On Becoming A Hunter

By Gwen Hoffnagle

Published in the September, 2008 edition of Mountain Gazette

            The sun is mercifully warm on my back as I trudge the trail back to camp.  It was forty chilling degrees colder when we headed out this morning at 5:00am, trying to second-guess the elk herd we know is out there somewhere.  It’s our first morning out, and not being used to the weight, my rifle is excruciatingly heavy on my shoulder.  It’s hard to keep my mind off the home-made cookies calling my name from camp.  But I’m still constantly thinking through the skills I will need when an animal is in my sights: wait, don’t shoot until your breathing slows, don’t flinch, don’t close your eyes, don’t drop the barrel, follow through, keep your eyes on the animal, start reloading immediately.

            I am truly afraid of making a mistake, afraid of betraying my responsibility as a hunter by wounding an animal and not being able to track it – afraid even of not being able to shoot.  It’s been only during the past few years that I haven’t felt an abhorrence for guns.  I didn’t understand how someone could shoot an animal without debilitating guilt.  I have never killed an animal bigger than a trout, but here I am carrying a gun through the woods.

            Several years ago I was invited to help butcher an elk – my first exposure to dead game.  I was glad to help, as I respected the hunter as a person of sound morals and reverence for the animals he killed.  Our discussions while we worked caused me to consider more seriously our heritage as hunters.  Without meat processors and supermarkets (I have been well-prepared since my youth for society as we know it to be blown out of existence), I, myself, would have to hunt if I wanted meat.  Could I hold my own?  Could I kill an animal to survive?

            When my new partner, Joe, a hunter, came into my life, he brought meat to the freezer.  I hadn’t been eating meat for some time.  Learning about the brutal treatment of livestock and the poisons we inject into them made it hard to swallow.  I occasionally splurged on meat spared this history, but the ability of my paycheck to cover the cost of most any meat was declining.  I was OK with my semi-vegetarianism, but deep down inside, the omnivore in me was growling to get out, and partaking of the wild game Joe brought home was a conscionable and healthy way to satisfy this need.  I began to feel guilty about not contributing to the effort, and decided that learning this skill was a responsibility and obligation I could no longer avoid. 

            In Joe I was lucky to have an automatic hunting mentor.  I followed along, at first just helping to track.  I learned where to aim, watched and absorbed the field dressing process, and held the bloody body parts high to allow Joe to cut them away from the body.  I helped carry the meat out from the woods, and silently thanked nature for providing sustenance.  I soon learned to shoot, and became a hunter. 

            I’m still teetering on the borderline between whether I’ll hate myself when I kill my first animal, or whether I will feel the way I’ve trained myself to feel – humbled, but privileged, and part of an ancient rite.

            I have learned that I can be the soft-hearted, tree-hugging soul I always was, and be a hunter, too.  Deference for nature’s wonders is just as much a part of the spirit of the hunters I know as it is for anti-hunting advocates.  That they kill their meat with care and the most humane practices possible, makes eating that meat guiltless when compared to eating an animal that has suffered mercilessly and thoughtlessly at the hands of our modern meat processors, as though it were not even a living thing.


            On the last evening of the season, we feel our way back to camp through the deepening dark.  There are no more cookies left.  We have risen at 4:00am, hiked till 9:00 or 10:00, headed out again at 4:00pm, and hiked till dark – for nine days.  I’ve been too exhausted to sleep much in between and I am filthier than I can ever remember being.  It’s been really hard work, and our efforts were for naught – the hunt was unsuccessful. 

            But I am a hunter now.  Although I don’t agree with all our wildlife agencies’ policies regarding game management, I feel good about keeping even one more animal out of a processing plant.  I am in touch with how man was meant to get his meat, and it makes me feel that much more like a human being.