It begins before dawn, as usual. Two gray-haired men, coffeed, oatmealed and camouflaged, move out of camp. Wordlessly, their boots crunching through a glaze of autumn frost, they vanish into the moonshadows and trees at yonder end of a high mountain meadow. One of them is an archer from the Rocky Mountains of the United States, and today he is a guide. The other is from the lush wetlands of central Canada. He carries a black-powder flintlock in the style of 200 years ago.
They are not walking, but choosing their steps. All senses are activated. A few paces, and listen. A few more, and sniff the air. Then more, and try to gauge the terrain ahead while anticipating the glow of daybreak. It is elk season in Colorado. These two men are out to kill a majestic bull. Over time, they also are out to change the way North Americans perceive -- and pursue -- this ancient endeavor of hunting.
There is nothing new in saying that hunters are being challenged by antihunters on this continent. That's been going on for more than a generation. What's fresher is the debate from within: the emerging arguments among hunters themselves about what is good and what is bad with hunting, what is defensible and what is not.
It is a discussion being provoked, and not always on welcome terms, by the likes of David Petersen, bowhunter and writer from southern Colorado. And by black-powder shooter Mike Buss, a retired government wildlife biologist from Canada's Ontario province and a founder of the group Hunting Heritage Hunting Futures.
Until quite recently, North American hunters could be viewed as akin to the larger community of gun owners: men and women locked in arms. They stood together no matter what, ready to defend anything and everything -- even the worst of things -- for fear of giving that proverbial first inch to opponents.
The 1990s brought stirrings of change. In Canada, Buss and a colleague collected sporting groups together into a single national organization, its aim to elevate hunting above its lowest common denominator. In the U.S., Petersen published a groundbreaking anthology of essays titled "A Hunter's Heart," which challenged people to think more deeply about hunting ethics and outdoor values. In 2000, he followed with a book of his own lively reflections on four decades as an outdoorsman: "Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality and Wildness in America."
"Hunters are so easy to hate," Petersen acknowledges. "I sometimes think that were I not a hunter myself -- lacking that intimate perspective, that hunter's heart -- I suppose I could become an antihunter. The line is that fine."
As Buss puts it: "We're trying to get hunters to look at their activities in light of what society expects of us."
Back to raw nature
If a mule slips on the muddy trail and tumbles down the near-vertical cliff, it is a good idea to dismount on the uphill side as swiftly as your wits allow. Also, if the mules wander into a nest of yellowjackets, it's best not to be carrying a pack on your back in the event you get bucked off in the yee-haw that's sure to ensue. With those words of guidance, you are handed the reins to a dappled mule named Hilda, and you're on your way to hunting camp.
"Ethical" hunting with Petersen and Buss is also aesthetic hunting -- getting away from roads and other hunters and as close to raw nature as practical. In the glaciated, razor-ridged San Juans, that means signing up with a guide, like Mike Murphy of Durango's T Bar M Outfitters, for a switchbacking, stream-cut saddle ride to a 9,500-foot camp of wall tents, heaped firewood and boiled coffee. This kind of hunting has occurred in these mountains for generations: a comfortable base camp in a national forest that allows hunters to penetrate the extremes of Colorado's lofty aspen and meadow wilderness.
It is, at least for some, neither pure meat hunting nor outright trophy hunting, but some combination of both in which campfire fraternalism, the epic country, the noble quarry and the overpowering sense of primitive wildness all beckon.
What is it about hunting? For one important thing, it is elemental. Hunters attest that nothing brings them so close to nature, both to the nature around them and to their own human nature, as assuming a predatory place in the food chain. It is feral, primeval. And natural too, for humans evolved as hunters. Perhaps the only similar sensation is to wander unarmed in grizzly bear country, or to swim in the ocean with large sharks, an experience offering the other primordial point of view: that of possible prey.
Our ancient progenitors would probably be mystified, though, by the determination of hunters like Buss and Petersen to make it as tough as possible.
They push themselves into the most difficult reaches of the mountains with primitive armaments in search of game that could take a full day or more to pack out. Why? Because, as the writer Steven Bodio once put it, the rituals of hunting are not apart from "beauty, grace and difficulty." Also, because in this age, the easy hunting grounds tend to attract the very people whom Buss and Petersen believe are endangering their future -- the slob hunters, the binge drunks, the roadside shooters, the ATV fanatics, the numbskulls who drive into town with bloody carcasses of 700-pound elk in their pickups and park in front of a saloon by way of showing off.
"If we hunters don't clean up our act, the antihunters will," Petersen warns.
Outfitter Mike Murphy, a leathery and untiring 25-year veteran of these mountains, is impressed. At the beginning of the hunt, he posed a standard question to Buss: "What are you going to hold out for?" Typically, a hunter will describe the size of the bull he wants. Buss says only, "I'll hold out for a good shot."
A rarity among guides, who must cater to the ficklest of clients, Murphy doesn't shy from the discussion of what is right and wrong about hunting these days. He dislikes the commonplace videos from gadget makers that seek to portray hunting as easy. He disapproves of the trend toward ultra-long-range rifles and ammunition. Murphy respects no one so much as a hunter who would work for a certain shot, no matter how long it takes, over one who might risk wounding an animal.
Still, around Murphy's campfire it's apparent that "ethics" are not always matters of agreement. Buss, Petersen and the three other guides at this camp seem to share the view that "canned" hunts are particularly unsporting and offensive. These involve game animals, sometimes exotic animals, either farm-raised or imported, released into a confined space for the benefit of hunters who want to increase their head count. They oppose hunting along or near roads. Most are vigorously opposed to baiting as a means to lure animals within shooting range. But distinctions between hunting for food and hunting for trophies do not always bring easy consensus. Neither does the idea of releasing pen-raised pheasants into fields ahead of hunters, although such an activity is better called "shooting" than "hunting." There is sharp disagreement around this crackling campfire about the ethics of hunting at watering holes.
"We as hunters should be talking about these things, and the public should know that we're talking about them," Petersen says. "Ten years ago, you wouldn't have heard many conversations like this."
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of hunters in the U.S. continues to decline -- down 7% between 1996 and 2001. Now, just six of every 100 people in the country call themselves hunters. Canada's federal government ceased its sporting survey in 1996, but at that time hunters had decreased 33% over a span of 15 years.
Michael Markarian, animal-rights supporter and president of the Fund for Animals, predicts, "The end of hunting is no more than a generation away, and we look forward to the day when animals are shot only with cameras, not lethal weapons."
But that old divide between hunters and those opposed to hunting no longer tells the full story. Wildlife watching in the U.S. plunged 13% during this same interval. The connection between Americans and their remaining free-roaming creatures is diminishing, no matter how you slice it.
The things that hunters and antihunters share -- a fascination with wild animals, ready awareness of the needs of these creatures and their suffering -- have propelled them into unexpected alliances. Some hunters have supported state ballot initiatives to ban bear baiting and others have taken the lead in criticizing canned hunts. Some animal-rights activists have begun to give priority to conservation of habitat, long the top concern of hunters. Both sides despair that most North Americans consume meat from the supermarkets or restaurants without thought to it having lived, or how it lived, or what unhealthy chemicals it may contain.
'Fun' isn't the word
Elk, or wapiti, tend to move at daybreak and again at sunset. A morning hunt in these mountains may last four hours, counting the time to reach one's destination and return. The afternoon hunt may begin at 3 p.m. and send hunters laboring as high as 12,000 feet into the peaks. Sometimes, they do not return until midnight.
Depending on the conditions, the terrain, the moment and the accumulated knowledge of the hunter, elk can be stalked, ambushed or lured close by imitating the mating "bugle" of bulls or the calls of a cow. Only one in five Colorado hunters is successful in an average year, a percentage that increases among hunters who use professional guides. Hunters expect days to pass without any chance of a shot.
But every moment is still savored. Entire chapters of hunters' lives can meld into a blur, but they can remember vividly each day of each hunt for 15 years or more: the sweet apple smell of aspens in autumn, the "disgustingly intoxicating" fragrance of a bull elk in rutting season, the snap of a twig underfoot that sent prey bolting, the ridges topped, the lightning storms endured, the ash-coated steaks cooked over campfires, the sadness that always accompanies the crumple-crash of a downed elk in the heavy brush.
This clarity of experience fortifies the hunters' belief that their quest answers something deep in their evolutionary genes. You might notice that they rarely use words like "fun" to describe their time in the mountains.
Ethical hunting thus becomes more than just the rules one follows. It becomes a matter of motive, of sensibility. It is, as some hunters say, a question of a person's Code. The hunter who takes to the woods to escape his family and whoop it up with the boys is viewed, at least at this camp, as decidedly apart from hunters who feel they can retrieve something important here that was left behind in the collective race toward civilization.
"I propose that to hunt, kill, and devour the flesh of creatures wild and free is not only the most natural possible exercise for body and spirit: it represents a palpable and significant, if only partial, return to our evolved animal heritage," Petersen postulates in his book "Heartsblood."
"Viewed in this light, honorable hunting is a spiritual sacrament, a humbling genuflection to our evolutionary design, genetic plan, and nutritional needs, as well as a sacred affirmation of our ancient blood-bond with the wildings that for millions of years fed us, fed on us, and, in time, made us human. Thus were we created."
A bull's bellow
From this camp, most of the hunting routes lead up. One of them begins behind the cook tent, crosses a stream and winds over the campsite plateau to a plunging valley 1,000 feet deep. Here, the mountains have sent down a finger-ridge, which climbs steeply through groves of aspen; trees that sing in harmony with the high-country winds.
Ascending the finger ridge, two hunters gaze across the daybreak shadows of the valley below and upward almost a vertical mile to the rock teeth of the summit peaks. A chilly autumn breeze carries the sound of distant waterfalls.
Where the trail levels out, a wallow the size of a swimming pool is inspected for fresh sign. Hunters then veer onto a crossing game trail under the dark canopy of an aging evergreen stand. Stepping even more carefully now, they approach a bowl-like meadow. Once animals of the plains, elk were driven into the mountains by humans. They still seek open spaces to feed. The hunters, camouflaged even to the paint on their faces, quietly sink to the ground. With binoculars they probe the meadow's edges in the oyster light of dawn. They wait until the body aches and they can wait no longer.
They move ahead. Up, over, around and then down, and down more. They hear the distant bugle of an elk -- a bull just getting his voice for the mating season. Side-hilling through a grove of trees, the hunters happen upon elks' fresh day-beds. The marking scent of bull urine is enough to make their eyes water and their hearts thump.
From here, the map shows the distance to camp in mere yards. Add the vertical, and the climb back out of the valley approaches a half-mile -- 60 degrees ascending. Sweating, they arrive in camp for breakfast. They didn't see an elk, but smelled them and heard one. It was a great hunt, the hunters agree. They recount the morning for everyone else in camp.
They'll be back on the trail in five hours.
Afterword: Five days into his hunt, Mike Buss killed a 5-by-5 bull elk, an animal with five tines on each beam of its antlers. David Petersen is still hunting.