hunters learn to pack a few essentials: a good, sharp knife; long johns, hat
and gloves; toilet paper . . . that sort
of thing. This year, Gary Edinger brought along a spare leg – one with a
bugling bull elk painted on the knee.
When I first
met Gary ten years ago he had both of his legs (the ones he was born with) and he put them to good use, scrambling and traipsing through wild, remote country
in pursuit of elk. Which is where I made his acquaintance. It was a warm
September afternoon and I was hurrying down a gated, overgrown logging
road-turned trail, toward the wilderness boundary where I planned to drop down
into a narrow, granite-walled basin of spruce, fir and meadow to pursue elk with
my bow. But before I reached the end of the road, I came across a hunter headed
out. I was discouraged and selfishly bitter. I figured the tiny basin I was
headed into wasn’t big enough for more than one ambitious bowhunter trying to fool
rutting bulls—and now it was tainted. But it is public wilderness, belonging to
us all, so I feigned a smile and greeted the man with my best attempt at
He was tall
and lanky, perhaps in his late 50s, unshaven and sweating from a steep uphill
climb. From his looks and the amount of gear he carried I figured he had been
in the backcountry
for weeks. The pack on his back was the size of a military footlocker, bulging at all sides
as if it could burst open any moment, with a canvas tent the size of a duffle
bag tied to the top. I’d be reluctant to burden a mule with the load he carried.
But I’ve long had an aversion to heavy rucks, which is why I carried a backpack
the size of a pillow, probably lighter than the full-sized axe and saw he had
lashed to his pack frame.
initial chagrin, he was eager to drop his pack, take a break and chat. So I
reluctantly obliged. And soon we were sitting on the ground swapping elk yarns,
laughing and enjoying our shared passion for elk and wild country. He’s a
logger from Wisconsin, travels West most years, packs in by himself, and enjoys
the solitude of backcountry elk haunts. It seemed we share lots in common; except
for our notion of elk camp.
out for the day?” he asked, looking inquisitively at my pack. “Five or six,
depending on the elk,” I said. “And you? Have you been out here long?” “Four
days,” he replied. We looked at each other as if we’d both met a fool.
packs in with horses and mules. He likes comfort, he explained, returning each
evening from a hard day’s hunt to a fire, a warm tent a hot meal. I don’t return
anywhere, I told him, but sleep where I am—near the elk – sustained by energy
bars, jerky and the hopes of fresh elk tenderloin.
We kept in
touch, on and off, for several years, but he eventually faded to a distant
memory. Until last September. He got my number from a friend and invited me to
come along on an elk hunt. He needed help. Turns out he had recently lost his
leg in a logging accident when a maple he was felling barber-chaired off its
stump, violently jumped out and severed his left leg below the knee. He lost so
much blood he barely survived, but managed to crawl to his skidder, drive his skidder
to his truck, drive his truck to within cell phone range, and call 9-1-1.
When the medical helicopter arrived he was unconscious.
But now he was ready to
get back into elk country, and wanted company and help. With not much else to
do I decided to tag alongand see what it would be like to do things his way –
horses, mules, wall tent, wood stove and big, hot meals. So he picked me up in Missoula
in a large truck, hauling a trailer full of stock, and we drove to a trailhead
on the Idaho side of the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness where he had an early rifle-season
It wasn’t as
easy as I thought, packing and loading a half dozen mules and horses and riding
for nearly 13 hours – much of it in the dark – at first on main trails, then
off onto some outfitter trails, and eventually what seemed like bushwhacking – riding
up the bottom of a creek through and over thick blowdown, stopping often to cut
out trees and re-establishing an old trail Gary had helped cut out years before.
Though I came to appreciate the skill, knowledge and traditions of
horsepacking, it seemed a lot of work. I could have hiked in faster. Sure, you
can carry a lot of comfort on the back of livestock, but is it worth it?
struggled philosophically. I’ve often gotten angry when I discover cut-out trails
in remote wildlands that – as the wilderness act succinctly puts it – should be
“untrammeled” by man. I resented helping Gary cut a trail into such a wild
canyon. I didn’t keep my thoughts to myself, and before we even arrived to camp
we became irritated and frustrated with each other over differing values,
principles, beliefs, and views on many things. Gary thinks wilderness should be
less restrictive and more accessible; I think we need to keep some places as
wild as we can. He thinks the wolves are eating most of the elk; I think the
return of wolves is a wonderful success story in the restoration of wildness.
He’s glad few if any grizzlies still roam the Selway; I wish they came back
with the wolves. I’m not so sure we should be hunting elk with rifles during
the rut when mature bulls can be overly-vulnerable; he was out there to bugle
them into rifle range and thrilled to be doing so. And so on.
In sum: he
is a rather conservative logger from northern Wisconsin; I am a fairly liberal
tree-hugger from Missoula, Montana. Let’s just say during eight long days sharing
a small wall tent together, things got rather tense at times. I spent two long
days by myself, roaming the mountains, just to get away from him. The weather
was warm, the country was drought-like dry, and we found no fresh elk sign nor
heard a bugle or a grunt for days. Gary blamed the wolves; I think the elk were
hanging mostly on the Montana side of the divide where there was more moisture
this year, and where smart bulls seem to learn there is no early rifle season.
I even ventured to the Montana side one afternoon by myself, and got some elk
talking to me around some lush, green, wet meadows.
afternoon, after not even speaking to each other for hours, an elk answered one
of my calls. It snapped us both out of our doldrums and we both got pretty excited.
We spent the next hour or so playing cat and mouse with the bull, sometimes him
moving towards us, sometimes us sneaking in closer, me staying several yards
behind Gary bugling and grunting while he impressively and adeptly climbed up
and over and around brush and blowdown, rifle at the ready, as gracefully as
anyone with two legs could do. We worked
together well, bonded by our common passion for the adrenaline of the hunt. And
it eventually all came together. The bull came in silently, wearing an impressive
6x6 rack, while Gary and I waited behind a big, thick spruce log maybe 40 yards away. For me, the
hunt was tainted when Gary wounded the bull. We had to track it down several times and it eventually took Gary six shots to kill the elk.
the kill we fell back to disagreement (Gary doesn't think animals suffer). But we made relatively smooth, quick
work of the boning out and packing meat to camp, and I was happy for his success.
Then I thought of this: Despite our differences; despite our lack of
compatibility; despite our differing views of the world, we both love elk and
elk country and the notion of securing our own meat from the wilds. Though Gary
and I will unlikely spend time in the mountains again, I have tremendous
respect for him.
I found the
entire hunt symbolic of us hunters as a whole; we’re all different, of course,
and we have what can sometimes be bitter, contentious disagreements. But when
we need to, we come together for common causes. It’s what I love most about groups
like the Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, with
their diverse membership interests. Yes, there’s sometimes tension and
disagreement amongst us. But as we have proved over and over again, we work
together when we need to, setting aside our differences to protect our common
interests – a passion for the wildness, wildlife and the hunt.
America’s hunting and wildlife heritage teeters on a
precarious perch. There are those who would lead us towards a more European
model of animal husbandry and privileged hunting in which hunted wildlife are
treated as a commodity, artificially manipulated to produce large-antlered,
easy-to-kill animals for the highest bidders to shoot. Others defend our
hard-won, uniquely American system. It is a system in which wildlife belongs to
all, is managed as a public trust with equal opportunities for all Americans,
and which fuels the conservation, protection and enhancement of wildlife and
the wild places that sustain them.
There’s no doubt where Jim Posewitz stands. Since retiring
in 1993 from a distinguished 32-year career as a biologist with the Montana
Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Jim has been a fierce, untiring
advocate of America’s distinct wildlife and hunting heritage – showing us where
we came from, where we’ve gone astray, and what we need to do to get back on
“This hunting tradition and the conservation ethic within
that tradition covered a lot of ground before it got to us,” Jim wrote in Inherit the Hunt. “This legacy did not
come to our generation to die. To keep it alive, we must learn the stories, we
must appreciate their significance, and we must teach each successive
generation how this heritage was delivered into our custody.”
Jim tell lots of stories, significant stories, stories that
all of us who hunt and care about wildlife should read and share and learn and
pass onto to others. In Jim’s words: “Stories that helped me understand the
value of hunting in America.” Through his stories, Jim takes people along on a
notable journey of recurrent, important connections to George Perkins Marsh,
Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Jay “‘D’ing” Darling and many others. More
importantly, he shows us that we all have such connections, we all have similar
stories – we are all part of this remarkable legacy.
Until I met Jim Posewitz, I never paid much attention to
such connections. Like how I spent a
childhood, and then some, chasing striped bass along the shores and islands of
Connecticut’s coast – just a short boat ride away from where, in 1842, a common
oysterman helped define the public ownership of wildlife in America; or how I
grew up in the same state where, 1896, there initiated a Supreme Court case
firmly establishing the notion of wildlife being held “as a public trust for
the benefit of all people.” I developed a love for wildness playing in tidal
estuaries just down the coast from estuaries where Theodore Roosevelt once
roamed and developed his notable fondness for wild things. Like Aldo Leopold, I
studies forestry and moved West. Like Roosevelt, I developed a passion for
chasing wild elk through truly wild country and became, like him, a wilderness
hunter. Like Roosevelt and Leopold and George Perkins Marsh and Alfred Aldrich
Richardson and Jay “Ding” Darling and Jim Posewitz . . . and hundreds and
thousands of other hunters through the course of our Nation’s history, all
across North America, whose conservation ethic derived from appreciation gained
through arduous pursuit of fish and game.
Jim sums it up nicely: “Hunting was
the passion driving people who committed themselves to the task.”
Like Jim, “I took to the hunt because somewhere within my
nature throbbed the rhythm of the chase . . . to satisfy the urge I wandered
wild places . . . I killed and savored the gift of wild things.” And in the
countless hours and miles of unpredictable wild adventures chasing magnificent
creatures such as stripers and elk and deer, I’ve come to deeply cherish the
animals and the places they roam. Kindled by the chase, my devotion to wildlife
sparked my concern their well-being and their habitat.
These are our roots. This is our legacy. These are the primeval connections
that bind our heritage – vital connections between predator and prey, between
wild things and humans, between conservationists past and present. We abandon these
connections at our peril; we must
come to nurture and understand this heritage because, as Jim Posewitz says, “What
we understand we can honor and sustain.”
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve come to understand from Jim is the
crucial importance of the arduous pursuit – the “doctrine of the strenuous life,“
as Roosevelt put it, “skill and patience, and the capacity to endure fatigue
and exposure, must be shown by the successful hunter.”
Unfortunately, there is
an ongoing quest to make hunting easier, quicker, with more sure-fire results,
changing the fundamental relationship between predator and prey. A look through
most any hunting-equipment catalog shows a plethora of technology available to
the modern-day hunter, including trail-monitoring devices to photograph, record
and store animal movements; game scanners; hearing enhancers; night-vision
goggles; range finders; animal scents; ATVS with gun mounts and thousands of
other gadgets designed to increase our chances of finding and killing wildlife.
Several years ago, hunters in Idaho were shooting elk from a half-mile away
using .50-caliber rifles mounted on off-road vehicles. A game warden from
Wyoming once told me that every year, more and more hunters use airplanes to
locate elk, radioing their sightings to friends on the ground. Some so-called
hunters simply pay to kill fenced, domesticated animals on game farms. In
Texas, hunters commonly lure deer into automated bait stations and then shoot
them from luxurious towers. More recently, some hunters started using drones to.
(Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is leading the charge to ban the use of drones
for hunting and scouting.)
When hunters seek easier ways, focusing only on results and skipping the process
(or, as Roosevelt put it, those who are “content to buy what they have not the
skill to get by their own exertions”), they fail to gain the intimacy, knowledge,
appreciation and respect for the prey, for the habitat, and for other wildlife
that is gained through arduous pursuit. The connections are shattered. I
suspect this growing disconnect is, in large part, why some hunters are either
apathetic or outright opposed to policies that protect and enhance wildlife and
wild places; they either ignore, or never really come to understand, our
hunting and wildlife heritage.
Several years ago, over a beer or two, I shared with Jim a story of
frustration. While working to protect wild places, some fellow wilderness
advocates often chastise me for being a hunter. At the same time, some fellow hunters
deride me for advocating for wilderness. “I don’t feel a part of either group,”
I told Jim. “I just don’t know where I fit in.”
He laughed. “You know why?” he asked, smiling, leaning in close as if to
let me in on some great secret. “Because you and I, we’re Leopoldians, and
there aren’t many of us around.”
Of course he might just as well said “Rooseveltians” or even “Posewitzians.”
Thanks, in large part, to Jim’s persistent efforts there are, everyday, more and more of us
In his 1949 classic, A Sand County
Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote: "I have the impression that the American sportsman is puzzled; he doesn't
understand what is happening to him. Bigger and better gadgets are are good for
industry, so why not for outdoor recreation?
It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially
primitive, atavistic; that their value is a contrast-value; that excessive
mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the
marsh. The Sportsman has no leaders to tell him what is wrong. The sporting
press no longer represents sport; it has turned billboard for the gadgeteer.
Wildlife administrators are too busy producing something to shoot at to worry
much about cultural value of the shooting. Because everybody from Xenophon to
Teddy Roosevelt has said sport has value, it is assumed that this value must be
Fortunately, Jim Posewitz has emerged as a leader – gently telling us what is
wrong, wisely showing us how to get back on track, helping us understand where
we’ve been and where we need to go.
Jim’s books are packed with wonderful stories of our past, present and future.
Here’s a short one of my own:
In the fall of 1999, my friend Bill Hanlon was hunting Dall sheep with two of
his friends in the spectacularly wild 2.5-million acre Tatshenshini Wilderness
of northwest British Columbia. Six days into their hunt, walking along the face
of a 20-foot wall of ice, they found the 550-year old. Well-preserved remains of a human hunter, recently exposed on
a receding glacier, replete with a knife-like tool called a tugwat and an
atlatl, an ancient hunting tool used to hurl spears into prey. The body was recovered
by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, who dubbed the man Kwaday Dan Sinchi, or “long ago person
found.” Researchers say the person was male, in his 20s, and most likely fell
into a crevasse and died. The country he once hunted and died in is probably
not much different today – still wild and home to the same species of wildlife.
“I think of how tough and rugged he must have been,” Bill says. “Wearing just a
skin cloak, carrying tools he probably made himself.”
Bill is pretty rough and rugged himself, and avid and passionate hunter. A
Sparwood, British Columbia schoolteacher, he hunts elk in the East Kootenay
region, in the same country where, in the early 1900s, one of his (and our
Continent’s) conservation heroes, William T. Hornaday, used to hunt. With a
love for the wilds gained through hunting, Bill helped found the Hornaday
Wilderness Society, serves as the first chair of the British Columbia Chapter
of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and is working to protect and conserve
the same wildlands that he, and Hornaday, and many others have hunted, or
currently hunt, or will (we hope) hunt in the future.
As Bill told me about Kwaday
Dan Sinchi, imagining that long ago hunter’s plunge into oblivion, he said,
“If I should fall and die in the wilds, God forbid, I would only hope that if
my remains are found long into the future, they would be found by fellow hunters
still pursuing wild animals in country still wild.”
These are our roots. This is our legacy. These
are the primeval connections that bind our heritage – vital connections between
predator and prey, between wild things and humans, between conservationists
past and present. We abandon these connections at our peril; we must come to nurture and understand this
heritage because, as Jim Posewitz says:“What we understand we can honor and
Note: A version of this essay was published as the forward to "Rifle in Hand: How Wild America Was Saved," by Jim Posewitz, Riverbend Publishing, 2004.
I suspect I am one of only a handful of Missoulians who have never uttered “Go Griz!”
– at least not in reference to the football team.
Although I am an alumnus of the University of Montana, and have lived in
Missoula (on and off) for nearly 30 years, I have never been to a Grizzly game.
I loved playing football – I was a decent offensive guard and linebacker in
high school, and played a season for a community college -- but have never been
much of a spectator. Besides, football season coincides with elk season and I’ve
long felt more at home in the wilds among real grizzlies.
The Griz are big in Missoula, particularly in the fall. It
seems most every restaurant, bar and store in town has “Go GRIZ!” signs and
merchandize. On game days half the town wears maroon
and silver-colored shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, hats, socks, underwear and
most anything else you might imagine adorned with the iconic grizzly bear or
griz paw prints. When the griz win a home game, downtown can be insane with inebriated
celebration; if they lose, downtown can be insane with inebriated drownings of
Missoula can be obnoxiously Griz crazy.
Fortunately, not far from the outskirts of town, I often see
real grizzly tracks and am occasionally lucky enough to get a glimpse of the
Great Bear. I’ve always directed my “go griz” towards them.
When the gridiron Grizzlies won their first national championship in 1995 I had
been in the backcountry for a week hunting. When I came out of the mountains I
read a story about two grizzly bears that had been killed by hunters who
mistook them for black bears. The next morning, when I arrived at the gym I
worked out in, one of the other regulars greeted me and said,
“How about them griz?”
“Yeah, that pisses me off,” I replied. “Pretty fucked up.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked. “They won.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
I can be obnoxiously crazy about real grizzlies.
Today, Saturday, Sept. 27, I am going to my first Griz game. The homecoming game.
The battle of the bruins! Montana Grizzlies vs Northern Colorado Bears. And I’ll
be going onto the field. Not with helmet and shoulder pads, but with my 14-year-old
Cory has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a progressive, genetic, muscular-degenerative
fatal disease for which there is currently no cure. There is, however, hope.
Clinical trials are underway with promising results. But more awareness and
money is urgently needed to turn hope into reality. That’s where the “Coach to Cure MD” effort comes into play.
With more than 600 college teams
participating all over the nation, Coach to Cure MD is a one-day event sponsored
by Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy and the American Football Coaches Association.
The stated purpose is “to raise awareness of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a
devastating disorder that robs young men of their mobility, their independence,
and sadly their life; Generate new financial support for Duchenne research
through donations, grassroots fundraising, and text donations; and demonstrate
college coaches’ commitment to the betterment of young men and the core
academic research missions of their universities.”
Cory will be the Grizzlies' honorary co-captain
for the day and will be present at the coin toss. He’s pretty excited. I think
I’m even more excited. And not just for Cory. It’s been a long time since I’ve
stepped onto a football field. It’s already bringing back a lot of deeply
buried memories. Good memories. I look forward to once agan hearing, seeing, smelling,
feeling and experiencing the unique sounds, smells, adrenaline and excitement
of a football game.
I won’t be doing any blocking or tackling, but I might just
slap a few players on the ass.
In 2003 depression, related substance abuse and thoughts of suicide led me to load my backpack, toss my wallet in the garbage, step off my front porch in Missoula, head north, and spend the next 10-weeks by myself hiking through the most remote, wild country left in the continental United States. It saved my life. Here's how it began:
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
-- Helen Keller
Force Recon Marine I dove out of planes from altitudes as high as 32,000 feet,
night and day, sometimes with full combat gear sometimes without (sometimes
right into the ocean, with SCUBA gear attached) from the swamps of coastal
North Carolina to the deserts of southeast California, in the scorching heat
and humidity of Puerto Rico to the brutally-frigid tundra of northern Norway --
or, as the Marine Corps hymn simply states: in
every clime and place.
And I would tumble, fall, and fly. At least it feels like flying, falling at terminal
velocity, speeds of 180 miles-per-hour; a slight tilt of the right hand would
turn me quickly right, the left hand would turn me that direction, or I could cuff
both hands inward to go forward, or outward to slow my descent. I could hunch
up to slow down, or pull hands and legs in to speed up. Place hands and legs
together and a missile-like nosedive results, or do flips, or spin, and so
on.By maneuvering in such a manner, a
team of Marines can remain together in the sky, and even approach each other
and “link up” by locking arms. I once kissed my friend Jim at 10,000-feet above
And as the ground gets bigger and closer, I would check my
altimeter on my wrist until reaching a point to “wave off” (a flagging of the
hands to warn those above me that I was about to open my chute, so they could
move and not crash into me), move my right hand in to the “rip cord” at my
chest (making a counter move in and over my head with the left hand, so as to
remain in a stable fall and not spin out of control), then pull, rapidly
thrusting both hands and arms out, up and forward, like a referee’s signal for
a touchdown, tightly gripping the ripcord handle that pulls out the long, thin
wire that releases the nylon flaps on the pack, allowing the small
spring-loaded pilot parachute to burst free, like a jack-in-the-box, catching
wind and pulling the main chute out behind by a cord. The rest, if all went
well, happened rapidly – the main chute blossoms open, bringing acceleration to
what seems a sudden halt, with such shock at times it once literally jerked me
out of my boots over northern Norway(I
got frost bit toes after landing in socks on snow in minus-40 temperatures).
And then everything would seem calm, compared to the previous rushing of wind
in the ears, and I would gradually steer my way down to the ground, pull down
hard on toggles to flare, pause, and land sometimes softly, sometimes hard,
depending on the wind, skills and luck.
At other times, the pilot chute might get caught in the wind
pocket in the small of my back (a “snivel” we called it), so I would bang away
with my elbow until it caught wind and deployed. Or the main might malfunction,
which never happened to me, but if it did, I was trained to “cut away,” or
release the main and open the reserve. (“No worries,” my instructor said, “If
your main doesn’t open, you have the rest of your life to deploy your
reserve.”)It could sometimes take 1,000
feet or so for the main to open, if everything worked right, and another 1,000
or more to try and rectify things if it didn’t. For this reason, we had a general
rule to open at 4,000 to 3,000 feet, and always, always before reaching 2,500 feet; an altitude that shows on the
altimeter as red, danger zone – like
the “low on gas” signal in a car, only with more severe consequences.
About the time I was doing lots of jumps, I had a reoccurring
dream: I am freefalling, enjoying the ride, when I look at my altimeter and it’s
in the red zone, 2,500 feet! I wave off, reach to pull, but I have no parachute
on my back. Nothing. At first I am
terrified, but quickly calm down. It’s my last 2,500 feet, I figure, I may as
well enjoy it. So I smile, and begin doing front flips, and back flips, and
then I wake up to the dark silence of the night.
Twenty years later I felt like I finally slammed into
hard-packed earth.My father died. My
wife of 14-years filed for divorce. I could no longer focus on the work I used
to love, nor any of the activities I used to enjoy. I had spent much of my life
feeding secret shadows of shame, guilt, anger and fear until they finally
loomed large, like the monsters I imagined in my closet as a kid. I lost all
desire and passion to go on and thought, maybe
sometimes it okay to quit, perhaps best to quit. I drove late one drunken
night to a trailhead a few miles from my home in Missoula, Montana, to the edge
of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, with a shotgun I used to hunt ducks and geese.
My plan was to walk a few miles in and blow my head off. Instead, I sat in my
car and cried. I thought of my son, then only three, and wondered how he would
turn out. I thought of my family. I thought of my friends. I even had the
twisted thought; I can hardly hit ducks
with this thing. Then I thought of my dream, the last 2,500 feet.And I thought of my maps. The maps. Maps of the wild country
surrounding my home.
For years I had studied the maps, intrigued by the notion
that I could walk off my front porch in town and walk all the way to Alberta
through the most remote, wild country left in the continental U.S. and only cross
three main (paved) roads. It was a fantasy, a journey of the mind, until that
inebriated night I drove to the trailhead with a 12-guage. At that point I
What the hell. It’s the last
2,500 feet; what do I have to lose?