Examining the ethics of fully participating in the food chain.

eco-hunterThe night is black enough to cover a grizzly’s approach and I'm elbow-deep in the guts of a warm deer. Me, a one-time vegetarian, life-long enviro geek, pro-gun-control, anti-camo kind of guy, has both hands wrapped around a deer's still-hot heart. As I work, a splash of blood hits me in the face and mixes with the sweat already there. When I instinctively lick my sun-chapped lips, I taste both my own salt and the deer's blood — and the two aren't far off. There are few things in life as powerful and emotionally complicated as killing your own food. Especially when, until recently, the whole idea of hunting seemed as alien to me as even owning a gun.

Most of my early experiences with hunting were not positive. When I was three years old, a hunter nearly shot my dad at less than 10 metres as he topped-out on a local climbing route. Apparently, the hunter had somehow confused my father's white helmet with a goat levitating over the top of a 300-metre vertical cliff. As my dad looked up, the hunter lowered his gun and said, “I almost pulled the trigger!” My father is bearded and often scruffy, but any resemblance to a billy goat beyond that is dubious — and no goat would ever climb the face of Mount Yamnuska.

Then there were the idiots who showed up on ATVs while I was climbing a small remote cliff and proceeded to take up target practice on the wall beside me. I held on, but I can't remember a single instance when hunters impressed me much. And yet, with evidence written in blood and camouflage, I am now one of "them." And I'm not sure how I feel about that.

If we eat meat, we are directly involved in killing an animal. Historically, we would usually do the killing ourselves, but for most of us our meat now comes on a Styrofoam tray and there is nothing asked either emotionally or ethically of the purchaser beyond cash. Hunters are a modern exception to this system, and it would seem intellectually natural that two groups of people who love to get out into the woods and mountains would automatically have common ground. But we who hike, climb and ski tend to think of ourselves as the rightful proprietors of the woods; the custodians and dominant denizens, after the animals, and we often think of hunters as seasonal intruders.

But, if money measures anything, the largest outdoors stores in many major cities aren’t MEC (or the local equivalent) but they are Bass Pro Shops, Cabelas or the like. The hook-and-bullet shops carry many of the same brands as MEC, but in camouflage, along with rifles and bone-saws next to their snowshoes and camp-stoves.

Yes, the emotional division is so deep that the two outdoor factions actually require different consumer temples.

But the tribes are potentially merging; I have a half-dozen eco-friends in my hometown of Canmore who learned to hunt simply to get their meat in a humane, personal way and the hunting forums now talk about wilderness ethics. We half-jokingly call ourselves "Eco-Hunters."

I decided to learn to hunt not because of my family history, like most hunters, but because I wanted to know more about what my family and I were eating. The more I saw and learned about feedlot beef the more I felt that eating beef was either unethical but relatively cheap (feedlot beef), or maybe ethical (leaving aside the meat/no meat discussion) but incredibly expensive for the organic, hand-nuzzled Mozart-listening stuff. Also, eating plastic-wrapped meat just seemed so far removed the actual life of the animal itself. I'm not known for under-enthusiasm and six months after deciding that if I was going to eat meat then I was going to kill it myself, I did just that. (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg did the same thing a couple of years after me. I like to think I inspired him.)

This is now my sixth season of hunting. I've found that few of the "Internet hunters" or those I see in easy-access areas share the deep respect and strong conservation ethic that is near automatic among my traditional outdoor friends. My local public range is a pigsty of spent shells in a way no climbing crag ever would be. And the idea of “trophy hunting” or shooting anything I don't intend to eat as completely as possible is nauseating to me. But there's another community of people out there who turn from relative tree-huggers into forest predators every fall. Many of them, like the characters in the film Fight Club, don't talk about their “other” outdoor sport until they catch a glimpse of camo boxer shorts sticking out the waistband of your Arc'teryx pants. I'm not sure what to call these people, but like me, most of them combined their love of being outside with a desire to be ethically involved in their own food supply. These are the people who genuinely fit the label of "conservationist," and many of them work as wildlife biologists or park rangers. They are now my examples of true “hunters,” rather than the guy on the ATV ripping up the woods.

As the dark evening turns to complete blackness, I struggle to carry my deer out through the rocky terrain. I imagine every grizzly within 10 km is running full-bore through the woods toward me, a puny human who had dared take a deer in their undisputed territory. The following day a few friends and I carefully butchered the deer, and now you would be hard-pressed to visually differentiate it from the store-bought stuff. But when my family and I eat it we know where it came from, and a little about how it both lived and died. We are not a religious family, but my kids and I often close our eyes and say, "Thank you (deer/elk/moose)." I think of the place I took the animal and the history of humans and of hunting. Nothing meaningful is ever simple.