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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?

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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