Challenge By Choice: BWCAW Buck Hunt

(Whitetales magazine, Winter 2010)1


By David A. Lien2


While experiencing wilderness in places like northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), we leave the heavy strains and structure of civilization behind, the frantic complications of city life, and go beyond the reach of the cell phone’s ring and the highway’s whine, get out where the FedEx and UPS men won’t deliver.


Life is simpler and goals are pure out there. Get through the day, eat, stay warm and dry, sleep soundly. Luxury takes on new meaning: a hot cup of tea, a moments rest in the sun, a good book, a gentle breeze. Hiking, climbing, hunting, backpacking, canoeing and all the other muscle-powered, quiet-use outdoor pursuits allow us to escape cities and civilization and experience the real, wild and natural, world.

They promote an increasingly elusive understanding of wilderness and give us the opportunity to assimilate its rhythms and time scales, to comprehend the life cycles it supports; the growth and decay of trees and plants, the flights of birds and butterflies, the migration of animals, the relentless stalking of predators; all the essentials of healthy, intact landscapes and ecosystems. They allow us to get back to the “rhythm of life.”

The Rhythm of Life

Minnesota Backcountry Hunter & Angler (BHA) co-chair Darrell Spencer knows what I’m talking about (i.e., escaping civilization and experiencing wilderness), having spent countless days and weeks canoeing and hunting in the BWCAW over the years. After one such trip, Darrell wrote: “Just got back from a 5-day solo trip with my dog in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  It was fantastic: 60 miles and 37 portages. By day 3, all I could think about was working, eating, and sleeping.  Back to the rhythm of life.”3

Minnesota Deer Hunter Association (MDHA) executive director (and BHA member) Mark Johnson knows too. He shot his once-in-a-lifetime Minnesota moose in the Boundary Waters, and in the winter 2009 issue of Whitetales (see “Challenge by Choice: BWCAW—No Place for the Weak”) describes some of the benefits of backcountry hunting.

Mark explains that, “In today’s electronically connected society, wilderness is fully comprehended by few. Much, if not most, of the BWCAW has no cell coverage. In October, and definitely November, you will probably be the only one on the lake. Except for an occasional high flying plane, there is no sound of motors. The silence is deafening and disturbingly glorious.”

The late Minnesota conservationist Paul Gruchow adds: “The howl of a wolf, the cry of a loon, the lap of clean water against an untrammeled shore constitute the only common currency; to defend them is to labor in the most elementary way for the general good.”4 And the opportunity to hunt backcountry bucks is part-and-parcel of this “general good.”

Backcountry Bucks

“There are many places where there are more deer, and most offer easier access and warmer quarters, but no region with whitetails offers more satisfaction and elbow room than the public forests of northeastern Minnesota,” notes American Hunter magazine contributor Patrick Durkin.5 Long time Ely resident and backcountry hunter Stuart Osthoff says, “I contend the BWCAW is the highest-quality public land wilderness whitetail hunting in America.”6

Mark Johnson would seem to agree, and adds: “Wilderness typically does not hold the numbers of deer that intensively managed areas do. The redeeming factor is size, since in the BWCAW, with very low hunting pressure, bucks and bears get old and that means big. Imagine a deer weighing in excess of 300 lbs. Now you have the picture.”7

Darrell Spencer’s thoughts, words, and deeds echo those of Patrick, Stuart, and Mark, because he’s been hunting big bucks in the BWCAW for years. On November 5, 2007, Darrell was hunting in a “top secret backcountry” location at about 9:00 a.m., stalking through a swamp with his trusty 1970s vintage Winchester .30-06, when he spied a buck and doe about 80 yards distant.

One well-placed shot dropped the buck in its tracks, and by week’s end all 7 points (plus a broken tine) and 240 pounds were headed for home (to Duluth, in Darrell’s case) and the freezer. Darrell says, “This buck was a bruiser. Half of one ear torn in half. Big cut by his eye and a hole through his other ear.” A true backcountry buck taken in a traditional fair chase hunt.

As Darrell knows well, the key rallying point for Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and many other outdoorsmen and women, is a shared valuing of tradition: renouncing motors and gadgets in favor of muscle and mind in pursuit of game. “It’s the freedom to hunt and fish in solitude, without urban excesses, and with challenge,” explains BHA founder and board chairman Mike Beagle. “It’s an old-fashioned way of doing things, that says it’s demeaning to wildlife to use technology to show our mastery over wildlife.”8

Beagle, a former Army officer, high school teacher, and football coach, refers back to Teddy Roosevelt when he talks about “the doctrine of the strenuous life”—getting yourself in and out of the backcountry by your own power, and meeting your prey on their turf and level. All it requires is leaving the land alone, and leaving the toys at home. Which, of course, would also keep many of the motor-and-technology-dependent hunters at home too. Like it used to be.9

Like It Used To Be

President Theodore Roosevelt wore out the soles of his boots hunting elk, deer, cougar, and bear in the American backcountry, and thereby earned an authentic perspective of America’s natural resources.10 Roosevelt said we need to “preserve large tracts of wilderness for the skill and exercise of the hunter, whether he is or is not a man of means,” and throughout his adult life Teddy was a strong and tireless proponent of wild places and wide open spaces.

“Above all,” TR said, “we should realize that the effort toward this end is essentially a democratic movement. It is entirely in our power as a nation to preserve large tracts of wilderness … to preserve the game so that it shall continue to exist for the benefit of all.”11 Gladly, we’ve done just that in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, as Mark Johnson aptly describes: “Talk about man-eating country! This is the grand-daddy. Imagine a vast wilderness area of over 2,000 square miles …”12

“Being a ‘designated wilderness area,’” Mark adds, “the BWCAW’s landscape is populated with all sorts of wildlife (moose, wolves, bear, deer, ducks, grouse, hare, etc.), not to mention untold fishing opportunities for walleye, northern pike, lake trout and panfish. Yes, opportunity abounds here, but you have to earn it.”13

As Mark alludes to, wilderness is the gold standard for wildlife habitat and hunting grounds, for “opportunity,” but the game we hunt and kill there must be earned in a fair chase hunt, like it used to be, like it still is in those few remaining places where roadless backcountry habitat has not been fragmented and degraded by roads and (increasingly) ATVs.

While hunting in the backcountry, in wilderness, you have no choice but to earn your keep and kill, and the tradeoff is you get to experience the “large tracts of wilderness” TR devoted his life to saving and the “man-eating country” Mark shot his once-in-a-lifetime moose amidst, the same country Darrell experiences each cold, snowy November while stalking big bucks in the backcountry swamps of the Superior National Forest. It doesn’t get any better.


  1. This is an edited/updated version of the original article.
  2. David Lien is a Life Member of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA), Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), and Trout Unlimited. He’s co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and the founder/co-chairman of the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and serves on BHA’s Board of Directors: www.backcountryhunters.org.
  3. Darrell Spencer. “BWCAW Canoe Trip.” Email: 8/7/08.
  4. Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (FBWW). “Preserving The Canoe Country Heritage.” FBWW: May 2003.
  5. Patrick Durkin. “Classic Country: the Great Lakes.” American Hunter: September 2009, p. 78.
  6. Stuart Osthoff. “Living on the Edge.” Whitetales: Summer 2008, p. 28.
  7. Mark Johnson. “Challenge by Choice: BWCAW—No Place for the Weak.” Whitetales: Winter 2009, p. 15.
  8. Ken Wright. “Sportsmen Unite to Protect Wild Country.” NewWest: 5/27/06.
  9. Ken Wright. “Sportsmen Unite to Protect Wild Country.” NewWest: 5/27/06.
  10. Frank Miniter, Executive Field Director. “Hunters Still Lead the Way.” American Hunter: January 2009, p. 20.
  11. W. Todd Benson. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Conservation Legacy. Haverford, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2003, p. 107.
  12. Mark Johnson. “Challenge by Choice: BWCAW—No Place for the Weak.” Whitetales: Winter 2009, p. 16.
  13. Mark Johnson. “Challenge by Choice: BWCAW—No Place for the Weak.” Whitetales: Winter 2009, p. 16.
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