Column by Hal Walter
Wildlife – November 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine
MY RAW-FISH-EATING but otherwise vegetarian friend Diane from Boulder who has a nose piercing and performs music with a group known as the Mope Corps has called me a “sensitive new-age hunter guy.” I guess that fits, considering that I don’t consider hunting to be a sport but rather a spiritual connection to the land and part of a larger understanding of the circle of life and death.
People who oppose hunting have their many reasons, but most turn their heads from the basic logic that in order for humans to live they must eat; and in order for people to eat, there must be death. This is not an extremely difficult concept for most people who eat the flesh of mammals, birds, and fish. But vegetarians also need to face up to the reality that a great many animals and birds — many of them protected or endangered species — die wastefully and indiscriminately due to industrial farming of grains and vegetables.
In one way or another we all have blood on our hands.
Humans evolved for millions of years, hunting and gathering, with farming and domestic livestock appearing only relatively recently in our evolutionary history. I think this primal instinct lives on in modern society. Most people repress or ignore it, and just go to the grocery. There’s no telling the long-term effect of that, but I often wonder if some of the social ills that plague our society have anything to do with the fact that not very many people go out and hunt their own dinner.
For me, the chance for lean organic meat in the freezer is only a bonus to the reawakening of the senses brought about by the pursuit of game in the wild. A trip into the field has a way of helping me remember what an elk smells like, what wild rosehips taste like, what the antler-scored bark of an aspen tree feels like, or what a grouse sounds like when it explodes into flight. Moreover, if I just happen to see something that nobody else ever will see, then that’s even more valuable than the meat. There’s always the grocery.
Some years ago it became apparent to me that my values are not largely shared by a majority of the orange-clad nimrods who invade our hills each fall, many of them with all terrain vehicles and so much other high-tech equipment that they might as well stay at home and play hunting games on the Internet. So I began to seek out ways to satisfy my hunting instinct without having to associate with the sort of people who believe that keeping trigger locks on their weapons when they are not in use might somehow violate their constitutional rights.
I began to apply for special seasons or to hunt in areas not heavily frequented by most hunters. Muzzleloading season for elk in the Sangre de Cristo mountains near my home, and rifle season for antelope on Colorado’s southeast mesas became havens for my philosophy.
In truth, my hunting can only best be described as aimless wandering. I started out from Gibson Creek trailhead on the first day of the muzzleloading season and worked my way all the way to timberline on Spread Eagle Peak. I saw absolutely no sign of elk. It was a clear day but cold and windy with patches of snow and ice here and there. I traversed over to the north ridge off the peak, hunkered behind a rock and ate lunch while glassing the high hidden bench that sits to the southwest of Swift Creek beaver ponds. Coyotes howled from high on the talus slopes where they themselves were hunting for marmots or picas. I crossed back to the south on the ridge above the North Taylor drainage and hunted a series of springs and wallows along that ridge all afternoon. I got out my call and made some elk noises, which only brought the insane laughter of pine squirrels. That evening on my way back down I stumbled onto a small herd of elk but didn’t have a clear shot through the timber and undergrowth.
And so it went, day in and day out, for nearly a week. Then one evening I was walking along a game trail on a heavily timbered ridgetop when I saw a cow elk walking right toward me. There was a tree handy so I slowly ducked behind it and crouched right in the game trail. As I was doing this, I saw a calf walking behind the cow. My license was for a cow, but since I am a sensitive new-age hunter guy I wouldn’t consider shooting one with a youngster. So I just crouched there with my heavy Hawken rifle as the pair approached. There was a row of trees to the left along the little game trail so I could only catch glimpses until they were right upon me.
THEY CAME OUT in the open, uphill, about 15 yards away, walking slowly. They still didn’t know I was there. The calf turned off to my right. I held perfectly still, looking up at them. The cow came closer, following the game trail. I could hear her breathe. Now she was so close I was wondering what to do. There was an internal struggle between waving her off versus seeing how close she would come. This was as close as I’ve ever been to a living breathing wild elk, probably 400 pounds of hoof and bone and muscle.
Closer she came, now only about three or four elk-steps away.
Should I wait and try to touch her, as Richard K. Nelson touched a deer in The Island Within, his classic book on the spirituality of subsistence hunting? Or should I make a gesture? What if she decided to just stomp me for being so close to her calf?
I didn’t have to decide because she finally saw me and froze. She looked right down at me, staring up at her. She cocked her head sideways as if a new angle would give her a better idea of this “rock” dressed in fluorescent orange in the trail before her. Then she cocked her head in the other direction to get a different angle. For a long time we just stared at each other. Then she snorted, spun and ran. But she only went about 10 yards before turning back around to check me out again. Then she walked over the low ridge to the right where her calf was waiting. I took a deep breath, the first decent amount of air I’d had in what seemed like several minutes, only to hear her crunching back toward me for another look. She stared at me for a while longer then finally walked away. The sound of her hooves snapping twigs faded into the timber. Like I said, there’s always the grocery.
AS THE MUZZLELOADING SEASON came to a close, I awoke from a nightmare of tofu recipes and removed from the freezer one of the last packages of last year’s antelope. Later that day I browned the bright red meat in green olive oil with fresh onions, garlic and cilantro, and seasoned it with cumin, cayenne, sea salt, toasted oregano, and fresh-ground black pepper. I added an even dozen roasted Anaheim chilies, chunks from two fresh red bell peppers, and several tomatoes. The resulting delicious chile con carne refreshed my spirit and conviction: I did not want to run out of wild meat.
Antelope season opened gray and cold on the uplands of the Purgatoire River, a stark landscape of wide-open country and juniper-studded rimrock canyons. Two nights before, actor Richard Farnsworth, dying of cancer at age 80, put a gun to his head a few hundred miles southwest of here. I had just seen Farnsworth’s kindly visage in The Straight Story the week before and his passing haunted me on this gray day as flocks of cranes floated and croaked overhead and rafts of ducks huddled on the stock ponds. Farnsworth also was in Comes a Horseman, which was filmed in the Wet Mountain Valley.
The icy wind chilled me to the bone, and the low clouds seemed to pin the pronghorn close to the ground where they were obscured by the dim light in the cholla cactus and scrub cedars. Antelope can detect movement up to four miles away, and on this day the slightest twitch sent them racing toward the silvery skyline. I would have to come back another day.
So when the sun returned I also came back to this plain. And on a warm fall afternoon an antelope awoke from a nap to death itself. Its heart was held up to the sun during a prayer of thanks and recognition of the circle of life in which one being becomes that cosmic dust from which everything comes, and to which we all shall return.
Hal Walter stirs up emotions once a month about things that seem important to him from his home in Central Colorado’s Wet Mountains.