By Holly Endersby
Gold tamarack trees glow like candle flames against the dark fir. Pine and spruce on high, blue ridges and deep green canyons fade into the horizon. The pack string of mules is strung out on the steep trail behind me, each loaded with elk meat and camp gear. Low slung clouds swirl around us as we slowly make our way back to the trailhead we’d left ten days ago.
The Eagle Cap Wilderness in Oregon’s northeast corner is a land of rugged mountains and deep canyons interlaced with clear streams and swift rivers. Walking faint game trails, wading cold rivers and climbing leg-torturing ridges are all part of hunting here. Wilderness hunting requires effort, endurance and preparation.
As I sat on my saddle horse leading the pack string, I couldn’t help comparing this hunt with another I had taken eight months previous.
I was invited, along with two women outdoor magazine editors, on a hunting trip to Mississippi. We spent three days sporting clays at a resort complex as none of us had much experience wing shooting. The three-day introduction was challenging, fun and helpful in improving our shooting skills. Our fourth and final day would be spent hunting quail at a private plantation of several thousand acres. My companions, both from southeastern states, and I were eager to use our newly honed shotgun skills.
The day of the hunt dawned cold and cloudy. But by the time we drove to the plantation, met the owners and talked about where we would hunt, the sun burned through the clouds producing a breezy, cool day.
Each hunter was assigned a guide even though we would be moving as a group. Our party of three hunters would follow two guides on horseback who worked the bird dogs. Hunters could either ride in a horse-drawn wagon along dirt tracks or ride a horse. I chose to ride a horse. The wagon carried the two women editors, their guides and tourism personnel. The entourage made enough noise to scare any game for miles around. Of course, as I was soon to learn, stealth – and for that matter most hunting skills – were not necessary.
After a short ride, the dogs went on point. I dismounted, took my shotgun from the guide- who had loaded the gun for me- and followed him to the edge of a thicket as the dogs flushed the quail....or at least tried to. These pathetic birds simply wouldn’t fly. Released from pens only that morning in preparation for our hunt they had never experienced a predator or free flight: they had no idea what to do when a dog – or any animal – walked up to them. It was embarrassing and heart breaking. For the guides, everything was normal: they simply picked up sticks and flung them at the quail until they fluttered briefly into the air. When one landed, we were encouraged to shoot it on the ground, aiming for the legs to avoid damaging the meat. Guides quickly grabbed maimed birds and rung their necks.
How different from the ten days I had spent in the Eagle Cap or the two weeks in September when I hunted elk in the Salmon River country of Idaho. Each hunt had taken months of physical training for the horses - and me. Every step of the trip had to be meticulously planned: far from help, carelessness could mean disaster. There was no one to guide us, no one to drop ranch-raised elk into our midst and no one to carry our gear but our own strong legs and backs and those of our horses. I was a visitor in a land the elk know like I know my own home, hunting an animal whose strength and endurance far out-matched mine.
When my guide in Mississippi encouraged me to shoot a bird, I turned to him and said it just didn’t seem right. Where was the concept of fair chase? Where was the hard work to find the quarry? Where were the months of training to get in shape for the hunt? Where was the physical strength required to walk miles carrying a heavy pack and rifle? Where were the skills of compass and map reading? Where was the ability to read sign? Where, in essence, was the hunt?
We weren’t hunting. Hunting is much more than simply shooting. It is the training to meet the physical demands of finding and stalking a wild animal. It is knowing how to stay safe as you move cross-country in rugged land. It is studying your quarry, knowing its habitat and behaviors. It is nights in a tent, surrounded by wildness, listening to elk bugle and owls call to each other. It is marveling at the beauty and delicacy of the wild flowers or laughing at the antics of a water ouzel searching for insects in the frothy mountain waters. It is fording rushing rivers, climbing rock faces and wiping the wind-whipped rain from your scope to make that perfect shot. It is honoring the animal you kill with your sweat, your muscles and your gasping breath after a hard and fair chase. And, above all else, it’s honoring the home of the animal – the wild land in which it lives.
Shooting pen raised birds or ranch raised animals is not hunting. The essence of hunting is wildness combined with personal effort and responsibility. Unfortunately, to recruit more members, some national hunting organizations are now offering “canned” hunts for women, as they have for men for years. It’s not easy to turn down a hunt that virtually guarantees a successful “kill” with minimal effort, especially if you’re just starting to hunt. But turn it down we must. Canned hunts, such as my Mississippi experience, degrade the hunter and the hunted. Deliberately taking the life of an animal is a serious choice. Killing another sentient being with whom we share this earth should not be made easy. And simply shooting an animal should never be a substitute for the full meaning of hunting.
© Holly Endersby