The great outdoors comes inside to tell Campfire Stories
Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on August 28, 2018
The hunters, anglers and nature lovers of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers’ California Chapter were far from their beloved lakes, marshes, forests and coasts Thursday night, Aug. 23. Instead, clad in hearty plaid shirts and sturdy boots, they gathered round the Mission District’s vintage Verdi Club stage for a night of backcountry storytelling and high-end cheese.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, based in Missoula, Mont., is a nonprofit that aims to be the “sportsmen’s voice of our wild public lands, waters and wildlife.” Not all necessarily hunters, each member of the organization is devoted to conservation and access to public lands. BHA members hunt, fish, forage and/or camp, as well as volunteer their time and expertise on things like river cleanups and public land advocacy in both the United States and Canada. The BHA’s California Chapter boasts about 2,000 members, and last Thursday was the chapter’s Campfire Stories fundraiser and storytelling event.
Russell Kuhlman is BHA’s California coordinator. He flew up to San Francisco from his home in Tehachapi, which he gently described for me as being near Bakersfield. Kuhlman was one of the night’s seven storytellers, and he was enthusiastically on hand to represent BHA to the organization’s Bay Area community. While other BHA chapters have presented Campfire Stories (Denver’s recent storytelling night was apparently quite a hit), Thursday was the first event of its kind for the California chapter.
Organizers anticipated a crowd of nearly 100 people — a great turnout for a venue the size of the Verdi Club, especially at $25 a ticket. The 112-year-old social club’s cozy bar served up pints of beer while guests mostly milled about in the hall’s ballroom before the show began. Chandeliers hung overhead as BHA volunteers staffed a T-shirt and water bottle sales table, another gentleman displayed and sold hunting knives, and people from the outdoor clothing company C.C. Filson — the event’s co-sponsor — talked serious sportswear. A setup in the back offered an impressive spread of hors d’oeuvres from the upscale Bi-Rite Market. We’re talking thick wheels of gooey brie cheese and grilled beef skewers. Hunters, it was clear, don’t skimp when it comes to snacks.
Long after the official 6 p.m. start time, storytellers took the Verdi Club’s charming stage one by one. Their only instruction was to focus on the outdoors and to keep their stories under 15 minutes. The focus wasn’t so much on killing adorable animals as it was on celebrating public land, which Kuhlman made clear is the mission of BHA.
“That,” said the 32-year-old, “is why tonight’s not going to be seven people talking about how big of a deer they shot.”
In addition to Kuhlman, the night’s lineup consisted of three men and three women — a significantly more diverse gender breakdown than actual BHA membership. According to Kuhlman, only 8 percent of BHA members are women. (While we’re talking BHA statistics, 63 percent of the organization’s members are under 45, a whopping 31 percent are registered independents, 23 percent are Republicans, and 21 percent are Democrats.)
Campfire Stories served not only as a fundraiser but also as a test run of sorts. Usually, BHA’s California social gatherings center on volunteerism and pint night meet-ups. “We definitely don’t want to be viewed as just a drinking social club,” Kuhlman said.
Based on the response to Thursday evening, BHA’s California Chapter might make Campfire Stories an annual event. And I think they should, especially as it introduced people like me (who don’t own waders) to a community of outdoor activists and enthusiasts with whom I was unaware.
My favorite storyteller was the night’s first. Keef Kiser regaled us with a harrowing tale of waterfowl hunting gone dangerously wrong. At one point, having just cheated death several times over, all that stood between Kiser and his dad’s safe journey home was an angry bull. The pair were hilariously rescued by their rather blase dog.
Still, much of the storytelling included hunting, fishing and wilderness references or inside jokes that I just didn’t get. I’ve never hunted for anything other than a bargain. But the passion and wealth of knowledge shared by both the storytellers and the audience held great appeal. At several points throughout the night, it really did feel as if we were seated around a campfire, snacking on sirloin skewers and listening to the sportsmen and sportswomen among us spin tales of adventure and misadventure. The only difference between real campfire stories and the BHA version was the Verdi Club’s welcome abundance of indoor plumbing.
Beth Spotswood’s column appears Thursdays in Datebook. Email: email@example.com