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Backpacker Magazine – October 2010

Killer Hike

When a lifelong backpacker decides to shoot a deer, will he lose touch with the wilderness he loves--or get closer to it?

by: Bruce Barcott Photography by Paolo Marchesi

On farmland in eastern Washington.
On farmland in eastern Washington.
Tracking dear in the Snake River Bluffs.
Tracking dear in the Snake River Bluffs.
The author approaches a buck she shot seconds earlier.
The author approaches a buck she shot seconds earlier.
Expect a gallon of blood from a buck.
Expect a gallon of blood from a buck.
The author learns to dress a deer.
The author learns to dress a deer.
The author (right) scouts for deer.
The author (right) scouts for deer.
The author dresses a deer.
The author dresses a deer.
    Tags:


If you’ve ever suffered through the mind-screwing tedium of childbirth classes, you have a fair idea of the hunter-safety course. It’s childbirth class with bullets.

On a Monday evening in September, I slipped in the back door of the Bainbridge Island Sportsmen’s Club and claimed one of the few empty seats. The Sportsmen’s Club was straight out of “The Red Green Show”: knotty pine paneling, a moose head above the fireplace, and a sign that read “Absolutely No Drinking While Shooting Is In Progress.”

If hunting is in decline, you wouldn’t have guessed it by the turnout. The place was packed.

“Welcome to Hunter Safety,” said Jim Walkowski. A grandfatherly man in an orange vest and green ballcap, Walkowski is an ex-cop and Navy survival instructor who’d taught this class for 35 years. “Hunting is a privilege,” he told us, “and safety is our number one priority.”

Safety, it turns out, is a relative thing. Walkowski assured us that hunting was safer than playing football or driving a car. “Of the 25 most popular activities in the United States,” he told us, “hunting is the 13th safest.”

I looked it up. According to the International Hunter Education Association, a group that promotes hunter-safety courses in the U.S. and Canada, there were 241 fatal hunting accidents from 2005 through 2009. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 12.5 million Americans hunt every year. That works out to a risk rate of about 0.38 fatalities per 100,000 hunters annually. Comparing the risk rates of different sports is a tricky and often suspect proposition—there are a lot of apples-to-oranges problems—but based purely on fatalities per participant, hunting appears safer than, say, swimming (6.57 drownings per 100,000 swimmers) and bicycling (1.87 fatalities per 100,000 cyclists), but not, technically, football (0.2 per 100,000).

And yet over the five-day course, Walkowski and his fellow instructors rattled off an endless string of hunting-accident anecdotes. One guy’s friend got shot climbing over a fence. A husband and wife picked up their rifles after lunch. “Boom!” said Walkowski. “Killed their partners.” One evening, Walkowski pointed to his rifle and said, “That .30-30 right there, my brother-in-law killed his brother with it. Drinking. So there you go.”

Holy crap! There you go what?

I stepped outside and rethought the whole proposition. It occurred to me that there might be a scared-straight method to Walkowski’s madness. “Maybe it’s like reading Accidents in North American Mountaineering to climbing students,” I told my wife. “Gets them to pay attention.”

Night after night, I returned to the Sportsmen’s Club to receive hot cups of Walkowski’s wisdom. In fairness, I learned quite a lot. Stuff like: Aim for a deer’s lungs, not its head. It’s illegal in Washington to have a loaded rifle in a vehicle. If you get some dirt in the muzzle, a fired shot could split the barrel like a banana peel.

Walkowski and his fellow Club members were friendly, generous men. One of them, a former Army sniper, gave up an afternoon to let me shoot his rifles on the range. (I practiced with my own as well.) And yet, as I slipped my Subaru between massive pickups in the parking lot, I couldn’t help but feel like a blue spy in the house of red.

That’s worth considering. One of the sources of the hiker-hunter rift can be found in the post-Vietnam shift in military culture. Prior to the 1970s, military service was an experience common to the American man. (A draft will do that.) Basic training acquainted a wide spectrum of society—conservative and liberal, rich and poor—with firearms. Nowadays, that doesn’t happen. Today’s soldiers and sailors are self-selected, and they tend to be a politically conservative demographic. Distrust of the military, driven by misadventures like Vietnam and Iraq, and years of urban violence and mass murders like Columbine and Virginia Tech have made a hostility toward guns part of the liberal package deal. Almost all of my liberal friends consider themselves environmentalists. Almost none own a gun. If you’re not comfortable around firearms, you aren’t likely to become a hunter.

The irony, of course, is that hunters founded the modern conservation movement. Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, and Stewart Udall all hunted. (Though John Muir and Rachel Carson did not.) In the 1930s, conservation-minded hunters crafted the Pittman-Robertson Act, which established some of the nation’s first habitat-restoration programs using gun and ammunition excise taxes. Last year, $300 million in gun and ammo tax went to conservation programs—and that’s to say nothing of the more than $1 billion collected in hunting and fishing permit fees.

The big rift opened in the late 1970s. Conservative leaders realized they could use gun control as a wedge issue to turn rural, conservation-minded voters against urban enviros. Many liberal leaders categorically embraced the era’s animal rights movement, which painted hunters as cold-blooded murderers.

The hard feelings still linger. A couple of years ago, I praised a local wilderness group for reaching out to hunting and fishing groups. The director of the group thanked me for the kudos, but admitted that the great reach-out wasn’t a huge success. “We lost members over that one,” she said.




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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
John Avent
Nov 26, 2013

I would agree with most of what is said in this article. I am a hunter and a ultralight backpacker and I can say that they can easily go hand in hand. As for the need for hunting, most hunting is done for the experience of being in the woods and spending time with others. The ethics of killing a game animal isn't about need necessarily, but we take pleasure in the opportunity to stalk and hopefully kill a worthy quarry in the outdoors. Well written article hopefully showing how backpacking and hunting are not necessarily at odds with each other when they each respect the other.

Star Star Star Star Star
At
Oct 19, 2013

Dear Bruce,

Thanks for this article. I enjoyed it.

I made a film about my friend, and backpacking companion, going through a similar journey. He's also a philosopher at the University of Colorado, so the film wanders into both the ethical and literal wilderness. You, and others who enjoyed your piece, may find it of interest:

http://www.atfilms.info/The-Rocky-Mountains

Thanks again for the article,
At

Star Star Star Star Star
George P
Oct 06, 2013

Excellent well written article. I am a lifelong hunter as well as a lifelong hiker and backpacker. I find the two complement each other they are not at odds with each other. I find it encouraging that as a person and as a journalist you truly did walk a mile in another persons shoes. That you did so with a open heart and mind is a tribute to your integrity. Like hunting or not you have felt the honest reward of truly "Bringing home the Bacon".
Thank you for your honesty.

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Star Star Star Star Star
Tanner
Dec 12, 2012

I hunt on some land that pretty much all grassland and doesn't see an ounce of fertilizer. I usually take one deer from here every year. Totally grass feed natural deer. Can't get anymore organic than that.

Kevin
Sep 21, 2012

I am a life long hunter, and backpacker. When you combine the two you get the ultimate wilderness experience in my opinion. I was looking at this magazine to see if I could benefit from it, I will be subscriber from now on.

Dave H.
May 26, 2012

I see I spelled vegetarian wrong. No, I am not just a dumb hunter. Just a human like you. Share the wilderness. lol

Dave H.
May 26, 2012

I have not even read half of the article yet and I never chime in on these things. This article, however, is the best article I have ever read in any outdoor magazine bar none! Bringing people together is what we need now more than ever. I have been an outdoorsman since I was 8 and caught my first sunny with a stick,line, and hook. I grew up in the woods of suburbia and gradually wandered further out. I fish, ski, hike, mountain bike, camp, anything I can to be outdoors. I didn't start hunting until I was 35. I needed something new to do and was invited to hunt. It's not about the killing, it can't trully be explained until you do it. I am one of the minority I guess that is not on either side. I see nothing but being closer to nature when I hunt. I had a girlfriend that was a vegiterian. She said at least it's honest, and you use the whole animal. Not like the drive through. Plus if it ever hits the fan she said she had me to get through it. The most exciting times are when I harvested nothing. The close encounter with bears, the 5 minute old couger tracks etc etc etc. Thank you for an honest look at hunters as just avid outdoors people! We love what hikers love ...being in tune with nature! Let's try to respect each other on common ground.

calisanidiot
Jan 02, 2012

What we need to understand here is that people are entitled to their own opinions and beliefs, and whether or not you agree or disagree with hunting, you should respect others' beliefs. To "Cal" who posted earlier: You are an idiot. Who are you to judge what Bruce (the author) believes? I don't care how much you are against hunting or the killing of animals, you do not wish death upon a person. Your opinions are your opinions, nothing more. You are just one of billions, so your beliefs have no priority in this world. I've never hunted, and I don't like the thought of killing animals/game purely for fun, but I would kill a thousand animals and leave them to rot before I would wish death on a person. It's this sort of lack of respect for other's beliefs that cause problems in the first place. If you want to hunt, then hunt. If you don't, then don't. Live your life the way you want, I'll live mine the way I want, and Bruce will live his the way he wants. Stop being so concerned with others' lives, they're not yours!

To Bruce: Thank you for this article. Whether or not I agree with you is beside the point, I enjoyed your sharing your beliefs (which should not be disrespected) so boldy.

Joe
Aug 03, 2011

Excellent article. I have been a backpacker for many years and like you never really considered giving hunting a try. I am seriously considering taking the hunter's education and giving it a try. Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts.

Troy O
Feb 08, 2011

Great article I have been a person who enjoys both hiking and hunting... I have hiked in Denali and the Wrangells and hunted and hiked in the Brooks Range, would love to see more cross over articles for I am always looking thru BP for ways to safe on weight and gear to use on my trips.... Thanks again good job

Aaron Williams
Jan 21, 2011

I thoroughly enjoyed this article.

Neil
Dec 27, 2010

I was pleasantly surprised to find this article. As a person who hunted with my family as a child, became a "backpacker", and now has returned to hunting for a variety of reasons, I've been on both sides of the coin. While the ethic of "leave no trace" is slowly and fortunately permeating hunting, hunting has given back something I missed as a hiker. Moving slowly, stopping and remaining motionless for hours, conscious of every leaf and puff of wind, I see the smallest plot of land with a depth that would have would have missed in the miles I racked up while backpacking. Having returned to hunting as a urban 40 year old, I also had to take a renewed look at the philosophy and ethics of hunting, and I enjoyed the author's well written account of his own exploration of the issue. While I doubt Backpacker will or should start publishing rifle reviews, I can say that I read through other parts of your magazine with a new interest for the first time in a while. Thanks for being willing to explore beyond the stereotypical boundaries between two groups that share a common cause in preservation of wilderness.

Steve Backs
Dec 06, 2010

Great article and my kudus to BP magazine for publishing it. Perhaps you have opened some eyes to a part of internal but suppressed chemistry of our being. For many hunting is an "excuse" for being outdoors that allow us to feel the world around us at a higher resolution than I do when I'm hiking in the woodland hills during the other months of the year.

Eric S
Dec 01, 2010

Excellent article! Please keep hunting and flush this out into a book. As a Natural resource management student I had similar converstions with the Forestry students. I have returned to (bow) hunting and find it further bridges this odd divide among the outdoor crowd.

Shannon
Nov 24, 2010

What a great story. THANK YOU for writing this. I am glad the author took on a challenge that was out of his comfort zone. The article was extremely honest. It was a great read and I will be passing this onto others!

dana ivers
Nov 18, 2010

Bruce covered in vivid,engrossing detail most of the activities of a large animal hunt for food. I would just like to add that first time "hunters" could research outfitting businesses in their hunting area of choice, and hire an outfitter to guide a first hunt.We have such an outfitting business and would welcome a novice or two. Dana Ivers, cowcreekoutfitters.com

Myriam Bouchard
Nov 12, 2010

I absolutely loved his article. As a lifelong outdoors enthusiast, backpacker, and Bambie-lover, I had my first deer hunting season last year (you can read my story here: http://myrbou.blogspot.com ).

Deer hunting season is a mere week away and I can't wait - yes, I know, I am one of "them" now...

When I tell other I started hunting, to the horror of some, I only accept criticism from those who don't eat meat - otherwise, it is pure hypocrisy, as somebody, somewhere, is killing an animal just for you to eat...

My mentor-hunters don't like to play God - and I understand that some hunters do... sadly - especially those who do not kill for food... and that is a whole other side of hunting which can be debated ad nauseum...

Ben Long, Montana
Nov 12, 2010

Thank you for the thoughtful essay on an issue and experience that is difficult to put into words. Whether we hunt or not, we share a world where beautiful, wild places are rare and diminishing. We should work together to pass them on, along with the freedom to hike and hunt. www.backcountryhunters.org.

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