Killing and Hunting

Sometimes our behavior and experience brings us into direct confrontation with our value systems and we're forced to make a choice.   Here's another gem by Kurt Dunbar. 

“You are right about the poor badger. I blew him up. I left that out of the story because to this day I regret it and am ashamed. Killing an innocent creature for no reason is awful and I used to do it a lot.”   

These were the words I wrote my little brother Kris after I sent him a story I had written about a memorable bird hunt we went on when we were kids. He didn’t need to remind me of the badger murder, I remember that all too well.  

Pensive, I further replied to my brother with an abbreviated version of the following expanded stories. They are the lessons that taught me the difference between killing and hunting and what cured me of both. 


What stopped me killing things just to kill?  

It was a tiny little gold finch.  

I was camping out over the weekend by myself in the woods of Tahoe where I grew up. It was probably around my senior year in high school. I always took my Ruger 10-22 with me camping, not to hunt or for protection but because I loved that gun and enjoyed plinking. I practiced my aim shooting pinecones off of branches and taking aim at anything that moved, be it hapless squirrels or chipmunks or any of a variety of Sierra Nevada birds that filled the branches of the stately pines and shimmering aspens.  

There was still a lot of light in the early mid-summer evening. Somewhere at the top of a tall ponderosa pine near my impromptu camp I heard a little bird singing its heart out. 

I thought to myself that it was an impossible shot. I raised the rifle anyway and placed the cross-hairs more on the sound than anything else because it was so tiny and high up that I could barely see it even through the scope. I pulled the trigger and that lovely song stopped. A beautiful yellow bird plopped down right at my feet. I stood staring at it for a very long time. I felt deeply saddened. What had that little thing done to me other than fill the air with its happy melody? After that I still hunted but I never shot anything I didn't eat, ever again.  


It would be quite a few years later when I stopped hunting altogether in, of all places, Alaska.  

Two of my hunting and fishing buddies in Seward, Randy Knopik and Jim Daubney, decided to hire a float plane for a fly-in moose hunt and asked me to come along. I jumped at the opportunity.  

We drove the one hundred and thirty miles from Seward to Anchorage and found our plane docked at Lake Hood, the largest float plane facility in the world. 

We unloaded our gear from my blue Chevy pick-up and started stuffing the sleeping bags, a large tent, several boxes of food, and our rifles into the hold in the fuselage and the cargo area behind the back seat. Then, we crammed ourselves into the seats as the pilot turned over the aged engines of the De Havilland-Beaver. It sparked to life with a deafening roar that hurt your ears and bounced off your chest. I have flown in many a float plane over the years and there is nothing more nostalgic and reminiscent of Alaska to me than the distinctive, deep-bellowing sound and feel in the core of your body when a Beaver’s engines are fired up. I have heard that bikers get the same fond and comforting sensation from a Harley Davidson engine. 

After leaving Anchorage behind us to the east we crossed the churning and muddy tidal channel of Knik Arm at the northern end of Cook Inlet. It was a fairly clear day and in the distance hundreds of miles to the north we could see the long sting of high peaks that comprised the Alaska Range, anchored farthest north by the gigantic imposing white dome of Mount McKinley, that name not yet officially changed to Denali. 

The Susitna Delta was now spreading out before and below us to the west. We could see thousands and thousands of small lakes that dotted the confluence of several major drainages of the Alaska Range. These culminated in the massive delta of the largest of these, the Susitna River. We were going to be dropped off on one of those lakes. I know Randy and Jim had to be thinking the same thing as me, “how in the world will the pilot ever find us again in that watery maze? 

The pilot shouted loudly over the engine, “That looks like a good one.” Landing a float plane is fairly easy, it’s finding a lake with enough room to build up the speed to take off that mattered most in picking a place to set down. The pilot said he knew of several novice “boneheads” who had landed on lakes too small who had to leave their craft as permanent monuments to inexperience and bad judgement. The pilot began a slow turn to the left coming about almost 180 degrees in the direction we had just come from. He throttled back the engine and began a steep descent. Soon the plane smoothly coasted to a landing on a long deep blue lake. The pilot taxied the sturdy Beaver to a small stretch of gravely beach by a small grassy clearing he thought might be a nice place to set up a camp.  

We unloaded our gear and started to set up camp as the plane taxied off coating us with a fine mist from the backwash of the engine. Clear of us, the pilot gunned the engine to the maximum. The plane lurched ahead and scooted across the length of the lake aiming straight for the line of trees at the far end from us. Then, the faithful Beaver lifted off of the lake water streaming from its floats and easily cleared the stunted black spruce and tall cottonwoods on the far shore and was gone from sight. We could still hear its engine for several minutes until it finally faded in the distance. Quiet now, we set up the tent, stuffed our sleeping bags inside and cooked up something to eat before settling in early. We intended to get up at first light and make a full day of it. 

It was light, but the sun hadn’t come yet when we all wormed out of our sleeping bags, poured out of the tent and got dressed. We ate some fruit and crackers but didn’t want to waste time starting a fire and cooking a hot breakfast. We were anxious to meet the moose out there waiting for us.  

Jim had brought a rubber dinghy that barely fit the three of us safely. We all hopped in the tiny raft anyway and started paddling across the lake. Yesterday as we flew in we had seen what we thought might be prime moose country. In the direction across the lake from our camp were several smaller lakes and what looked like broad open glades. Our plan was to head in that general area. 

Low puffy fog covered the lake in patches about ten or twenty feet high. We paddled in and out these patches as we headed across the lake. As we crossed the mirror calm surface between the open patches of fog the rising sun began to break the tree line. It illuminated the fog in a soft pink hue as if it was lit from within. That was pretty enough but we were completely knocked back by the next unexpected sight. A flock of five or six trumpeter swans came floating out of the pink billows like they were choreographed for a nature film. We stopped paddling and took in a few moments of sheer beauty until the swans disappeared into another patch of pink fog.  

We spent that first full day mucking around and trudging over muskeg and through thick brush trying find a moose, but to no avail. With the sun starting to wane, we headed back to camp hungry, footsore, muddy, and tired but with our enthusiasm still intact.    

Over the next two days between traipses beating the bush, we fished the lake we were camped on. It was filled with countless grayling that hit our lures with every cast. We ate our fill of these tasty little fish our entire time there. Grayling meat is white and sweet, not fishy at all.  

Me with a grayling 


The fishing was great but our moose hunting was turning into something of a comedy of errors. 

The second day, all of us stuck together most of the morning roaming the woods and marshes anxious to spot something. After we stopped and bolted down a quick lunch of sandwiches, we decided to split up thinking the chances of somebody seeing a moose would increase with three of us looking separately. We were breaking a cardinal rule of hunting, fishing, hiking or any activity in the wild. Never go it alone. 

Soon we were out of sight from each other and following our own clues as to where we thought we might find our elusive quarry. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never hunted moose before. The wet terrain and triple canopy subarctic forest was completely alien to me compared to the much drier and sparser pine forests of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where I was raised. As a kid I had trudged over rocky, boulder strewn ridges chasing mule deer through knee-high sage brush and manzanita with my grandfather. But this country was so different. I was about to find out just how different and it would nearly cost me my life. 

Not really knowing for sure where moose were to be found, I remembered a long-time Alaskan I worked with, George Zimmerman, say that moose liked the succulent plants along the shore of lakes and in shallow ponds. He had also said that they liked the plentiful vegetation of grassy openings. George bagged a moose every year so I figured he knew what he was talking about. Breaking out of the thick woods there was now a wide rich green opening in the forest in front of me probably a couple of hundred yards wide.  

I started across the clearing and felt the soft green vegetation give way under my boots, like walking on a foam pad. As I walked a little farther there was a very subtle bounce and give to the ground, almost like walking on a trampoline. Several yards farther along there was a distinct roll and ripple to the ground, as if I was standing on a giant water bed. I could actually see the “ground” undulating like a wave. 

This was getting really weird. I stopped, puzzled as to what to do. Should I keep going or trace my steps back? Looking down at my boots I noticed water was up to my ankles and it was steadily rising up my legs. At the same time the ground was actually sinking and to my horror I was sinking with it. Before I knew what was happening I was standing in the middle of a green crater with water now up to my waist. At this point I panicked but before I could react, the increasing weight of the water with me in it broke open a hole at bottom underneath my feet. I was now floundering and flailing around in a green watery trap!  

I had already slung my rifle. My extended arms to each side was the only thing that kept me from falling through into certain death beneath me as the water was now almost up to my neck. Completely waterlogged, my struggle became even more desperate and I grasped at the sides of pit seizing handfuls of turf to slow my descent. Instinctively, I tried to spread my body out as best as I could so that the center of gravity was less concentrated at my feet; gravity that was slowly pulling me down into an abyss I was too terrified to even consider. 

Inch by inch I started to crawl out of the bottom. Flat on my belly now I squirmed up the slope of the water filled crater. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally made it up to the rim and up to the flatter terrain of the meadow. On my hands and knees and dragging my rifle in the muck (amazingly I had managed to save my Ruger .338 magnum), I finally felt firmer ground beneath me. I leaned back on my elbows breathing heavily from sheer exhaustion, glad to be alive. I started shaking uncontrollably from the crash of massive amounts of adrenaline coursing through my body that kept me jittery all the way back to camp. 

Later, sitting around the fire with roasting graying in several pans I told Randy and Jim about my escape from the green pit of doom.  Randy roared with laughter. He was from Minnesota and he told me that what I had tried to walk across was called a floating bog. He shook his head and said, “Nobody in their right mind back home would ever try to walk across a floating bog” and added, “Hell, people disappear into those things and they never find their bodies.”  A shudder ran up my back at the thought of it.  

Our failed efforts thus far to find a moose had us frustrated and a little desperate. Even split by three, we had all spent a lot of money for this trip, which we hoped would be compensated with a winter’s supply of moose meat.  

Good ideas sometimes spring from desperation, so do bad ones. 

I don’t remember which one us came up with the scheme. Since nothing was working for us during the day, we all agreed to head out after dinner in the still pale light of the evening and park ourselves in ambush on a night hunt.  We would paddle across the lake in the dinghy and wait until dark at the edge of big clearing on the other side for a moose to walk into our trap. Well, that was the plan anyway.  

As we paddled across we heard a sound we had been hearing for days now only this time it was close. Though closer and louder, we still couldn’t figure out the source of that sound. It was like somebody on the shore had picked up a big rock and thrown it in the water with a sort gushing thump. Odd, but we shrugged it off in our excitement as we hit the shore, unloaded ourselves and our rifles from the raft and headed to our rendezvous with a big fat bull moose waiting for us to shoot it.  

We settled into a nice spot that had a good view of a clearing just as it got dark. After a while, we started getting sleepy and decided to keep watch in shifts. One of us would keep an eye out for anything, while two of us would try to catch a little sleep. It was a moonless night and dark as pitch. There was a slight overcast so there was not even starlight for our eyes to adjust to. It was getting cold and a heavy dew was settling on us chilling us to the bone. We persisted in our rotating watches for several more hours until finally Jim exclaimed, “This is ridiculous, I am going back!” He said Randy and I could use the dinghy and that he would walk around the lake to get back to camp on the other side. Grumbling to himself, he disappeared into night as he headed off into brush towards camp. 

 After a while Randy said something that up to that point hadn’t occurred to any of us the whole hapless evening, “What if we do heard a moose?” He didn’t say “see.” I lifted my rifle up and looked down the barrel to align the sights. I couldn’t see the first sight yet alone the second sight at the end of the barrel. Feeling a little stupid and sheepish we both laughed at ourselves and said in unison, “Let’s get out of here.” 

At the lake shore we found the dinghy, plopped into it and pushed away from shore with the paddles. We had paddled for only a minutes or so before we heard that plop in the water we had been hearing for days, but it was REALLY close. “What the hell is that,” Randy whispered. When it happened again right next to our little rubber island we nervously picked up the pace.  

That lake like the night was jet black and both us had visions of a punctured raft and a cold watery death. For me, after the events of the pit of doom it was like a reoccurring nightmare. Splash! This time so close the ripples rocked the dinghy. Abandoning all calm we started paddling frantically, both us scared shitless. We flailed at the water like madmen, soaking ourselves in the process. Water was beginning to collect on the floor of the raft, which panicked us even further. I felt like my heart was going to leap out of my chest it was beating so hard from sheer terror. Several more slashes tormented us before finally reached the far shore. In the dark we tumbled out of the raft shaking with fear but laughing our asses off in nervous relief.  

I thought Jim was going to pee himself he laughed so hard when we recounted the hair-raising story the next morning. Then, we all got a good laugh a little later when, as we were fishing for grayling on the shore of the lake in front of camp, a beaver casually paddled by right in front us and whacked his big flat tail on the water. THAT SOUND!  All along, he had been whacking his tail on the water as a warning to us interlopers that this was his lake and that we were not welcome.           

After three days of tracking and wildness hijinks we hadn’t seen any sign of moose, not a single hoof print or a pile of moose nugget scat to lend us the slightest hope of success. Time was running out. The float plane was going to pick us up early the next morning. All of us by now had pretty much resigned ourselves to having to brag about a really great fishing trip instead of a victorious moose hunt. 

Latter in the day, Randy and I decided to make one more serious foray, hoping for the best but not really expecting much.  

After beating a trail widely circling around the lake for several hours, we were ready to call it quits and pointed ourselves back towards camp. Then, we both spotted a brown hump just slightly above the tall grass on the other side of a broad glade. It was a hot, late summer day and we figured a moose had made a wallow to rest from the heat of the day and was laying in it with its tall back exposed. We were both certain it was a moose. It turned out we were right.  

Bent in the hunter’s pose, we quietly crouched across the meadow, the safety on our guns off. We were both ready to raise and sight our rifles at any moment as we drew closer to the brown hump. Soon enough we would stir a big moose and get it to raise up so we could get a clear shot. The thrill of the hunt, the rush from the adrenaline jolt that all hunters crave was on us. But we had to be careful. We didn’t want to flush it too soon. Moose are much faster than they look. If it bolted towards the nearby forest edge into thick black spruce and scrub alder before we could draw a clear bead it would be gone for good. There would be no tracking anything is that tangle. 

 At first, Randy and I congratulated ourselves on our stealth. We both felt lucky that we had gotten this close and that it hadn’t yet detected our approach. As we got even closer it still didn't move. Things were beginning to feel odd. Something was wrong about this.  

As we slowly and quietly reached the edge of the wallow we could clearly see the whole of the round matted area of grass where the moose lay as if sleeping. It took a few seconds to register and then Randy and I both gasped as we realized what we were looking at. The big bull was completely intact except for the gory gap at the top of its skull where its antlers should have been (the largest of any deer species). An impressive rack had no doubt crowned this magnificent animal. Now, it just lay there rotting, minus its antlers. It had been killed so recently that there was no detectible smell of putrid flesh or decay. Randy startled me when yelled, "FUCK!"  I shook my head and muttered angrily, "Goddamned trophy hunters."  Stunned, we both fell back on our asses in the grass and tried to process the despicable travesty and waste before us. After a while, we both glumly pulled ourselves together. Sickened and disgusted we silently trudged back to camp.  

Something in me broke that day, maybe changed is a better word. Whatever it was, my heart was no longer in it and I knew that there would never again be joy in hunting for me.  

It would be the last hunting trip of my life.