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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?

We live in a world too cleanly divided. We are red states or blue states, urban or rural, creamy or crunchy. The outdoor world suffers miserably from this binary split. We are hikers or hunters, two cultures divided by a chasm of ignorance and mistrust. We wear Patagonia R2 fleece or Mossy Oak Break-Up camouflage. Our seasons have different names: One person’s duck season is another’s ski season. The catalogs in our mailbox define us: Cabela’s or REI. Six years ago, the rift was distilled in two political bumper stickers. Sportsmen for Bush. Climbers for Kerry.

I’m troubled by this great divide. As a member of REI Nation, I’ve been a backpacker, a car camper, and a bird-watcher. I’ve thrown bait and flies at Alaskan salmon and Rocky Mountain trout. I’ve climbed Cascade volcanoes, paddled Sierra rivers, and I’m a skier of catholic taste. But I’ve never been hunting.
I find that a little strange. Hunting is, after all, the original outdoor activity. But what’s more puzzling is the fact that nobody’s ever asked me to go hunting—or wanted to know if I’ve ever been. I’m so deeply smothered by the fleecy bosom of my demographic that the notion never arises. In this polarized world of us and them, hunting is something they do.

And who are they? If you believe Hollywood type casting, they’re beer-guzzling good old boys. They’re Toby Keith in a trucker cap. They love wildlife they can kill, but don’t have much use for the rest of nature. They run generators in campgrounds and drive F-250s with NRA stickers in the window. Not our kind, dear.
At least that’s the way I used to think. And then, little by little, my assumptions changed. As an outdoor writer, my job often requires me to drop into backcountry terrain where I’m a stranger to the land. Years ago, I discovered that sportsmen offer an excellent perspective on the local wild. I’ll find the best hunter in the county and spend an afternoon with him, without weapons, crashing through the forest. A hunter’s eyes, ears, and nose are tuned differently than a hiker’s. He sees things that are invisible to those of us trained to follow signs and stay on trails.

I’ve also learned that there are plenty of hunters who are hikers, and vice versa—among them, readers of this magazine. For them—and maybe that includes you—the notion of a divide would be a mystery, perhaps even an insult.

Still, every statistic indicates that crossovers are a distinct minority. Among most backpackers, and among most hunters, the culture divide grows wider. In a hiking club, the word “hunting” can suck all the air out of the room. It’s become a conversational taboo.

Any issue that volatile is worth investigating. So I decided to meet the hunters, explore their world, and attempt the pursuit myself. I wanted to bridge the gap with a gun.

I figured I’d need a partner, so I called my friend Mike “Gator” Gauthier, who was then the head climbing ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park. (He’s since been promoted to Interior Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.) I explained the project.

“So…we’d actually go hunting,” he said. “Not just hang out and watch some hunters?”

Yes.

“I’m in,” he said. “How do we do it?” 

“I have no idea,” I told him. “Maybe we should find a hunter we can go with.” That’s when we realized that, well, we didn’t know any hunters.

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