Perhaps you know me. I am a latte-sippin’, digicam-totin’, cubicle-escapin’, REI-shoppin’ lover of the outdoors. I can light a campfire, I can pitch a tent, and in bear country I know better than to sleep with the Oreos next to my head.
But Daniel Boone I am not – and the older I get, the more that bothers me.
Admit it: This country was built by folks who had serious outdoor chops, and we backpacking suburbanites are ill-equipped to follow their lead. We may be environmentally conscious in ways our forebears were not, but we will never be the bare-knuckled mountain-tamers they were. Whereas they laid hands on the wilderness, we experience it as if through a veil, and with every year that goes by, the veil becomes more opaque. On weekends, as I wander the well-trod trails to which my kind are increasingly confined, I wonder whether I’m really connecting to the outdoors at all. In it, but not of it – you know the feeling?
There should be an official diagnosis for the midlife malaise of the weekend hiker. Fanny Pack Syndrome? Protein Bar Dependency? Whatever, I’m not waiting for the docs to find a cure. Recently, I decided it was time to find my own way back to the wilderness, to make a serious effort to be the kind of guy who feels at home in any forest, in any circumstance. So I enrolled in a course in basic wilderness skills at the Colorado Outdoor Adventure Guide School, where middle-of-the-road campers like me learn from superoutdoorsmen like Jeff Miner, one of the school’s top instructors for the last decade. The man has traversed some of the nation’s toughest backcountry terrain, guiding – and occasionally rescuing – sportsmen lucky enough to have him along. What Jeff knows, he knows from experience. But his credentials would come later. When he introduces himself as I step from my rental car, all I know is that a sandy-haired man dressed in jeans and a camouflage shirt is shaking my hand and, without saying a word, conveying the distinct impression I should just leave my laptop and iPod in the trunk.
COAGS is no namby-pamby gold-faucet operation. On a private ranch about 50 miles from Colorado Springs, the school sits on the south side of Pikes Peak, a few rustic buildings in a clearing surrounded by aspen, pine, and fir. In the center is a lodge bisected into a meeting room and dining room, plus a ramshackle add-on kitchen in which Jeff’s wife, Theresa, somehow manages to crank out the kind of wonderful Western meals you haven’t seen since Bonanza.
My cabin sits to one side of the lodge with a handful of others. There’s no running water – a row of portable outhouses sits a few yards away, while showers are located in a building by the horse stables. But there are bunk beds, a couple of tables and chairs, and most thoughtfully, a mousetrap.
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.
In sunglasses and camo pants, a baseball cap pulled low over his unruly hair, Jeff dispenses more advice every 2 minutes than most of us can in 2 days. Some tips are straight from Hiking 101, but he covers so much ground, and in such detail, I find myself scribbling even the basics. After discussing the relative advantages of external and internal frame packs, he moves on to food, and by now I’m taking notes furiously: Bisquick is good for making anything…carry a good water filter…if you don’t, better to risk giardia than dehydration. Then clothes: silk underwear in hot weather…polypropylene in winter…always carry leather gloves…never, ever wear new boots on a hike.
“I can’t count the number of hunters who come out here with new boots,” sighs Jeff. “Boots that are not broken in are a quick way to have a bad time.”
Okay, I knew this. Everybody knows this. But now I find it necessary to slide my conspicuously unscuffed hiking boots under the picnic table where no one can see them. Hey, REI had a sale. Sue me.
We move on to orienteering – and a few horror stories about what happens to people in the wilderness who don’t know how to use a compass. Bears eat them. Elk gore them. They are found huddled in tree hollows, gibbering to themselves, by competent outdoorsmen like Jeff. And Jeff does not want to see that happen to us.
Lordy, neither do I. My compass skills date from Boy Scout training in the ’70s, and I don’t think I’ve actually held one since then. Thankfully, not much has changed. Magnetic north is still magnetic north…except it isn’t, of course, because declination varies from place to place. That I’d forgotten. And so my first reading, under Jeff’s watchful eye, locates me on our map somewhere north of Colorado Springs, in what appears to be the median of I-25.
“Do any of you really understand declination?” Jeff asks, incredulous. There are murmurs of confusion. As GPS devices have become more ubiquitous, I surmise, compass orienteering is becoming a lost frontier art, like beaver trapping and bank robbing. “What GPS has given us,” declares Jeff, “is an increased sense of fake security.” GPS devices are convenient, but if the batteries run out in the backcountry, or if you simply lose the thing, you’d better have a passing acquaintance with a map and compass. We do not. My classmates and I spend the next 2 hours learning to use maps the old-fashioned way: triangulating our position, translating degrees into miles, reviewing the merits of UTM codes and other measuring scales, learning to navigate around barriers.
Clouds are building overhead, and as rain begins to fall we gather the maps and retreat to the lodge to watch a video about low-impact practices in the backcountry. The earnest, well-scrubbed hosts look as if they have just emerged from hot tubs in Aspen. Hikers, they tell us, should never walk single-file lest they unnecessarily break a new trail. Campfires should be built on fireproof cloths spread atop rocks, and the ashes buried. Dishes must be washed with water and spruce combs. In the wilderness, toilet paper is a luxury.
Jeff is showing us this video, I gather, not because he endorses it, but because he believes it’s an example of the politically misbegotten nonsense that sensible people in the outdoor-recreation business have to confront all the time. For well-heeled hunters, he and the outfitters at COAGS regularly run mule trains into the backcountry carrying tons of equipment – mammoth tents, entire kitchens, food, water, medicine for dozens of people and animals. In one legendary exploit, an outfitter packed a grand piano into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“Leave-no-trace is impossible, in my opinion,” Jeff says after the video ends. “But do we want to make it a shithole out there? Absolutely not. Some of these rules are positive, like not cutting corners on switchbacks. But the rules are different in every forest. As a commercial outfitter, you will always have a mandated set of rules to follow from the government.” Like Ed Abbey, who famously flaunted the rules in his beloved canyon country, Jeff seems less perturbed by any specific decree than by the whole body of them – and by the nauseating idea that people less competent than he want to tell him what to do. While many of us regard the wilderness as a place of escape, Jeff, it appears, has seen enough to know better. Where once there was freedom, there is now regulation.
There is frustration in his voice now, and a little anger. As Jeff tells it, there is a battle being fought for the outdoors. On one side are pointy-headed Washington rulemakers and misguided environmentalists who wish to preserve public land in a pristine state, untouched by human hands. On the other are recreation enthusiasts who believe that God put nature here to be used – wisely, of course, but used.
“The wilderness has to be available to everyone in this country,” Jeff says. “Llama-packers, hunters, ATVers, motorcyclists. Everyone has a right to an outdoor part of the ground they’re paying for. But some groups push for other groups not to be able to use public land, and if we keep alienating each other – the snowmobilers from the hikers, the ATVers from the mountain bikers – then pretty soon we all lose strength.”
Most hikers I know believe that safeguarding the environment is the answer, not the problem. But listening to Jeff, I can see how baffling it must be to people who make their living in the wilderness that so many of us regard it as a sort of gigantic terrarium that must be sealed off from noxious human influences. To someone like Jeff, a wilderness without people is a wasteland, and any effort to rid it of them is an attempt to remake nature into something it never was. Here’s something I think hunters know that hikers forget: We belong outdoors. It is our first home. Not having the skill – and attitude – to survive there is like not having a key to your own front door.
We cannot be lost.
We have ridden on horseback into the mountains only a few miles from the school. Pikes Peak, one of the continent’s signature summits, looms directly ahead, and to the west we can see a distinctive, azure lake. And yet here we are – Becky, Billy, Sam, Danny, and me – on our stomachs in a meadow, drawing lines all over a map, not even remotely certain of our precise whereabouts.
“God, we suck,” says Becky.
Today we are putting our new orienteering skills to the test. Now frustration is building, as are the afternoon thunderheads.
Jeff lowers the binoculars he’s been using to spy for elk. “Sight something closer, not the peak, not so far away,” he advises. “And what’s the first thing we do? We orient ourselves.”
Our map, it appears, is not even positioned correctly on the ground, and we cannot decide how to triangulate our position without the peak. “Just look at where you are,” says Jeff, exasperated. “You’re in a saddle, near a lake, there’s a butte at one end.”
Sam points to the map. “The butte is here?”
“No,” sighs Jeff. “That’s a cliff.”
Now Sam is annoyed. As the rest of us continue to take sightings, he quietly pulls a GPS out of his pocket and activates it. “Keep him busy,” he whispers.
There’s no need. Billy has figured out what we’re doing wrong (a declination slip-up, naturally), and after some hasty recalculation, locates us on the map. We look at one another, relieved but sobered. Team COAGS was beginning to look like bear bait.
After a quick lunch, we check to see that the horses are still tethered, then strike out into the backcountry on foot. The day has turned gray and misty, and the forest we enter feels like a congregation of unhappy ghosts. Not far into the trees, we pass a collapsed mine shaft. Prospectors discovered gold in this area in 1890, and at one time 500 mines were in operation. Some 21 million ounces were extracted, an unearthly amount exceeding the yields of the California and Alaska gold rushes combined. Many men became wealthy, but many more died out here, in the wild. The very outdoor skills I am trying to learn are a legacy from them, and from hunters and loggers and legions of others who came unapologetically to exploit the land. Hikers like me could not be in the backcountry without the knowledge they accumulated.
Outside the lodge that night, as a full moon rises over the aspens, we gather around a bonfire and talk turns, inevitably, to hunting. Between gulps of beer and good-natured insults from Becky, Jeff recalls the time a cornered mountain lion killed one of his hound dogs and wounded another. Billy describes how his father felled an elk with a bow and arrow across an impossible gorge. Sam turns to me. “You don’t hunt at all?”
I don’t. Back home in coastal California, that’s hardly unusual. Mention the buck you shot at a dinner party in San Francisco or Los Angeles, and I promise you a shroud of silence will fall about the room. But the table will be set with meat, and guests will soon be gushing over the paté. It’s not killing per se that bothers backpackers like me; we know we’re part of an ecosystem predicated on our staying at the top of the food chain. Rather, I think most of us are perplexed that so many of our fellow citizens would choose to experience nature through blood sport.
In the lodge behind me, elk heads line the walls of our meeting room. Once, Jeff recalls, at a New Year’s Eve party, someone decorated a mounted moose head with a party hat and poked a cigar in its mouth. Jeff was horrified. “I have nothing but respect for those animals,” he says, “and I’ve never seen one walking around with a cigar.” As Jeff sees it, hunters like this are hacks, imposters, identifiable by a criminal, beer-soaked obliviousness to the sacredness of the wild.
“For a client to come in and take his first elk, to harvest an animal, that’s as touching for me as anything,” he says. “You know, American outfitters need to learn as much as we can from African game hunters. It’s an incredible thing to be hoisted up and carried around after you’ve killed your first mature lion. We don’t do that in this culture.”
When, I find myself wondering, could a hiker be similarly celebrated? After he has walked the Appalachian Trail in sandals? Made it across Death Valley with a cracked Nalgene bottle?
With the exception of Becky and myself, everyone around this fire hunts. And when I tell them I do not, I see something unexpected on their faces: pity.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH HAS ARRIVED. AFTER A MORNING of instruction in wilderness-survival techniques, Jeff has divided us into two teams. Each has 20 minutes to start a fire and to build a rainproof emergency shelter, sufficient for the entire group, from whatever is handy. While Danny and Sam build our shelter, I am on fire duty. But it is raining buckets, and the Vaseline-soaked cotton balls I brought along, clever me, will not light.
“Here, use this,” says Danny. I hold out my hand, and he deposits a significant lump of dried horse dung. “It’ll burn great.”
And so it does. Who knew? By the time Jeff arrives to judge our handiwork, the fire is crackling and our grubby little shelter is watertight. But Jeff is less impressed than I expected, and soon I see why. Just out of sight, Becky, the web designer, and Billy, the law student, have built a fabulous country retreat of saplings and tarps. Before its cavernous entrance roars a fire so large and hot you can’t even feel the rain.
While I was gathering fallen branches and finding just the right spot for an environmentally appropriate fire, Billy was mowing down pines and Becky was igniting a conflagration. And so they should have: Had this been a real emergency, their shelter would have kept us all safe and warm. Leave no trace, my frozen wet butt.
I may be able to signal a plane and survive a freak snowstorm now, but as I linger by Becky’s bonfire, I begin doubting that I will ever be as adapted to the outdoors as my classmates are. But I now know it’s not because I’m unable to acquire the right skillset – it’s more that I lack the mindset. Maybe hikers have a pathological need to apologize to nature for their intrusions, to tiptoe through the places where sportsmen make themselves at home. Everyone takes a different trail into the wild, I suppose. But we are alike in this: We all fear losing the path we’ve chosen. Hunters dread a vast frontier walled off into governmental fiefdoms and ensnared in impossible regulations. Hikers panic as solitude slips away amidst an onslaught of ATVs and gun-toting can-tossers. If we don’t find a way to share something so important, all of our lives will be irrevocably diminished.
On our last day, Jeff shows us how to raise an outfitter’s tent, essentially a canvas cottage furnished with a stove, cots, and chairs. The front and rear are each supported by two lodge poles, which must be lifted simultaneously underneath the ridgepole supporting the roof. It’s no easy task, and it takes us the better part of an hour, calling back and forth from opposite sides, to make it work. Afterward, exhausted, we sit inside and shoot the breeze. On Jeff’s recommendation, it turns out, Billy has just gotten a job as an elk-hunting guide in southwestern Colorado. There are huge bucks down there this year, just waiting for a guy who knows the right calls.
Looking around, I’m surprised the tent is big enough to hold us all. But it is.
California-based freelance writer Michael Mason says that from now on he intends to pack for trouble.