It’s nearly sunrise and Justin Stephenson is about 20 feet above the forest floor on a 32-square-foot tree stand. The November weather in Ontario cottage country is frigid. Stephenson’s bundled up in heavyweight camouflage, hunter orange vest, and hunter orange toque. His 870 12-gauge shotgun with a rifled barrel rests, butt on the wooden floor. He has been out here for an hour and 15 minutes, and the sun has started to rise. By now, he’s trying not to fall asleep. He thinks: Maybe it’s useless getting out here this early. He made too much noise climbing up to his perch on the stand. He is never going to get a deer.
He barely finishes this last thought, though, when he hears a noise so loud that he later describes it as “a drunk horse stomping through the woods.” At first, when the deer walks into the clearing, he thinks it’s a fawn. But that’s not it: as the deer gets closer, it gets bigger. And bigger. At 100 yards away Stephenson can finally see the deer is a massive eight-point buck. One of its antler tines looks broken, possibly from fighting. “It was just,” says Stephenson, “this gnarly beast.”
He gets lined up for the shot, but the buck is at him head on—not a shot he wants to take. The bullet could shoot through the deer’s stomach and intestines. Stephenson’s entire body is ringing with adrenaline, but he waits and thinks: Am I really going to do this? By the time he resolves to shoot, two minutes have passed. Forty yards from the stand now, the deer sees Stephenson in the tree, and turns and runs toward the other side of the clearing. Stephenson shoots once, but it’s too late; the buck’s gone. The next time this goes down, Stephenson promises himself, I won’t think twice about it.
Stephenson has been hunting as an adult for the past eight years. Every fall, the 41-year-old drives out to a hunting camp with a group of his friends from the city to hunt deer. He also hunts ducks and geese north of Toronto, a few times each season. He’s also a self-described city guy. Stephenson lives in Toronto’s Corso Italia neighborhood and is a full-time video director/designer, perhaps most well-known for designing and animating the title sequences to feature films like David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method. That big buck wasn’t the first animal he’d ever shot, but it was so big and so impressive, it made him think twice before pulling the trigger.
Thanks to the popularity of books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Vancouverites Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s The 100-Mile Diet, hyper-local has become cutting-edge eating. Killing for your own meat is as local, and visceral, as it gets. And books about hunting such as Call of the Mild, The Mindful Carnivore and The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting Deer for Food are gaining popularity.
Not to mention, we also live in a throw-back era when everything old is new again; hunting’s increase in popularity among the “cool” crowd really isn’t that surprising. It’s cool to have a garden, wear your grandfather’s clothes, and grow your beard out. This atavistic aesthetic is visible in art, music, fashion, and even dining culture: put on some plaid and grab a drink at the Farmhouse Tavern (an actual restaurant in Toronto).
Hunting, however, is a commitment that transcends foodie trends—it’s not like growing a garden or eating seasonally. A would-be hunter must learn how to use a gun, and actually go out into the wild to kill animals. So why do it? For self-described unlikely hunters such as Stephenson, hunting is about exploring something that was lost—a human instinct and method of survival many urbanites have long forgotten. It’s also about knowing where the meat on their plates came from, and being comfortable with the way that animal lived and died. When you talk to hunters, even those who might have once balked at the thought of killing an animal, you’ll hear something else as well: hunting is fun.
The number of hunters in North America has dropped significantly since the ’90s. In the U.S., the number of hunters (over the age of 16) fell to 12.5 million in 2006 from 14.1 million in 1991, according to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. In the past few years, however, those numbers have started to climb again. The most recent survey shows hunting increased by 9 percent, in total, between 2006 to 2011; about 13.7 million Americans now hunt. In Canada, national numbers are difficult to acquire because each provincial hunting and angling association measures data differently. At least one hunting organization, Edmonton-based Hunting for Tomorrow, claims they’ve seen an increase there, too.
Hunting for Tomorrow has even seen vegetarians walk through its doors. One in particular stands out in executive director Kelly Semple’s mind. Shortly after The 100-Mile Diet was published in 2007, a vegetarian turned aspiring-hunter registered for a women’s outdoors weekend. The woman was a university student who liked to eat meat, but didn’t like the commercial processing aspect, Semple says. If she was going to eat meat, the student told Semple, she wanted to learn how to properly harvest it and prepare it, and be responsible for taking the animal’s life. That fall, following the outdoors weekend, the woman took a hunting mentorship program through the foundation and shot her first deer, Semple says. “She’s never looked back.”
Vegetarians aside, there’s enough newbie, urbanite interest in hunting for people like Virginia-based Jackson Landers, who grew up in a vegetarian home, to write The Beginner’s Guide toHunting Deer for Food. And the Bull Moose Hunting Society (BMHS), founded by twentysomething urbanite hunters Nick Zigelbaum and Nick Chaset in San Francisco, recruits and mentors city-dwelling novice adult hunters.
The influx of hunting and fishing stores in urban areas is another indicator that hunting is on the rise with city dwellers, says Patrick Walsh, editor of hunting and fishing magazine Outdoor Canada. “You have these big box fishing and hunting stores, and you think, ‘Who the hell is buying all this stuff?’” he says. “It can’t be some dying demographic.”
Stephenson started hunting as an adult to reconnect with the past. Growing up in Whitehorse, Yukon, he rode dirt bikes and hunted with his dad. But he was eager to shed the rural trappings of his childhood when he moved to Toronto in 1990. “I went to film school, and had it that I wanted out of the Yukon and wanted out of rural Canada,” he says. “In many ways, I thought that as part of the transition to living in the city, I had to ditch a lot of these things that I did as a kid.”
Then, eight years ago, Stephenson helped a stranger he met at a garage sale jumpstart his Honda motorbike. The stranger had no idea what he was doing, but Stephenson did. That was when he understood how unique the skills were that he’d left behind. And it’s how he found himself in that tree stand, deciding he did, in fact, want to shoot the massive buck loping toward him.
Stephenson says he experiences a “strong vividness” after taking down an animal. That feeling—the awareness of that animal’s mortality, and of your own—takes a bit of getting used to. It’s also exciting. “I really do think it taps into a part of our psyche we’ve been well adapted for,” he says, “but we aren’t using.” As BMHS puts it: “Bull Moose is an organization dedicated to providing a means for those of us who have lost our instincts, our predatory skills, and our connection to the wild world to get those parts of ourselves back.”
Besides offering people the chance to really provide for themselves, hunting also offers this incredibly visceral experience. Hunters take a life, and like it or not, that taking creates an adrenaline rush and a flood of mixed emotions: Pride, excitement, and more often than not a tinge of guilt or sadness. Hunters are thrust back into the food chain, from which most urbanites are increasingly disconnected. There’s an animal you shot. You feel its lingering warmth under your fingers. You break its skin with your knife. You know exactly what your dinner cost because its blood is—quite literally—on your hands.
Reconnecting with this lost part of the human experience is something that appealed to Lily Raff McCaulou, the author of the hunting memoir, Call of the Mild. She grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and had only held a gun once—when she was a teenager—before she started hunting at 26 years old. That was two years after moving to Bend, Oregon, from Manhattan for a reporting job. “You’d be hard-pressed to find an unlikelier hunter that me,” she writes in her book. “I’m a woman, and married to a man who does not hunt. I grew up in a city, terrified of guns.”
Raff McCaulou first started fly-fishing with her now-husband and worked her way up to hunting. The day after she shot her first animal, a pheasant, she brought the bird home and dressed it herself over a garbage can in her backyard. Describing the adrenaline rush that came with that first kill she says: “But my own feeling, as the pheasant falls from the sky in a surprisingly slow, graceful flutter, is singular and pure: euphoria.”
Raff McCaulou adds that experiencing this mix of excitement and guilt helps hunters better respect and appreciate the animals feeding them. Something we don’t always do with shrink-wrapped meat pulled out of the cooler section at the grocery store. “That’s not to say all of the meat I eat is meat I’ve hunted, but it has changed my relationship with food,” she says on the phone from her home in Bend. “It’s reconnecting me to the past. It’s really made me think about what humans, until relatively recently, had to do to eat meat. And it’s given me a new awe over survival.”
Toronto food blogger and hunter Joel MacCharles didn’t talk about hunting in public five years ago. In 2009, when he and his partner Dana Harrison decided to write about hunting on their blog, Well Preserved, they were hesitant about how some of their 25,000 monthly readers would react. And with good reason: the authors of one of their favorite blogs, New Zealand-based Kiwiswiss, received a death threat in 2010 over hunting-related posts. When MacCharles wrote his first hunting diary for the blog, they lost 50 percent of their followers. The following year, in a post that outlined the details of MacCharles’ hunting trips each fall, they lost 25 percent. “And,” says MacCharles, “we don’t have any gory pictures.”
Jump ahead four years. On a Monday night last December, MacCharles walked into The Avro, a tiny bar in Toronto’s Riverside neighborhood, wearing a vest covered in homemade buttons—souvenirs from each of the couple’s previous swaps. Tonight is the Christmas edition of the monthly Home Ec. swap night he and Harrison organize through Well Preserved. The space, filled with reclaimed furniture and knick-knacks, was packed full of swappers ranging in age from twentysomethings to early 40s. That night, the theme was holiday cookies, and The Avro’s bar counter was stacked with plates of baked treats.
There are other hunters and hunters-in-training at the swap too. Kelly Moore and Jessie Sweeney hang out near the bar talking to Harrison. Moore has been hunting with her husband Aaron since 2005, but Sweeney is just starting, and plans to get her firearms license this winter and to practice shooting over the holidays (both of which she accomplishes).
MacCharles, sporting glasses and shaggy-curly hair, is eager to talk about how this year’s moose hunt went. One of his hunting buddies shot a cow (female moose) on the first day. MacCharles came pretty close to a bull (male), but it was too big to shoot. But since the camp shares, his friend’s kill means he got meat too. MacCharles and Harrison try to buy as little food from the grocery store as possible, and they hardly buy any farmed meat at all, unless it’s from small, local farms. Not getting a moose, which is what happened last year, would have been a big deal. When at home, they ate mostly vegetarian for the entire winter.
Like Stephenson, MacCharles hunted when he was young. He was in university when he turned vegetarian on a whim that lasted six years. “And then one day after dinner I
decided I wanted a hamburger,” he says. After that, he started eating processed food and fast food. “I loved food, but I loved it in a very different way.” Over the last five years, MacCharles and Harrison really started to commit themselves to local and seasonal eating.
It’s hard to say exactly why opinions on hunting have changed so much within the locavore community. It does, though, seem to have a lot to do with ethics. While MacCharles is not new to hunting, his values for doing so align with those of the urban, locavore community. When someone kills an animal, he says, it becomes something—food—that a person self-provides for their family, and in a way they ethically believe in. Even if farmed meat is easier to buy, he adds, hunting doesn’t feel like an option. “The concept of The 100-Mile Diet has smart urban people thinking about where their food comes from,” says Walsh. “An intellectual person can make the leap and ask: If there’s still an animal dying for me to have protein, why don’t I take the responsibility and do it myself?”
Of course, for many people, hunting isn’t a food trend, and it’s never been a controversial activity. It’s taken for granted, and definitely nothing they’ve had to explain to themselves, to their families, or even to their communities. In fact, MacCharles has had confused readers from rural communities ask why he writes about hunting so sensitively on his blog. “There are a lot of people I talk to about hunting who see it as organic and seasonal and free-range and ethical, and boy if I had these conversations with my GTA hunting buddies they’d look at me like I had three heads,” he says. “It’s just what they do.”
It’s becoming that way for people like MacCharles, Raff McCaulou and Stephenson, too. They’ve invested time in learning how to properly handle firearms. They’ve considered the consequences, felt conflicted about the lives they’re taking, and have come out the other side deciding it’s still something they want to do. And something they enjoy doing. Hunting isn’t just a fad to them and the many others that have joined and continue to join them—it’s become something they just do, too. It’s probably something they’ll just do for the rest of their lives. Even so, don’t count on spotting hoards of hipsters lining up at the local shooting range anytime soon. For now, the barriers and the stakes are too high. As MacCharles says, “At the end of the day, there are very few people who take a life or death activity as just fun.”
Chelsea Murray is freelance journalist currently living in New Brunswick, Canada. She grew up on a farm but has never hunted. Reprinted from This Magazine, one of Canada's longest published alternative journals covering culture and politics.