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Rifle Magazine
July - August 2002
Volume 34, Number 4
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 202
On the cover...
The Legacy Varminter Supreme .223 Remington is topped off with a Leupold Vari-X III 6.5-20X 40mm scope in Redfield bases. Photos by Stan Trzoniec.
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Window Seat

There seem to be two kinds of people in the world, aisle and window seat. (Nobody’s middle seat, at least not voluntarily.) My wife Eileen suffers from claustrophobia, so is definitely aisle, while I’m definitely window. Why rise above the earth if you can’t look down?

The average, modern American doesn’t like to look down on landscape unless it’s something famous, such as the Grand Canyon. But most hunters are made of landscape, for that’s the essence of the hunt: how the lives of wild animals draw us into the land. This very randomness is one reason we don’t just “go for a hike,” which non-hunters often suggest as a perfectly acceptable alternative. No other human activity draws us into the random rhythms of the uncivilized world like hunting. Mountain climbers always scale a specific peak, backpackers mostly follow trails, and even bird-watchers usually gather at specific looking grounds, often civilized places like city parks and sewage plants.

Hunters, however, have to learn the land, even if it’s a woodlot on the edge of a cornfield half a mile from the interstate. When we look at a mountain, we must imagine the paths animals travel, as if those paths were the arteries of ridge and valley. So we look at “empty” landscape differently than the average mall-doll or golfing CEO, and we like to look from window seats.

I felt like a 10-year-old one day in Canada’s Northwest Territories, as we flew north from Yellowknife perhaps 600 feet above the tundra. It was my first caribou hunt and, wonder of wonders, the DeHavilland Otter only had window seats. Below us unrolled a random mosaic: blue-silver lakes between pale green land, the land lightly brushed by the red and yellow leaves of dwarf birch and willow.

Sometimes we’d fly above a low ridge, gray boulders scattered along its crest as if flung by a giant hand. Sometimes there’d be marshland as flat and green as a football field. Both were cut by empty arteries, in the marshes silver like the lakes, on the ridges trenches almost black with shadow. The arteries wandered but always trended north and south, as if whatever made them followed the magnetic field of the entire planet.

I kept looking, knowing the blood of those arteries would soon start flowing, and an hour later it did. I had to press my face hard against the Plexiglass window to see the brown blood below: seven caribou flowing across a marsh. I could see the water splash silver from their hooves, the antlers of a bull, and like Dorothy, suddenly knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The arterial roads of game trails cover most of the earth. I’ve seen them whirling from ponds in the Bahamas and fainter traces weaving together the high Rockies. Sometimes the blood appears along those arteries too (though not as often as during   the caribou migration): wild pigs in the Caribbean or elk along the high spine of the continent. In Alaska I’ve flown over grizzly bears several times, which react as variously to the machine that carries window seats as do humans. North of Bristol Bay a sow and her near-grown cubs never looked up from a salmon riffle, while on Kodiak a 600-pound mama with smaller cubs rose on her hind legs and waved an unfriendly paw.

One evening a decade ago, I boarded a jumbo-jet in John F. Kennedy Airport. My hunting partner had booked the flight and, like most urbanites, assumed I’d like an aisle seat for the 18-hour trip to Johannesburg. No, I did not, but had no choice. So we ate the good dinner South African Airways provided, drank a couple glasses of fine South African wine and went to sleep, like almost everybody else on the plane.

The next morning the airplane’s lights came on just as a thin blade of rising sun sliced through the windows. Most people lined up for the restrooms, emptying the seats. A few of us went to the windows and looked down upon what most Americans would see as boring, if not a total wasteland. I did not, because it was the Kalahari Desert, and I could see game trails, from 30,000 feet, resembling the faint scratches of pronghorn hooves on hard-baked Wyoming clay.

And yet the view from a window seat doesn’t have to be something as romantic as grizzly bears or the Kalahari to draw a hunter’s eyes. I have looked down on woodlots in suburban Detroit and Minneapolis, finding deer trails and sometimes the whitetails that made them. While flying into JFK, the water of Jamaica Bay has seemed as pure as a tundra lake, and the flocks of gulls and Canada geese as beautiful as the flocks of snow geese that cover the subarctic. From a window seat you see how much of the world remains uncovered by asphalt or malls, how the hunter’s landscape invades the edges of even the largest cities.

You also see the paintless houses of the slums of Miami and Buenos Aires and Johannesburg and wonder how much longer “civilization” will last as it eats away at the planet. You wonder what’s more civilized, the blue and white spine of the Wasatch Mountains or the brown air covering Salt Lake City.

Then you come home. I have lived and flown out of Montana almost all my life, and when flying home from any direction, the landscape is recognizable, not just from the air but grounded memory.

A couple years ago, I was flying back from Minneapolis - and Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Arviat, Nunavut Territory, where I had killed caribou and ptarmigan and helped some Inuits kill a whale. The plane crossed North Dakota, at first flat grain fields divided by thin lines of trees, winding naturally along the rivers and, near farms, in the absolutely straight lines created only by humans.

We crossed the Missouri River just south of Bismarck, and the land started to fold like a carelessly made bed. Farther west it erupted in open sores: the Badlands where Theodore Roosevelt ranched and hunted. I found the Little Missouri and followed it south through the dying little town of Marmarth, and then the land rose again in a low divide, and I realized we now flew above Montana, and even with 400 more miles to go, I knew I was home. (At that moment, Eileen told me later that evening, our brown Labrador rose from the living room floor and sat looking out the front window, never leaving except to eat a bowl of dog chow until I drove home from the airport.)

Soon we crossed Powder River, and I began to recognize places I’d hunted, starting back when I worked as a ranch hand in the late 1960s, first the sage flat above Reservation Creek where I took my first pronghorn, and then the pine hills where Norm killed the big mule deer. It was odd seeing the land we’d stalked from a viewpoint that, with a little conceit, could be considered God’s. It was as if for one brief, almost ungraspable moment, I had glimpsed the way everything fit together: the land, water and sky, and both hunters and hunted.

And then I was home.

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