My choices for a new public profile on Facebook did not include “hunter” as an option. I narrowed my selection down to “Public Figure” and “Athlete.” Ultimately, I chose “Public Figure,” but not without asking myself and those closest to me, whether or not a hunter is appropriately classified as an “Athlete” and why so many other ProStaff for hunting product lines are considered athletes. In an industry that has become more technically advanced and the focus on preparation for the physical and mental test of the outdoors more extreme, are hunters the new athletes? And, was I one?
Instead of bench pressing my five-pound encyclopedic dictionary, I looked up the word “athlete.” The definition was “a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise or game requiring physical skill.” While the components of skill-related fitness may be the same for hunting as in an organized competition, it wasn’t entirely clear whether golfers, hunters, or poker players were “athletes.”
As an avid bird hunter, I spend my best days on the duck flats with retrievers or in the mountains with setters. The only person with me is my hunting partner. We have no rivalry and there is no audience. The most difficult rules we follow are ethical considerations: fair chase, voluntary restraint, and personal choices on whether to leave or take birds and how to take them. It’s one of the most individualized activities possible. Hunters are bounded by regulations, but whether hunting big game or small game, hunters restrict themselves far more than the regulations.
The discussion on whether a hunter is an athlete could become an extension of the discussion on whether hunting is a “sport.” The sporting life and the conservation-minded sportsman were differentiated from market hunters at a point in time when men like Hemingway, Roosevelt, and Ruark wrote of their safaris in Africa. Alternatively, hunters who hunted to provide for their families were not pursuing recreation as much as they were like farmers who harvested an animal instead of a crop. The term “athlete” leaves out the kind of hunter that I most resemble. My hunting is an attempt to connect with reality, whether it is the reality of my place in nature or my dependence upon other life forms to survive. Taking an animal leaves blood on my hands and reminds me of the blood in my veins.
While a hunter can be an athlete, an athlete is not necessarily a hunter. A meaning from the 15th century Latin word “athleta” defined a combatant in public games. And the Greek “athlon” meant “prize.” My hunting pursuits could include a variation on a prize in terms of a successful hunt, but so much of the real meaning of what it is to be a “hunter” is left out of the definition of athlete. The question for me was whether or not hunting wild game resulted in a version of the coveted olive-wreath.
Some hunters are fiercely competitive. They push themselves and, depending on what they hunt and how, they approach the task as a team or as individuals. They are committed, resourceful, and they face tests in the field that tell them whether or not they have prepared enough. They lug gear, climb mountains, and place themselves in extreme conditions. They may even agonize over their readiness to the extent that they are uber-hunters who inspire others. But, no matter how obsessed I become about my training, my focus is on the outdoor experience as a whole and preservation of the hunting traditions.
I spend most Sundays at the trap range honing my shot gunning skills, but there have been days that I’m there for three hours and haven’t shot a round. Instead, I’m warming by the stove talking to my favorite trap shooters about hunting and fishing and reloads. My collection of guns, gear, and clothing requires a garage, shop, and shed. I like to hang out with my stuff, even if I’m not using it. Then, there are the hunting dogs and the days I spend afield with them. Sometimes, I’m just out there for the love of the dog. I’m in the best shape of my life because I’m living the sporting life, not competing in it.
As I pondered my role in the world of the great outdoors I realized it wouldn’t matter how lean my muscles got, how many pull ups I could do, or how far up a mountain I could run with a full-sized camp. My motivation in life has more to do with living honestly, skillfully, reverently, and well. I’m a hunter.