|The Vintage Hunt
Story and photos by Jesse Wolf Hardin
There can be no doubt that hunting has contributed to the destruction of wildlife populations, and the problem didn't begin with the slaughter of waterfowl for their feathers in the 1800s, or the near-eradication of the buffalo in the early West. In fact, many of the largest animals ever made extinct in North America were very likely annihilated by the brilliant tactics of the first hungry humans to cross the Bering Strait into this wild and amazing continent.
At the same time, it was hunters who formed the first conservation organizations in this country, domestic animals killed to fill our supermarket shelves are treated far less honorably than are hunters' prey, and hunting is one of the few remaining human activities with a capacity to thrust modern men and women into close contact with our atrophied senses and fallow instincts, with the essentials of weather and the touch of the land. Yes, there are a number of hunters who drive without walking, who take shots leaning over the hood of their ATV or truck, and who never really acknowledge the power of the environment or the suffering and gifting of the animal. But while I don't do any big-game hunting myself anymore, I know of a number of women and men who enter the field every year as an act of humility and ritual reconnection.
Of these, the folks stalking with muzzleloaders, bows or antique cartridge guns are often the most in tune, getting the most out of their re-immersion into this flesh-and-blood world.
Imagine, if you will, that you are on the third day of what could be up to a 10-day vintage hunt. "Vintage," I say, not only because of the high-waisted canvas pants and blousey cotton shirt you have chosen to wear, nor simply because you pack a rifle that was effectively obsolete by 1886. What makes it vintage is the alchemical combination of history and sentiment, of adventure and challenge, of envisioning and then doing. It is determined by the old-timey spirit you carry into the woods, and the spirit of the wilds that grows within you. Unlike those who take their game with muzzleloaders, you hunt with antique or replica cartridge guns and have to compete in the same season as high-tech hunters with .300 magnums and high-powered optical sights. Where a modern arm can be used effectively by some shooters at 1,500 feet or more, your guns of choice are maximally effective when the target is only 50 to 200 yards away. The disadvantage is that you have to work your way closer to make a telling shot, and the benefit is sharpening your skills to where you can get that thrillingly near to, and intimate with, what you seek.
For whatever reason, on this trip you've brought along an original Winchester Model 1876—with a passel of cartridges waiting their turn in the tubular magazine attached to its octagon barrel. You love its heft and swing, and the way it so eloquently symbolizes our frontier past. While not incredibly accurate by contemporary standards, its average six-inch group at 100 yards is adequate at the intended ranges, and its heavy slugs can be sure to penetrate deeply into your intended game: the heavy-boned North American elk.
The male elk can weigh as much as several deer, and carry enormous racks with which to fight for mating privileges each contentious fall. You have a tag for either sex, so your criteria becomes "a clean shot at a young animal." Young, you say, because as much as you love the challenge of the wise monarch—its symmetrical antlers glinting in the morning sun—you are hunting for more than beauty and grandeur, and looking for more than the taste of success. You want meat, and the youngest adults are invariably the most tender. You're additionally aware that it's the more inexperienced members of the herd that are the least crucial to their survival. It is the largest and longest lived—the winners of the most battles with raucous rivals and raging rivers, with mountain lions and freezing winters—that have the strongest genes for passing down to the future generations. There may be a day when you again seek, like a hero's quest, the granddaddy of them all. But until then it is your larder, and your heart, that you come to fill—not the remaining space on your wall.
When the first white settlers arrived in the New World, the elk—or Wapiti as the Shawnee called them—were the most widespread of all hooved animals on this continent. Subspecies could be found coast to coast, and from the upper reaches of Canada to the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Sonora. The Merriam's or "desert" elk of the Southwest was believed to have been the largest of all known elk species, but sadly went extinct around 1905 due to competition with cattle herds, disease and other factors. You've chosen to hunt the Mogollon Mountains, well known for the fine animals coming out of there, but these are Rocky Mountain elk, not the indigenous Merriam's, transplanted from northern New Mexico by visionary conservationists in order to replace the extinguished herds.
You stand still for a minute or two, giddy with the feeling of being awash in millions of acres of national forest, in a county with less than five percent private land. On either side of you, orange and purple volcanic mountains thrust upwards from a primeval sea bed studded with prehistoric shells and mysterious fossils. Climbing upwards again, the cactus and sage slowly transition to pinon, oak and juniper, which in turn give way to lofty ponderosa pines and then shimmering white-barked aspen. It is here, between 5,000 and 10,000 feet elevation, that you know the giant elk reside, resting atop the ridges during the day where they can see in all directions, coming down to the river to feed and drink at night. You angle up trails where a drumming of elk hooves has marked the land, and bend to check the freshness of the marble-sized scat spread upon the sand.
The hunt is on.
On another level, of course, the hunt actually began a long time before—starting with the initial seed, the desire, the want and will. And that intention is challenged from the very beginning by the thousand and one things that can distract your thoughts and rob you of your focus, that can keep you from that which you love, and love to do. Your determination, your fealty to your need and dream, is tested again and again leading up to the actual event. Unexpected expenses may arise just as you should be sending off a deposit for the outfitter or paying for out-of-state game tags. A boss may be reluctant to give you the weeks off that you need, or a spouse may have something entirely different in mind for one's scant free time. Friends might try to dissuade you, or the weather could turn bad immediately before your departure date. Months before taking to the field, you must already have the patience and insistence of a hunter, driven not by whim but necessity—if not the necessity of procuring meat for survival, then the necessity of stalking and bringing back down to the earth the real moment, of reawakening the carnivore and restoring the self.
It rises up out of the mists of the amorphous, of formless possibility and wish. Gradually it gathers itself, assuming the shape of a dream, a vision of an ideal destination and what promises to be an incomparable event. It awaits on the horizon like a distant mountain to climb—like the chance for failure or accomplishment—slowly heating your blood until, as the season nears, it verily boils.
It takes on the shape of a plan and the weight of significance through the course of meticulous preparation: reading books and magazine articles about game animals, suitable firearms and wondrous places to hunt. Studying the appropriate topographic maps. Cleaning and repairing the intended arms to be used, or perhaps ordering a gun specially fitted to you, specifically for this occasion. Sorting through musty closets or garages full of sporting ephemera and pleasant irrelevancies, daydreaming about the field or canyon, the spread of antlers and the bear's shaking of the trees. Humming a little song while spreading out on the rug an array of hunter's tools and charms for blessing and selection: a brass compass from 1901, a handmade skinning knife and freshened Norwegian hatchet, a 1920s vintage waterproof Marbles match case that your best friend got you, and a small box with hooks and fishing line, "just in case." And most important, you make sure you have the little deerskin bag with the feathers and pebbles saved from previous successful quests, the tokens you hope will bring you good luck.
It is a ritual not unlike that of our hunter ancestors who laid their arrow and spear points out in a calculated array, smudged them with the smoke of sacred cedar, and sang the songs that would honor them and thus enlist their cooperation in flying straight and seeking the quarry's pounding heart. Through the intensity of your focus and intention you give the vision substance, until that exact second when you step foot on the hunting grounds and it becomes as real as rock—and almost too beautiful to bear.
There's vintage shooting with period or replica arms, and then there's vintage hunting. Both intentionally evoke history as well as a certain aesthetic and sensibility. But hunting additionally requires the walk and the search, the following of tracks or the stillness of a hidden stand. And it may or may not include the discharging of one's firearm, depending on the hunter's fortune and skills.
On this trip you've chosen to carry little except the favored arm, its reassuring weight resting comfortably atop your shoulder as you grip it by the barrel—plus a bedroll in a surplus canvas pack, and a small leather "possibles" bag. In the bag you've placed the minimal tools for backcountry survival, and the means for finding one's way back home. You brought a flimsy orange safety vest for hunting in congested areas, but the rest of the time you prefer the camouflage of natural material and earth-tone clothes. Like any predator, your success depends upon being seen only when you want to. And at the bottom, a handful of extra cartridges "just in case," carefully packed with maximum charges of alchemists' black powder. Smokeless ammunition has a report that would betray the century of your origin, and a favored shot doesn't feel quite right to you without a remnant wisp of white smoke snaking from the bore of a recently fired barrel.
You own an expensive replica of an 1800s scope, a long, small diameter tube with a decidedly historic look. But you generally prefer a gun without any protuberances, and prefer to encounter your quarry with no more aid than your wire-rim prescription glasses and ever-eager eyes. You've done plenty of hunting with optical sights, magnifying the target and making shots at long range much easier. But then easy isn't always the point. And scopes encourage distance and objectification, when what you long for is an experience that is particularly personal and deeply subjective. Military snipers are mythologized for their ability to kill a soldier 1,000 yards away, but front-line grunts are also known to look down on them because of their being able to take the lives of men who have no chance to identify, locate or retaliate against their attacker. As it was with the shootists of the Old West, vintage hunters often find extra satisfaction in making their encounters, and kills, up close. Close enough to be seen, if you fail to be sufficiently concealed. Close enough to be smelled, if you were to forget the direction of the wind that can give a hunter away. Close enough that obliviousness or distraction on your part would likely result in the quarry's escape.
You left the "all-terrain vehicle" at home, left its noise and convenience in the deliberate brace of silence and challenge. At age 56 your friend Joe packed his elk out on his back, eight heavy loads uphill to the nearest logging road. And if need be you know you can always rent a pack horse. Of course, walking requires more effort, but the rewards are sensuous and immediate, and the excitement of the hunt all the greater. Difficulty is the means by which we measure our relative abilities. And limiting practical and mechanical advantages demands more of the hunter. More awareness. More effort. More determination. More patience. It requires that your senses be heightened, your stands be better selected, your stalks longer and more effective, your responses more sure, your shots more true. Going into the field with both the armament and the keenness of a frontiersman can lead to being more present, more alert, more effective, more grateful—and, ideally, more easily pleased.
For most of human history hunters have been role models and heroes to the people. They not only brought in the necessary stocks of protein, but tended to be more intuitive and wiser, stronger and more diligent due to the demands of the hunt. Before there was a professional army, it was the hunters who served as the vanguard in any battle to protect the village. Up until recently a "militia" meant every able-bodied citizen, the butcher and baker grabbing their hunting arms and valiantly rallying at the sound of the warning bell.
You cross the shallow river now, its waters lapping up your calves. On the other side a number of tracks converge and collide: a large bull or two, a number of cows and one- and two-year-old elk calves. For our ancestors, the ability to "read" sign determined whether we would suffer a relentless hunger or enjoy venison jerky sun-drying on pine bough racks. And for us, too, it can mean the difference between feast and fast.
Cueing into the lives of the lion, of butterflies and squirrels, is a way for the hunter to fully inhabit his sensate body and the land where he stalks. It is a way of both connecting and being informed—a linking up, a holding of hand and paw, fin and wing, the human heart and every natural thing. Every set of tracks and dusting of feathers is a story you can follow to its end. Every opening in the brush becomes a doorway, through which you can enter a world of wonder and possibility. Every turn in the trail is the turning of a page. You come to see the universe as rich with impressions, imbued with not only lyric beauty but a message, a moral, a purpose.
While you don't always catch up to what you're following, in the process you're given the opportunities to find yourself. Hunting is the primitive art of "paying attention," for which even the "unsuccessful" hunter is immediately rewarded—with increased sensitivity, lush sensory engagement and deepened response. Getting home from a day on the trail, you can't help but notice how much sweeter the jazz or bluegrass sounds, how much more complex each meal tastes. Eyes taught to discern the minutiae of sign are better able to discern the nuances of color and form in an otherwise familiar painting. A heart opened wider by the beauty, compassion and mortality of the hunter's trail returns more open to home and family, more intent on what you need to do.
There's a rural Western expression that "you can't eat tracks"—meaning that seeing a lot of sign is not the same as "bringing home the bacon." But then, in another way you can—by consuming every track and savoring every sight, being filled by the experience and nourished by the close contact with the natural world—as our path leads nowhere, but from the break of dawn to the onset of another stunning night.
You stop again, not so much to rest as to collect your breath and listen. Peering into the breaks ahead, you see what looks like movement in the lengthening shadows and darkening oaks. It's an elk for sure, a cow, and the last in line of what was likely a large herd moving steadily out of reach. You shoulder the rifle and aim as quickly as you dare, and pull the hammer back just as the hoped-for game disappears.
The hunt has always been an affair with an uncertain outcome, as colored by disappointment as by success. For as long as we have been human we've enlisted the power of the supernatural, made prayers to our various conceptions of God, and made entreaties to the spirits of the animals themselves to provide us with the food that family, tribe and community need. It is the role of the hunter to sense that which is unseen, whether it be the hidden game or the subtle signs that will lead him to it. And it is the hunter who first turned to the unseen powers of Earth and Heaven for success in these endeavors.
Some say our kind have been hunters for over 3 million years, and if you believe in evolution as it's taught, hunting for meat had already long been practiced by our ape ancestors. In Europe, 400,000-year-old spear points have been found lying amid the bones of the animals they helped bring aground. And the first signs of human reverence—of an awareness of and respect for spirit—do indeed appear alongside. The creatures found painted on the walls of caverns in Europe represent hunting magic or a prayer for success in the hunt, and stand witness above an altar of animal skulls. In New Mexico a stone Folsom point has been found embedded in the head of one paleo-meal, in caves decorated with the scenes and symbols hunters hoped would help insure the outcome of the hunt.
Since the beginnings of culture and language, we have had names for the guardians and spirits of the hunt whose aid we wished to invoke. In Asia and Europe, Africa and the New World, we have called out for assistance from Orion and Ogun, Kamui and Kauyumari, Tapio and St. Hubert. And to their feminine counterparts Artemis and Diana, Brigid and Bast, Cybele and Loa, Feng Po and White Buffalo Woman.
From the beginning the procurement of food entailed ritual. The ancients might dream or otherwise seek a vision before deciding which way to go in search of the needed game, just as you must first imagine the regions and terrain of your own 21st century hunts. They fast for clarity, and you too seem to always be hungrier than you've ever been by the time you locate your target and slowly squeeze the rifle's trigger. Subconsciously at least, you must still sense the religious dimensions of the kill. There's a certain tingle you get that says you do not "take" its life, so much as it is "given" to you. And to keep the gifts coming, you must give thanks—and gifts—in return.
Spiritual awareness is born of the human ability to anticipate your own impending and unavoidable death. With the recognition of your mortal fate, comes the realization of that which lasts. Sensing the end of this human form, you may also experience the way in which we are each a part of something numinous and eternal.
Hunting palpably binds you to the cycles of life and death, hunger and fulfillment—and to a brotherhood of pursuer and pursued. It can remind you how, without exception, all living things survive by absorbing the lives of other beings: the deer consuming the life of the plant; the remains of a slain deer putting nutrients back in the soil for the plants to feed on. You may even come to sense the ways in which we are all—simultaneously—both predator and prey. And how we too, die, not only to feed heaven but earth.
Truly the hunter knows, perhaps even better than the farmer, that meat doesn't come from a package. It grows out of passion, blood and bone, and from a will to live. It is muscle that swelled and stiffened to propel the flight of water birds and churn the legs of antelope and elk. Hunting makes this necessary taking of life deliberate. And it is when we make it conscious, compassionate, thoughtful, that it becomes a sacred act.
This speaks to what is missing when merely sightseeing, or when "hunting with a camera," as some like to say. Snapping photographs is a great impetus for getting out and getting familiar with the natural world, but it lacks the element of necessity and the intensity of the predator-prey contract. The lens magnifies and objectifies like a scope, and there is no blood with which to sign your name, to induct you into the covenant of the wild. With photography you remain at least partially an outsider, an observer rather than a participant. You have no stake, and will not go hungry if a picture fails. When shooting photos instead of rifles, you do not touch the animal or smell its fur. You do not hold parts of its being in your hands. You do not get to look closely enough into the creature's eyes to make you stop and cry.
Hunting is an opportunity to learn to really love those animals you love to eat. It ideally makes you not crueler but more considerate, encouraging not only awareness and ability but also understanding and empathy—the ability to sense what other beings are feeling. Vintage hunting raises self-understanding and self-respect, while arousing a profound love of life.
It is said that all ground is sacred. And therefore everywhere you hunt can serve as your "sacred hunting grounds."
Now, just as you were about to lower your rifle, the cow elk reappears, easing out of the tangle and into the only visible clearing. She is only 40 yards away, and yet still she seems impossible, too big, too sure to move out of sight just in the nick of time. As quickly as you dare, you swing the barrel the 30 degrees needed to bring it to bear, the front blade forming a vertical post topping out in the exact center of the aperture on the rear tang sight, and directly beyond it a spot on the great animal intended to break her spine. She's spotted you, of that you're sure. And in her eyes you see not only a growing submission to pitiless fate—but also a reflection of your self, of your tearful, joyful hunter's soul. Slowly the trigger is squeezed, with love and respect, and not with malice. It is an offering. It is a request.
As it should be, you're surprised when the gun actually goes off, the rapid expansion of gases propelling a .45 caliber slug down the 28 inch tube—and all the way through the flesh of the neck at a point just below where you had intended. The elk shakes her head and turns to run uphill as many animals will, while you lever another round into the chamber and send it flying in her direction through the fog of white smoke. Clambering to get traction, she barely takes a step before the second slug crashes into her shoulder, knocking her down for good. She thrashes briefly and then lies still, and you're instantly filled with a wild mixture of emotions from sadness to satisfaction, sobriety to delight. But more than anything else it is gratitude that you feel: For not having caused the prolonged suffering of your game. For the extra rounds stacked end to end in the tube of your 1876. For the success of the hunt, the meat that will feed your family and the hide that you'll have tanned for chaps and a vest. And t
Indians and Celts would spread cornmeal near the fallen elk's mouth, would have eaten the still-steaming liver and heart and made their appropriate prayers to a fecundate planet and the powers above. For you this is ceremony enough: the tight feeling in your throat and the moisture in your eyes, the overwhelming sensation of deep humility, the stroking of her furry head before the pupils glaze over and the flesh begins to cool. This ritual of killing is altogether more whole—and perhaps more holy—washed by the sweat of your efforts, anointed with your tears of remorse, gratitude and celebration.
The hunt is instinct that roars through the corridors of your subconscious and flows through your veins. It is an imperative—a call to awakened self, to the real world of death and life, and to the rich realities of place. The vintage hunt is more than indulgence in the sentimental and the archaic. It is true "recreation": re-creating a reciprocal relationship with the living world. It is believed that the first human songs, and perhaps language itself, arose out of the practice of calling in animals to eat by mimicking their sounds. Blowing the elk bugle or making little squeaking noises to draw in a predator, you become as part of the herd and flock. Running game with hounds, matching them step for step, you could run as part of the pack. Waiting motionless at a stand, your awareness spreads out to encompass all that you can see and hear, and you become as big as the land you hunt. Stalking, you get closer and closer to the quarry until you seem to crawl inside its skin, finally becoming that which you s
You finish skinning your quarry, then wipe the blade on the nearby bunchgrass. Your old Winchester leans against a tree, resting but alert like a wolf with a full belly. A streak of reddish brown graces your forehead where you must have wiped the sweat from your brow. You are blooded. You are kin. Man, and land, inseparable again.