Outdoor Adventures: Straddling the precarious line between hikers and hunters
They are two traditions as passionate as the Hatfields and McCoys, Democrats and Republicans, Red Sox and Yankees.
There is suspicion and a degree of cluelessness about each other.
They literally share common ground, particularly this time of year, but are clearly separated by an abyss of wariness.
I mean hikers and hunters.
Frankly, I’m more comfortable in the woods wearing shorts, fleece and hoisting a backpack while rock-hopping slippery stones in frosty rushing streams than I am decked out in camo and carrying a shotgun while crossing through a stone wall or across spongy muck.
I’m a longtime hiker and new hunter, largely due to the patience of two hunting buddies on different sides of New Hampshire who mentored me as I went from taking photos to turkeys.
They taught me safety and tolerance as I was transformed into that guy with the carcass in the pick-up truck bed at the check-in station; a guy I never understood. Now, I’ve been called killer. I always first ask if someone hunts before talking turkey as opinions are quick and intense about those who take a life.
Walking through the woods with a loaded firearm is a serious undertaking and isn’t always easy as the forest contains many obstacles. As a hiker, I’m always uncomfortable when I come across hunters, as they’re packing and I’m not. I have no idea how responsible they are.
I know hunters may be about during deer season, particularly if I see pick-up trucks at or near the trailhead, as they often have gun racks and pro hunting stickers. I know that’s stereotypical, but I’ve yet to see a Prius with a dead deer on the roof.
There are enough hunting accidents, and going for a late autumn hike isn’t worth the risk for many people. That’s a no-brainer. So, there’s a choice. Hike with blaze orange or don’t hike. Pick high elevation trails. Choose a New England state with no or limited Sunday hunting or a property that bans hunting.
I’ve yet to be the hunter that hikers come upon. Why? The most terrified I’ve ever been in the woods is while sitting against a tree on public land hunting turkeys while another hunter passed 10 feet from me and didn’t see me. How safe is that? I gave up hunting (without ever firing a shot) until another buddy suggested we venture on his land. It’s worked.
There are many crossover sportsmen, those who also hike, bike, paddle, ski and snowboard. Many just don’t talk much about the hunting part of their lives as the debate can be exhausting and downright nasty.
As a hiker, I’ve often thought it best to restrict hunters to certain lands so as not to impede my trekking. As a hunter, the season is limited. Also, I see my license fees paying for hiker search and rescues, and far too often for the ill-prepared and oblivious.
Hunting has taught me to slow down in the woods and remain motionless as the forest teams with chattering activity and the clouds race across the sky. It has taught me to look and listen while reinforcing a philosophy I learned long ago to “think first, then do.”
Both hiking and hunting connect me to the land and perhaps even to some ancestral link when all people did was walk around searching for food. But I also know hunting isn’t for everyone. Open minds help.
However, the polarizing line in the sand is the taking of a life.
Watching an animal die is nauseating and so is seeing some hunting video of a grinning hunter loudly celebrating his kill. Even with a clean shot, turkeys undergo a wing-flapping on-their-back death knell that lasts several or more agonizing seconds. Butchering the bird is an assault on the olfactory sense and can be unpleasant.
Yet there is a satisfaction that comes from the planning and implementation of a hunt, of increasing shooting skills, being outdoors in the woods with no trail signs, camaraderie, and of being part of a food chain that doesn’t include a grocery store freezer.
So, I go into the woods, sometimes with a shotgun but more often with hiking poles, and carefully straddle that precarious line across sacred ground held dear by divergent camps.
(Marty Basch can be reached through onetankaway.com.)