Gathering firewood and hunting are the de facto rites of autumn in the small East Kootenay, B.C., town where I now live, as commonplace as raking leaves would be in the Toronto of my youth.
I made the leap to wood collector quickly here: First came the chainsaw as a wedding present, and soon I was felling, bucking, splitting and stacking my days away. I enjoy the physicality and frugality of wood gathering; and to be honest, working with a chainsaw just feels manly. Perhaps that is the city in me speaking.
Recently, I felt the beckoning call of the hunt, which would have been inconceivable a few years ago. So last week I went out with a neighbour to test the waters. As we drove toward the west slope of the Rockies in the blue light of predawn, a small black bear suddenly appeared in the ditch, rising up on its hind legs for a better view.
"Whaddya think? Want me to shoot it?" Don asked.
A friend once described an enormous bull moose that wandered within four metres of his nephew. They were 30 kilometres in the bush at the time, meaning it would have been impossible to carry so much meat out. My friend shook his head, silently, signalling to let the animal pass. "My nephew was furious. It was such a beautiful animal. He really wanted to kill it."
Therein lies the chasm that has long separated me from hunter.
I was raised in the city, by a father who was vehemently anti-gun and anti-hunting. I easily adopted the same values. Then came a journey to northern Pakistan, at the age of 22, where I forced myself to watch the slaughter of a goat by knife, and its subsequent sale, piece by piece, to passing farmers. The hypocrisy was clear; I ate meat, yet wanted no part in the animal's demise. I preferred my steaks wrapped in cellophane, with no apparent lineage to a living beast. But that alone was not a bridge to the mentality of the hunter.
Continued travels to remote regions on the planet did little to change my reservations regarding hunting. The majority of indigenous cultures living with any significant separation from mainstream culture are herders, or ocean harvesters. It seemed that hunting, requiring a high commitment of both time and energy, is a luxury for those with an already-full belly.
And the more one travels (especially to wilderness regions) the more apparent it becomes that the majority of large mammal populations on this planet (and in particular, apex predators) have suffered heartbreaking losses of both numbers and core habitat over the past centuries. No, travel has done little to open my mind to the possibilities of the hunt.
It took my new East Kootenay neighbours; sitting beside me on the hockey bench, gabbing at the hardware store and gas station. In their hunting tales, I recognized the same visceral love of wilderness that I shared, which was confusing, and sparked my curiosity. A landmark Yale University study divides the hunting population into three fundamental groups: the self-explanatory "utilitarian" (or meat) hunters; "doministic" (or sport) hunters, motivated by mastery over animals and demonstrations of prowess; and finally, a smaller group coined "nature" hunters. For these, respect and reverence for nature runs deep, and hunting becomes a sacred act.
I understand utilitarians, I am saddened by the dominists. (On the walls of a remote cabin in the Mackenzie Mountains, I still recall a litany of horn sizes, written in the blood of the kill.) And ultimately, I share the same religion as the nature hunters: We just happen to worship in wildly different ways.
"Want me to stop and shoot it?" Don asked a second time.
I balked, and the moment passed. Was it the emergence of my own nascent hunting ethic, with no place for any predators or trophy animals? What would I have done had a three-prong mule deer been standing there? I can't say.
We spent the rest of the day in the high mountains, "glassing" distant slopes, spotting nine mountain goats, but none close enough to stalk. The experience evades me.
So I remain on the edge of the chasm, and feel contented to stay there. But what once appeared as wide as the Grand Canyon now seems like a crack in the sidewalk.
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