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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?

“Field dressing” is a pretty term for a bloody, messy, disgusting operation. It involves cutting open a freshly killed animal and removing its guts and organs. It’s done on the spot, at the point of the kill—otherwise, the carcass is too heavy to haul. The guts are left for coyotes and other scavengers. Jennifer tutors me on the finer points.

“Start your cut here,” she says, pointing to the deer’s nether regions. Jennifer and I spend the next half an hour slicing through deer hide and peeling through the animal’s thin, mucousy layer of fat. The shifting breeze sends a briny funk of odor—the smell of warm blood mixed with body gasses—up my nose. I fight back a dry-heave.

By the time Gator arrives that evening, my deer is cooling in a local meat locker. “Time to get you yours,” I tell him. I can’t believe I’m saying those words even as they leave my mouth.

Gator is a bit of a legend in mountaineering circles. He pulled injured climbers off of Mt. Rainier for nearly 20 years. He’s almost as famous for his eclectic collection of friends. Senators, CEOs, Everest-climbing superstars, and backwoods hippies all consider Gator their righteous bro. One of those friends, Ted Cox, is a seasonal Rainier employee in his 60s who’s come along on the hunting trip to…well, nobody’s quite sure why he’s come along. Ted opposes hunting like dogs oppose cats—with loudness and constancy. “I’m here to witness the slaughter,” Ted declares.

The next morning, Gator, Ted, and I are up just before dawn, pounding coffee. Gator’s day often starts with a 2 a.m. alpine start, so this is a lazy Sunday for him. “Sure beats getting up in the middle of the night in a storm on the side of a mountain,” he says.

“I can’t believe you’re really going through with this,” scolds Ted. “What have you got against some poor, defenseless creature?”

Gator laughs. “Aw, Ted. What about those fish you like to catch?”

“That’s different,” says Ted.

We hike through fields to the sloping coulees of the Snake River canyon. At the rim we pause to take in the scene, a classic Western vista that hasn’t changed much since Lewis and Clark came upon it more than 200 years ago. The Snake drains most of Idaho, and the river’s breaks are formidable—dry gulches and ravines falling away and folding in on themselves for more than a mile before hitting water. Deer, coyotes, and other wildlife come here to hide out in the rock crevices and pockets of brush.

Gator and I scramble over steep terrain. Because of the rifle on my back, I find myself placing steps with newfound precision. A tumble here could easily lead to a misfire, or worse.

“You’ve got to add something to the equation when you’re hunting the breaks,” Jennifer had told us. “That’s whether you can haul a 150-pound deer up the cliffs after you shoot it.”

“Honestly, I’m not that worried about bagging a deer,” Gator says. “The main thing I’m concerned about is not making a lousy shot and letting some poor animal wander off wounded.”

We crouch by a pocket of trees and brambles. “There’s got to be something in there,” I say. “Why don’t you set up a shot while I flush?” Gator hugs the ground and props himself on his elbows. I toss some rocks into the trees. After the crackle and thunk, movement.

“Two of ’em,” I say.

“I see them,” Gator murmurs.

A doe and her yearling emerge from the shadows. Gator takes his finger off the trigger. Our tags are for bucks, not does. We watch them disappear over the next ridge.

That night we return empty-handed. Ted is visibly pleased.

“Nothing killed today, fellas?” he says. “What a shame.”

Centuries ago, kings employed jesters to keep things lively and to deliver hard truths in a nonthreatening package. For Gator and me, Ted plays the jester for our collective conscience. He gives voice to the inner hiker in both of us. All around us, sportsmen speak of “harvesting” deer, as if living creatures are barley. Ted reminds us that we are, in fact, killing animals.

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