“Taking the life of such a large, magnificent animal can change you. Looking into its lifeless eyes sticks with you.”
It’s early Wednesday morning (September 21, 2022) and nearly pitch black on Highway 160 west of Pagosa Springs. I’m heading home after scouting for rifle season elk hunting locales in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Outside of town I slow down entering the 40 mph zone. Although fully alert, I’m startled by a bull elk standing statue-still in my lane.
With a fraction of a second to react before impact, I crank the wheel hard right, miss the bull by inches (if that), then careen hard left to avoid going off the road. Everything in the vehicle is tossed from side to side during the violent, split-second turns. It’s over in an instant and I can scarcely believe I didn’t hit the “ghost bull” or the ditch.
He seemed to appear out of nowhere, specter-like, a stationary black shadow with a rack. Dimly lit and difficult to see with my increasingly sketchy 50-plus year old night vision, had I been going any faster or reacted milliseconds slower the results would be (for starters) a totaled vehicle and mangled elk.
Just two days prior I encountered a 5x5 bull at dusk on a forestry road near camp. He stood statue-still too, roadside, some 100 yards away, facilitating a few photos before fading, ghost-like, into the shadowy twilight. Encountering a stationary bull in the open during hunting season, in an over-the-counter unit, was an unexpected first for me. Hitting one with my vehicle would have been too.
A Good Year
Despite the inevitable bumps and swerves in the road, it has been a good year, one that included hunting mountain Merriam’s turkeys in the San Juans during April, then ruffed grouse hunting (aka, “armed hiking”) with my wife Melinda in northern Minnesota’s Chippewa National Forest during September followed by canoeing (and more grouse chasing) in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in October. Then, elk hunting in the San Juans at the end of October and whitetail hunting in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest during early November.
Not to mention many other life-enhancing experiences during the year that included visiting places like Appomattox Court House Nat. Historic Park and Fort Monroe Nat. Monument (“Freedom’s Fortress”) in Virginia, the Air Force Museum in Ohio, the Boone And Crockett Club HQ in Missoula, the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne, Yellowstone National Park, the Tennessee Pass 10th Mountain Division Memorial near Leadville (Colo.), Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, the nearby U.S.S. Hornet aircraft carrier, Veterans Memorial Hall in Duluth (Minn.) and the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver.
However, only a handful of these experiences haunt my dreams, the ones I can’t shake and maybe never will. The ghost bull near miss and looking into the “antlered eyes” of a dead elk on Halloween are among them, not to mention the other bulls I’ve knelt next to, “like a prayer” Colorado poet Art Goodtimes says, during falls past.
“Certainly, most Americans have lost touch with the process of making meat. They live in cages of their own making, cut off from the exquisite beauty—and hard reality—of the land that sustains them,” explained Bugle contributor Chris Madson. “Sheltered as they are from any relationship with killing, they simply don’t understand that, in this world, killing is like breathing—we don’t get to decide whether we’ll do it or not. We can only choose how we do it—with knowledge and respect or ignorance and indifference.”
Elk (and other) hunting is how I chose to do it and it’s among the few experiences that enhance my life in ways sometimes difficult to explain, if only because the benefits seem so obvious (to me), but also elude so many others. Given that our mortality clocks are ticking away from the day we’re born, experiencing and learning about the wider, wilder world in as many ways as reasonably possible just comes naturally. Hunting and climbing are prime examples.
It’s about the experience
On May 19, 2006, I was hunkered down in a tent with a Sherpa guide at 25,250 feet on the North Ridge of Mount Everest in Tibet. We were on our summit push and spent the night there, at Camp 5. In the morning I opted turn around instead of continuing on to Camp 6 (27,200 ft.) and then on to the summit (29,035 ft.). Years later, during March 2018, a routine chest x-ray showed that I had experienced pulmonary edema in one lung, which almost surely occurred on Mount Everest.
In Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest, my fellow Mount Everest expedition member Lincoln Hall wrote: “I walked across the loose rock to the mess tent. To my surprise, A-Team climber David Lien was there … I had a lot of respect for people who trusted their intuition and turned back before being forced to by dire circumstances. Not enough people on Everest listen to their inner voice.”
Two other climbers in our expedition, Russian Igor Plyushkin and German Thomas Weber, died during their summit attempts. Lincoln Hall was left for dead at over 28,000 feet but survived, minus some fingers and toes. In retrospect, opting to turn back after spending the night at Camp 5 likely saved my life. As Jimmy Buffett sang, “There’s a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.” The line is similarly fine between life and death on Mount Everest.
After returning to Colorado, I was interviewed for a story in my hometown newspaper, the Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review. “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.’ 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. Finding that he enjoyed it, Lien’s interest in climbing continued to grow. He began to set goals, such as reaching the highest points in all 50 states, because, he says, that gives him ‘more of a defined objective than simply ‘getting away.' It’s given me a good excuse to get out and see the world.’”
“But Lien says he has no plans to return to Everest again. ‘To me, it doesn’t seem worth the time and effort to go back,’ he said. ‘It was grueling. Over three months of working out and running. The preparation to go. The suffering on the mountain. For me, it’s about the experience, so I just can’t see going back.’” However, returning to southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains for elk hunting is a different animal, along with the annual Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) North American Rendezvous.
Boone And Crockett Club
During the 2022 BHA Rendezvous in Missoula (May 12-15), I visited the Boone And Crockett Club headquarters on the banks of the Clark Fork River. The club is North America’s oldest wildlife and habitat conservation organization, founded in the United States in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt did it all.
He hunted buffalo, elk and grizz. He traveled all over in search of game, including Colorado, the Dakota Territory, Minnesota, Maine and Africa. He climbed mountains in the Appalachians, Rockies and Alps. He fought in the Spanish-American War (1898-99), was awarded the Medal of Honor and served as Governor of New York. Later, during his presidency (1901-09), TR received the Nobel Peace Prize (1906) and was the first (former) president to fly in an airplane (1910). He wrote/published 30 books.
Between April 1 and June 5, 1903, Roosevelt visited 25 states and traveled 14,000 miles, highlighted by camping trips in Yellowstone National Park with nature writer John Burroughs and in Yosemite National Park with the legendary John Muir. During 1914 he led an expedition that completed the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon, the legendary “River of Doubt.”
Throughout his life TR would turn to travel for learning and perspective. “Life is a great adventure … accept it in such a spirit,” he said. But perhaps most significantly, Roosevelt’s conservation legacy—preserving 230 million acres by creating 150 national forests, 55 bird and mammal refuges, 18 national monuments and five national parks—transformed nascent concepts of conservation into treasured landscapes that sustain our great public lands hunting and angling heritage today.
For Roosevelt elk (and other) hunting was an opportunity for travel, adventure and wonder. “No sportsman can ever feel much keener pleasure and self-satisfaction than when, after a successful stalk and good shot, he walks up to a grand elk lying dead in the cool shade of the great evergreens, and looks at the massive and yet finely molded form, and mighty antlers …”
Ghost Bulls & AFI
As anyone who has hunted elk knows, there is a lot of life in these animals, and they don’t surrender it easily. They “do not go gentle into that good night,” as poet Dylan Thomas wrote, which makes taking that life all the more difficult. Not to mention that (as Randy Newberg reminds us), “… public land hunting is tough; there are no shortcuts … 8 out of 10 hunters fail.”
In David Petersen’s book Heartsblood, “mountain sachem” Art Goodtimes provides some related insights, in “Skinning the Elk.” “I can’t stop peering into the glazed crystal of those antlered eyes,” Art wrote. “There’s no mistake, I am marked for life. I wear the elk’s tattoo as its meat becomes my meat, and its blood stains my blood. Spirit leaping from shape to shape.” At the end of October I returned to the San Juans for 2nd rifle season, in search of ghost bulls and antlered eyes.
“On the morning of day three a bull appeared silently/seemingly out of nowhere,” I wrote in a Colorado BHA column (“Colorado Over The Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting,” 11/14/22). “A mere 200 feet (or so) away, partially obscured by trees and brush, I impatiently waited a second or two (that seemed an eternity) for him to move into a better position, then three shots rang out in quick succession.”
After killing this bull on Halloween—and starting my 55th trip around the sun on December 21st—thoughts of life and death (and remorse) occasionally seep into thoughts and dreams. Taking the life of such a large, magnificent animal can change you. Looking into its lifeless eyes sticks with you. One can only image the battlefield horrors our combat veterans endure, haunted by memories they can’t forget.
In the Winter 2023 Backcountry Journal Major Jake Lunsford (U.S. Marine Corps) asks: “How does one field dress, with words, the complexities of war, guilt and responsibility? How can you give a voice to that which drives men to seek shelter in the wilderness? What spell must be spoken to dislodge what lurks in the unswept corners of the mind?”
Hunting, fishing and the outdoors in general can serve to help restore the soul and psyche of those who have been battered by the horrors of war. Which is why, in part, BHA started its Armed Forces Initiative (AFI). “AFI resonates with the veteran and military community because it provides a sense of purpose,” Ryan Burkert, former AFI Program Lead said. “Our goal is to give veterans and service members a new mission, and that mission is conservation.”
“The paradoxes of life and death admit no ready solutions: they should not,” Mary Zeiss Stange wrote in Woman the Hunter. In 365 Things Every Hunter Should Know Steven Chapman says, “If you have no sense of remorse after taking the life of an animal, you’re not a hunter, you’re a killer.” Similarly, in A Quiet Place of Violence Allen Morris Jones adds, “If the purpose of hunting is only to kill an animal, then the process is moot; we contain the technological ability to kill all animals.”
Hunting, hiking, climbing, traveling and experiencing the world in general all serve to enlarge our perspective on life and living. Northwoods writer Jim Dale Vickery said they “teach us skill at comparison and broaden our parameters of understanding.” Ultimately, says Vickery, “the goal is to comprehend life’s greater mosaic. It is, in the end, a balancing act: a juggling of space and time for maximum view.”
Melinda and I (collectively) managed to visit locales in eleven states during 2022, using space and time for maximum view. As for 2023, the adventures/travels and elk (and other) hunts will continue. The country and world are simply too big and filled with unfathomable wonders for us to remain stationary for very long.
Author John Nichols (Milagro Beanfield War) is quoted in David Petersen’s book Heartsblood. “Always remember that by and large hunting is just good clean atavistic straightforward simple fun and honest impulse of the species,” he wrote, “made all the more palatable in the evening afterwards by a few glasses of straight bourbon, the stars, and the smoke from an autumn fire.” I’ll drink to that, John. Stay thirsty, for elk hunting and other life experiences, my friends.
Elk Hunting & BHA
-“Colorado Over-The-Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting: Problems & Possibilities.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 12/14/22.
-“Colorado Over The Counter (OTC) Unit Elk Hunting.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 11/14/22.
-“Colorado BHA Tag Allocation Observations & Information.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 7/20/22.
-“Hunting Educated Mountain Merriam’s And Elk Herd/Hunting Trends (& Cinco de Mayo).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 5/5/22.
-BHA 2022 North American Rendezvous (Fort Missoula) photos: May 12-14.
-Boone And Crockett Club National Headquarters (Missoula, MT) photos: 5/14/22.
-Colorado-San Juan Mountains Elk Hunt photos (Oct. 29–Nov. 2, 2022).
-Colorado-San Juans Hiking/Elk Hunt Scouting photos (Sept. 19-20, 2022).
-During the last night of the 2022 BHA North American Rendezvous in Missoula (May 12-14), I stood around the bonfire with BHA President and CEO Land Tawney (and many others) reminiscing about how far we’ve come and how much more we have to do together. Land touches on this in the Summer 2022 Backcountry Journal (in “Community,” p. 3): Katie McKalip. “Inside The Summer Issue of BHA’s Backcountry Journal.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 6/15/22.
-“A long time ago, I figured something out: human beings who love the natural world and are willing to make a stand for what they believe in tend to be the very best people.” –Hal Herring, Field & Stream contributing editor, recipient of BHA’s 2016 Ted Trueblood Award and host of BHA’s Podcast & Blast
Boundary Waters & Sulfide Mines
-“Boundary Waters Ruffed Grouse & Sulfide-Ore Mines Don’t Mix.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 1/9/23.
-“Conservationist’s View: Allowing copper-nickel mining close to BWCAW 'not responsible.'” Duluth News Tribune: 1/6/23.
-“Protecting the Boundary Waters includes for veterans.” Duluth News Tribune: 5/24/22.
Mount Everest & McKinley
-Lincoln Hall. Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2007.
-Dave Phillips. “The Client: A local man’s quest for Everest, the top of the world.” The Colorado Springs (Colo.) Gazette: 8/13/06, p. LIFE1.
-Marie Nitke. “Taking on Everest: For David Lien, ‘it’s about the experience.’” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 6/18/06, p. 1.
-“Reaching the summit of Mount McKinley.” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 9/8/04, p. 1b.
-David “Elkheart” Petersen (a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot) started the first BHA state chapter in Colorado. David is also one of North America’s most renowned hunting ethicists and trad bow elk hunters and his writings (in part) inspired Mike Beagle (a former U.S. Army field artillery officer) to start BHA.
-A documentary film, “On the Wild Edge: Hunting for A Natural Life,” about Elkheart’s life and love of hunting and all things wild is available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/-IE58L4bqEA. Also see: https://davidpetersenbooks.com/
Armed Forces Initiative (AFI)
-Today some 20% of BHA members are Active Duty Military or Veterans. More than twice the U.S. average.”
-“Camp Hale National Monument A Win For Veterans (& Hunters).” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 10/28/22.
-“Armed Forces Initiative Helps Veterans Hunt … And More.” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers: 8/17/22.
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.”
 David Petersen. Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 2000, p. 111.
 Chris Madson. “What to Take, What to Leave Behind.” Bugle: March/April 2013, p. 28.
 David A. Lien. “Hunting & Climbing: Age-Old Quests.” Whitetales: Summer 2006, p. 32.
 Lincoln Hall. Dead Lucky: Life After Death on Mount Everest. New York: Penguin Books, 2007, p. 103.
 David A. Lien. “Hunting’s Roughrider.” Backcountry Journal: Fall 2012, p. 13.
 Sportsman Channel (SC). “Sportsman Channel Announces its Great Eight ‘Sportsman: U.S. Presidents.’ SC: 2/11/10.
 Laura Ross (ed.). A Passion To Lead: Theodore Roosevelt In His Own Words. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012, p. 213.
 Candice Millard. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey. New York: First Anchor Books, 2005.
 James M. Strock. Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership: Executive Lessons from the Bully Pulpit. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001, p. 68.
 Mario R. DiNunzio (ed.). Theodore Roosevelt: An American Mind. New York: Penguin Books, 1995, p. 259.
 Kevin Paulson. “Randy Newberg Public Land Hunter Interview.” HuntingInsider.com: 12/19/16.
 David Petersen. Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 2000, p. 111.
 Major Jake Lunsford, U.S. Marine Corps. “All The Right Words.” Backcountry Journal: Winter 2023, p. 47.
 Daniel Howe. “Homecoming.” National Parks: Spring 2020. https://www.npca.org/articles/2475-homecoming
 Ryan Burkert, Veteran Programs Lead, Armed Forces Initiative. “Faces of BHA.” Backcountry Journal: Winter 2022, p. 15.
 Tovar Cerulli. The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. New York: Pegasus Books LLC, 2012, p. 243.
 Steve Chapman. 365 Things Every Hunter Should Know. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008, p. 19.
 Allen Morris Jones. A Quiet Place of Violence: Hunting and Ethics in the Missouri River Breaks. Bozeman, Montana: Bangtail Press, 1997, p. 40.
 Jim Dale Vickery. Open Spaces. Minocqua, Wisconsin: NorthWord Press, Inc., 1991, p. 247.
 David Petersen. Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality, and Wildness in America. Durango, Colorado: Raven’s Eye Press, 2000, p. 112.
 Editor. “An Interview with Podcast Host Hal Herring.” Backcountry Journal: Winter 2020, p. 24.