Freezing and Failing

ruffed grouse, winter hunt

Pondering purpose on a winter grouse hunt.

With sunlight waning, and shadows growing taller, the day’s hunt is all but over. Empty-handed, with tired legs and a sunburnt face, I struggle to consider this day of trudging through snow-covered mountains without finding a single grouse anything other than failure. Cresting yet another ridge to gaze across a small meadow in the hope of actually putting this .22 to use, I see a reminder of what brings me out to hunt in the first place.

At the center of the snowy meadow, it looks as though a stampede of critters has just passed through. Endless squirrel, hare, coyote, and fox tracks circle and zigzag every which way. Clearly I missed quite the forest festivity, and by mere hours.

At the center of the footprints lies a glimpse into the harsh lives that these little creatures endure. A patch of dark fur, skinned with near surgical precision by whatever animal had feasted upon its owner, sticks out against the white of the snow. Maybe two feet long and a foot across, the fur has been torn just enough that the true size of the animal is no longer discernible.

Not long before I, the humble human hunter, came stumbling through these woods, clumsily navigating snowbanks and fallen trees, bitching about the cold and a sore back, the predators and prey who reside in these mountains had left behind a tiny piece of evidence that they were there: hunting, fighting, struggling to survive. The contrast between their lives and mine is almost laughably apparent.

Like the critters that inhabit this forest and chase and fight and run, I am here to find food. I am here to survive.

While we humans may hunt and fish occasionally on the weekends, the majority of us spend the rest of the week in a properly heated building, before driving a heated car back to the comfort of a couch and a cold beer in a heated home. Maybe we’re successful in our outdoor foraging, maybe we’re not. But it doesn’t really matter. There’s always a grocery store nearby and more food in the fridge than is really needed.

While animals have a purpose in everyday life to merely survive, most humans have managed to distance themselves from this struggle. Hard-wired to survive, but resigned to cubicles, we’re apex predators with emails to respond to. As a species that once found purpose through the hardship of survival, how do we find purpose from the comfort of our desks?

Maybe that’s why we hunters find ourselves in places like this in the waning days of the season, sitting beneath a tree on the side of a mountain as the sun sets and the snow falls, searching for a bird that could provide a single meal at most.

Even if this struggle seems artificial, what with my heated truck that makes for an easy drive back home, it is still a struggle. And as I trudge up mountains, wade through snowbanks, and feel the cold water seep into my boots, I have a reason for my struggle. Like the critters that inhabit this forest and chase and fight and run, I am here to find food. I am here to survive.

Though at the end of the day, this humble human hunter can hardly claim to be as effective in harvesting prey as those little creatures that reside here. With sunlight waning, and shadows growing taller, it’s time to accept that the day’s hunt has been a failure. At least this hunter has a purpose, if only for a day.