I had my final sampling robotics presentation at the Air Force base in TN, so I took advantage of the flight to visit my good friend and college housemate Hannah. Hannah is making some incredible pottery in Asheville, NC which also happens to be a really beautiful slice of the South.
Asheville is really a special place. It has incredible mountain biking, hiking, boating, and climbing. If it had skiing I would be tempted to move there. The coolest part of the town is the artistic spirit. Almost every bare wall has a mural on it, every corner a pottery studio. Pop up pottery and woodworking sales are the norm, and people are super friendly. Hannah had a popup holiday sale, so I got to flex my inner salesperson before we went for a hike and a climb. Good times, good food, even better people.
This year, my parents decided to get away to somewhere warm and wonderful for Thanksgiving – Moab. We rented a house, and prepared to ride our faces off! Eric, Rob’s cousin joined us for some great times.
With my brother’s dog Nala in tow, we visited Corona Arch.
This year’s hunt was an incredible learning experience. Previously, I had always hunted with my ski coach Ken or my dad as “the kid”. This year, I brought Rob along, so I was the experienced hunter. Ha! I knew it was going to be an adventure, and it certainly proved to be. We were hunting a new area, so a friend showed us around a bit. Its nickname was Big Gun Canyon, which is a pretty cool name for a hunting area.
The next morning we show up and sneak in the first quarter mile or so, and get to the first area with an overlook. Right away, I see an elk, so I drop to a squat and pull it up with my rangefinder. A perfect 150 yd shot, but a bull elk, which I don’t have a tag for. Further out were some elk cows, but they range at 350 yds, out of my comfort zone. By the time they start moving, the closer bull had winded us (hunt-speak for smelled us), and spooked all the cows. While we were trying to figure out whether to chase the spooked cows, we almost missed the fact that there were elk crossing the hill to our left. By the time we spotted them, they were well out of range. Quite the first day.
My ideal shooting range is around 150 yards. I can shoot 200 yd shots at the range and technically my gun’s bullet drop isn’t bad at 250 yds, but the bullet drop is 8” at 300 yds, so that is out of the question unless I get a ton of practice. I think I’m starting to realize why the area is called Big Gun Canyon.
The next few days followed a similar pattern. We get up at 5am, hunt until noon, drive home for lunch, nap for 15, drive back to hunt at 3, and get home at 8. On the first night all we want to do is go to bed and skip dinner, but my mom shot a buck mule deer at dusk, so we helped field dress the animal, followed by a celebratory drink, which quickly turned into everyone sleeping.
The third morning, Rob and I arrived at the grassy overlook of Big Gun Canyon and saw a huge herd below us a mile or so down the canyon. The wind was blowing our scent into the canyon, so we decided to try to maneuver to the side by running down the canyon. Trying to run quietly while hunting with a big pack, a gun and boots is a pretty funny activity and most resembles the Pink Panther. Thus, we pink panthered our way down fence line, but the herd had mostly moved on by the time we reached a lower elevation.
Trying to not lose the herd, we crossed a drainage to get some of the herd crossing. There! Right in front of us on the hillside some elk were crossing. Every time they moved we moved. The wind was perfectly in our face, and they were walking on crunchy leave, so we had a chance to get in closer. We did the run, stop dance until we were 250 yds from some of them, but by the time I had set up for a shot, lying in the mud resting my gun on my pack, they had moved out of range. Darn.
Defeated, I hiked back up the fence line with Rob in tow. Part of the way up, Rob pointed out that our herd was two ridges over, the wind was good, and it wasn’t yet 10AM. Off we went, traversing the ridges, staying downwind of where we hoped the herd would be. We crested the last hill and froze. There was one cow left in the meadow, 300 yards away. I pulled out my range finder and took a survey of the meadow. There were a few areas where I could get a 250-260 yd shot, but nothing closer. I looked around for a suitable shooting rest, settling on setting my gun on the crotch of a scrub oak. Hoping that the elk would move down the canyon and into range we waited. Just then a cow moved out of the timber in my circle of in-range shots. Shaking, and trying not to hyperventilate, I lined up my shot. I pulled the trigger and reloaded. The cow hadn’t moved. I shot again. Nothing. I shot a third time, and the cow turned around, walked behind a tree and the entire herd that we had been chasing popped out of the timbers and ran.
Rob and I waited two hours since we didn’t see the animal go down behind the tree. When we approached, we didn’t find much blood, and I had a long moment of panic. I did not want to leave an animal mortally wounded in the woods. We searched for a half hour for more blood, then decided to set up a grid to just look for the body. A foot down the game trail was the cow. It had fallen off the trail and rolled next to a tree, almost invisible to the world. Three hours of quartering and hiking later, we were headed home.
With the temps a bit high, we decided to butcher that night My parents had already butchered the buck that morning. By 11 PM, we had finished butchering, and were ready to pass out. What a hunt!
Every year bike season starts to wind down, the days get shorter and I start to dream about the hunt. The perfect hunt where I sneak through the woods silently, pop up over a ridge, the wind in my face and sneak up on a herd of elk, lining up the perfect shot.
I don’t know where I get this storyline, because hunting never goes like that. There is a lot more shivering sweating, and shivering again, then getting some major adrenaline rushes and pure tiredness. Hunting is a lot like Calvin and Hobbes’ Calvinball. As soon as you think you know the rules, the game changes. This season was no different.
Before I get too far into the hunt, I would like to clear the air on my opinion about hunting. This is just my opinion, and I have nothing against other opinions. Do humans need to hunt for food? No. We have created a system of industrial farming and industrial meat. Don’t fool yourself though. Every steak, chicken thigh, and burger you eat comes from an animal that was killed and butchered by someone. That someone is just not you.
The world has commercialized the killing of animals so everyone can enjoy meat without having to deal with the concept of killing. The success of this system allows most humans to never go hungry. There is no bad crop year, or bad hunting year globally. We can always bring food in from somewhere else. This allows us to continue to prosper and live further and further from city centers. This in turn encroaches on wild animals’ habitat. We don’t like having predatory animals near our children, biking trails, crops, or farmed meat, so most predators are killed. This in turn upsets the balance between wild predatory animals and wild prey. The population of the prey grows beyond the land that is left for them. We at this point have created not only an abnormally nurturing environment for humans, but for prey animals too. We have three options:
We can let the prey animal population go unchecked. This will lead to herds outstripping their food supply, and the animals will die off in droves either from a harsh winter’s starvation, or herd diseases. These herd diseases are called chronic wasting disease and are not good. CWD can take out an entire herd, and may be spread to humans via consumption of the meat. Think mad cow disease. Imagine if this disease got transmitted to our cows that we eat, or somehow mutated to travel through other means like water. This isn’t a great choice.
We can reintroduce predators. This is being done in Yellowstone to great success from an ecological viewpont. Herds of elk and deer are once again acting like prey. Plants are starting to grow back along the banks of rivers and streams. Smaller prey can once again compete against the elk and deer for food, and scavengers are thriving. The ranchers don’t like it. They claim that wolves are eating their cows. Some hikers are terrified. This solution works in a place as remote as Yellowstone, but near population-dense towns? Not so much.
We can control the herd populations with human predators.
In dense towns (NJ) this looks like deer runs, where the deer are herded up and shot in a group. The meat is donated to homeless shelters generally. The alternative to this is increased deer ticks, auto accidents, and deer eating your expensive landscaping.
Wild game could be sold and people could make money filling their tags. We have a population of animals that we need to control, why not give families a means to provide meat locally for their community? Wild game meat is only legal in Vt., likely because of a powerful beef lobby.
States can control their herds with hunters like you and me. We buy tags hunting that are regulated and either fill them or not. They expect a certain percent to be filled, so they know how many to sell. The states have enforcement against poaching. This is how the animal population is controlled currently in more remote locations (like Colorado), and how I hunt.
With that in mind, I hunt. I am acutely aware of the pressures that animal herds experience from construction projects that encroach on their migration routes, the pressures from campers, hikers, and mountain bikers like myself that are getting more numerous by the day.
I enjoy the experience and work of the hunt, but I also know that when I can no longer stomach shooting an animal, quartering it, carrying it out of the woods, and butchering it myself, I will stop hunting and will probably become a vegan. Every year when I pull the trigger, it is a little sad, but by going through the full process, I know that I will appreciate every calorie I get from my animal all year. How many of you know the story and history behind your food?
Where can you go bike loamy pine forest trails, rocky scrub brush trails, and chunderry slickrock all in the same continuous ride? Moab of course. And I don’t think we could have chosen a better weekend to do it. The fall colors were on fire, the river crossings were on point, and food never tasted so good.