column By: Terry Wieland | November, 18
It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. So sayeth the group therapists who presume to advise all and sundry on how to live their lives. For once, however, I cannot sneer: With that one, they are dead on, and doubly so when it comes to hunting.
A lot is made of the fact that air travel allows people to get halfway around the world in a few hours, and if you time it right you can arrive almost before you left. You can be in far-off “whatisit,” whack a good set of horns and be on the plane home before anyone knows you’re gone. This results in big savings in time and money and, for most of us, that’s all to the good.
Like most things in life, however, this can be taken too far and usually is. By cutting out the adventure of getting to some place wild and strange, we eliminate much of the pleasure – and certainly the pleasure that comes, later in life, from remembering it all.
Around 1950, Jack O’Connor made a trip to the Yukon from his home in Idaho. With his son Bradford, he went by train to Vancouver, then up the inland passage to Skagway by steamer. From there, it was narrow-gauge railroad to Whitehorse, car to the trailhead and horseback from there. The story of that epic journey (epic by my standards, if not Marco Polo’s) found its way into much of his writing, simply because it was so memorable.
In 1933, Ernest Hemingway hunted in East Africa. In those days, it required a train to New York, ocean liner to England, through the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and down to Mombasa. The Uganda Railway conveyed you from there to Nairobi. After a month or more on trains and ships, only then were you ready to begin your safari. You were there, and you really knew you were there – far, far from home.
Even Hemingway’s journey pales by comparison with Theodore Roosevelt, whose 1909 safari was an extraordinary odyssey in many ways. Roosevelt passed up a second term in the White House in order to go on safari which, to me, demonstrates an admirable grasp of what’s really important. He was away more than a year.
One of the best accounts of hunting in the far north is George Young’s Alaskan-Yukon Trophies Won and Lost. First published in 1947, it tells of a hunting trip that turned into a life-threatening ordeal. In 2009, Wolfe Publishing produced a limited edition reprint
(wolfeoutdoorsports.com). What made the book worth reprinting was not that the hunters killed this or that, or that this bear was bigger than that one; it was the sheer adventure and near-tragedy of it all. The fact that all of the hunters’ hard-won trophies were lost in the river is an ironic twist. Instead of a few heads to put on the wall, it gave Young a remarkable book that is not merely another hunting story. It just shows that many times, the memories you went there to get are not the memories you come back with. This can only happen, however, if you give the playful gods a chance to deal you a hand from the bottom of the deck.
At Skagway, half of the O’Connors’ luggage was dropped overboard by a deck hand, forcing them to buy new clothes and equipment and scour Whitehorse for ammunition when they got there. (Not surprisingly, they found no .300 H&H.) But – and for a writer like O’Connor, this was an important point – he got a great story out of it. Missing a flight hardly compares.
Robert Ruark was a master at turning “getting there” into the real story. He and Harry Selby once drove from Nairobi up to Lake Rudolph to go fishing. Crossing the Northern Frontier District was never easy at the best of times, and this was far from the best. Simply making it to the lake constituted a triumph over adversity. Another time, Ruark and a professional hunter left Nairobi during the rains to hunt down around Amboseli. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip to alleviate the boredom of the rainy season. Their Land Rover left a bow wave as they headed out, looking for who-knows-what in who-knows-where, and it turned into one of Ruark’s finest hunting stories, A Leopard in the Rain.
None of these far-flung adventures are available to most of us today. Trains and steamers up the inland passage are mostly a thing of the past; so are liners plying the East African coast. Trophies are no longer transported by river barge, even if we wanted to. Tourists going to fish on Lake Rudolph arrive by small plane after an hour’s flight. As for sailing down the Nile from Lake Victoria to Cairo, forget it.
Still, we can make an effort. For years I have made it a rule never to travel by plane if I can get somewhere by car. This turns a five-day hunting trip in Alaska into several weeks on the road, crossing the Great Plains, up through the Rockies and traversing a thousand miles of the Alaska Highway. I did it the first time in 2008, when going to hunt in the Yukon. Leaving from Ontario, I drove and drove and drove. After three long days I reached Edmonton. Whew, thought I. Nearly there. But no. When I began studying the next stage on a map, I realized I was little more than halfway. Halfway! At that moment, after decades of flying over it, I truly grasped the immensity of the great Northwest.
Last June I was invited to attend a seminar at the Jack O’Connor Center outside Lewiston, Idaho. A group of us were assembled to discuss, with the public, the state of magazine writing in the digital age. I drove, naturally, from St. Louis and saw a lot of territory I had never seen before. Do you know how many fly-fishermen gather along the Payette River north of Boise? Unbelievable.
The conference room at the center was packed, and the discussion continued for almost three hours – considerably longer than scheduled. If I could boil down the complaints of the attendees, who were seriously unhappy with the state of modern magazine journalism, it would be this: “The articles are too short, and they don’t tell us enough. They’re merely factual. Where are the stories?”
Leaving aside the harsh fact that writers of the talent of O’Connor and Ruark are hard to come by, the reality is that many hunting writers these days don’t have much of a story to tell: “Flew from Denver to Seattle to Anchorage. Small plane to our base camp. Rode up a mountain. Shot a moose. The coffee in Seattle airport was disappointing.”
The essence of a good short story, we were taught in English back in the days when they actually taught English, is conflict: Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself. Another way of putting that is overcoming adversity of one kind or another. Alas, much of modern big-game hunting consists of the outfitter ensuring there is as little adversity as possible by providing hot meals, comfortable tents and four-wheelers on familiar tracks. No horses are offered (horses provide their own adversity), no climbing and no descent into exhaustion with 100 pounds of sheep on your back.
In fact, this could be broken down even further. There is the journey to get to where you will be hunting, and there is the journey that is the hunting itself. I have heard of guys arriving in a base camp, being landed high on a mountain in a small plane with balloon tires, shooting an animal and being back at camp in time for lunch. There is no journey – and no story – there, except for the one you might tell the judge if a warden catches you. (Such feats are mostly illegal these days, and rightly so.)
We all come back from a hunting trip with a story of some kind. Maybe we’ll try to write it and have it published. Maybe it will just be the story we replay in our own mind, many years later. The ones you treasure are those where you struggled and triumphed, even if it was something as small as climbing over one last mountain, making one last-ditch effort.