My freezer is full of meat from elk, moose, squirrel, feral hog, whitetail deer, caribou, black bear, and an assortment of wild fowl ranging from blue grouse to turkey. What all those critters have in common— in addition to the fact that they’re the very definition of organically fed, free-range catch—is that I hunted them myself, then bloodied my own hands butchering the carcasses into serving-size cuts. Every year my family consumes a few hundred pounds of the stuff, ranging from rustically elegant osso buco to bizarrely inelegant deer testicles fried in oil I rendered from black bear fat.
If you were to compare the total caloric value of my freezer’s contents with the total caloric output that went toward harvesting it, you’d understand why I have the physique of a six-foot weasel—a vicious little creature that happens to be one of the predators I most admire. Every package of meat in my freezer is something I fought for by climbing a mountain, running a river, trekking through a forest, sleeping in snow, or slogging through a swamp, usually with a 40-pound pack on my back and sometimes with a grizzly on my tail. Now that’s Paleo. In case you’ve been in solitary confinement for the past five years, the gist of the Paleo movement is that, as a species, we’ve fallen a long way since our hunter-gatherer days, and now our carb-rich diets and lack of rigorous exercise have made us soft, slow, and vulnerable.
The most ardent Paleo enthusiasts argue that regaining our ancestral state of fitness goes beyond doing a little exercise and curbing one’s consumption of doughnuts. To get the full Paleo experience, you need to be out lifting rocks, running barefoot, and growing a beard. To say that I’ve been amused by the Paleo movement is hardly a criticism; I support any movement, or trend, that inspires people to get in shape and push their limits. But it’s been interesting to watch as Paleo enthusiasts discover “lost” principles about human endurance and fitness that hardcore hunters have lived by since the beginning of time.
I suppose the difference between the radical elements of the Paleo movement and the radical elements of the hunting lifestyle might be described as the difference between playing Grand Theft Auto and actually stealing a car. It’s the difference between lifting rocks for the sake of lifting rocks, and lifting rocks to build a wood-fired oven so you can roast a rack of elk ribs. It’s the difference between running down the sidewalk barefoot just to see if you can hack it, and crossing an icy river barefoot because you’d be a moron to get your socks and boots wet. It’s the difference between cultivating a beard you hope will look rugged, and growing a beard because there’s no way out here to shave it. I became a hunter the way most guys do—through my father. He was an avid bow hunter and fisherman who raised my brothers and me in western Michigan.
As a kid, I was lucky enough to eat a greater variety of wild game than most folks will eat in their whole lifetime. The experiences of hunting and then eating those meals taught me to see nature as a living, breathing, and self-replenishing grocery store that accepts no other currencies than raw effort and acquired skill. I recognized from an early age that success as a hunter comes down to your ability to hack it in the woods. In my father’s eyes, the greatest sin a man could commit was being a “candy ass,” his preferred term for anyone who lacked the motivation to suffer in pursuit of his goals.
My old man expected his kids to trudge through the frigid water of a chest-deep swamp in the predawn darkness, or drag a deer carcass through a half-mile of impenetrable brush, or tie an intricate knot in hair-thin fishing line when your fingers are so cold they’re the color of snow. My commitment to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was uncompromised when I went away to college; in fact, it deepened considerably. During those years of poverty, wild game went from being a novelty item to an essential staple of my diet. I experimented with cooking everything from the back thighs of a beaver to the tongue of a deer and came to see a direct link between my ability to perform in the wild and the quality and abundance of the food I ate.
Quite literally, an unsuccessful hunt meant a dinner comprising only potatoes with margarine while a successful hunt meant a dinner of potatoes along with a slab of steak. Once I’d forged such an intimate bond with my food, no amount of financial security was going to curb my desire to hunt. I’d come to recognize hunting as environmentally responsible, as long as it was done accordingly within the strictures of wildlife management laws and with an eye toward habitat conservation. I’d also developed the conviction that killing your own food is more ethical than maintaining a willful ignorance about the unsavory and violent aspects of food production.
But there was something even more compelling: the deep, unquestioned joy that comes from taking down a beast that will yield months’ worth of sustenance. There’s a visceral reality to such an experience that transcends any of our modern-day notions of wealth, or even ethics. When you behold a mound of self-harvested protein, you’re tapping into a source of euphoria that runs as deep as human history. I think of it in terms of evolution. It’s not surprising that we evolved to enjoy sex—the adaptation ensures that procreation will occur even in the absence of intent.
I have little doubt that something similar is at play when it comes to hunting. The caveman who enjoyed the chase was certainly better off than the one who didn’t, especially when times got hard. Little wonder that aboriginal cultures often bestowed leadership roles on their best hunters—they knew the road to happiness was paved with meat. Last spring I was hunting black bears in central Alaska with a Navy SEAL who was just leaving active duty after 15 years of service and multiple combat deployments. It was still a few weeks away from the summer solstice, but already the days were 21 hours long and “night” was just a prolonged period of dusk. One day we decided to climb up toward the peak of a nearby mountain to spend the night in the alpine zone.
From there we’d glass the surrounding slopes with binoculars till we located a mature bear we could either stalk or lure into shooting range with a mouth-blown game call that mimics the sound of a distressed deer fawn. When we paused in our climb to fill water bottles from a spring, my friend reminisced about similar climbs that he’d made in the mountains of Afghanistan. “A lot of people think that SEALs are obsessed with fitness because we wanna look like badasses,” he said. “But when I’m training, I’m thinking about climbs like this, when we’re going up to 9,000 feet to engage a target.
When we get up there, it’s not time for a nap; it’s time for a gunfight.” As we hiked on, I thought about his commitment to fitness. We all have our reasons to want to stay fit: to feel better, to age better, to look better, to be better prepared for some unknown calamity that might suddenly thrust our society into Darwinian chaos where only the strong survive. To be sure, those are all good reasons; I certainly want to have quality retirement years as well as ongoing female companionship. But I’ve found that for me to stay serious about fitness, I need to be afraid of immediate reprisal—to believe in the monster lurking beneath my bed.
For my SEAL friend, that monster is a gunfight at the top of the mountain. For me, it’s the fear of an empty freezer. I find it difficult to define the type of fitness that’s required for extreme forms of hunting. Many hardcore big-game hunters describe their ideal state of physical fitness as “sheep shape.” That means you’re feeling good enough to go on a hunt for Dall sheep, a gorgeous and exceptionally tasty species that resides amid the nastiest glacial basins and mountain peaks of Alaska and western Canada. Others talk about “elk shape,” referring to the enormous, absurdly powerful creature of the Rockies and western U.S. Whichever, these hunters are referring to the same thing: the ability to spend a week or more walking 10–20 miles a day while traversing vertically orientated terrain at high altitudes with a backpack weighing about 50 pounds.
Actually, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. A lot of guys who might be capable of performing those tasks in a controlled environment are unable to handle the auxiliary abuses that get doled out on a hunt. I learned this the hard way, over and over again. ONE EXPERIENCE IN PARTICULAR THAT STANDS out is when my older brother and I went up into the Madison Range of Montana to hunt for mountain goats. After an extremely long day in which many things went wrong, we found ourselves hunkered beneath a rock ledge at 10,000 feet above sea level, nine miles away from our truck. A frigid storm system was blowing through and a dead mountain goat was lying at our feet.
The animal had to be skinned and butchered before we could start dropping down to the safety of the timberline, or either a bear would claim the meat or the goat would freeze solid and become impossible to work with. My feet were horribly blistered, my fingers were numb, I was hungry to the point of nausea, and I was flat-out exhausted. All I really wanted to do was puke then fall asleep, a move that would probably have brought a quick end to my short life. Instead, my brother and I managed to motivate each other enough to do what seemed like an impossible task: butcher the goat and get it into backpacks, then trudge those heavy loads down to where we could hang the meat safely in a tree before finding a place flat enough to pitch a tent.
I crawled into my sleeping bag that night feeling defeated and scared. But in the morning I had a fresh perspective on things, one that actually surprised me. I looked back at that snow-covered mountain and knew that I wanted to become the kind of guy who could pull that off again and again without fail. I wanted to live in a way that would make me comfortable being near the knife’s edge. Getting to that state of fitness requires a kind of exertion you simply can’t achieve with a typical daily exercise regime, no matter how raw and savage you make it. It demands a mindset that can be attained only with regular exposure to the peculiar forms of fear and uncertainty that are dished out by the natural world.
Whether they wanted to or not, our long-ago ancestors had to live through these things on a daily basis. In his book Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer discusses an array of evidence that suggests that Neanderthals were hard-living big-game hunters. Particularly interesting is one observation about the unusually high incidence of lesions and fractures in the heads and necks of Neanderthal skeletons. Researchers looked for an archaeological match to these sorts of injuries but found nothing until they compared the data with that taken from modern rodeo riders.
This isn’t to suggest that Neanderthals were out riding cave bears. Instead, it suggests they engaged in a “confrontational” hunting style with animals that could raise hell withIn my opinion, hunting for your own food in wild places is still the best and most productive way to test yourself against an array of varied and unpredictable adversities. All the most physically excruciating experiences I’ve suffered through have come during the pursuit of wild game. There was the extreme gastrointestinal upset and subsequent hospitalization from a case of giardia I contracted while hunting Coues deer in Arizona; the near-fatal confusion followed by several months of tingly extremities after the hypothermia I suffered while hunting buffalo in Alaska; the throbbing pain of losing my toenails after packing a black-tailed deer down a steep mountainside in northern California; the months-long anxiety caused by Lyme disease contracted while fishing in Upstate New York; and the brief yet intense fear I experienced getting charged by a grizzly bear and a moose within days of each other on a hunt in British Columbia. (The grizzly was a false charge, the moose was a direct hit.)
It might seem strange to include a litany of hazards in a discussion of fitness; after all, fitness is supposed to be about health. But I’d argue that true fitness is much more complex than that. I’m reminded of a time I spent chasing wild hogs on the island of Molokai with a native Hawaiian. This guy hunted pigs the way his father did, in the jungle with a pack of dogs. He used a small group of hounds to trail and corner them, then his larger pit bull mixes would catch and hold them while he moved in with his knife for the kill. It’s the traditional way a hunter supplied the protein for his family’s feasts, or luaus.
On the day we hunted together, we moved deep into the jungle, following a creek that cut a narrow valley into the surrounding hills. The dogs started baying a few hours into the hunt. We began running in their direction, but confusion broke out as the pack split apart. Soon I was alone, chasing the sounds of barking dogs and a squealing pig. I ended up at the edge of a pool where the creek collided with a large boulder. Beneath me, two valuable young pups were getting mauled and pulled under in the water by a large sow with a ferocious, hide-ripping bite. I was armed with nothing but a small knife, and looked about anxiously for the “hold” dogs in hopes they’d accomplish what I didn’t quite feel comfortable doing myself.
They were nowhere in sight. But somehow, within a minute or so, I was standing thigh-deep in the bloodied water, with the makings of a luau floating next to me. It would be an understatement to say I was stunned. Only later, with the scraps of roast pork and singed palm leaves lining the edge of a smoldering pit, did I find a way to understand what I’d seen and done that day. With that hard-won meal I’d gained insight into the system of risks and rewards that’s governed our species for thousands and thousands of years. In that moment, I reveled in the anticipation of what wild and crazy beasts I might meet the next day. And I was anxious to see how they’d taste.