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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:


Day three: Gator’s last chance at a deer. We decide to hit it hard, hunting the Blue Mountains’ ponderosa pine forests in the morning and working the isolated Grande Ronde River breaks in the afternoon.

At first light, Gator and I and Shaun Bristol, who has joined us for the morning, set up on the edge of a Blue Mountain meadow. We’d seen some does browsing in the field at dusk the previous night, and figure we might catch a buck among them this morning. We lean against the rough bark of the ponderosas, trying to blend in and remain motionless. If open-field hunting is all about covering ground and flushing game, forest hunting requires opposite tactics: Hide and wait for the prey to come to you. Or so we think. We’re hunting for the first time without Jennifer—a solo flight of sorts.

As Gator creeps forward for a better view, a spear of meadow barley nails him in the eye.

“God damn,” he says, pulling the barbs out of his eyelid.

“Um, guys…” Shaun is trying to get our attention.

“Did you get it out?” I ask. Gator shakes his head.

“Guys…” Shaun says. I look back at him. He points to two whitetail bucks quietly crossing

the road 20 yards behind us.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say. The deer catch our movement and bolt into the
forest. I laugh at the thought of Gator and me standing there, Jethro and Elmer Fudd, as our prey fearlessly strolls by.

In the afternoon, we load our packs with food and water and hitch a ride to the rim of the Grande Ronde River canyon. The Grande Ronde, a tributary of the Snake, unwinds like a curling ribbon through the Columbia Plateau near the Oregon-Washington border. It’s world famous for its steelhead, and the dry, brushy ravines above the river are prime habitat for deer, coyote, wild turkey, chukar, black bear, elk, and bighorn sheep.

We have a plan. Gator and I will start about a quarter-mile apart at the top of the rim, then pick our way down in a V that meets at the bottom of the ravine. I’ll flush the deer in Gator’s direction.

As I heel plunge down the scab-land ravine, my eyes scanning for movement, Gator in my periphery, a sort of perfect moment comes over me. My own hunt is done. Because I’ve already bagged my deer, I can relax and enjoy the hike, the camaraderie, the strategy and cunning, the suspense, and the pure joy of physical movement in the wild. Gator, on the other hand, hunts with all the pressure and anxiety of a live trigger. If you’re doing it right, hunting comes with a huge responsibility. You’ve got to line up a good shot, not carelessly wound the animal, not shoot something illegal, not crack off an errant bullet that flies into a house a half-mile away, and not kill your partner. It’s not that far from mountain climbing, in fact. A certain amount of danger and risk enhances the experience of moving across wild terrain. It revs up your adrenaline and puts the senses on edge. Hunting combines strategy, motion, experience, skill, and danger.

It does something else, too. By the end of our three-day hunt, I feel like I’ve been given a fresh pair of eyes. Landscapes that were once barren to me become lush and vibrant, alive with life, crackling with possibility. Where once I saw lowland scrub—white noise for a backpacker—now I see a living habitat where rosehip bushes function as secret deer beds. Blank hillsides aren’t blank at all; they’re terraced with game trails. I see water and imagine the animals it might draw. I start to think like a predator. To be perfectly frank, hiking as a hunter is fun.

After a couple of hours, I’ve flushed only a doe and a mangy coyote from the brush. Gator and I take a break. The late-afternoon sun beats down, and we strip off layers.

“I don’t know if it’s in the cards for us today,” I say.
That’s when Gator spots the buck.

It’s just below us, in a dry creekbed: Mule deer, a buck of unknown antler points. The deer takes off uphill, moving over a ridge before Gator can get a look through the scope.

Gator scrambles across the creekbed and muscles up the ravine. I follow for a while, but I’m in no shape to be chasing uphill after a man who has climbed Rainier 190 times.

The buck keeps moving high. Gator follows. Over one ridge, then another. I shadow them from below. Finally, Gator peeks over the edge of the last ridge and puts the buck in his crosshairs. The deer stares back at him.

“He was at an angle where his antlers lined up exactly in a row,” Gator later tells me.

“So I couldn’t get a read on his points. I couldn’t confirm that he was legal.” They stood there like that, frozen for a few moments. Then the deer turned. Gator saw the antlers—a three-pointer, legal—but the deer’s butt was angled toward him. A lousy gut shot if he took it. A wounded deer, the meat spoiled. Plenty of hunters have pulled the trigger in that situation.

Gator didn’t.

As the sun fades behind the canyon’s rim, we hike out through an old apple orchard to a road beside the river. There, Jennifer, Shaun, and Ted—a happy, relieved Ted—greet us with a warm truck and cold beer.

“Well, what do you think of hunting now?” Jennifer asks me.

“Harder than it looks,” I say. “But a hell of a lot of fun.”

“Are you going to become a hunter now, Bruce?” Ted asks.

It will take some time, some reflection, before I can answer that question with any certainty. To do it right, hunting requires long-term preparation. The payoffs, though, can’t be expressed in antlers or meat. Hunting offered this lifelong hiker an enriching and profound new way to interact with the land. Different landscapes opened up to me. I’ve met the Cabela’s crowd on their turf and, hopefully, shattered some of their own stereotypes about fleece-wearing treehuggers.

So call me a hunter. I’ve got visitation rights with my rifle, and if someone asks me to join his deer camp next season, I just might grab it and go. 

Bruce Barcott brought home 55 pounds of venison from this hunt. He wrote about mapping his new home, Washington’s Bainbridge Island, for the May 2010 issue.



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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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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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