By Marty Grabijas
Our day started at dawn, creeping along a rock strewn Jeep trail on a spine of a ridge near the Columbia River. The goal for the day was to reach a spring that lay high up a side canyon, on the ridge opposite us.
My companions on the hunt for chukar and huns (delicious game birds) were my two labs â€” Sis, my older dog and soul mate, and Roxie â€” a five-month-old puppy. Sis was all business when I let her out of the truck, but Roxie was intent on playing, and pestered her adopted big sister. As we hunted our way down into the main canyon and up the opposing side canyon towards the spring, Roxie flanked Sis and followed her moves.
Once we reached the spring we rested in the lush grass. The only sound was the occasional raven down canyon. The afternoon sun silhouetted the opposite ridge and the small bump that was our truck. We hunted through the stillness of the sage, walking the bottom of the side canyon on the way up to the spring. In the afternoon, we took the easier way back down, following a ridge until we reached the main canyon's bottom. We then started our climb back to the truck. I didn't shoot any birds this trip, but it didn't really matter.
Hunters, fishermen, mountain bikers, paddlers and backcountry skiers look alike once you strip away our various uniforms. And, surprisingly enough, they all want pretty much the same thing-- to be able to pursue what they are passionate about and ensure that their kids will have an opportunity to do the same. However, somewhere along the way things got sideways.
It used to be that you went into the same store to purchase your ski wax, hiking boot laces and shotgun shells. The outdoor community was a family without the mindless divisions and childish sniveling that exist between core and traditional outdoor, flat water and whitewater paddlers, and alpine and backcountry skiers. We all enjoyed being outdoors.
One theory is that, while hunters are truly the first conservationists, they are still conservative. During the '60s, when our country was even more divided than today, the Vietnam War protestors embraced an image that didn't square with conservative America, and an association was struck between â€œenvironmentalistsâ€, flower children and civil unrest. While I suspect that the vocal minority â€” on both sides â€” have done more to drive a wedge in the division, the majority are more middle-of-the-road, with many hunters considering themselves environmentalists. And it is these labels and stereotypes that have gotten us in trouble.
One of my favorite forms of attire when on the road is either tie-dye or camo. I find that I can spill an entire container of take-out food on either and they just don't show stains. If I walk into a rural gas station during hunting season wearing a tie dye shirt I can almost hear people calling me all sorts of names. If I wear camo at a river take-out I can almost hear the same. Assumptions and prejudices are arrived at without ever discovering the truth. We label and draw conclusions without knowing what that other person or group is really passionate about. We base our personal truths on stereotypes.
Are there bad people with guns out in the field? Of course. There is something about putting a gun in someone's hand that can bring out the worst in people. All that I have to do is go to my secret chukar spot to witness the bullet holes in the road closure signs. But then, there are slobs in every sport. The beloved Futaleufu River is in danger of being dammed, but the locals in the town of Futaleufu don't have a strong opinion either way. And some boaters' bad behavior â€” pissing wherever they feel like, drunkenness, public nudity and fighting â€” has helped sour the local's opinion about boaters.
The folks that I hunt with stock their freezers with the meat that they killed, compost, recycle and buy organic. There are slobs in the field, but there also some really fine individuals who are passionate about the environment and quite active in protecting it. Hunters also know, far better than the average American, that your food does not magically appear in the supermarket; shrink-wrapped and ready for your kitchen. I find little difference between someone working all day to kill a few birds and someone buying a package of chicken breasts. Other than the hunter is more connected to the real, the essential, to where meat really comes from â€” that something had to give its life to sustain yours.
I have far more objection to catching and releasing a trout (although I have been known to do so), an activity that seems to be embraced by the outdoor industry, than killing and eating that animal. I totally understand the limits of the resource and releasing the fish so that it can be caught again and propagate its kind, blah blah blah. In my mind, I find it inherently wrong to fulfill something in me by wounding this little critter that was just looking for a meal. In my mind, it is analogous to walking down the street and giving someone a hard, debilitating shot to the ribs â€” just because you can.
With the political landscape that we currently live in, there appears to be a low, almost imperceptible, rumbling that maybe it is time for the two groups to come together again. t the Outdoor Writers Association of America meeting in June, the Sierra Club gave a presentation to just this effect. Hunting-based conservation organizations have become ever more vigilant and vocal of the current administration's handling of such programs as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Clean Water Act. The message seems to be that while the traditional and core outdoor markets will always be culturally different, perhaps we have more in common than anyone would have guessed.
How do we bridge the gap? For starters, it is important to remember that when we wear our uniform or parade around with our toys on our vehicles that we are ambassadors and spokespersons for our tribe. If your only interaction with a hunter was when the guy in camo didn't hold the door open for you at the mini mart, then it is reasonable that you formed an opinion in your mind that hunters are self-centered pigs. However if that same person helped you to change a tire in a downpour, well, your view might be very different.
It is also time to reach out â€” for both parties. What can you do? Well, for starters there needs to be a fundamental mind shift. There needs to be a realization that multiple user groups have a right to be on the land; that each has its own unique needs and, in different environments, the resource needs to be managed totally differently. For example, I don't personally feel that paddlers have the right to every river, just because it is there, when their presence might detract from another user group's experiences. I also think that banning hunting in National Parks is good. Some places should exist for their own sake.
There are a multitude of local issues where climbers, paddlers, hunters, fishermen and backcountry purists could share a common view and work to achieve that goal for the good of the environment. Groups such as the Sierra Club actually have a hunting and fishing page on their web site, www.sierraclub.org/huntingfishing. Other groups such as Delta Waterfowl (www.deltawaterfowl.org) are committed to protecting wetlands, and they are driven by scientific game management research, which has a benefit of enhancing habitat for both game and non-game species.
If you are a retailer, the technological advances in equipment that the core outdoor market takes for granted have yet to filter into the traditional outdoor marketplace. Items such as headlamps, water purifiers, lighter tents and sleeping bags and stoves are just a few categories that could be ripe for picking â€” if your store diversifies its message and communicates to the hunting and fishing consumer that you are there in a language that they will understand.
Now, more than ever, wild places need our voice to ensure protection. Pristine rivers, mountains, meadows and marshes are magic, but they have no voice to speak out against a bulldozer crashing through them, leaving ugly scars and often disastrous environmental consequences for generations. For many of us, walking all day with our dogs in God's theater with a fine double gun in the crook of our arm is as spiritual as catching the perfect wave or dancing through waist deep powder. We all go to worship in our own way. And the time has come for the congregations to come together and seek similarities instead of differences.
Marty G. is the VP of Sales & Marketing for TravelChair, based in beautiful Gig Harbor, Washington.