Some Thoughts on Competition

Photo from SignsoftheMountains.com

Competition is generally a good thing.  It builds character, it drives improvement, and it fosters a strong work ethic.

This is, of course, the conventional definition of competition, which is not what I’m going to be talking about here.

Reports are starting to trickle in from friends and family, and overall it is looking like being another solid season of waterfowling for 2017. Things have been slow to ramp up, but that pattern has appeared in previous seasons with the action heating up as more crops are cut and cooler weather brings fresh migrators through.

But this year, unlike previous seasons, the reports from the field indicate that competition for access is going to be high, and I’ll expand on that topic in a few paragraphs.

I think back to my formative years when there was virtually no conflict at all when it came to access.  Provided you had a decent relationship with the local landowner and you left the place better than you found it, there was simply no problem at all in getting into a good spot for a shoot.  Almost every landowner we used to have access with asked little more of a hunter than simply closing a gate or parking in a certain spot on the property, and although some would gladly accept some wild game or labour in exchange for hunting permission, most did not even care for that.

Most were just happy to have someone shooting the geese off of their fields.  But something has  changed.  Goose hunting is business for some now, and a few select outfitters have taken to leasing access from landowners (sometimes at premium rates) directly aimed at the exclusion of local, recreational waterfowlers from fields and areas they have traditionally accessed simply on goodwill.

It is tradition versus business, and tradition looks to be losing.

Five points are problematic here and I’ll briefly summarize them now.  Hopefully these serve as some idea of what myself and other waterfowlers (call us amateur, recreational, local, legacy, or whatever else you want to label us with) are dealing with in relation to professional groups barring access through rental payments to landowners.

  1. Reduced Access

Since many do not have the means (through a prepaid client base) to pay up front for access, or to even pay for access at all, for non-professionals, there will be a direct loss of hunting opportunity. That such a situation is problematic when organizations like Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited are bemoaning low hunter recruitment and a loss of support for waterfowling is obvious.

  1. A Dangerous Precedent

Related to point one, this could conceivably set a ‘pay to play’ precedent with local landowners, putting a once democratic pastime in the hands of a moneyed few, or in targeted business interests. In many areas of Canada, there is little ‘lease’ type of access in contrast to what is seen south of the border.  Hunting leases have been targeted as one of many reasons for dwindling hunter participation in America, and it also creates competitive crowding on public lands.

  1. Hunter Conflict

It is not difficult to see how the practice of paying for access at the prohibition of local hunters from their traditional fields and marshes could create conflict.  Waterfowlers in particular seem more attached to the places they’ve hunted and the relationships they have cultivated with landowners.  To reduce those traditions and relationships to merely commercial relationships will most certainly lead to a broader divide in the hunting community.  Is an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ between outfitters and their paying clientele on one side, and what I’ll call non-professional hunters on the other really what we need in a time when the tradition is believed to be under attack from outside forces?

  1. Hunter Apathy

This is the scary part.  Generations of waterfowlers, suddenly finding themselves on the ‘outside’ may lead some to give up altogether.  Think I’m being alarmist?  I’ve seen several examples both in the area I hunt and on countless forums, magazines, and in public interaction that lead me to believe many hunters will just say “To hell with it, then” and just stop chasing ducks and geese out of stubborn resentment.  If this happens, and I really do believe it is underway in some places, who will buy the waterfowl stamps necessary for conservation, who will support DU and Delta, who will champion waterfowling to a non-hunting public, and most importantly, who will pass this timeless and incredible tradition to the next generation?  I do not believe this is me using hyperbole.

  1. Hunter/Landowner Relations

For a long time, hunters and landowners worked cooperatively, in a non-commercial sense.  Hunters would offer their labour in exchange for access.  They would offer part of the harvest to any landowners interested in fresh goose meat or a plump mallard. They checked on the fields and popped into the marshes just to make sure things were on the up and up.  In some places I’ve heard stories where hunter access has discouraged trespassing.  In short, there was a sense of community between landowner and hunter.  But with land ownership being centralized and held outside of the local communities, and with guide services exploiting their superior financial position relative to local hunters, how could good relations between landowners and local hunters as stewards of the land continue?  If a guide service has the means to pay, and a landowner wants the money, far be it from me to think I could intervene in a meaningful way.  But an outfitter visits a spot in season a few times, with paying clients from outside the area.  They are there short-term and they are usually gone.  A local that gives a damn about the land drives by it every day.  But I imagine absentee landowners and outfitters care little for these long-term relationships.  To say nothing of the anecdotal stories heard occasionally about guided hunting parties leaving gates open, litter behind, and the like; what kind of landowner relationships spring from that?

Now this could all be construed as just so much ‘bitching’, or a reluctance to ‘adapt’ and perhaps it is those things in a way.  Local hunter in our jurisdiction, and it is possible that in other areas as well, do not have ready means to ‘rent’ access, and we cannot really control the price paid by outfitters and guide services to lock us out.  But with access at a premium, and long-standing tradition of ‘amateur’ hunting in the area, the grievance is legitimate.

It also calls into question, ultimately, what the guide services and outfitters are truly interested in progressing.  Is there a real concern about the long-term viability and participation in the tradition from the grassroots level, or is self-interest in business the lone driver in this push to exclude local participation from waterfowling?  As I see it, paid access is a threat to the viability of the sport long-term, especially in areas where there is not a history of leased access.

I suppose the motivations of those doing the paying and those taking the money are ultimately unknowable answers, but I know where my best guess aligns.

Hunters, Tourism, and Civic Pride

It has been some time since I clackety-clacked the keys on my laptop for this forum.  It’s been an off-season filled with not too much hunting, but with many other things.  A new role at my ‘real job’, the obligatory summer vacation with the kids and the in-laws, and tinkering and practicing and preparing for waterfowl season in just a few short weeks.  If you’ve been following along, we’ve also gotten further along with social media and are now on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, so that takes up some time too. I started to write a novel, and then lost the plot…literally.

It always seems I’m writing something, just nothing about hunting. Sorry about that, and here’s something about hunting now.

You see, I like to hunt. A lot. And I like to let people know that I like to hunt, if they are interested, and sometimes I do it politely, even if they aren’t interested. And for the most part, people just smile cordially at me and move on.  If they hunt too, then we converse and smile and share some stories, and maybe we become friends, or at least become that on Facebook, and everyone is happy. However, I’ve lately gotten a few firmly worded warnings that I should be more cautious in what I post to social media, especially from a few people who think I’m infringing on their right to not see dead animals.

(Sidebar: I’m not going to even broach the recent PETA Facebook Frame controversy, because others have written more adequately than I on the topic.)

You see, I’m proud of the places I get to go and pursue game in, and no place is more front and centre than the Bruce Peninsula for me.  It is where I cut my teeth hunting, and although I’ve haunted other areas in search of turkeys, and waterfowl, and grouse, and deer, “The Bruce” is my preferred locale; my ‘hunting grounds’ in a metaphorical way.

My extended family lives there.  My friends live there. And several hundred other people live there that I have not met yet, but hope to one day.  But I do not live there, regretfully.

You see I guess I’m just a tourist.

And that’s the thing at issue here.  There are thousands of other tourists that frequent the area, and deservedly so.  It is as rugged, picturesque, wild, and awe-inspiring as anywhere I’ve been.  It is vastly under-appreciated in my estimation, and I advertise it to everyone I can.  I brag about my (sometimes tenuous) historic and genealogical connections to the area, and I point at maps like a 4th grade kid doing show-and-tell to point the spot out where I shot my first deer or folded up my first mallard to anyone who is listening.  I scan print and web media for stories about the area, and one of the greatest thrills of my life was flying over top of the family farmstead at 22,000 feet on my way to a business trip in Saskatchewan a few years ago. But I’m still just a tourist. Like the other tourists, I spend my money locally and I try to be as polite and friendly to the (they themselves) polite and friendly inhabitants of the area.

But I hunt.  And that rubs a few people the wrong way.

Recently I received a message through social media telling me (not asking me, mind you) to stop using #brucepeninsula in my posts, because this would make my pictures and stories about sunrises, forests, fields, and harvested wild game show up for the litany of people searching that hashtag.  I presume their issue would not be with the sunrises, forests, and fields.  And I get it, not everyone wants to see a ‘grip and grin’ of a fish, or a Canada Goose, or a rabbit, or a deer. To them that makes me a taker, a slob hunter, some sort of redneck, and not at all like “them”, who based on my research of the hashtag, are young eco-tourists, hikers, campers, and amateur historians who have every right to turn a blind eye to the historic hunting roots of the area.

I understand.  I try to make the posts as respectful as possible to the animal and as non-gruesome as I can.

But messages like that still trouble me and messages like that are important, because positive hunter representation is important.  If you want to get self-important about it and call me a “snowflake” or say that I’ve caved to political-correctness, or whatever other pejorative you want to fling at me for actually taking into consideration the thoughts and feelings of others, then so be it.  I’m past caring about that.

The fact is, a ‘screw you’ attitude towards non-hunters (or even towards anti-hunters) is counter-productive at best, because even if it doesn’t feel like it, hunters in modern society are a minority that exists through the conservation work we do with our dollars and our blood, sweat and tears.  A simple political decision, even though it would likely be incredibly unpopular, could end that tradition rapidly.  So how we conduct ourselves and portray what we do should be considered.

But this post is about the Bruce Peninsula…and I also have a right to share the WHOLE story about the area, a story that is inextricably linked to the outdoors.

The villages of Lion’s Head and Stokes Bay (as well as dozens of other villages that dot the east and west sides of the peninsula) were built on commercial fishing, even if they are pretty, quaint tourist stops now. Charter fishing still brings valuable money into the areas micro-economies every year.  All those photogenic farms? I defy you to find one with a family history that did not involve supplementing the farming operations with wild game, especially during lean years. This is to say nothing of the historic timbering and clearing required to make some of those farms the size that they are. The cottages and cabins you apply a sepia-tone filter to on social media did not just grow organically like mushrooms.  Trees were cut, some animals were displaced, while other animals made their way into the ovens of those rural and woodland homesteads.  Those areas boasted a low per-capita “vegan” population at the time…likely still do.

What I’m asserting here is that you cannot simply have the beauty and the raw scenery while filtering out the resource extraction that made the initial existence of these communities possible.

Well, you can, but it just makes you wrong.

So, you see, I’m not going to stop going there, hunting there, or talking the place up.  And I’m certainly not going to stop using #brucepeninsula when I post on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram about the region, because the hunting and outdoors tradition of the area is undeniable. The game in the area is abundant. Opportunities to enjoy pursuing that game can also be had for those willing to put in the time on public land, or those willing to respectfully earn their way into the trust of a private landowner.

And for a hunter in the area, there is plenty of goodwill and plenty of like-minded people that share your passion.  So, if you are in the area and you’re hunting, and you are on social media, go ahead and use #brucepeninsula all day long, get it trending, and share the tradition with others.  And if you aren’t hunting up there, please keep using #brucepeninsula because I like seeing photos of The Grotto, and Flowerpot Island, and Greig’s Caves, and Lion’s Head Harbour.

I, for one, welcome the opportunity to see what all of you are doing up there and I’m glad you are supporting those local communities full of people I call friends and family.

HuntFit or HuntFat?

In the preceding few years, I have noticed a trend creeping into every aspect of the hunting community, and that is an increased focus on the health benefits of hunting, which is a noble thing to be focusing on.  Time spent outdoors is undoubtedly beneficial, a tidy hike through the woods being far preferable to dozens of other sedentary pastimes, and the numerous health benefits of consuming wild game has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

That said, there also seem to be an effort afoot to glorify an ultra-fit outdoors lifestyle as somehow ‘better’ or in some way more rewarding method of pursuing game.  Under Armour or Sitka Gear do not have hunting pro-staff members.  They have “Athletes”, which in a hunting context sounds patently ridiculous.  This whole thing has been on my mind and has been thought-provoking to say the least.

Is this purely self-aggrandizing machismo?  Marketing? A way to sub-divide the hunting community into classes?  Is there merit in the dichotomy between the HuntFit movement and what I lovingly call the HuntFat movement, and does this dichotomy denigrate anyone who isn’t fit enough to pack out whole elk quarters or climb mountains in search of bighorn sheep? Does this devalue the hunting experience at large of those who are not in peak physical condition? What are the metrics?

This fellow did not take care of himself very well. Photo Credit: Rory Eckenswiller

I can remember the first time my own lack of fitness impacted my hunting experience.  A one-time collegiate athlete, I had let an inactive lifestyle take over, and between nine hours at a desk every day, a long commute in the car, and a generally poor diet, I had gotten more than soft…I had gotten fat.  My cousin Luke and I were hiking out to a couple of deer stands in the Parry Sound district are we hunt in, and I was rapidly getting sweaty, winded, and leg-weary.  More than once I stumbled slightly over fallen tree limbs that my legs were just too sore to step over.  I was breathing hard and loud, and I was so damp from sweat that I almost immediately caught a chill when I finally reached my stand. Luke, never one to exercise an internal monologue, basically asked if I was going to keel over from a heart attack on the way back out.

Now there are certainly areas of the hunting experience that don’t simply benefit from being ultra-fit, but that essentially mandate it.  I would be courting danger to head on a high-country goat hunt in miserable physical shape.  I would be doing the animal a disservice if I were pack-hunting and managed to shoot an elk or moose in a spot where the butchery had to happen at the kill site.  It takes physical strength and stamina to pack out meat, horns, and hides. I can see why they say that safari hunting on the ground in Africa requires physical and mental stamina, especially when hunting dangerous game.  All valid points in favour incorporating high levels of physical fitness into the hunting tradition.

But what about the ‘rest of us’?  Last year, my doctor told me it was time for a change, or I was staring down the barrel of obesity, diabetes, and cardiac problems, and I wasn’t even 40 years old. I was a hunter that indulged in rich food, both at deer camp and day-to-day.  I did hardly any physical fitness and had not been into a gym for years. I rode the ATV if the country got rough, and I got winded dragging deer or carrying a backload of decoys. I was fat, and it was a source of good-natured ribbing from the camp boys. Maybe I was not ‘okay’ with it, but I was comfortable with it.

So for myself and my family, not for hunting, I committed a whole lot of time, effort, and money to getting in shape.  I’m there now.  Down 50lbs, way down from almost 32% body fat, and up lean muscle.  I feel great, and some say I look great.  All good things, but none of which much to do with hunting.  I’m sure it can’t help but be beneficial, but I don’t think it makes me a better hunter (because I have no idea how to quantify ‘better’ in a hunting capacity) and it certainly doesn’t make me think less of anyone who wants to live differently.

This fellow does take better care of himself, but it hasn’t made him any better at deer hunting.

For a long time I’ve personally resented the HuntFit movement, because I took it (and still do to some degree) as an attack on the majority of hunters who simply enjoy the outdoors recreationally and may, in the course of their day-to-day lives, be out of shape, or slightly obese, or otherwise physically inferior to those who subscribed to this model of physical fitness uber alles.

I consider it in many ways to be exclusionary, and there are certain individuals out there that privately and publicly act in a definitively exclusionary way.  The outdoors just seems to be an extension of the gym to them, some personal best just waiting to be conquered.  I find it offensive at worst, ridiculously myopic at best. It takes away the democratic feel of the North American hunting tradition, and boils it down to ‘fit’ versus ‘unfit’.

I can also safely I’ve never shared a hunting camp with a hunter of the ‘physically fit’ variety.  That’s not to say I have not hunted with very athletic and in-shape people…because I have.  But more accurately, my hunting per group is just a group of average guys, some that could use to drop a few (or more than a few) pounds, some that while slim, couldn’t jog 5 minutes without breaking down, and others who ripple with muscles and live a lifestyle that renders them terrifyingly strong.  But no one in my goose, duck, deer, or turkey camps makes a point of staying in shape as part of their preparation for hunting. And feats of strength rarely factor into what we value in our hunting camps…although arm-wrestling does occasionally break out.

Likewise, in the past I have shared hunting camps with some of the most physically out-of-shape people I’ve ever seen. Fat guys, chain-smokers, heavy drinkers, party animals, loud-snorers, fatty-food loving guys, and more.  And you know what?  Every one of them all loved hunting, and I never saw their experience diminished by their bad habits.  Are their personal (and by extension, deer-camp) lifestyles beneficial and worth emulating?  Probably not, but that’s not for me to decide.

I’m reasonably fit and healthy now, and I still have the same obsession for chasing waterfowl and turkeys that I did when I had sleep apnea.  Losing weight and getting stronger did not ignite some hidden love of deer hunting that I did not know existed.  I still like it just the same as I did when I was creeping up to 270lbs.  Can I get to a deer stand without getting winded? Sure. That’s a nice fringe benefit, but is my deer hunting experience quantifiably better? No sir, it isn’t.

I’ve tried to think of all the arguments that are coming my way.  People will say I didn’t love hunting enough to give it my full physical effort.  That I don’t have ‘appreciation’ for what it takes to hunt fit, whatever that means.  That is am just condoning lazy, “slob” hunting habits. And so on, and so on.  There is an absolute truth here, and that is if you are in the minority of ultra-fit hunters and you treat that as some means to demean and devalue the vast, vast, vast majority of everyday hunters…or worse yet, try to use this HuntFit trend to make a tidy living off exploiting this majority of everyday hunters, then you are one of the things wrong with the modern hunting culture.  Not a popular stance, but I stand by it.

Anyhow.

I decided to change for my kids and my wife.  If there’s a hunting benefit at all, it might be that I’ll get to enjoy hunting experiences with my boys for a longer time if I’m healthier.  That’s still a ‘might be’ only because I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and all the burpees, crunches, and wind-sprints won’t help me then.

So, just go out and enjoy your hunting however you like it. If it means indulging in rich food and whiskey at dinner, riding the ATV because you can’t climb hills, and hunkering into a weather-proof blind in a comfy chair, so be it.  If you want to do chin-ups and push-ups before you head out to scale craggy peaks in search of game in some test of man against nature, or you against yourself, then go ahead and do that too, even though I just don’t understand it.

In either case, just be safe, have fun, and pass on the tradition. Because the future, and history of hunting is bigger than you, despite whether you choose to HuntFit or HuntFat.

Kids and the “Great Outdoors”

These sentimental posts always rise up in me the closer I get to Father’s Day and I’m not ashamed to say that I consider myself fortunate enough to have had an upbringing rooted in the outdoors.

Spending much of my life in rapidly-urbanizing Barrie, Ontario, my childhood may not have been the fully immersive rural upbringing that some of my friends, family, and readers likely had, but countless memories were formed on frequent trips to the family farm just outside the village of Lion’s Head, Ontario.  It was there that my siblings and cousins and I played unsupervised in the barn, ran around the rolling fields, slid down hills with abandon in the wintertime, and gardened fresh fruit and vegetables with our grandparents.  We loved going to Cape Chin and Otter Lake, travelling there untethered in the back of a station wagon down The Forty Hills Road, my stomach doing giddy backflips as we went up and down the narrow gravel road’s undulations.   For many of these excursions down the Bruce County backroads, we were accompanying our fathers to hunt, fish, bring in timber for the woodstoves, or simply to hike the trails and hardwoods.  It was those trips with family and friends in one of Ontario’s most picturesque places that I’m sure hooked all of us on the outdoors.

My youngest son, Devin, with his first goose.
My oldest boy James, holding a Cackling Goose that his grandfather shot.

It almost seems that we were destined to become sportsmen, and there seemed to be little doubt in the mind of my father or my uncles that we would embrace the outdoors tradition. But doubts seem to be everywhere now; as a youth I remember reading reams of pages from Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, and the other classic publications that once resided in a box in an upstairs room in the farmhouse and very rarely (if ever) do I recall any mention about declining hunter recruitment, or a participation crisis, or the jeopardized future of the hunting and fishing lifestyles.  But the question seems pervasive now, and not one annual publishing cycle in the big magazines seems to go by without alarmed warnings about the shaky ground that hunting, and to a lesser extent, fishing are on. The same articles seem to play out constantly about how ‘kids today don’t hunt’ and how we as the current generation need to capture the attention of new hunters to carry on the legacy.

But why do we think this is the case?  Is this a case of the media outlets simply ‘making news’?  Is it a fear that we, the current generation, have simply been ‘takers’ and may have not been as diligent as we could have been in giving back to a tradition that we hold dear?  Is it real; could it simply be that wilderness is simply too esoteric and occasionally boring to enrapture typical millennials and their fast-paced/instant gratification/media-on-demand needs?

In reality it could be all of the above factors and more.  Although I don’t think this generation is significantly different from my generation or the one that came before me, but again that is another debate for another time.

I know many who simply find the escalating costs of hunting untenable.  That’s a whole other post (one that I am working on) but licensing and tag fees have been on an ever-climbing trend, equipment costs are also high, and the cost of owning or leasing land can be prohibitive.  I’m sure for some, both young and old, it has become too great an expense to hunt, even on public land.

People also like to blame ‘society’, whatever that means, for at least devaluing or otherwise being openly hostile to wilderness pursuits, especially hunting.  In this world where we all live out lives in a social media microscope, it is easy to blame the faceless input of internet trolls who shame and deride young hunters, women involved in hunting, or anyone who promotes hunting at large.  Still, some of the most recent, although dated, surveys seem to point to much of a non-hunting public that is supportive, or at the very least ambivalent, about hunting.  But the voices of a minority of anti-hunting viewpoints can sometimes be louder than this mostly silent majority.  Do we perceive a threat where this is only a handful of vocal opponents?

I believe that the continuation of the hunting and fishing traditions, call them the ‘sporting traditions’ if you will, relies on children, because even if they never pick up a gun or a fly rod they can at least be instilled with values of conservation and respect for wilderness.  Sure, I’m willing to fight the fight against whomever thinks that the picture of me and my sons with a harvested turkey is offensive, but simultaneously approves of a picture of my kids playing soccer, or eating spaghetti, or singing in their school choir because I do believe in the values of the hunting tradition, but even I can admit sanely that my kids being involved in the outdoors is not about guns and ammo.  It is about family time in the outdoors, and learning about how the natural world works without a filter.

My earliest trips into the woods were very rarely about killing something.  They were about learning something.  Most of the time I was just being a kid, and if you’ve ever tried hunting with a kid you know they are not very often still, quiet, patient, or focused. I enjoyed breaking twigs and asking questions and puttering around in the dirt behind Dad, but those things make it hard for a grown man to shoot a rabbit or a duck.

My father once likened taking my childhood-self hunting to taking a baby raccoon hunting.  Having now taken my seven-year-old son out after rabbits, and turkeys, and grouse, and geese, I can say he was not far off.

But he bore me with a wry grin and, I think, the knowledge that patience and repetition with me would grow into something bigger, and it has.  Aside from the well-being of my loved ones, there is very little I hold higher than my love of hunting and the outdoors

Before I had an interest in sports and girls, I had rabbit-hunting at Christmastime with a beagle.  Before there were high-school bush parties, I had early-September goose hunts.  Before I had a fiancé and subsequently a wife, I had deer hunting trips with my family and friends.  Before I had sons of my own, I had my memories of being the little boy crouched in a duck blind, standing at Dad’s elbow while he worked a trout stream, or slipping along a trail behind Dad in search of ruffed grouse.  Long before I was able to make my own memories and stories, I sat grinning at the table while my father and grandfather and uncles and great-uncles told stories about hunting ducks, deer, grouse, and geese. I reveled in tales of their success and I laughed at the admissions of their sometimes spectacular failures. I knew always that I wanted to belong to their group.

That’s how I came to it, and I think that maybe it is how we can bring the next ones to it.

Patience and repetition. Including them and putting the emphasis on the outdoors and not on the kill. When there is a kill, show the kids the unfiltered side of the woods and the water with respect and compassion for the game animal. Answer their questions not to make yourself feel more heroic, but to help them understand why we love the tug on the line or the warmth and weight of the bird in hand. Let them taste properly-prepared wild game, and let them know the value of the animal’s life when we take it.

We may think it is hackneyed and clichéd.  We may think it is ‘too much’ for a young mind to comprehend.  It is neither of the above and we were all kids once. If it was not too much for us, it won’t be too much for them.

The men that were my mentors in the outdoors are just men.  They aren’t particularly grandiose, or strong, or brilliant, or heroic, but they certainly loom large in the memories of my siblings and my cousins.  Like me and you, they are not without their faults, but as unit, they all had the deepest love of the land and the water and a palpable respect for the animals they pursued.  Those traits made them similar to thousands and thousands and thousands of other sportsmen living and dead, and made them perfect mentors to shepherd my once young generation into becoming the stewards and mentors we now purport to be.

It is our job to claim the mantle and pass it on now.  Do not take it too lightly.

Hunting. Not Hype.