Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Channeling My Inner Katniss

Four years ago when I asked my stepdad if I could go along on his annual October hunting trip, he thought I was joking and started laughing. "Amber the vegetarian, hunting! Haha, good one!" he said. I had only recently starting eating red meat after 14 years of partial vegetarianism. I hadn't fired a gun in about 15 years. I don't even kill spiders (I put really big ones outside).

But I was serious. If I was going to eat meat, I wanted it to be local, healthily and happily raised (not the horrible conditions of conventional factory farming or CAFOs) and sustainably harvested. I also wanted to feel connected to the source and the process- not having meat be something only bought in a tidy, butchered package at the grocery store.

Turns out, other young people in America have had the same thoughts. Just a few weeks ago there was a NY Times article called "A New Breed of Hunter Eats, Shoots and Tells" by Dwight Garner about young urbanites hunting and writing about it.

"What feels counterintuitive and new here though is this: These writers have largely taken to hunting, they say, for ethical reasons. They’ve read their Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, their Peter Singer and Jonathan Safran Foer,and are intimate with the horrors of industrial meat production.
They no longer wish to have an anonymous hit man between themselves and supper. They want to thoughtfully stare their protein in the face, to take locavorism to blood-flecked new heights."
And so my step-dad and step-brother graciously had me along on my first hunt. Back in 2008 I just watched them- learned about tracking, stalking, and how to take a safe shot. Then how to field dress, skin, and butcher. The next year I took my first shot, getting a female mouflon (wild sheep). The next year I missed out while in Korea, then last year I went again. Fortunately I got another mouflon. Unfortunately, I was leaning in too close to the scope, and when I pulled the trigger, the kickback got me in the face. So my main goal this year was to NOT scope myself again.
I headed out to the Stuart Island in the northwest corner of the San Juan Islands with my step-dad and a couple of his friends. On Friday we tromped around in the woods, looking for the mouflon. (There is no season for mouflon, so they can be hunted any time of year.) We found a herd quickly, but they saw us too and didn't stay still long enough for us to take a shot. I also came across these jawbones in the forest.
Saturday was the opening day for deer hunting as well as winter crabbing. We put six pots out in the bay in the morning, then got ready to go back into the woods. Remember how we had an amazingly warm and dry early fall? Well, that second weekend of October, the switch flipped. It was pouring down rain. One problem with rain is that the animals are foraging less, and more likely to be bedded down and hard to see. Luckily we were still able to find one of the herds, though they were moving quickly and I never took a shot. Our friend, hunting separately from my step-dad and I, was able to get two mouflon. After we heard the shots we went to find him and help him field dress the animals. This is the male mouflon that he got.
They guys took the animals back to the cabin to hang and skin them, and I continued to hunt for a bit, but found nothing. I went back, wet and tired. We ate lunch, drank hot coffee, and warmed up by the wood-stove. Then we went out to check the crab pots.

It was the most surprising and interesting crabbing session I've ever had. The males that were keepers had a purple sheen to their shell, more than they do in the summer. There were several crabs missing legs or a claw which was really weird. One crab was missing all its limbs on one side! One female crab was giving birth, with thousands of little orange eggs coming out of her at that moment. "Sorry mama!" I said as I gently threw her back. One crab was growing back his claw so they were different sizes.
But the real shocker was pulling up a pot and finding that a shark had wedged his way in. I knew there were Sixgill sharks in our area, but had never seen one! We kept him just long enough to snap a picture before throwing him back.

By the time we got back to shore it was nearly 3pm. The guys were winding down for the day, but I still wanted to try to get a mouflon. I knew I didn't have much daylight left. One hard thing about hunting is that there is such time pressure- you travel a long way, buy hunting tags and bullets and game bags, take time off work... and then have a small window of time to find the wild creature. So if you don't get an animal, it's a lot of effort for nothing.

I decided to head out again on my own. My step-dad suggested going back to where we had started in the morning. I went into a bowl valley, then hiked out the steep wall of the hillside to one of the highest points where you can look down into the next valley over. I found a small herd of ewes, but they were on the run. I could see their general direction down the hill, but after I lost sight I had no way to know if they went left or right.

This is one of the most interesting parts to me about hunting- the combination of the guesswork, the tracking, the previous experience, and the gut instinct. I kept walking, trying to stay focused. Hunting can be incredibly mentally demanding, as you have to think about your every move. You have to stay aware and quiet and trust that you could find the animals at any second, even if it's been hours without seeing them. If you let your guard down and tromp thoughtlessly around a bend, that's invariably the moment when you will find the herd and scare them off. My boyfriend once asked me what was so appealing to me about hunting, and I tried to explain this all to him. "So... walking around in the woods in the rain for an indefinite amount of time, carrying a heavy gun, when you may or may not find anything?" he paraphrased. "No thank you!"

But I like the challenge along with the simplicity. I kept thinking of Katniss from The Hunger Games as I walked along. The small herd reappeared suddenly, running down the hillside, but then were gone again. I sat on a log wondering which way to go. My back hurt. The grey light would be usable for maybe another half hour. I decided to walk on the road back toward the cabin, where I would have a view into the woods on either side. I kept reminding myself to stay quiet and think about each step... then there they were, the small herd I had seen twice joined with another herd. They saw me but seemed less skittish as they tentatively continued grazing. It felt weird to fire a gun alone, but I couldn't miss this chance to take a shot. I steadied myself against a tree, telling myself to breathe and stay well away from the scope!

I shot a female mouflon who walked a short ways before dying. I hope it was as short and painless as possible for her. I said a prayer of thanks as I stood over her, full of gratitude. Then I jogged back to the cabin to get my step-dad. I have helped field dress, but have never done a whole animal by myself. He and his friend verbally walked me through it, and I did everything myself, getting out all the organs and blood as the body steamed its pungent smell into the cold dusk air. Then back in the shed at the cabin I skinned her so she could hang for several days.
Back at home I butchered the mouflon, for the first time not really needing any help. I cut some steaks, some thin slices for jerky, some chunks for stew, and a bit for grind. It was all nicely separated, but then in a labeling mishap did not get labeled properly. So now the meat is in the freezer, and I will gladly have you over for dinner to try it, though we may not know what cut of meat it is until it's defrosted.

1 comment:

ElizaBeth said...

Mmmm mouflon. I'm grateful that you hunt and that the process of taking a life is a serious one to you. We should all be more involved in where our food comes from.