We were 200 kilometers from the nearest human as we touched down in the Cessna 206 on a small mountain lake in the Mackenzie Mountains of Canada’s Northwest Territories. The flight had been bumpy as we slid over mountain tops and braided rivers, ending with the pilot flying a few loops to check the lake surface before landing.
“Do you want to see anything else?” he asked over the radio.
“No, let’s just land.” My head and stomach said I needed solid ground. My hunting partner, Lindsey, was wedged in the back of the plane between backpacks and rifle cases, probably thinking the same thing.
We were starting a 10-day hunting trip into the front range of the Mackenzie Mountains. I’d been waiting five years for this day — to gain the adequate residency time required to get a permit for hunting big game animals here. I’d moved to Canada from Florida in 2007, going from working with The Nature Conservancy on coral reefs to vast, remote forests and tundra. The chance to hunt big game here was a childhood dream – chasing moose through swamps and sheep around mountains. It was a nice perk of working for the Conservancy this far North. Hunting also takes on a different context here as First Nation’s people have relied on meat from hunting for generations, and some remote communities where the Conservancy works maintain that strong connection to the land.
I started hunting at the age of four in the squirrel woods of Ohio with my dad. While people who aren’t familiar with rifle calibers or butchering their own meat find it strange that I can be both a conservationist and a hunter, to me the two worlds mesh seamlessly. Hunting isn’t just about killing or hanging a head on your wall. Or a competition to see who can wear the most camouflage clothing or drive the biggest truck.
For me, hunting is a way to spend time outdoors and develop a deeper connection with nature that relies on all of your senses to be awake and aware. It is an ultimate test of your abilities to survive in the wilderness, with proper planning and equipment, and to provide your own sustenance from the natural world. And what about that sustenance? Free-ranging, organic, lean, sustainable meat, often times harvested locally. Sustainable animal populations also rely on adequate food, clean water and plentiful habitat — three pillars of any working ecosystem, likely bringing those interested in pursuing hunting onside with conservation efforts, even if they don’t realize it.
Hunting is also big business. The latest numbers compiled by Environment Canada in 1996 show $11 billion spent on nature related activities, including recreational hunting and fishing. The survey also reported 5% of the population identifying at “active hunters” and another 5% wanting to participate. A 2011 report in the U.S. pegged 90 million Americans taking part in hunting, fishing or wildlife viewing spending almost $145 billion or 1% of US GDP.
Top of the list for most hunters are Dall sheep — a wily mountain ungulate that thinks it’s fun to hang out on inaccessible cliffs above 6,000 ft. Dall sheep have eye sight equivalent to a human using 10x binoculars; apparently they can smell and hear, too. Most hunters pay upwards of $15,000 for a guided hunt into sheep country, but we’d spent the last 12 months poring over maps, preparing dehydrated food recipes and making gear checklists. I hiked to my TNC office with a 70lb pack on my back for weeks. We were ready.
Our goal was to see a ram (before it saw us), stalk within rifle range and make a clean kill. We would break the animal into manageable parts, load it into our packs and head back to the lake — the only accessible place for a plane to extract us. Of course those packs were also carrying food, clothing, hunting equipment and emergency gear. Along the way, we hoped to see moose in the mountain valleys, wolves ranging in search of their next meal, mountain caribou dotting the lower elevations and even the occasional grizzly bear. We didn’t plan on seeing other people.
After 10 days we returned to the lake exhausted, soaking wet, sore and mentally drained, looking for our plane. We saw sheep, and I even managed to make a little too much noise trying to stalk closer for a shot on a legal ram the last day. But living up to the Dall’s cunning reputation, he took flight and ran effortlessly over mountain ridges – ridges that would take us hours to climb. It was a humbling experience being in wilderness that large and untamed, and it’s hard to explain the satisfaction of completing such a trip even though we returned without firing a shot.
We were doing much more than simply pursuing game; we were spending time outdoors, on our own in the elements, knowing full well we would be hungry, tired and likely disappointed by one of the wariest game animals in North America. That is why they call it hunting, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Editor’s Note: As with so many contentious conservation issues, the hunting debate is often more about values as it is about science. What do you think? Do you hunt or oppose hunting? Do you think hunting is scientifically justified?