In his oft-quoted Meditations on Hunting, the Spaniard José Ortega y Gasset, muses on what it means to hunt an animal to its death.
Words & Photos by: MICHAEL LUDERS
“One doesn’t hunt in order to kill,” he writes, “On the contrary, one kills to have hunted.” That statement has become a platitude usually invoked in defense of hunting, ennobling the hunter, justifying what is, in the end (and sharply put), killing an animal. I believe it does justify fairly, but also wonder if aside from the kill, much thought is put into what it means truly to have hunted.
As hunters are increasingly greeted by NO TRESPASSING signs and find themselves starved more than ever for time, the guided hunt has become the last resort for many. They range from ranch-hunts with guaranteed results and little effort to those offering rigorous adventure in the wilderness and no promise of a trophy, or even a shot at one. The degree to which the hunter steps deeper into the wild is the degree to which he approaches the standards Ortega y Gasset had in mind.
There is little doubt the proliferation of some of these ranch-style hunts has contributed to a decline in fair-chase practices. To ensure 100% success and monster trophies, the game herds are managed with scientific precision—like farming, which, in the end, is exactly what it is. With high-fences, trail cameras and feeders, outfitters often know where the trophies are even before the client shows up, eliminating any “hunt” from the hunt.
The client arrives for a few days out of his busy schedule, is driven around a prettified property, shown a trophy and told to shoot it. The fair-chase hunt has no guarantees. The terrain is likely difficult—hard on your legs and harder on your lungs. You don’t ride around in a truck or an ATV; if you’re lucky, you’re in a place where they’re forbidden. You’ll immerse yourself in physical training, teach yourself the habits of your quarry, practice your shot infinite times. And, the game is going to be wild.
So if you are someone who won’t hang a head on the wall that wasn’t won honestly, then I suggest a trip into western Idaho’s Seven Devils Mountains. Last fall, I headed deep into that wilderness with my good friend, Keith Kelly, and set after elk. There were no promises. But, as Keith said, saddling up the horses and the mules for the 20-mile ride into camp, “Guns, horses and eight days in the wilderness, how can that not be fun?” How right he was. We rode back into the trailhead, those eight days later, having been shadowed throughout by the potential for disaster: I say this with not the vaguest suggestion of drama. We arrived exhausted, cold, filthy and very sore. Yet, it was one of the great adventures in our lives.
Each day we rose in the dark in a tent that did little to withstand howling winds, winds that some weeks before kicked over a thick tree, breaking the backs of the three horses hitched to it. We layered feebly against the inevitable chill, grabbed hasty breakfasts and set out, covering miles in a day. Often we would dismount and stalk a potential herd, sometimes for hours, returning wearily to the horses that would bring us back to the camp we left twelve hours earlier. Each day we entrusted our lives to those able-footed beasts, scrambling impossibly steep screes, tottering on the spines of hills precipitously dropping on either side, slipping on ice and wet rock. And in all that time, we never saw an elk. In fact, we managed only to shoot a small mule deer. Its meager size stung us all the more when we saw the colossal crown of bone borne by the deer that walked into range the following morning—a morning too late for the season had drawn to a close the day before.
Yet in the end, we had hunted. We were that much more experienced as outdoorsmen, as horsemen, as men of self-reliance. We’d seen this country as few ever will, in its formidable splendor. Places where raging fires leave nothing but charred, skeletal trees and snowy windswept lunarscapes. Where massive crags rise like a Titan’s teeth from the valleys. This is where we rode and camped, in its maw. If there is an atavistic impulse to kill an animal for sport or food, then it seems to me that the pursuit of it ought to be genuine. No canned hunts, no feeding, no fences—no guarantees. Otherwise you are not hunting, as Ortega y Gasset opined in his Meditations, you’re just killing.
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