The death of the outdoorsman

In short, I think everyone holds some version of the same conceptual category: “Fellow creatures about whom I care too much to eat.”
Tovar Cerulli

On several occasions in the past I’ve speculated on when, in the history of American outdoor culture, the hook and bullet sides of being in the outdoors separated as thoroughly as they have from the recreational sides.  Today we have REI and we have Cabelas, and a cultural chasm between the two.  The antipathy often expressed by one side towards the other can be quite severe.

I assume I am correct in thinking this was not always the case.  At one point, perhaps when the US population was smaller and the distinction between rural and suburban ways of life less drastic, getting outside was getting outside.  Then again, perhaps it has only been in the haze of post-WWII affluence that large numbers have had the leisure to get outside for purely recreational purposes.  Perhaps this same haze has given us too much free time to contemplate identities built on the fragile moorings of non-life sustaining activities, which has given rise to the culture war which permeates so many aspects of contemporary American life.

Take coyote hunting as an example.  In most western states, coyotes are classified as a predator, and can be hunted year-round, without limit, by anyone.  This time of year they are one of the only things one can hunt, and thus serious hunters hunt coyotes in late winter.  I assume almost none of them eat the coyotes they shoot.  The normal narrative is that doing this helps control the population of these predators, and provides respite for ranchers of sheep and farmers of chickens.

Biologically, this is an absurd view.  Coyotes have vastly expanded their North American range since 1500.  They weren’t seen east of the Mississippi until the 1930s, and they now inhabit every state save Hawaii.  Eastern coyotes are 30-50% heavier than western coyotes, and for at least several decades have been regularly forming Coywolf hybrids, usually when male coyotes mate with subordinate female wolves.  A growing body of opinion holds that eastern coyotes are bigger because of wolf DNA, and not merely because of a robust diet of garbage and cats.

The point is that the last five centuries have consistently shown us that humans cannot significantly impact or control coyote populations.  Even the most drastic poisoning operations in the early 1900s were remarkably ineffective.  Coyotes have lots of pups, and when the populations come under external (non food) stress, they have even more.

Coyote hunters kill coyotes because they like killing coyotes.  It is neither a harmful nor beneficial action for the ecosystem at large.  This persistent mass delusion is a good example of the cultural belief the hook and bullet crowd uses to define itself.  As is of course the contempt with which the prototypical Keen-shod REI denizen views coyote hunting and it’s proponents.

Another example is national parks.  The REI crowd thinks nothing of going through a convoluted, irksome, advanced permitting process to go on a backpacking trip, nor driving a long ways and spending a lot of money on entrance fees, tourist food, and 28 dollar campsites.  Few actively enjoy these aspects, but they are tolerable obstacles because the scenic reward at the end is so considerable.  The hook and bullet view might be that only suckers and neophytes spend so much for an over-regulated, nanny-fied wilderness experience.

There are class dimensions here, but the cultural ones are far more robust.

In the end, the most important distinction might be in another place entirely.  Most outdoor enthusiasts on the REI side favor day activities.  The most popular outdoor pursuit, according to a report which came out around the latest Outdoor Retailer show, is running.  A fine pursuit, but for 95% running has as much to do with the outdoors writ large as golf.  The story is the same on the hook and bullet side; most folks prefer to fish somewhere reachable by road accessed downstream or motor power, and most hunters do so for the day and close to the road.

The outdoors, and the adventure found in it, is a mental construct.  Mystery and challenge can be found almost anywhere, if your eyes can see it.  But this creativity is predicated on the existence and influence of big places.  If fewer people, for whatever reason, go big, that influence will grow faint, and the integrity of outdoor adventure will deteriorate.


19 responses to “The death of the outdoorsman”

  1. Travis Bernard Avatar
    Travis Bernard

    Couldn’t agree more. I think that cultural chasm that exists between the ‘Cabela’s and REI’ crowd is a bit of a hang-over from the European worldview that views man as the centre of the universe, with nature and its resources there for his exploitation. The chasm exists only insomuch that we are arguing over how it is to be exploited. The day-runner may be hitting the trail in order to get exercise and while out he wants to feel as if he is travelling through a wild, and pristine wilderness. Perhaps he wants to bag a peak to test himself or to scale a rock face for an adrenaline rush. The roadside hunter has his own reasons for being outside. Maybe it’s a chance to get out with friends, to get some fresh air, and of course to quench that primal instinct to kill.

    Putting value judgements aside, I think both the runner and the hunter have more in common than we think. Largely, these activities are used as a form of escapism, one way or another. It’s a way to get out of the house, away from the hum-drum of paying bills and family obligations, or maybe just to remind us that there is a world that exists outside of our peripheral that deserves some attention. Whether you heading out into the bush to physically take a resource (kill a moose) or for more esoteric reasons (to commune with nature) your view of nature is going to be determined with you at the nucleus. I think this is the reason why it can be fairly easy to predict what a rancher’s views on a wolf cull may be versus a weekend backpacker from Seattle.

    The lines certainly get blurry, though, when it comes to the explorers, adventurers, trappers, the backcountry hunters and so on. Nature has a way of forcing on you her own concept of ecology and eventually you have to succumb to her demands, whether you want to or not.

    It is the existence and influence of big places. It’s also the calm cruelty of mother nature, the reality of the life and death struggle to survive for plants, animals and people, that forces us to constantly reexamine our role in nature. If we all spent more time with mother nature this self-inflicted cultural chasm would lessen. We have appointed ourselves stewards of the land, but we must be on the land to give it the proper reverence it deserves.

    Great post Dave. It gave me something to think about over my morning coffee.


    1. Thanks Travis. More than anything, the acrimony on these issues just makes me sad.

      1. Travis Bernard Avatar
        Travis Bernard


    2. I agree, and would add that killing a moose and communing with nature are not necessarily distinct activities at all, at least not for everyone.

  2. Dave, what is your view on hunting coyotes for recreational purposes?

    1. The contempt many people seem to have for Coyotes bugs me a lot, as it does with wolf hunting up here. That most folks take just the pelt from either species, if they take anything, bothers me as well. Otherwise I’m not aware of any scientific/management objection to coyote hunting. I’ve been meaning to try it myself this winter, mainly because I want to try eating one, but the skiing has been too good to prioritize it.

  3. The acrimony on both sides makes me sad since I’m on both sides. Ranchers may have over reacted to the wolves but at least they could point to real problems they were dealing with (and an unspoken fear they were being politically sidelined, probably the real source of the panic). I find the “REI” crowd’s contempt for hunter’s and ranchers ironic and often just as irrational if not more so. First there is no real appeal to a religion or principal of science. Most of the “REI” crowd aren’t practicing a faith that specifically teaches meat or hunting is bad. And regulated hunting in the US isn’t about to drive any species extinct. So the REI crowds objections to hunting are basically “I think hunting is ugly so its bad.” and “Ranching doesn’t fit with my view of pristine nature so its bad.” Appeals to emotion promote more shouting then solutions.

  4. Dave,

    I thought your post was great. Here in the northeast we refer to the divide you highlight as the “fleece to camo” ratio. In my experience (although purely anecdotal) this ratio heavily correlates with economic status and/or political orientation. In a way I think this divide represents the broader cultural divide we have seen in our country of late. Political posturing in the White Mountains NH where I live has become even more intense due to state funding for backcountry search and rescue operations being drawn from hunting/fishing licenses and ATV registration, while most actual SAR operations being used to rescue hikers and backpackers. Obviously this has been a source of contention. I have heard that nationally hunting and fishing numbers are in decline while the outdoor rec industry is soaring. The one thing I will never understand is how someone can kill or trap a coyote and then go home and pet their dog. I have been lucky enough to have had a few encounters with eastern coyotes and they are as full of life and emotion as mans best friend.


  5. Spot on. This is an issue that deserves further discussion. Thanks.

  6. I wish more “outdoor bloggers” dealt with these issues. Thanks for this. Just a thought, the class vs. cultural dialectic is profound here, if race is to be considered as a variable as well. Puts the class dimensions of the problem in a completely different frame.

    1. I agree. Outdoor adventure in whatever form is a very white endeavor. Honestly, I don’t know enough about non-white participation and experience to comment.

  7. Interesting comments. I’m on both sides, as a long time REI member, working on my NH 48 4K list, paddling whitewater all year long, and hoping to get drawn for a moose tag in Maine, get my first archery deer, or at least get out and bag a spring turkey. It wasn’t all that long ago the two were one, many people, myself included, were drawn to the outdoors by hunting or fishing and expanded from there. Its getting tougher to find a place to hunt and there is a lot of competition, often not exactly “sportsman like” that turns off some folks from the sport as well. A few hunters and fishermen being down right jerks gives the REI crowd the impression we are all like that. Many of the REI crowd forget that hunting season is very limited, and although its safer than many other activities the media loves to give the impression you can’t go outside without fear of being hit by a stray arrow or bullet when hunting season is in session. The more obnoxious REI crowd gets upset that they “can’t” hike or Mtn bike during the few weeks hunting season is on and they resent that. Its okay to hunt, they’ll say, way up north where “no one” lives but not here in southern NH, never mind the deer population of S. NH far greater and in need of an annual trimming than up north. Or they’ll say we just need to reintroduce cougars, wolves and coyotes. I’d suggest they’ve never had the pleasure of walking their dog along a trail 50 yards from the house and finding a coyote killed deer, and then watching that carcass disappear in 3 or 4 days. They also forget that its hunters and fishermen who provide the bulk of funding for a great many of our outdoor areas, via the 11% R-P tax, something the REI crowd has rejected time and time again when asked to fund their share of the adventure.

    I’ve never shot a coyote, I’ve been tempted and did miss one once with my bow but I suspect my heart wasn’t in it. Killing something just to get rid of it is long in my past and I regret very much all those red squirrels that met their demise at my hands. I have a great deal of respect for the predators, and recognize that they are here to stay. They are far more resilient than the anti-hunt crowd likes to imagine, and healthy prey populations, deer, moose, elk, depend on some predation to stay healthy. Hunters pay for conservation so they do have the right, under regulation, to harvest animals too and understandably but unfortunately many resent the competition from predators. Frankly, I resent the competition from “hunters” who don’t think they need to follow the letter and spirit of the law far more than I do a few deer taken by a coyote.

  8. Interesting and complicated topic. I wonder how different the divide is in different countries ? Some countries, seem to have more of what I would consider a “unified” outdoorsman, where it doesn’t seem so uncommon to find a peak bagger, a hunter and a fisherman all in one. I suspect, a lot of it is cultural, and based on how the various crowds have been marketed to over the years and thus have developed their identities. I would like to see a move toward a more unified outdoors person, and away from the cultural divide that now exists. There is a Meat Eater (Steven Rinella) episode , where they cook coyote, if you are interested.

  9. I live in both camps. I am an avid outdoor recreationalist and enjoy skiing, camping, whitewater boating, outdoor photography, etc. I am also an avid hunter and fisherman. I have numerous friends in each camp and bemoan the fact that today there is little cross pollination between the two groups. For this I place the lion’s share of blame on the hunting community. Again, I am a hunter and I love to hunt more than just about anything so I do not come to this opinion lightly.

    The problem is that hunting has allowed itself to become coopted by the political right. The public face of hunting has become organizations like the NRA (who don’t care about real hunting) and foul-mouths like Ted Nugent. And just like climate change, science education, and healthcare, the debate about issues surrounding hunting, i.e. guns, conservation and predator control has become partisan and is no longer based on reality. As far as the more vocal representatives of the hunting community are concerned if you don’t demand that wolves be exterminated or you support gun controls or you belong to an environmental group you don’t deserve to be called a hunter. And, unsurprisingly, this feeds into the narrative that many of my recreationalist friends believe that most hunters are right-wing extremists who couldn’t care less about the environment they exploit.

    I principally hunt in the backcountry. I use hunting weapons that I have fashioned with my own hands. The only quads that I employ to bring me to my quarry are the ones that God gave me. I would never kill a wolf, mountain lion, or grizzly except in a survival situation. These predators are kindred spirits and deserve our respect and not our animosity. When I kill an animal I honor it by eating everything and using the hide, bones and sinew for clothing and hunting implements. I believe that hunting is not a right, it is a gift that the Creator and my ancestors have bestowed upon me.

    When I explain these things to my recreationalist friends they get it and their view of hunting is at least temporarily elevated. But in today’s environment where it seems that almost everything is poisoned by partisan politics I fear we have a long way to go to repair this rift.

    1. Agreed. Thanks for speaking Gordon, I appreciate all the other data points. Maybe as the generations change the larger cultural view of hunting with a more holistic and less polarized one.

      1. I think–and this is only my half-assed interpretation so take it for what it’s worth–that food politics has the potential to be a huge influence. IF the local movement continues to gain ground, more people on the REI side of things are going to be exposed to animal death in the form of small-scale livestock processing and it MIGHT become more normalized that yes, if you want meat, animals have to die, and maybe hunting isn’t so terrible. IF the REI crowd resists the blockheaded urging to flee to the cities and makes an honest go at non-urban life (so, not yuppie ski towns and not vacation cabins, but year-round residency and engagement with the community), it MIGHT force the stereotypical redneck hunter to become more tolerant of wilderness management for use beyond hunting. Then again, I get a lot of ridicule in certain spaces when I suggest the solution for marginalized populations might NOT be to flee to the coasts. But I’m firmly convinced a person shouldn’t have to cut themselves off from the wilderness for it to “get better.”

        This was an excellent post.

  10. This fine topic reminds me of the demise of Sports Afield magazine. In the 1990’s they tried to add fitness/rec/aerobic topics to their hook’n’bullet coverage and imploded to jeers.

    I’ve been doing the blend for decades with my project. I’ve had 2 complaints from churchies — who tend to align with hook’n’bullet — but zero specific camo complaints. But I’ve had 3 complaints from the hippie/veggie side against my camo coverage. That’s not much static, but the hippies are leading! Still, it seems that more like my blend than dislike it, which is nice, given my impression that most people are generalists here in 4-season mid-Michigan. Also, I simply have to do what I can to NOT segregate people.

    I enjoy owning the domain — and mirror it to that part of my OYB content.

    I recently had a convert! …A hippie friend confessed new appreciation of firearms due to my inclusive media efforts.

    And awhile ago a lady environmentalist friend from Chicago was outraged that I brought a firearm on a New Year’s winter camp-out party (that I was co-hosting). …Until she saw me showing others how to shoot the flintlock pistol at a can. Then she had to try it. Then every year afterward she insisted that I bring it along to “spark off” the New Year.

    Here in Michigan’s lower peninsula it has become something of a sunrise-side / sunset-side divide. It’s fleece on the “sunset” west side — home to Traverse City and the wine growers. And it’s camo on the working class “sunrise” east side of small lakes ringed by tiny cottages (“camps”) often with Polish names on the proud roadside signs. Vestiges of the getaways of downstate factory workers.

    It’s interesting seeing the hipsters appropriate camo. I like the fashion use of camo just fine.

    When I was a groomed-track ski racer I reflexively was against snowmobilers — since they often spoiled our pristine courses. Now that I mostly ski ungroomed singletrack trails I like snowmobiles a fair bit — they sometimes break the trail for me and I can easily ski in their nice flat tread. Quad-rigs are tougher. I think there’s been PR progress and snowmobilers don’t ruin XC courses nearly as often anymore.

    The more that each “side” knows what the other “sides” can be good for the less the friction.

    (I’m starting to see wide, groomed skating trails as being less of a dominant value than I used to. I see their impact and costs even though I know that grooming toughens a trail so that thousands can enjoy it. I’m seeing “just plain trails” as now the main thing, especially since there are so many more of them in most locales. Ski touring is easily enjoyed with today’s light/cheap/tough/easy/high-performance gear. …A side of the sport not promoted by the ski industry or hardly anyone else. Touring seems more likely to survive crossing over to the other “side” than groomed skiing.)

    I’d like to make garments of the fur of wild critters. Lately I’ve been relying on roadkill as my source, an easy resource considering where we live. (I’ve also started relying on the road in front of our house for free organic meat.) But I’m not against all hunting and trapping. Set and setting seems relevant in all this. Of our main local fauna, I’m only missing a coyote pelt.

  11. […] alternate perspectives on many issues has been the most intriguing part of the whole process.  As I’ve discussed, in the US hunting and fishing are remarkably distanced from most other outdoor pursuits.  The […]

  12. […] been tough work the last 18 months, becoming a hunter, and not because the discipline itself is so […]

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