Back in the Game

Hunting is gaining popularity for a younger, hipper, food-conscious generation.

Photography by Adam Goudreau, Model Chris Cooper, Grooming by Beth McMillan, Shot on location at Hidden Creek Taxidermy

For much of last year, Chris Cooper’s free time was spent this way; the 34-year-old graphic designer set up cubed targets in his garage, then fired arrows at them from his driveway with his newly purchased wood re-curve bow. It’s not the sort of thing one expects to see in the middle of an urban environment like his Beverly home – especially from an artist, woodworker and craft-fair merchant with a penchant for meticulously shaped facial hair – but Cooper was on a mission. He would master the art of the bow before this past September so that, when bow-hunting season arrived, he’d be ready to bag himself a white-tailed deer.

Cooper isn’t the only one in for the kill, either. Young urbanites province-wide (and throughout North America) are taking up arms and joining the fraternity of hunting – spending their off-hours immersed in the world’s other “oldest profession.” Foodies are now on the hunt for an ethical, locavorian way to eat, while hipsters, artists and young men and women are hoping to reclaim hunting traditions. Hunting is definitely cool again.

According to Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), the number of anglers and hunters in Alberta has steadily increased over the last four decades. Since 2010, the number of resident hunters in Alberta went up by 14,168, and white-tailed deer licences (some of the most common permits sold in the province) increased by 11,753 from 2010 to 2013. And, the ESRD reports the largest age-group purchasing hunting licenses over the last three years have been hunters aged 26 to 35. 

Gunning for Grub

The modern huntsman no longer cowers behind clothes of green and leaves. With only jeans, boots, weapon and blade, he honours his kill with a proud place in his heart, on his wall – and in his stomach.

So why is hunting cool again? Kevin Kossowan thinks it’s all about the food. Kossowan, the vice president of Slow Food Edmonton, says that he’s seen the growing trend of young urban hunters take shape recently, but has been surprised by some of the demographics to join the ranks. “Believe it or not, former vegans and vegetarians have become interested in hunting – which is shocking,” says Kossowan. “But it speaks to where the interest is largely coming from, which is from food ethics and from people not being necessarily content with the contemporary ways animals are raised.”

Though Kossowan grew up hunting, he regained interest in harvesting his own meat before it was cool – back in 2005. He felt the same way as this new generation of hunters. “I started to look at what local food really means here, and the more I explored, the more I came back to the wild food that existed here,” says Kossowan. “I became one of those people interested in animal ethics and animal husbandry and thought: ‘If we eat meat and kill animals, I should be able to man up and pull the trigger on one.'”

Kossowan now produces an Internet pay-per-view Web series, From the Wild, which documents his (literal) hunt for local proteins. According to him, the audiences for his show aren’t the guys who have been hunting for years, but the grassroots, locavore movement-spurred hunting enthusiasts taking up bows or guns to find their own organic meats.

Kossowan says that the interest in the hunt is also catching on in culinary circles, which prompted him to take hunting and fishing-curious chefs including RGE RD‘s Blair Lebsack and Three Boars‘ Brayden Kozak out to angle and shoot their own proteins as guests on his show. 

For the bow-hunting Cooper, food is also a major part of why he took up the hunt. The idea found the surest way into his heart – through his stomach. “I realized that I love meat – and I mean good meat. I had elk and bison for the first time at the [City Market Downtown] and my body was all ‘I like this’ so I decided I needed to go get my own,” says Cooper. “Just the idea that you know where your meat is coming from. All this meat-recall shit is like: ‘Really? I just ate that steak.’ So I like the idea of going out, finding my own meat, taking it down, and cleaning and processing it myself.”

Learning to Kill

Though rare to capture the modern huntsman on film, the majestic nature of the predator is exemplified when spotted in his rustic weekend habitats.

It’s mid-September and Cooper sits on the patio of Cask & Barrel. He’s not at all the image of a stereotypical woodsman; he’s dressed in a pair of quality blue jeans and a collared shirt. His bicycle helmet and bag lies on the seat beside him while he sits, relaxed, nursing a pint of craft beer. It’s hard to imagine him out in the bush dressed head to toe in camouflage to stalk a deer or moose – but that’s probably because that’s not his style. “I wear an old pair of jeans,a flannel shirt, a pair of Blundstones and cap to block the sun,” says Cooper. “It worked for our grandfathers, and they did their damage on the population.”

For him, the “it worked for our grandfathers” mentality is the reason for many of his recently learned hobbies, such as woodworking, wine-making and hunting. Like the hipster generation embracing old-world styles of dress, facial hair and cocktails, the city-slicker graphic designer felt a need to learn skills forgotten by most of the modern world. “I have a thing for learning things that I think are falling by the wayside, so there is something that draws me to learning things that have always been handed down, but then kind of lost down the line.”

To learn how to hunt, Cooper got in touch with his brother-in-law, and asked for some advice on how to get into the activity. He learned that in Alberta, first-time hunters are required to take the Alberta Conservation and Hunter Education course before going grocery shopping outdoors. For Cooper, learning the basics of the hunt was just as invaluable as destroying his misconceptions about hunters.

“A lot of it is about identifying animals and safety, but the most fascinating thing was that there was this undertone of etiquette that I just didn’t know about,” says Cooper. “I always thought hunting was about meatheads out shooting guns, but there is all this woodsman classiness that was like ‘a proper woodsman would not take a shot that he wouldn’t guarantee he can hit,’ and I was like ‘OK, cool,’ this is some Davy Crockett etiquette. I get it. It’s cool man.”

One year later – and now well into hunting season – Cooper and his brother-in-law have spent several of their weekends tracking big game. He says that having an experienced hunter along is invaluable to his education. “The most amazing thing about learning now, is learning what’s not in the books,” says Cooper. He learned little things like how to use special shampoos to wash away his scent, how to have the discipline not to poach and even – in one such instance – that smoking his pipe would frighten game away.

To the new breed of hunters, concepts such as field-dressing (bleeding out and cleaning the animal in the bush) and proper identification of beasts are the toughest concepts to grasp without practical experience. Kelly Semple, Executive Director of the Hunting for Tomorrow Foundation – an organization which provides hunter education courses along with mentorship and outreach programs for hunters – believes that the new generation of hunters need mentorship. “There is a complete new group that we’re seeing now that we are starting from scratch with,” says Semple.

Semple knows plenty of those between the ages of 25 and 35 who want to learn to hunt – in fact those are generally the people who take her classes. But normally, even with the knowledge, she says not all of them would actually end up on the hunt, partially because they have no experienced hunters in their circles to hunt with. To combat this, she says that her organization reaches out to these hunters to try and match them up with mentors – that way even aspiring big-game slayers can get the practical hunting experience they need. It’s something that Kossowan says is important, especially when hunting your own food. “The butchers hate cleaning the meat where the guys have done a bad job,” says Kossowan. “Latch on to somebody who is already into it. It’s always best to have someone who can lend you a hand.”

The Girls Aren’t Gatherers

The huntsman knows that the difference between success and failure may rely on his tools – and accessorizes accordingly.

Semple is quick to point out another changing demographic in the fish and wildlife industry – that of women hunters. According to Semple, one of the more prominent recent changes in Hunting for Tomorrow’s classes are the amount of ladies in attendance. So why is it that gals are taking up the gun?

“We’re seeing female urbanites with the same kind of characteristics as their male counterparts that are hunting, either for a desire for self-sufficiency or to expand their connection with the natural world,” says Semple.

According to the ESRD, the amount of female hunters in Alberta has increased by about 10 per cent from 2012 to 2013, and the number is nearly double of those in 2006. Large hunting outfitters such as Cabela’s are taking notice, too. Recognizing the growing market, Cabela’s recently released a “for her” line of hunt-wear and accessories under its new OutfitHER label.

MacEwan University student Ghilliane Sawchuk took up bowhunting in 2012. The petite 23-year old nursing student doesn’t shy away from what she does either – she wears her passion for hunting with pride. Her Facebook page proudly sports photos of herself posing in full hunting gear, dressed head-to-toe in camo and weapons, presenting her kills for the camera.

In person, the camo-sporting huntress is nowhere to be seen. Instead, she wears a plaid shirt and a pair of blue jeans with her strawberry blonde hair tied up in a casual ponytail. The only clue that she may be a countryside killer is a silver necklace featuring a large pendant in the shape of a bow. 

Sawchuk grew up on a cattle farm outside of Newbrook, Alta., with a family that hunted as a way of life. As a young girl, she would accompany her father on hunts that would feed the family for months at a time. “None of it is gross or shocks me because I grew up around it,” says Sawchuk. “My mom even hunted before she stayed back [to] raise a bunch of us kids.”

And, while Sawchuk stopped hunting in her late-teens, the nursing student found the wild calling her back in her 20s. Influenced by her cousin and her hunting and fishing enthusiast fianc, Sawchuk’s passion rekindled, although now she also hunts with a bow. “Since I took up archery, I even started to go out by myself, because I know that it is a whole new ballgame than a rifle.”

Though Sawchuk primarily hunts game for food, she is not averse to hunting trophies as well. Her current kill count includes three white-tail deer, “tons” of grouse, two moose, two bears and one wolf. And though bow-hunting is her favourite, she can carry any one of her four guns – her mother’s old Marlin .30/30, a Remington .22, a Henry .357 magnum and a .410 shotgun her and her fianc own together – out with her if the hunt requires it. To her, all weapons are merely tools to experience a pastime that she loves.

“It’s a connection to nature and wildlife. I find it peaceful and relaxing and it’s an adrenalin rush, for sure, when you come in close contact with animals,” says Sawchuk. “And there’s a sense of achievement when you take down an animal. It feels so rewarding to know that this is the closest thing you have to you actually providing for yourself.”

Ethical Killing

When this modern hunter has prey in his sights, the prey sees a well-dressed man in theirs.

Despite some differences in their reasons for wanting to hunt, Cooper, Kossowan, Semple and Sawchuk all agree on one thing: That hunters play a valuable role in conservation efforts. The white-tailed deer population, for instance, is too high at present, according to Kossowan, which is why he says the number of white-tailed licencees are so plentiful – growing nine per cent from 2012 to 2013. Luckily, he says, that is a good thing for beginner hunters. “But there are gagillians of them, so they aren’t that hard to hunt. If someone asked me ‘what should I hunt to start with and to try my hand at it?’ I would recommend white-tail deer,” says Kossowan.

As far as Cooper is concerned, that’s the advice he’s following. White-tails are the first prey on his radar. On his first hunting trip this September, he never shot a thing, but did have one close call. “I see this buck. It’s right there. So I walk one way and my brother-in-law walks another. Then as I walk, the buck sort of scampers away a bit. It sort of moves ahead about 30 yards away into some brush.” says Cooper. “I’m not drawn but I am ready, and then – bam – this giant beast jumps from the bush jumps from the forest about 12 feet away.” Despite not getting the kill on his first hunt, it hasn’t discouraged him a bit. “That woke me up pretty damn quick, so now I’m ready. There’s always next weekend.”

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