One thing about hunting brown bears in the fall in coastal Alaska: You have lots of time to think. At first, you think about the big brownie that may step out of the thick alders at any moment, onto the tidal flat across the way. If you ignored your guide’s advice about rain gear, you may soon start reflecting on the relentless rain that is seeping through to soak you.
If you’re a gun nut who cares about his rifle’s welfare, you may also start watching every steel part, imagining you actually see the rust forming. Then you realize it’s not your imagination: It really is rust. Then an icy pond of water overflows your collar and runs down your back.
At this point, you reach deep down for some philosophical reinforcement because that’s all you have left. It’s day 17 of a 21-day trip, and it has rained steadily all 17 days, for which you are paying a thousand dollars a day. Big-game hunters are strange, strange folks.
Jack O’Connor, who made his living from writing about big-game hunting, would, every so often, include a throwaway line like, “It’s all for fun and games anyway….” I doubt he really meant it. In fact, I’m sure he didn’t.
José Ortega y Gasset, Spain’s foremost philosopher of the 20th century, devoted some time to the study. In Meditations on Hunting, he concluded that any pastime to which men would devote so much time, enthusiasm, and effort was more than mere recreation. For some, he wrote, it was a calling, like being a poet. Even those who no longer hunt, for whatever reason, still call themselves hunters.
This is not to say that hunting is so serious that it’s wrong to have fun at it. It’s just that a big-game hunter’s idea of fun (like the aforementioned brown-bear hunter) tends to be different than other people’s. Offer a hunter a choice between a month in the lap of luxury on a Caribbean island and two days of hard climbing, dripping rain forest, freezing nights, and a near-death experience with a Cape buffalo on a dead volcano in the Rift Valley, and guess which he would take? While he’s in the crater with a wounded buffalo, he may well wish he had chosen otherwise, but in later years there are no regrets.
Big-game hunting today is a serious and expensive business, depending where you go and what you hunt. I’ve met a lot of guys who approach it with all the light-heartedness of a liver transplant, intent on the importance of getting this species or that, wanting a head that will make the top ten or qualify for Boone & Crockett. I sometimes wonder exactly what fun they get out of it, because when they describe their hunting trips, they rarely mention anything except the size of the kill, all the while thrusting their iPhones at me, obsessively scrolling through pictures.
And you see, there’s the funny thing. Twenty years ago, Harry Selby told me about some of his safaris with Robert Ruark. The thing about Ruark, he said, was that he was always having a great time. No matter what happened—safari car stuck in a river, torrential rains, whatever—Ruark was hugely enjoying himself. He was always having fun, yet no one ever took writing more seriously than he did (well, maybe Hemingway), and writing about hunting was a major part of his life.
Reading Ruark or O’Connor, the best parts are rarely the actual kill, regardless of how big the trophy. It’s always what went before, what came after, and how much fun it all was—even if, perhaps, it did not seem so at the time. Anyone who goes big-game hunting and doesn’t have fun might want to take up golf. It’s cheaper, less effort, and you don’t do it in the rain.