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Bloodlust revisited

When hunters David Petersen and Mike Buss pack in to the backwoods, John Balzar reports, they've got far more than game in their sights.

November 11, 2003|John Balzar

San Juan Mountains, Colo. — It begins before dawn, as usual. Two gray-haired men, coffeed, oatmealed and camouflaged, move out of camp. Wordlessly, their boots crunching through a glaze of autumn frost, they vanish into the moonshadows and trees at yonder end of a high mountain meadow. One of them is an archer from the Rocky Mountains of the United States, and today he is a guide. The other is from the lush wetlands of central Canada. He carries a black-powder flintlock in the style of 200 years ago.

They are not walking, but choosing their steps. All senses are activated. A few paces, and listen. A few more, and sniff the air. Then more, and try to gauge the terrain ahead while anticipating the glow of daybreak. It is elk season in Colorado. These two men are out to kill a majestic bull. Over time, they also are out to change the way North Americans perceive -- and pursue -- this ancient endeavor of hunting.

There is nothing new in saying that hunters are being challenged by antihunters on this continent. That's been going on for more than a generation. What's fresher is the debate from within: the emerging arguments among hunters themselves about what is good and what is bad with hunting, what is defensible and what is not.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Outdoors cover -- The firearm featured in the cover photograph on Tuesday's Outdoors section was not a flintlock, as stated, but a caplock.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 18, 2003 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Ethical hunting -- The firearm featured in last Tuesday's cover photograph was not a flintlock, as stated, but a caplock.

It is a discussion being provoked, and not always on welcome terms, by the likes of David Petersen, bowhunter and writer from southern Colorado. And by black-powder shooter Mike Buss, a retired government wildlife biologist from Canada's Ontario province and a founder of the group Hunting Heritage Hunting Futures.

Until quite recently, North American hunters could be viewed as akin to the larger community of gun owners: men and women locked in arms. They stood together no matter what, ready to defend anything and everything -- even the worst of things -- for fear of giving that proverbial first inch to opponents.

The 1990s brought stirrings of change. In Canada, Buss and a colleague collected sporting groups together into a single national organization, its aim to elevate hunting above its lowest common denominator. In the U.S., Petersen published a groundbreaking anthology of essays titled "A Hunter's Heart," which challenged people to think more deeply about hunting ethics and outdoor values. In 2000, he followed with a book of his own lively reflections on four decades as an outdoorsman: "Heartsblood: Hunting, Spirituality and Wildness in America."

"Hunters are so easy to hate," Petersen acknowledges. "I sometimes think that were I not a hunter myself -- lacking that intimate perspective, that hunter's heart -- I suppose I could become an antihunter. The line is that fine."

As Buss puts it: "We're trying to get hunters to look at their activities in light of what society expects of us."

Back to raw nature

If a mule slips on the muddy trail and tumbles down the near-vertical cliff, it is a good idea to dismount on the uphill side as swiftly as your wits allow. Also, if the mules wander into a nest of yellowjackets, it's best not to be carrying a pack on your back in the event you get bucked off in the yee-haw that's sure to ensue. With those words of guidance, you are handed the reins to a dappled mule named Hilda, and you're on your way to hunting camp.

"Ethical" hunting with Petersen and Buss is also aesthetic hunting -- getting away from roads and other hunters and as close to raw nature as practical. In the glaciated, razor-ridged San Juans, that means signing up with a guide, like Mike Murphy of Durango's T Bar M Outfitters, for a switchbacking, stream-cut saddle ride to a 9,500-foot camp of wall tents, heaped firewood and boiled coffee. This kind of hunting has occurred in these mountains for generations: a comfortable base camp in a national forest that allows hunters to penetrate the extremes of Colorado's lofty aspen and meadow wilderness.

It is, at least for some, neither pure meat hunting nor outright trophy hunting, but some combination of both in which campfire fraternalism, the epic country, the noble quarry and the overpowering sense of primitive wildness all beckon.

What is it about hunting? For one important thing, it is elemental. Hunters attest that nothing brings them so close to nature, both to the nature around them and to their own human nature, as assuming a predatory place in the food chain. It is feral, primeval. And natural too, for humans evolved as hunters. Perhaps the only similar sensation is to wander unarmed in grizzly bear country, or to swim in the ocean with large sharks, an experience offering the other primordial point of view: that of possible prey.

Our ancient progenitors would probably be mystified, though, by the determination of hunters like Buss and Petersen to make it as tough as possible.

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