Branching Out - Geneviève Villamizar

Seeing other trucks at the BLM access opening day darn near derailed me. We parked, anyway — mere yards from a rotund, older hunter glassing the opposite ridge — as if. Jittery, we donned our gear and requisite blaze. Walking past a bend to the secret trailhead, seven more trucks squatted roadside. Gah!!

This was my beloved’s first hunt, and hopefully, our shared future. I would do all I could to make it a positive experience. So I gathered myself and whispered the tale of my first hunt here. In darkness so thick, right where we stood, I had unexpectedly jumped an elk herd. The silence blew up as cows and calves thrashed through willows, limbs pinging barbed wire, one after another. Rooted to the gravel (hopefully avoiding a direct hit) my ears flared in the returning quiet. Their chirps receded as they called back and forth, seeking one another across the darkness. It was unfreakingbelievable.

So the contrast between that year and this year is alarming. What gives?

Declining hunter participation has meant declining dollars all across conservation. The wear and tear on public lands post-pandemic was just another prompt to get on it. State wildlife and hunting organizations responded with new programs and initiatives. Nationwide, R3 works to recruit new hunters, retain existing ones, and reactivate those who gave it up. Experiential programs address barriers to entry for never-evers. Initiatives towards diversity/equity/inclusivity create safety for nontraditional newbies. As such, the pandemic has produced many new hunters.

Did that explain nine trucks at a previously untrammeled access? I don’t know, but I’m forced to ask myself as I did with climbing, years ago — how much longer do I care to play?

We set a reasonable pace to bypass the other hunters, clambering over ridges, through thickets and across drainages. We shared thoughts and observations as easily as we share leading or following — just because I was the experienced one didn’t mean it was my show. As in adventures past in which I’ve taught the berries we can eat, or how to harvest seeds, he has gestured at land features and navigated for us. This kind of tag-teaming led us to mushrooming. I had harvested and eaten porcinis and morels, but he was the one who found our first chanterelles. We both felt a part of the discovery. It was lovely.

So, I invited him to hunt. And he jumped at it. In hunting with me, maybe he’d discover untapped parts of himself.

We were immensely rewarded on opening day. He spotted a herd of elk, first — so proud of him. And I found the fresh blood of a lung-shot elk, the mystery unfolding but unsolved as we tracked it. He saw the does first, too, impressing me again. I lifted my .270 to see them better through my scope and was enchanted: long, black lashes flickered over wet, steady eyes. We were both relieved at no buck. It’s never easy to shoot a living being.

Throughout the day, we ate, dozed, peed and scratched, just like these animals around us. We slogged through snow, oakbrush and wetlands. And … I brooded, despite myself.

As a teen, I had wanted so desperately to hunt. I craved a visceral counterpoint to the cerebral aspects of horticulture, design and writing. It has been 20-some years now, and hunting isn’t something I “do.” It’s who I am; how I am. Increasingly, though, human impacts on elk and deer and the crowding on public lands turn me away.

On a friend’s private ranch land two nights later, a juvenile buck lay at our feet. I lit an incense and stuck it in the earth at his muzzle. We both marveled at the exquisite details, now right before us. Hands on his flanks, stroking his face, his neck, we gave thanks. I picked up my snap-blade Exacto and began to slice. The taste of his muscle — supple and raw in our mouths — how to describe it? Definitely wild. Clean, almost sweet.

Dismembering an animal that was alive moments before is intense; in the sharing and teaching, for me; for him, in the action of taking life to sustain life. When he choked up, his tears had two effects on me. First, I fell more in love. Second, I decided our hunting would shift a bit, after all.

Let’s stick to our everyday ordinary. To the goofy meanderings we’ve come to share so well, My Love. Let’s shoulder .22s for a longer, more gentle season. Let’s give deer and elk a break and set our sights on those in less peril, those which are far more numerous. Squirrels, perhaps; rabbits, birds? And above all, let’s continue to harvest those in-between moments we’ve come to cherish so.

Shall we see where the next bend takes us?