Hunting For Experience: Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Oral History Project

During December 2023 I was contacted by a University of Montana student about taking part in a Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) Oral History Project. “I am a student enrolled at the University of Montana-Missoula,” she explained. “My class, Hunting History in America, is currently working on a public history project regarding the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. Part of the project involves an hour to two hour recorded interview, kind of like a biography.”

I initially endeavored to steer her towards one of the “Gang of Seven” and other early BHA board members who are likely more conversant in the details of our history, but she was persistent and polite.[1] Hence, before the interview I thought about what hunting means to me and how best to communicate it to her (a willing-to-learn non-hunter) during the short interview.

I’ve had some first-hand experience introducing non-hunters (e.g., my wife) to hunting and conservation, but this would be different and I wanted to, of course, make a good impression with the limited time available.[2] In short, I would try to communicate (as I explained in a 2014 Colorado Outdoors story, “Hunting For Experience”) that, “Hunting is a quest for knowledge and wonder as much as a pursuit of game.”[3]

I would endeavor to emphasize (like Colorado BHA founder David “Elkheart” Petersen did in his 2013 Traditional Bowhunter story, “The Future of Elk Hunting”) that, “The three-part formula for assuring a rich elk hunting future … could hardly be simpler … Those three essential elements are: habitat, habitat, and habitat.”[4] Partly as a result, BHA casts a wide net both in terms of the background of our members and the conservation groups we work with.[5]

“We are famously evenly split politically, and we’re younger and more diverse than any other organization in our space,” BHA North American Board Chair Ted Koch said (in the Winter 2024 Backcountry Journal). “We’re even more diverse in our mission compared to other organizations that focus on a single species or just hunting and fishing. We’re unique and strong because we have chapters in both the U.S. and Canada. We are special in many ways. BHA in its third decade will be an even stronger force on behalf of conservation.”[6]

Historically BHA and Colorado BHA have worked jointly (or on an ad hoc, issue-by-issue basis) most often with groups like Trout Unlimited (TU), Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Project (TRCP), and Colorado Wildlife Federation (CWF)/National Wildlife Federation (NWF). These groups have conservation-oriented missions that closely align with BHA’s primary public lands and water protection and preservation mission.

Multiple BHA leaders over the years have worked for TU, TRCP, and NWF including (in part): BHA founder Mike Beagle (TU); Colorado BHA founder David “Elkheart” Petersen (TU); early BHA board member/Mike Beagle Chairman’s award recipient Joel Webster (TRCP); former BHA Policy & Government Relations VP John Gale (NWF); and former BHA president and CEO Land Tawney (NWF).[7]

As BHA members and many other hunters know well, hunting is about much more than the kill and putting meat in the freezer, as satisfying as those experiences can be. Hunting encompasses and overlaps with a multitude of other outdoor and life experiences. It’s a critical cog in the wheel of life that keeps me grounded in the wild and natural, the real world. I call it “hunting for experience.” Such experiences include the outdoors and public lands as a common thread with hunting forming the bedrock foundation.

To me “hunting for experience” includes watching sunset from 25,200 feet on the north ridge of Mount Everest during our summit push (May 2006) and the next morning turning back while two fellow expedition members climbed to their deaths, then finding out years later that I’d experienced pulmonary edema, a condition that would have almost surely resulted in a third death for our expedition had I continued toward the summit.[8]

As detailed in a November 2006 Grand Rapids Area Library Program flyer (“From the Northwoods to Mount Everest”) about one of my climbing presentations, “Growing up in Grand Rapids, David Lien spent countless hours hiking, canoeing, hunting, and camping in local forests. He developed a love for wilderness and a passion for outdoor exploration and adventure that has never left him, and that would ultimately compel him to challenge the world’s highest peak.”[9]

In a June 2006 Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review story (“Taking on Everest: For David Lien, ‘it’s about the experience.’”) writer-editor Marie Nitke asks an oft-repeated question. “So, with the high risks associated with climbing Mount Everest, why do so many make the attempt? ‘Most mountaineers are pretty obsessed with reaching the summit,’ Lien explained. ‘But for me, it’s about the experience.’”[10]

“Lien said his interest in climbing grew naturally from a love of the outdoors. ‘I think it really started from growing up in Northern Minnesota—doing a lot of outdoors activities like hunting and canoeing. I like the quietness and solitude,’ he said. After moving to Colorado, he explained, ‘you couldn’t go far without running into a mountain,’ so he got into hiking and climbing.”[11]

Hunting for experience is encountering a pack of wolves circling a moose in the middle of a river-channel in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) during an annual October Boundary Waters grouse hunt. “Some creatures must die so that others must live. Mostly, these events are unseen by us two-leggers,” former Duluth News Tribune outdoors columnist Sam Cook wrote. “I’m happy to live in country still wild enough and empty enough to support creatures like wolves.”[12]

“David and Diane are in the lead paddling through the V river-channel section between Insula and Alice. I am maybe fifty yards behind them, but as always, I have my big game radar on,” Boundary Waters Journal publisher Stu Osthoff wrote in the Winter 2018 issue. “Up ahead a hundred yards, I see an antlerless moose run/splash across the channel at full speed from left to right … As we approach to about thirty yards, four large adult brown and white wolves emerge from the water … Turns out we have interrupted the coup de grace of a wolf pack taking down a moose.”[13]

“Most canoe country paddlers romanticize about someday seeing wolves or moose in the BWCAW, but few ever get to witness up close and personal this timeless predator and prey interaction,” Stu added. “In forty-plus years of pounding the woods around Ely, I have only seen wolves taking down a deer on one occasion and never a moose. But here today, all eight of us get to observe raw nature at pointblank range.”[14]

Hunting for experience is listening to a black bear circling my hastily repaired Kifaru tent after arriving in camp and finding it ransacked by the same (I’m assuming) bear. “Friday afternoon (Oct. 17) I hiked for more than a mile through a maze of fallen timber and steep, lung- and ankle-straining cliffs (gaining some 1,500 feet) to my spike/high camp in the … Weminuche Wilderness,” I wrote in a 2014 Colorado Outdoors story (“Elk Hunting: The ‘Bear’ Facts”).[15]

“There I planned to spend all week hunting along aspen- and conifer-clad high mountain benches amid some of the most surreal southern Rocky Mountains terrain and fall colors anywhere. However, when I arrived at high camp something was amiss: my tent had been ransacked by a black bear. In addition to a pillaged tent, the collateral damage included my Jetboil stove, its propane canister, and a portable water pump/purifier …”[16]

Hunting for experience is encountering a group of exceptional bighorn sheep at the bottom of the Grand Canyon during an 11-day raft trip. As detailed in a 2012 Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review story (“local author recounts hiking and rafting the Grand Canyon”), “On January 11, 1908, President Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a national monument … Roosevelt called the Canyon ‘one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.’”[17]

“Lien says, ‘We rafted through almost too-many-to-remember roiling rapids, hiked into numerous serpentine slot canyons, and escaped from the desert heat while immersed in the turquois-blue waters of the Little Colorado River and Havasu Creek. The takeaway from this and all my other Grand Canyon trips: For those who have not yet visited the Grand Canyon, go now!’”[18]

Hunting for experience is encountering a pride of lions in search of zebras and wildebeest walking through your tent camp in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, driving humans into flimsy tents and/or (preferably) caged food storage huts. The closest I’ve come to feeling like a zoo attraction (i.e., a role reversal). The night after we left the park, lions killed a zebra in camp proper and spent the night feeding and lounging amidst the tourist-filled tents before moving off at dawn.

In Tanzania’s national parks visitors are likely to see any of the Big 5—elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion, and leopard—along with numerous other species. The Serengeti’s terrain includes savanna type stretches dotted with acacia trees, rock outcrops called kopjes, riverine bush, and thick scrub interspersed with streams, rivers, small swamps, and lakes. Surveys estimate Serengeti National Park has over 3,000 lions, 1.6 million wildebeest, 500,000 zebra, 500 species of birds, and over 100 different types of dung beetles. 

One can easily imagine this region as it was 12 million years ago, and how our ancient ancestors benefited from living there. Rain was abundant and lakes brimmed. Forests were richly disposed, lending comfort of leaf and fruit to their arboreal inhabitants. Modern grasses took root as never before. Broad were the prairies, green the pastures, and fat the grazing creatures who dined on them. And in this fortunate time, the ape that would someday become man survived, thrived, and evolved in the throes of wild creation. 

Hunting for experience is coming face-to-face with a jet-black wolf and grumpy grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park’s Thorofare Valley during a 65-mile backpack trip into the most remote, from a maintained road, locale in the contiguous United States. “The Thorofare Valley is located in the far southeast corner of the park below Yellowstone Lake and is a place where grizzlies, wolf packs, and bugling bull elk reign supreme,” a 2008 Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review story (“Lien treks in Yellowstone”) noted.[19]

“While there he had close range grizzly bear and wolf encounters and was serenaded nightly to the sounds of bugling bull elk ramping up for the fall rut. Lien has trekked and climbed in some of the world’s most remote and rugged regions, including South America’s Patagonia, Asia’s Himalayas, Australia’s Outback, and the interior of Antarctica.”[20] As of 2024, I’ve managed to set foot in 42 countries, 7 continents, and all 50 states.


Hunting for experience is seeing more ruffed grouse on a single BWCAW portage trail than you’ve ever encountered anywhere in such a short stretch of space and time during a lifetime of ruffed grouse hunting.[21] As I told friends after the trip, “Scott and I hiked the 328 rod (about 1 mile) portage from Gun Lake to Wagosh Lake, encountering some 20 ruffed grouse along the portage (including two strutting males), the most grouse I’ve seen in such a short time period/limited geographic area.”

“David and Scott decide to hike the one-mile portage to Wagosh lake,” Boundary Waters Journal publisher Stu Osthoff wrote in the Winter 2022 issue. “We have a rule of not hunting on portage trails for safety’s sake because you just never know when someone else might happen along. So the boys who have pounded the woods without a bird for two days leave their shotguns in the canoe and hike to Wagosh. It is a grouse sanctuary. They flush no less than fifteen birds off the portage on the round-trip trek. It’s like the birds knew they were unarmed and wanted to torment them.”[22]


Hunting for experience is watching a black bear swim across Crooked Lake, from Canada to the U.S., in the BWCAW. As documented in my trip journal: “Day 2 (10/4/16): Day trip from Horse Lake to Basswood River/Crooked Lake … Encountered a black bear swimming from Canada to the U.S. across Basswood River/Crooked Lake between the pictographs and Lower Basswood Falls.”

“We luck out and have beautiful, warm Indian summer days for the first half of the trip. Day two we pack a lunch and head down the Horse River to see Lower Basswood Falls and the pictographs,” Stu Osthoff wrote Winter 2016 Boundary Waters Journal. “Besides enjoying the falls and pictographs, I spotted a bear swimming across Crooked and we were able to paddle him down to get a close-up look before he scrambled into the brush.”[23]


Hunting for experience is standing atop 12,622-foot Bora Peak in Idaho on a windy, late September morning after having just completed an 11-plus year quest to hike and climb to the highest points in all fifty states. There are many good reasons for climbing mountains, but perhaps as good as any (mountaineer Pat Murphy said) is, “In a world of six [now eight-plus] billion people, the handful who’ve glimpsed Earth from an orbiting spacecraft or the summit of the planet’s highest peaks inevitably develop a reverence for its breathtaking grandeur.”[24]

An October 2007 Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review story added, “Given that somewhere in the vicinity of 20,000 climbers have been to the summit of Mount McKinley in Alaska, about 3,000 have stood atop Mount Everest in Nepal/Tibet, a number approaching 1,200 have reached the summits of all 54 of Colorado’s fourteeners (peaks over 14,000 feet), and about 200 have stood atop the Seven Summits (the highest points on each continent), the fewer than 200 persons who have stood on top of the 50 state highpoints stand out.”[25]


Hunting for experience is watching sunrise while elk hunting with David “Elkheart” Petersen in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. “Although popular hunting magazines often display colorful photographs of huge bulls standing in open meadows presenting easy targets, the reality in Colorado’s high-elevation, lung-busting backcountry is far different,” I wrote in a 2014 Colorado Outdoors story (“Hunting With A Man Made of Elk”). “Elk always have the home-field advantage, but I couldn’t have had a better hunting partner to help tilt the odds in my favor.”[26]

“The sun crested the towering mountainside east of us not long after we reached the downed bull, setting the local scenery ablaze in a kaleidoscopic of fall colors bathed in golden light,” I wrote in a 2024 BHA Blog (“The Patron Saints of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers”) post. “I’ve shot multiple bulls since then, but I’ll never forget elk hunting with ‘Elkheart’ on that picture-perfect October morning in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.”[27]


Hunting for experience is having the BHA logo on your wedding cake because our founder, U.S. Army veteran Mike Beagle, recruited you during February 2005 (a year after BHA was born), saying: “Consider our organization—there are none like it anywhere.” And your response at the time was (as former BHA board member and author Ben Long said) similar to many BHA members, before and since: “Finally, the group I have always been looking for.”[28]

Hunting for experience is having the tables turned and feeling the evolutionary inklings of being prey vs. predator. It’s participating in the relentless, evolutionary dance of life and death. It’s experiencing the war zone that is wild nature. It’s taking responsibility for some of the food we eat and acknowledging that life is dependent upon death and all its bloody, gut-wrenching, yin and yang sorrow and satisfaction. It’s what and who we are at the most basic genetic level, locked in a symbiotic evolutionary dance with our fellow predators and prey.

“Maybe fall isn’t just for hunting, or even fishing,” Christine Peterson observed in the Winter 2024 issue of Trout. “Maybe no season is singularly for one of those activities. Maybe they’re also for noticing, for stopping, for taking our time and watching.”[29] Maybe they’re for understanding that hunting, angling, climbing, canoeing, and life in general are about the same thing: experiencing the wider, wilder world in as many ways and places as possible in order to better comprehend life’s greater mosaic.

All these “hunting for experience” experiences are why I hunt, hike, camp, canoe, and generally endeavor to explore and experience (and help save) our great public lands estate and the wildlands and wildlife that remain. It’s about giving more than we take so that future generations can have the same experiences we have. It’s about using space and time for maximum view.

To help ensure a future for our hunting traditions we need to rethink and articulate what hunting means (or should) to both hunters and non-hunters. As David Petersen opined in his book Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America, “Hunting will never be ‘saved,’ much less ‘improved,’ by more of anything—but only by better of everything.”[30]

During this Oral History Project interview I endeavored to communicate (as I wrote in “Hunting For Experience) that, “During the hunt we may kill an animal or we may not. In the end, it matters very little, because in searching and striving we shall certainly find other things, expected or unexpected, to add to and enhance our life experiences.”[31]


David Lien is a former Air Force officer and co-chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of six books including “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation.” During 2019 he was the recipient of BHA’s Mike Beagle-Chairman’s Award “for outstanding effort on behalf of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.”[32]



Additional/Related Information

-“The Patron Saints of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/12/24.

-“Stalking Wildness: BHA’s Wilderness Warriors.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 2/13/24.

-“Public Lands (& Freedom) Unite Our Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Tribe.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/5/24. 

-“A Hunter-Angler (Hell-Raisin’ & Habitat Savin’) Guide To Winning: Colorado BHA Examples (Browns Canyon & Camp Hale).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/23/23.

-“Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: Mission, Issues & Actions (Triads).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/17/23.

-“Minnesota BHA North Country Icebreaker (‘Stoke The Fire,’ But Don’t Burn Out!).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/11/23.

-“Armed Forces Initiative Helps Veterans Hunt … And More.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/17/22.

-“It’s All About The Meat.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 2/17/22.

-“Conservation (& Conciliation).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 9/15/21.

-“Colorado BHA State Chapter Leadership (Triad) Structure.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/26/21.

-“Hunting For Experience: At BHA’s North American Rendezvous.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/9/21.

-“BHA State Chapter Development (Recruiting/Retaining Leaders & Avoiding Burnout).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 6/1/21.

-“The ABCs Of LTEs: Writing Letters To The Editor.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 2/5/21.

-“Empowering Leaders: It’s In BHA’s DNA.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/7/21.

-“A Letter from CO Co-Chair David Lien.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/18/20.

-“Where Hope Lives: A Brief BHA History.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/30/20.

-“Hunting for Experience.” Colorado Outdoors: 3/17/14.

-“More Women Give Hunting A Shot.” Colorado Outdoors: 10/16/14.

-“Looking back, looking forward: A brief history of BHA.”

-The Jim Posewitz Digital Library.

-The Jim Posewitz Digital Library: Required Reading for Conservationists.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 4/3/20.

-BHA’s Podcast & Blast:

-Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Backcountry College.

-“2021 Rendezvous Recap-Campfire Stories: Hal Herring.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 9/1/21.

-“The future of the American public lands is as important to our nation as the Bill of Rights or the Constitution itself.” –Hal Herring, Field & Stream contributing editor, host of BHA’s Podcast & Blast and BHA’s 2016 Ted Trueblood Award recipient.[33]

-David “Elkheart” Petersen (founder of the first BHA state chapter, in Colorado, and a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) books.

-“On The Wild Edge: Hunting For A Natural Life” Documentary (a film by Christopher Daley) about David Petersen: 

-For more about the ongoing efforts by some legislators in Congress (and others) to privatize our public lands estate see the “Bad Ideas” section in: “A Hunter-Angler (Hell-Raisin’ & Habitat Savin’) Guide To Winning: Colorado BHA Examples (Browns Canyon & Camp Hale).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/23/23.

[1] David A. Lien. “The Patron Saints of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/12/24.

[2] David A. Lien. “More Women Give Hunting A Shot.” Colorado Outdoors: 10/16/14.

[3] David A. Lien. “Hunting for Experience.” Colorado Outdoors: 3/17/14.

[4] David Petersen. “The Future of Elk Hunting.” Traditional Bowhunter magazine: December/January 2013, p. 69.

[5] Travis Bradford. “2023 BHA Membership Survey Results.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 9/29/23.

[6] Ted Koch, BHA North American Board Chair. “Growing Up.” Backcountry Journal: Winter 2024, p. 3.

[7] David A. Lien. “Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Policy & Government Relations VP John Gale Transitions To Bureau of Land Management.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/6/23.

[8] Dave Philipps. “The Client: A local man’s quest for Everest, the top of the world.” The (Colorado Springs) Gazette: 8/13/06, p. LIFE1.

[9] “From the Northwoods to Mount Everest.” Grand Rapids Area Library Program: 11/21/06.

[10] Marie Nitke. “Taking on Everest: For David Lien, ‘it’s about the experience.’” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 6/18/06.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sam Cook. “Life and death played out on the ice.” Duluth News Tribune: 12/28/18.

[13] Stuart Osthoff. “living on the edge.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Winter 2018, p. 38.

[14] Ibid.

[15] David A. Lien. “Elk Hunting: The ‘Bear’ Facts.” Colorado Outdoors: 11/17/14.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Local author recounts hiking and rafting the Grand Canyon.” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 12/23/12, p. 4A.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Lien treks in Yellowstone.” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 10/1/08, p. 3c.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) Day 4: Gun Lake area grouse hunt photos (Wednesday: 10/5/22).

[22] Stuart Osthoff. “living on the edge: Fall 2022.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Winter 2022, p. 30.

[23] Stuart Osthoff. “Living on the edge: Fall 2016.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Winter 2016, p. 32.

[24] Pat Murphy. “Jim Whittaker.” 1/14/00.

[25] “Lien climbs in all 50 states.” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 10/24/07, p. 3c.

[26] David A. Lien. “Hunting With A Man Made of Elk.” Colorado Outdoors: 1/23/14.

[27] David A. Lien. “The Patron Saints of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 3/12/24.

[28] Ben Long. “BHA at 20.” Backcountry Journal: Winter 2024, p. 83; David A. Lien. “A Hunter-Angler (Hell-Raisin’ & Habitat Savin’) Guide To Winning: Colorado BHA Examples (Browns Canyon & Camp Hale).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/23/23.

[29] Christine Peterson. “One Fell Swoop.” Trout: Winter 2024, p. 81.

[30] David Petersen. Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 2000, p. 176.

[31] David A. Lien. “Hunting for Experience.” Colorado Outdoors: 3/17/14.


[33] Will Bostwick. “The New Documentary ‘Public Trust’ Is a Call to Action: By highlighting three potent public-lands battles, the film asks audiences to take a stand in a political moment that threatens the future of American conservation.” Outside: 2/19/20.

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