against baiting!” I have, and I still believe we should be having an on-going conversation about ethics. However, I will never join a campaign to outlaw baiting or ever speak in favor of outlawing baiting. I view that as an internal conversation amongst hunters, but if you bait and the Humane Society is after you, I am on your side. If it comes on the ballot in Colorado, I will vote against outlawing baiting and if it’s in the legislature, I’ll write my congress people on your behalf. The need to police ourselves is the exact reason for the conversation I want to have. You’re welcome to disagree with me, I’m open to changing my mind, but my goal is to make sure we are always trying to do the right thing in the woods.

As the saying goes, if you lie down with dogs, you will get fleas -- and I am baffled by the hunters that the Humane Society and other groups dig up for their campaigns. It comes from the idea that “whatever I do is good and moral and whatever other people do is not as just as what I do.” Similar to the recent gun control protests where you’d see “Hunters Against the NRA.” These guys I saw were saying, “you don’t need a high-powered rifle to hunt, all you need are shotguns.” The average, urban, non-hunter sees this and they say, “well, look, even these hunters say you don’t need rifles” and they take these guys as an authority. Come to find out, these guys were duck hunters, of course all they needed were shotguns. They’re not taking a 300-yard shot on a bull elk in Colorado this fall, so they don’t care. The question I would ask these fellas is, if rifles are outlawed, do you think us western big game hunters will have your back when they come for your shotguns next? 

Over the last one hundred plus years, most fish and game laws have been pushed for and supported by hunters, including self-imposed excise taxes like Pittman-Robertson. State wildlife biologists and conservation organizations (hunters) have done an amazing job over the years at fine tuning our laws and bringing us into, for many species, “the good ol’ days” of hunting.  I urge you all to have faith in a process that has always worked and treat the hunting community as a brotherhood. We can pick on our own, but when the outside comes picking a fight, we stand up for one another. 




This Is Who We Are

A short message to my fellow hunters…

I got my first anti-meat hate on Instagram the other day.  Ironically, it was from someone I met once when she was brought to my house for Christmas Eve dinner.  At this dinner, she ate fish, so apparently “taking innocent lives” and being “disgusting” only applies to the things she chooses not to eat, not to living creatures of the sea.  When I went to respond to her comments, they disappeared because she had blocked me.  This is fine and I do not plan to respond to every piece of hate I get from animal rights activists.  People who are willing to engage in conversation with those of differing opinions do not open those conversations with hate and threats of violence.  Ninety-seven percent of people eat meat and the hateful folks are (I believe) a minority of that three percent.  There’s absolutely no need to engage with anyone who shows you right off the bat they are not interested in a conversation.

Hunters have a responsibility to know the facts.  “We’ve always hunted” is not a good argument nor is “my licenses pay for conservation”.  We have to know more and we have to do more.  We’ve been the stewards of wildlife for a long time but we cannot rest on our laurels.  We have to continue to be leaders and understand the complex and nuanced ecosystems we live in and hunt in.  

When non-hunters see us, they see hunting as something we do.  They think, “Why can’t you just get your meat at a supermarket like a normal person?”. The reality is, it’s not what we do, hunting is who we are.  We feel a connection to nature that others don’t feel.  Some non-consumptive users will say they’re connected to nature as well, and maybe some are, but most non-consumptive users see themselves as tourists in the wild.  They’re visiting.  Hunters know we are more than that, we are a part of the environment, just like our fellow predators, just like our prey and just like all the other pieces of our ecosystem.  We are not separate, we are not visitors, we are home.

I’m proud to call myself a hunter.  I will never back down from that.  While there are exceptions, hunters are incredibly well versed with land management and wildlife biology issues and we have an excellent understanding of all the legal components of our lifestyle.  We’re as knowledgeable on the things we do as anyone else is on their passions, if not more so.  However, there’s still more work to do.  Volunteer with a conservation group, take someone new hunting and fishing every chance you get, reach out to those who express an interest and let go of the “I don’t want to show anyone my spot” mentality.  In fact, when you take them to your spot, you teach them, “Hey, hunters don’t swipe another hunter’s spot”.  Teach them ethics as well as how to field dress an animal.

We have a great message and I think we do a pretty good job of telling the story but we live in a world where people no longer want to listen.  It’s time we show them who we are.  There will always be those who will hate and who will ignore good science in the name of ideology and false moral supremacy, but there will be a lot of people watching. Let’s show ‘em who we are.  The future of hunting depends on it. 

Backcountry Brotherhood - Alaskan Interior, September 2017

It’s a trip that almost didn’t happen.

Jeremy and I have been friends for going on 30 years now and although we act like an old married couple, we’ve had few actual arguments.  This one, like most arguments between old friends, was a nasty mess of little annoyances that we both tried to ignore until someone said something about one of them and then it all exploded.  In this case, I was concerned about going deep into the Alaskan interior with him because the previous fall he’d run off on me in Denali National Park.  I have more backcountry experience than he does and I had the perception that the .454 Casull he carries on his chest when we’re in Alaska was giving him a false sense of confidence in addition to leaving me vulnerable.  

I wasn’t sure how to address this with him, so I do what I always do when I don’t know what to say: I write it.  This was the wrong way to do it.  Absolutely, no question, I took the easy way out.

He called me the next day when we were both calmer and we talked it out.  I’d done some dick things to him unintentionally as well, so it was one of those good chats you have to have every now and again and it allowed us to carry on our annual trip and one that would be our most epic trip yet.  We moved onto logistics and we were ready to go.

Since Jeremy has family outside Anchorage, we always fly in and out of there and drive to wherever we’re going (so far, we’re already planning a future trip that’s going to include a bush pilot and a pack raft).  We arrived very early in the morning and grabbed breakfast before driving to Fairbanks where we needed bear spray and cooking fuel since we couldn’t fly with it.  We enjoyed a good conversation, interspersed with 90s alternative rock, the only music we can agree on more or less.  He’d doze off every now and again and I was able to play country music while he slept, but the deal we have is we stick to the common areas of our musical Venn diagram when we’re both awake.  

We had reservations for two nights in a cabin that was an eleven-mile hike from the trail head off of the Elliott Highway, almost 100 miles from Fairbanks.    The plan was to hike in about halfway, set up camp and then hike the rest of the way in the morning.  Our packs were incredibly heavy due to the fact we were in a cabin, we were hiking in with some real food and we were both carrying heavy firearms; him the .454 Casull and me a Remington 870 with slugs.  While we were not at high elevation, there was several thousand feet in elevation changes along the route, starting high, going low, climbing a hill, then going low again only to end high at camp.  

Once we reached about the halfway point, it was starting to get dark and we were looking for a place to set up camp.  There were some flat spots down below where we could have had a fire if it had not been flooded but we were stuck in the brush.  While we couldn’t make a fire, we were tired and the brush underneath our ground cloth actually made for a good mattress.  Once we got camp set up, we ate a couple protein bars and then hung our bear bag and went to sleep.  Next to the time he and I slept on the beach at Pismo Bay, this might have been one of the best night’s sleep I have ever had.

In the morning I awoke to see Jeremy all packed up and ready to go.  I informed him I was going to sit in my bag and make a cup of coffee before I went anywhere.  He was slightly agitated but afforded me this one luxury.  While I was making my coffee, he told me he hardly slept at all.  He was cold and he was afraid of bears and wolves.  I told him the fear was understandable but that we hadn’t seen any bear sign the day before and our human scent would put most of them off and I reminded him how rare bear attacks really are.  He also told me that I slept so still he put his hand over my mouth to make sure I was breathing.  I had been so tranquil and so quiet he had wondered if I’d died in my sleep.  This was in stark contrast to him complaining about my constant snoring a few years back on a trip to Death Valley.  I told him, I only snore when there’s 40 miles per hour gusts of wind blowing sand into our tent and we slept without the rain fly on.  That may not be one hundred percent true, but whether I snore or not, does depend on the conditions.  

After my coffee I packed up and we started off.  No more than a half mile later we found a camp.  It was some kind of plastic container with mats in it designed for folks camping halfway.  We had no idea it was there, but it would have kept the wind off of us if we’d have kept going the night before.  

A short while later we ran into four Scandinavian college kids who had our cabin before us.  We exchanged a few words and they let us know they’d seen a sow and her cubs right outside of camp on the way out.  We never saw her, but we did see a fresh pile of blueberry bear shit just at the entrance to the camp area.  That was the only bear sign we saw the whole trip.

The next two days were spent relaxing.  We had to chop a little wood to replace what we used, but other than that, it was peaceful.  It stormed awhile our first day and we read, took turns with the beat up old classical guitar that was up there and I played a lot of solitaire.  We went to the hot spring tubs twice a day, had great conversations on a lot of different topics and slept warm with the cast iron stove churning out heat all night.  

Hiking out however, was a total nightmare.  It was hard, not sure why it seemed so hard other than my feet just got annihilated by my boots but my whole body suffered.  I had a couple of small blisters from the hike in, but I nursed them the two days we were in the cabin and taped them up well with Leukotape before we took off.  It didn’t matter.  Just a few miles in those blisters got worse and I developed new ones (Red Head is not going to get an endorsement out of me anytime soon).  I walked over seven miles on blistered and bleeding feet to get back to the truck and my Crocs.  Somehow, I still managed a two mile per hour pace on the way out.  

My body felt like I’d gone five rounds with Georges St. Pierre.  I was beat to hell.  We stopped in Fairbanks for some food and beers and then headed back to Anchorage, getting in late and getting a room at a historic hotel before hitting another brewery for dinner and beers.  The next day was spent at the Alaska State Fair and then we headed back to the airport where we caught the red eye back to Los Angeles through Seattle.

This trip is something we look forward to every year.  In spite of our friendship going back as long as it does, these annual jaunts reinforce our bond and keep our friendship as healthy and vibrant as it has ever been.  When you’re in the backcountry with someone, you’re relying on each other for life and death.  Sure, there are little spats (old married couple, remember?), but outside my wife, there is no one on the face of this earth who knows me like he does and I trust him with my life.  While I often write of my personal connection to nature on this page, it is important to note the backcountry is also a fantastic place to build and maintain relationships and to create lifelong memories with your friends and family. Anyone who has been to hunting camp, hiked a trail with some friends or spent the day on the lake with someone knows exactly what I’m talking about.

So, if you have a friend or loved one that expresses some interest in the outdoors, make sure you take them somewhere and do something.  Not only will you get something out of being a mentor, but you’ll give someone else a new experience that will create a memory that will last a lifetime.  The future of the outdoors and our lifestyle depends on all of us sharing our love and passion with others.

God, Transcendentalism and Modern Conservation

In the woods is perpetual youth…In the woods we return to reason and faith… I am part or particle of God.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”


Almost every religious or philosophical tradition has at least a few stories of their heroes going into the wilderness to seek answers or to seek the truth.  Perhaps the most famous of these is the story of The Temptation of Jesus, and, according to Jeffrey Ryan Dickson in Deserts of Development: How God Shapes His Leaders in the Wilderness, “according to Jewish tradition, an entrance into a wilderness meant that God was preparing the individual for a new beginning.”  It should not be a surprise then that immediately following Jesus’ temptation he started his ministry (Matthew 4:12-17).  However, it is arguable that no school of thought lobbied more for the interaction of man and nature as a mechanism for communication with the divine, than Transcendentalism.  While its heyday might have come and gone a long time ago, I think there are some tenets that are more relevant today than ever.  

What is Transcendentalism?  

Roderick Nash, in his legendary book, Wilderness and the American Mind, wrote,

The core of Transcendentalism was the belief that a correspondence or parallelism existed between the higher realm of spiritual truth and the lower one of material objects… Transcendentalists had a definite conception of man’s place in a universe divided between object and essence.  His physical existence rooted him to the material portion, like all natural objects, but his soul gave him the potential to “transcend” this condition… he could discover his own correspondence with the divine being and appreciate his capacity for moral improvement.  Every individual, the Transcendentalists emphasized, possessed this ability, but the process of insight was so difficult and delicate that it was seldom exercised. The great majority was indifferent, yet even those who sought higher truths intuitively found them in frustratingly brief flashes (85).

Nash also discusses, in the same chapter on Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau’s frustration with civilization.  “By mid-century American life had acquired a bustling tempo and materialistic tone that left Thoreau and many of his contemporaries vaguely disturbed and insecure (86).”  Walden was first published in 1854, and if that’s how Thoreau felt then, how do you imagine he’d feel about America in 2018? By any definition, we live in a more materialistic, more distracting and faster paced society today than ever before. 

It’s also true that society has never been more secular and an even greater majority is indifferent.  Although many people will say they are “spiritual” even if they’re not “religious”, very few people (whether they call themselves “religious” or “spiritual”) actually put in any spiritual work because spiritual work means a great amount of time and effort with intermittent tangible returns.  Deep, purposeful work on one’s self requires a lot of discipline and effort.  For a society constantly chasing the next, hippest, instantly gratifying, shortcut to happiness, making a trek into the wilderness, whatever that might mean for each person, is not a popular pastime.  

I Never Considered Myself a Transcendentalist Before

Wilderness, to me anyhow, always seemed like the closest I would ever come to the Garden of Eden.  Sin is something of man.  Man is in civilization.  Avoid civilization, avoid man, avoid sin, or at least that’s how I’ve always painted the picture even if that is not entirely true because my sin travels with me. God created Man after the Heavens and the Earth were complete.  It was perfect, at least until that fateful day at the forbidden tree.  

I’ve always imagined what life was like in the Garden prior to the Fall of Man.  Adam conversing with God like they were old pals.  I think that’s something every human being has been envious of since that time; we pray, but we really don’t hear that voice talking back to us, not like Adam did anyhow.  

So, what does God sound like today?  I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but there are moments, as Nash said, “frustratingly brief flashes”, where I hear God loud and clear.  Right now, in my office with the window open, a swollen Coal Creek is carrying God’s voice to me.  The difficult part is interpreting it.  That’s why I’m envious of Adam’s conversations with God.  I really wish it was easier to understand what he was saying.

As frustrating as it is to have to decipher what God is saying to me sometimes, I take an immense amount of comfort in the fact that God talks to me. Me, an incredibly flawed mortal. No matter what, when the trail gets quiet and I can hear the creek, when I am out in the woods backpacking, hunting, fishing, or whatever I’m doing, if I’m out there, really out there, going places other people rarely or never go, I hear God loud and clear.  I just wish that was the case all the time, but either I am not able to drown out all the noise of humanity or perhaps the wilderness is just the place that God has chosen for the two of us to converse and it is up to me to get out there more often.  If nothing else, it is a good excuse to get into the mountains more.

I would never actually call myself a Transcendentalist because there’s a lot of things about the philosophy that don’t fit me (Indian religious influence, the idealism, etc.) but I believe they were pretty spot on in their belief in the possibility of transcendence through nature and the belief that institutions often corrupt the purity of the individual (as much as one can be pure).  In the wilderness we can take our place amongst all of God’s creation and, if we are alone, we can get a taste of what those first moments must have felt like before God gave Adam a partner.  In those moments, we can be alone with God.  

So, What Does This All Mean?

I believe that wilderness, those last refuges of land uncorrupted by man, are the closest that most of us will ever get to the Garden of Eden and that open conversation with God, at least in this life.  I believe that protecting these wild places are one of our most sacred duties.  In Genesis 1:26 God gives us this responsibility, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.  And let him have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  This is our sacred duty and it is entirely a self-serving one, as it is ourselves who most benefit from the places and things were entrusted to protect.  The land provides resources to make and heat our homes, the animals provide food to nurture our bodies and the places they come from nurture our souls.  

People always ask me why I go to such remote places, so far away from other people and it almost always ends with, “but what if you get hurt out there?” or “aren’t you scared of bears?”.  The truth is, our local parks are nice, but they don’t recharge me or fill me up with peace like the wild does.  In the parks, when I pass large groups on the trail, their stereos blasting, I always wonder why people are so afraid of the quiet?  Why can’t they leave the trappings of civilization behind for a few hours?  I wonder what it is that they think they’ll hear that fills them with fear?  Are they afraid of their own thoughts?  Or is it that when their mind is unoccupied for long enough they will start to dwell on their failures and shortcomings?  I don’t know, but I know for myself, I do often dwell on those things, but instead of fear, in the quiet, I find answers.  

We should always be searching for the truth, just know that it may come to you by the sound of the wind through the trees or of water coming down the mountain making its long journey to the ocean.  In this post-modern world, we hear more things than we can comprehend, but are we listening?  Our wild places are great places to go listen, whether it’s a small issue you’re struggling with, or you’re Thoreau venturing off into the wilderness multiple times to seek enlightenment, or you’re Cheryl Strayed trying to re-set your entire life on the Pacific Crest Trail.  What we have to ask ourselves is whether or not these spiritual journeys are important and whether or not it is important to still have wild places to run to for peace and quiet.  If the answer is yes, and I think it is, then there is nothing more human than protecting these places.  

The Best Shot I Never Took

I didn’t grow up hunting or fishing.  I was outside as often as possible, but I had no one in my family to take me hunting, though I always wished I had.  So, in addition to teaching myself how to shoot and learning the behaviors and habits of game animals I had to learn hunting ethics on my own as well.  Learning ethics, much like learning to shoot, is a process.

The first season I went deer hunting, I went without a license, in both Michigan and Indiana.  I was told by the folks I was with, “just shoot a doe and I will tag it for you” or “you can have my buck tag only if you shoot an eight point or bigger”.  At the time, I thought this was okay because the deer would still be tagged and I was not impeding the population studies of state wildlife agencies.  It didn’t seem to be unethical to the folks I was with and they’d been hunting for their whole lives, so who was I to question it?

On opening morning of gun season in Southern Indiana I was in the tree stand well before legal shooting light.  It was a crude, homemade platform that required me to stand.  I figured as the new guy, I got the shit end of the stick as far as stands went, there was no way I could stand there for hours not moving. I was armed with a simple, single shot, breech load, 12 gauge shotgun loaded with rifled slugs.  I had extra shells in my pockets, but I knew, if I was lucky, I’d get one shot.  In the Eastern forests, you’re not going to get much more than a 20 yard shot and I have always been a pretty good marksman, so I felt comfortable with this.  I just had to remember to be calm and not rush a shot out of the excitement of killing my first deer.

Where I was hunting was private land right across the road from public land and the whole area is heavily hunted.  Usually, after first light on opening day, it sounds like a morning in Fallujah.  Deer are pushed from place to place and move around a lot, I knew I was sure to see something.  And sure enough, I did.  

About five minutes after legal shooting light, I hear something coming from my left.  It was soft and slow, and I initially wrote it off as another damn squirrel playing tricks on me.  However, what came around the corner was a beautiful, two-and-a-half-year-old, eight-point buck.  He stopped right in front of my tree stand, broadside at about five yards.  He turned his head to look at me and I slowly raised my gun.  We made eye contact for what felt like five minutes but was more realistically about ten to fifteen seconds.  He then looked away and slowly walked off as I lowered my gun.

I told myself I was simply not being greedy and that it was mere minutes into opening day and I would see other deer and I wanted to keep hunting. I told myself all I wanted was a meat doe anyhow.  Even if I’d heard the expression “don’t pass up on your first day what you’d be happy to have on your last day” I think I still would have let him go.  Somehow, even though I wasn’t aware of it yet, I knew it was the right thing to do to walk out of those woods without a deer. I also think it’s possible that if I had taken that shot, I might have regretted it to the point that I never went hunting again, and that would have been a shame.

Not pulling the trigger on that buck is one of the best decisions I have ever made.  I never saw another deer that season and I’m glad I didn’t, but it was that deer season, being out there for several days without a license, that solidified my love of hunting.  Had I been wiser, I would have just walked out there and sat in the tree stand without a gun and I would have loved it every bit as much.  It was on those cold Indiana mornings in those tree stands that I realized I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.  It was on those mornings that I learned where I could go to feel completely at peace.  

I firmly believe, it was in that in that moment, when I couldn’t pull the trigger, that I became a hunter.

Women, Masculinity and the Future of Hunting

If you pay attention to Hollywood and the Mainstream Media, you’ll know that right now, everything female is good and everything male is bad.  Well, that maybe an oversimplification but you know what I am getting at.  Just the other day, the University of Texas declared masculinity to be a mental illness. We’re at a strange time in our society and there’s definitely a culture war going on in America.  Much like every other topic to discuss, people want to make things simpler than they are, to put them in neat little boxes labeled “this” and “that” or “good” and “bad”.  Gender and hunting are no exception to this.  However, I feel like trying to simplify gender and hunting issues actually complicates them much more than need be.

It’s simple.  Women make great hunters.  Women have always been great hunters.

Okay, let me unpack this.  I won’t go into a great amount of detail about the history of women hunters because there’s a plethora of great stories out there for you to explore yourself. Whether it was in ancient Greek or Roman mythology, Celt or Nordic tribes or in the Wild West, there are countless examples of women hunters.  Just look at the Wikipedia page of hunting gods for examples to get you started.  

Just think about it simply.  Who provided food when men went off to war or left home to work as miners or railroad workers?  In the Wild West, who provided for food when the men died of disease?  The Wild West as a great example because any place where people were free from law, free from the pressures of “civilization” or the rule of the Church, women had more rights (because no one was infringing on their God given rights that they were born with).  Utah, long considered a very conservative state, gave women the right to vote a long time before women won their suffrage in other, “more civilized”, places.

But I digress.

The main reason hunting has been considered “masculine” in America is because traditionally men have been a large majority of the hunters and it was usually a set of skills handed down father to son out in the field while the women stayed home.  Hunting itself is neither masculine nor feminine, it’s human.  However, a boy’s one on one time with their dad is masculine, is healthy and odds are those boys learned a lot more about being a man during those hunts than they did about hunting.  That is why I still find that to be an important tradition and I believe we need strong men to raise boys in a way so that we will continue to have generations of strong men.  I am not attacking that at all, I am in 100% support of that and am committed to getting more young men into the outdoors.

So, what of me?  The lone man in a house with two women?  While my girls don’t go along on every hunt, we’re a hunting family.  Hunting is one of the many things we do together.  At our daughter’s age, it’s small game and fishing right now and when she’s older I’ll take them on turkey and big game hunts as well.  As far as I’m concerned nothing changes except the lessons we teach our daughter. I don’t need to teach her about being a man because she’s going to be a woman.  Her mother is doing an excellent job of teaching her how to be a great woman. I will teach her to hunt.  I will do my part as her father to teach her about being human because there is far more to learn outside than how to be a man. 

It’s of the utmost importance that we hunters take our daughters afield just as we would take our sons afield.  The future conservationists are just as likely, if not more likely, to be female than male.  It shouldn’t matter if that woman wears make up or doesn’t, or if she uses blaze pink or blaze orange, or if she wants to fish in a bikini or in waders.  All that matters is that she’s outdoors and we pass along our ethics and love for the wild.  Getting all wrapped up in tangential aspects of what a woman wears etc. is avoiding the most important thing; that women are a growing segment of the hunting community.

For those fathers who have sons, take them hunting, insert masculine traditions and rites of passage into your hunting trips.  Take your uncles, buddies or grandfather and have some male bonding, that’s awesome.  But if you have daughters, take them along too (and their mothers if they want to go), treat them the same, give your daughter her first beer or snort of whiskey when the time comes.  I promise you she’ll remember those times with her dad the rest of her life just like your son would.  



Why I Shoot a .30-06

If you’re here looking for the favorite argument of shooters, “what’s the best caliber for…?”, this isn’t it. This is more autobiography than anything else.

Let me begin by giving you a nickel’s worth of background.  The .30 caliber cartridge has been around since the 1890s and went through several refinements by several folks before Springfield made the final adjustments in 1906 (if you don’t know, the .30 is the caliber and the 06 is the year).  I won’t bore you with the ballistics history, but in 1906 the U.S. military, namely the Army, made it the primary caliber rifle cartridge and it remained the primary cartridge for over 80 years seeing combat in all of the wars and skirmishes the U.S. was involved in over that time as well as being a favorite of big game hunters throughout the 20th century.  

Now, in 2018, the .30-06 isn’t sexy anymore.  There are newer cartridges such as the 700 Win Mag or 6.5 Creedmore. There is nothing wrong with any of them and all are great big game cartridges.  However, I think the choice of cartridge says a lot about a person. Perhaps you are a woman or have a smaller frame, you may feel more comfortable shooting a .270.  Perhaps you have to have the latest and greatest thing, whatever the hunting and gun magazines tell you is the sexy caliber of our time.   Perhaps you just shoot what your buddies shoot or what your dad shot.

Me?  I’m old school.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I like wood stocks, classic calibers, using my backpack as a rest and you might even find me wearing red plaid.  I’m not totally against the 21st century, I have a scope on my rifle, I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro, I’m not a dinosaur, but I also don’t think that everything new is automatically better either.  I’d like to think that I share a lot of traits with the big game hunters that came before me when it comes to faith, family and conservation.  And, I’d like to think I share at least some qualities with those brave men in uniform from the 20th century who risked or gave their lives for our great nation.  My sense of bravery, duty, patriotism and honor may pale in comparison to theirs, but I’d like to think they serve as inspirations to me even if I’m not worthy of standing alongside them.  

As I knock upon the door of middle age, I know I’m becoming a relic, just like the .30-06.  I hope and pray that those coming behind me will take my generation and learn from us. That includes correcting our mistakes, but I hope they don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Not everything that has worked and worked well for a long time needs to be discarded just because it’s “the old way”. Some things are tried and true and battle tested.  

I’m not much one to judge, not about preferences anyhow, so go ahead and shoot whatever caliber you want, that you’re comfortable with and that works for you. But ask yourself, what does it say about you?  Maybe it says nothing, maybe I’m just a guy who looks for meaning in everything I do, down to the smallest of details and my affection for the .30-06 is nothing more than me paying tribute to many great men who came before me, hoping that a little of what they had rubs off on me.  

On the Emotional and Spiritual Aspects of Killing

I love reading David Petzal from Field & Stream.  I look forward to his column every month and I often re-read past columns online.  Recently, “Teaching Young Hunters to Cope with Killing” was shared on their Facebook page.  In spite of the fact I’ve been teaching my daughter about hunting and ethical meat procurement since she’s been born, I have to admit I still don’t know how to properly describe the issue to her.  Of course, she’s five as I write this, so it’s a slow process and I believe a slow process is a lot better than keeping her in the dark and then sitting her down when she’s 12 and explaining where her food comes from.  That’s how vegans are made.

Even at five my daughter understands certain aspects of fair chase. These things have been taught by conversation at the dinner table, lessons during playtime and during episodes of MeatEater and Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg.  However, I still wonder how she is going to feel this fall when we go squirrel and rabbit hunting as a family.  Is she going to be as excited to see me clean and dress small game as she was last fall when she found a freshly killed elk femur in Wyoming?  Or is seeing an animal alive one moment and then hearing the crack of the rifle and seeing the squirrel fall from the tree going to make her sad?  Either way her reaction will be normal and I fully expect her to finish the process in the kitchen with her mother because she loves to cook with mommy.

The taking of a life is a complicated thing, even for an adult.  As hunters and anglers, we do so for a very good reason, sustenance.  Sure, there are many other parts of the hunt, but the bottom line for almost all of us is we are going to feed ourselves and our families with that animal.  The death of that animal is going to provide healthy protein and nutrients to our bodies and hunting and fishing is certainly as animal friendly as meat comes (no pens, no hormones, no anti-biotics, no food that they weren’t meant to eat, etc.).  Killing to eat is as natural as the sun rising in the morning, but as humans, we, unlike other animal species, have a consciousness about the process.

For me, personally, I feel the same emotions before I pull the trigger as I do after, but they come in very different ways, looking and feeling very different.  Even when I’m not hunting, but just out in the woods observing animals, I feel a great love and reverence for all living things.  At no point do I ever take those animals for granted.

The hunt is everything before the pull of the trigger to me.  It’s everything from looking at maps and scouting to setting up camp and traipsing through the woods stalking game.  This allows for the slow process of preparedness. You’re visualizing what is going to happen so that when you lock eyes on your game you can quickly put the excitement of having found it aside, calm yourself and take an ethical shot.  I have always said a little prayer to myself before pulling the trigger to steady my nerves and remember to be grateful to be in the position to take a shot.  You’re about to take the life of a beautiful animal and it’s hard not to appreciate that when you’re in the moment.

Emotionally, I think the toughest part of hunting are those moments between the shot and the field dressing.  Often hunters will become overwhelmed by their emotions even if they act stoically around their buddies.  Many mature hunters will admit that they have cried as they approach the fallen animal. While everyone handles their emotions differently, I love hearing those stories or seeing it with my own two eyes. At this point, all your hard work has paid off, there is a relief in your success as well as a pride for having put in the time and effort.  There is also a deep feeling of appreciation as well as a twinge of sadness.  Contrary to what some anti-hunters might think, or attempt to over-simplify, killing is never fun.  Hunting is fun and joyous, but unless you’ve hunted, I imagine it’s hard to understand the nuance between the hunt and the kill.  

It can be unnerving to have mixed emotions.  In life, one doesn’t usually experience gratitude, relief, joy, sadness and love all at once.  It happens, but not with the regularity that it happens to a hunter or fisherman.  It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but hunters especially, are comfortable in discomfort as we get up early in the morning and brave the cold, the wind, the rain, the snow and all the other elements (usually on vacation days from work mind you, this is how we choose to spend our free time) in pursuit of the hunt.  These mixed emotions and this discomfort, if you accept them, are powerful enough to transform you.  Unfortunately, many hunters choose to bury this instead, as if accepting the emotions somehow makes them less manly.  I believe, based on biology, evolution and my own anecdotal observations, that female hunters are much better at understanding this and accepting it and because of this, I believe that often times they have a deeper love of hunting than their male counterparts.  

I believe that one must accept all the emotional weight of the hunt before one can feel the spiritual connection of the hunt.  This does not mean you have to go around posting videos of you crying over your recently harvested elk on social media nor does it mean you need to start a blog and talk about these things all the time.  You can simply accept it in your heart and your mind.  I do think it’s helpful if you can talk about it, because those folks on the fence about hunting don’t often hear emotional or spiritual stories about hunting in the media.  We’re all painted with a broad brush and the many are convicted of the crimes of the few. 

Killing doesn’t have to be a cold-hearted endeavor.  Show the animal the proper love and respect, perhaps even participate in a ritual to connect yourself to nature in some way.  I once read where the Cherokee would bury tobacco before the hunt as a sacrifice.  I have a little Cherokee in my ancestry and I thought this would be a great way to connect with my ancestors as well as offer a token of love and respect to Mother Nature. Do I believe that the sacrifice actually helped my chances on the hunt?  No, but I do believe that it opened my mind and heart up to connect better with nature and perhaps that made for a better hunt.

What this looks like for you is probably different than it does for me. The only thing I hope is that more hunters are willing to dig a little deeper and then discuss those feelings with others.  It’s truly hard to understand unless you’ve done it, but I believe people, especially young people, are looking for meaning in their lives and hunting is a great way to find it.  Perhaps the person you share your hunting story with will be the next Theodore Roosevelt or George Bird Grinnell.  

Taking Comfort in Feeling Small

My family and I used to do a lot of car camping in the desert when we lived in California.  Our favorite spot was in Anza-Borrego State Park though we also enjoyed Death Valley National Park and Johnson Valley (BLM).  When we go camping, our daughter likes to go to bed as soon as the sun goes down (as opposed to a normal night at home when she wants to stay up all night watching MeatEater).  Usually when she goes to bed, my wife and I will enjoy the time to ourselves, talking quietly around the campfire and perhaps enjoying an adult beverage.  If any of you have ever camped in the desert, you know how impressive a clear night sky can be.

The one thing that always comes to my mind, always, is how massive our universe is.  You look out upon an infinite number of stars and know that they are so far away that it’s incredibly hard for most of us to fathom. Knowing that I am such a small part of the universe, especially given the history of time, is always oddly comforting.  

We humans like to pretend we’re important.  We like to pretend we’re special.  We shout our opinions into already loud echo chambers and feel validated when we hear our voice coming back to us in a slightly different tone. In today’s world, with social media so prevalent in everyone’s life, we know that we don’t even have to have talent to be famous, many people are famous just for being famous.  We crave that attention that will make us feel special and validate our insecurities. 

The truth is, we’re not special.  None of us are really.  Sure, there are those who make an impact that seems incredibly large to us in our time and place, but even the greatest of leaders are mere ripples on the ocean of time. The knowledge of this could be disheartening to some, they may view this as nihilistic, but nothing could be further from the truth.  

Another place that gives me great comfort in spite of making me feel so small is the Rocky Mountains.  When walking through some ancient canyon between mountains that are millions of years old I can see the layers of time on their faces.  I imagine the millions of stories those mountains have in their collective memory and if I get quiet enough and really listen hard, they will tell me some of those stories.  I also know that one day my time with the mountain will be a story it can tell to those still in the “womb of time” (stole that one from Theodore Roosevelt).  

Our goal in life should not be to aspire to be the brightest star in the sky, but to be the Sun in our own solar system.  We should give light and warmth to those in our orbit; our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors.  We are all important in a very real and impactful way, but not in the superficial way that our televisions and iPhones tell us we should be.  Man’s desire to be immortal is as old as man himself, but I challenge us all to be better building blocks of life, rather than aspire to conquer death.  Even Marcus Aurelius once said that even the greatest Roman Emperor will be forgotten in but a few generations.  

There is power in feeling small.  Once you view yourself in the proper context to the universe, your purpose becomes crystal clear.  You know what things you can change and what things you must accept that you cannot change. In feeling small, you become aware of how important you really are.

And the next time you have a clear, dark night, or the next time you’re standing alone next to a mountain, take a moment and listen closely.  You never know what wisdom might be bestowed upon you.

The Power of Unplugging

Every time I travel, especially without my family, I get anxiety.  This is even more true if I’m going off into the woods and I will have no way to know if something happens back home. Sure, there are people who are constantly looking for cell service in the mountains, but I typically shut off my phone when I go in and save the battery for an emergency.  

The first day, I’m a nervous wreck thinking about all the things that couldgo wrong in my absence.  This is partly me and my own anxieties and it’s also partly the world that has taught me to be attached to my damn phone.  As a salesman, my phone is rarely out of reach, and even though that is out of necessity, rather than desire, it has become the new norm and it’s difficult to separate myself from it sometimes.  However, by Day Two, I’m a new man.

Beginning at Day Two, I don’t even remember I have a phone.  Of course, I think about my wife and daughter often, but I know they’re okay and I know my wife can handle any situation that might come up in my absence.  The truth is, there’s too much going on in my immediate situation to think about the trivial things that go on in the world.  Sure, there are serious things going on in the world, poverty, war, etc. but that’s not what most of us are inundated with on a day to day basis; we ignore those things mostly because they’re difficult to think about.  As I write this, outdoors people are arguing over whether or not to buy Yeti products.  I don’t see anything wrong with either the NRA or Yeti, they’re both organizations made up of people with good intentions who sometimes make mistakes. Take a side or don’t, but is something of that sort really worth getting upset about?  I don’t think so.

While we obsess about such nonsense on a day to day basis, when you’re hiking, hunting, fishing, etc., you have real concerns to occupy your brain; the weather, predators, finding game or fish, and perhaps just navigation and not rolling your ankle in a scree field.  Focusing on these immediate issues allows our brains to put the bullshit of civilization away for a while.  No longer are we concerned about pleasing our boss or what our neighbors think of us – they cannot see what we’re up to.  The media, social media, the political conversations at the water cooler are all distant memories for a few days.  

At the very least wilderness is escapism, no different than a comedic movie or a concert or any other form of entertainment.  The wilderness, if you pay attention, is endlessly entertaining. However, I think it’s so much more than that.  Unplugging from the world gives you the time to think about the important stuff in your life uninterrupted.  Maybe you’re struggling in some area (most of us are struggling with something at any given time, no matter how “together” we may have it) and getting away from the noise allows you to meditate or pray on your marriage, your career, your parenting or some other issue.  In the world there is always someone telling you what you should do, but in the wilderness, you get to figure out what is best for you.  That can be daunting, many people prefer to let others make their decisions for them, therefore they have no responsibility or blame if things fail, but that is not a way to live life if you ask me.  Sure, it’s good to seek advice, you’ll already have that in your head when you’re out there and that’s part of the evidence you can examine when making a decision.  However, there’s a greater sense of accomplishment if you solve your own problems.  

If you’re prepared, the wilderness provides all that you need to push the reset button, no matter who you are and what kinds of things you need to do it.  Need action? Go hunting, fishing, climbing, etc. Need peace and quiet?  Sit beside a river under a tree.  Need comfort?  Boil up some tea and sit beside the campfire.  Humans have been going to the wilderness for solace and answers ever since we became civilized enough to separate wilderness from civilization. Wilderness is a part of who we are and I believe if we accept that, it will make us better people and therefore better to each other.