Though classes at COAGS are often large, I’m fortunate to have just four classmates. After unpacking, I find two of them, Sam Morse and Billy Dills, practicing elk calls on the broad lawn outside the lodge. “You want to make sure they’re in estrus,” Sam advises. “Otherwise, they’re just going to think you’re sick.” A former college football player, Sam just sold his computer business in Bailey, CO, and wants to start an outfitting company with the profits. Billy, an erstwhile law student from Tulsa, hopes to ditch the bar for a career as a hunting guide. Over ribs and chicken that night, I meet my other classmates: Becky Bushell, a web designer from Pearland, TX, and Danny Day, a retired railroad worker from Billings, MO. Like Sam and Billy, they want to make the leap to a life in the wild. Becky is an experienced equestrian thinking about becoming a river-rafting guide. Danny runs a small horse-boarding operation with his wife but would rather wrangle a job with an outfitter.
Most of the students at COAGS hope to become hunting or fishing guides. Not coincidentally, most everything the instructors teach about the outdoors, they teach from a sportsman’s point of view. That is partly why I chose to come here. To many backpackers like me, hunters are the other outdoorsmen, the Ones In The Orange Vests. We all value access to public lands, but we experience them in completely different ways. Hunters approach the outdoors, it seems to me, much more as our great-great-grandparents did: They wrestle it to the ground. While hikers are content to observe (“Behold! An elk!”), hunters feel that observation is but the first step toward utilization. I want to know if their hands-on approach to the wild can help urbanized gorp-munchers like me who, despite our environmental sensitivities, feel nature slipping from our lives.
“To many people,” Jeff says, “camping is driving the RV up, plugging it in, and boom, we’re having a great time. The majority of people enjoy being with the masses. I don’t, especially when I’m hunting. So how can we get into remote country without killing ourselves?” It’s my first day of class and already I gather that Jeff and I want, essentially, the same thing: to find solitude in the wilderness, and avoid an early grave.
We are sitting at picnic tables outside the lodge, and today’s topics include packing and orienteering – what to take to the backcountry, and how to use a compass, map, and handheld GPS to get around once you’re there. Our first lesson: While the prospect of tragedy may seem remote to many casual hikers, it is never far from Jeff’s mind. He holds up a fanny pack derisively. “This thing? You see a lot of city people wearing them now, but this won’t carry the equipment you need in a survival situation.” He piles the table high with essentials: rain jacket and pants, rope, water container, oversized orange trash bag (for use as an emergency shelter), scope, two GPS handhelds, pencils, compass, maps, liquor, knife, markers, flint striker, lighters, hat, gloves, scalpel, thread, duct tape, metal matches, a saw that cuts both wood and bone.
A bone cutter? Two GPS units? Apparently I’ve been hiking in the woods all these years completely unprotected, as unprepared for disaster as the poor Enron dupes who loaded their 401Ks with company stock. The exhaustive list illustrates how he and I perceive the wilderness differently. Like many backpackers, I regard the outdoors as a place of rare danger, an open-air amusement park in which the rides only occasionally malfunction. But to professional sportsmen like Jeff, who once worked on a mountain rescue team, the wild is a vast blue-green appliance that safely produces what you want only if you know which buttons to push. And despite the high-tech gear, I realize it’s me, not Jeff, who has strayed from the path of the original mountain men. In truth, Jeff’s practical, prepare-for-anything approach can be traced directly back to Davy Crockett, who quite literally went forth loaded for bear.