Kesia Nagata in her East Vancouver yard.
Photograph by: Mark van Manen , Vancouver Sun
Kesia Nagata is uncomfortable buying commercially produced meat.
“It looks all flabby and grey and not at all appealing,” she says. As a Buddhist-raised, recovering vegetarian, the grisly reality of feed lots, slaughterhouses and the shrink-wrapped denial represented by the neatly packaged meat in her grocery store weighs on her soul.
So Nagata — a 22-year-old filmmaker — is learning to hunt. So is her brother, Kai. Both are in their 20s, raised a stone’s throw from Commercial Drive.
“We were vegetarian growing up, so hunting was never really on the radar when we were kids,” she said. “My parents were trying to make a choice about minimizing evil, both nutritional and ethical.”
Not a lot of the animal protein available met their standard. The environmental impact of what she calls “industrial meat” is enough to put Nagata off her feed.
“I want my meat to be grass-finished, and killed as ethically as possible,” she said. “As much as I firmly believe in the necessity of animal protein and saturated fats, the commercial stuff is all toxic.”
B.C. is experiencing a hunting resurgence, fuelled in part by interest from young urbanites like Nagata and her brother, according to hunting instructor Dylan Eyers of Vancouver-based EatWild BC.
“I’ve done courses for years for friends and colleagues,” said Eyers, who is also a park ranger.
“For the past few years, I’ve been concentrating on urban folks from Vancouver who want to explore hunting.”
Eyers’ Vancouver classes attract a startling variety of people — from young men hoping to reclaim a family hunting tradition to urban farmers, vegetable gardeners, hipsters, artists, musicians and foodies looking for a sustainable and ethical way to feed themselves.
“A few people roll up in monster trucks, but others ride over on their bikes,” he laughed. “That seems to be a new thing.”
Growth in the number of graduates from the Conservation Outdoor Recreation Education course required for hunters in B.C. and annual hunting licence sales over the past eight years are beginning to reverse a 31-year decline in hunting’s popularity between 1982 and 2003.
Western Canada’s hunting and conservation magazine, Outdoor Edge, is full of readers’ snapshots of hunters displaying their prey. But sprinkled among the bearded bushmen and camo-clad weekend warriors are rifle-wielding women and teen girls.
The number of women graduating each year from CORE has been rising steadily — to 1,725 in 2012 from 791 in 2004 — faster even than the number of men.
“We are seeing a lot more women get into hunting,” said Jesse Zeman, vice chairman of the B.C. Wildlife Federation. “The image of hunting is really changing.”
Nagata completed CORE last summer, and was on a crew filming a hunting workshop near Cache Creek, both run by Eyers. About 40 per cent of the people who attend EatWild BC hunter training are women, he said.
“My CORE class was mostly women and two teenagers, one was a girl just graduating high school,” Nagata said.
For many young hunters, Eyers is a bridge, supplying guidance that was traditionally passed from one generation to the next.
“There’s definitely been a break in that connection,” he said, adding that having an experienced mentor is essential for beginners.
Eyers starts every CORE class with a meet and greet, where students talk about their motives for taking up hunting.
“I’d say 70 per cent of them talk about being more aware of where their food comes from, and they have concerns about the meat they are buying and they want to be responsible for how those animals are treated,” he said. “People are gardening more, they want to eat organic, and I think hunting is an extension of that.”
Folksinger Ben Rogers faced a steep learning curve after taking hunting training last year with Eyers.
Although his great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all hunters, Rogers’ father quit hunting when the family moved to North Vancouver. Ben, now 28, never had the benefit of his father’s experience in the field.
And it showed, at first.
“I got skunked during duck season,” he said. “It was a trial. I went in blind and didn’t know what to do — didn’t know how to call ducks, didn’t know where to go to get them. I was learning everything from scratch.”
Goose season was kinder and, with the benefit of instruction from experienced hunters, Rogers filled his freezer.
“There’s a lot to learn if you want to be successful. Hunting takes a lot of knowledge and skill,” he said.
Like a lot of hunters, Rogers likes to share his kills, preparing elaborate meals for his friends.
“That’s the reason I do it,” he said.
“It makes sense to hunt for food from the abundance we have, especially animals that have lived their lives in the wild.”
Leung Man completed his hunting class last year at the age of 38 as a logical extension of his passion for vegetable gardening, canning, fishing and foraging. Born and raised in Vancouver, he had no family hunting tradition, but felt like something was missing.
He has taken up the sport with two friends around his age who share his passion for food.
“I have started doing things I used to do as a kid, eating from the garden, fishing and foraging for mushrooms, and my friend who is Italian started making salami,” said Man, who is also learning to butcher whole animals. “Hunting makes sense as part of a DIY foodie lifestyle. There’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from being able to grow or prepare your own food, and you end up with something that tastes great and I know it’s a lot better for me.”
Man confesses he was “blown away” by the flavour of the elk stew Eyers served at his hunting field skills workshop.
“I think the way that we raise food animals is unhealthy, and it’s a really industrialized process,” he said. “An animal that lives in the forest has a fuller, more natural life and diet.”
On their first hunting trip, the friends bagged and ate their first grouse. It was an epiphany.
“We skinned the grouse and we were about to put it on the grill, and I took a whiff and it had the most incredible aroma. It smelled really herbal and kind of nutty,” he said. “You can’t get anything like that at the store. It wasn’t gamey, it wasn’t tough. It had a really full flavour. It was fantastic.”
Nagata’s first hunting experience opened her eyes to the depth of knowledge and skill required to harvest wild game.
“There was a realization of how many layers there are to it,” she said. “Even walking through the bush with the intention of hunting changes the landscape — you just notice everything. It really changed the outdoors for me. I have always loved the outdoors, but I never liked hiking.”
Stalking game switched on a previously unused part of Nagata’s brain.
“I realized this is how I want to be outside,” she said. “It was like something had been missing.”
Most new hunters worry they won’t have the resolve to skin and gut a large animal in the bush, but before you can even try you have to find your prey. To find your prey usually requires an intimate knowledge of the terrain, the movements of animals in that environment, their feeding habits and other tendencies.
To hunt deer, you also have to be able to identify the species, its gender and the number of points on its antlers — in the worst case — through binoculars, in the brush, in poor light, at a distance of 200 metres or more.
Only then can you pull the trigger.
Killing an animal is another big psychological hurdle.
“I’m an animal lover, so I know it’s going to be hard no matter what,” Nagata said. “But I really want to get the skills and knowledge to do this properly and not be totally traumatized by it.”
Nagata, her brother and two close friends — all inexperienced hunters — saw four deer on their first trip, but none that were legal to shoot.
“We were nowhere close to being able to kill anything,” she admitted. “I guess I’m still just a poser.”
Nagata aspires to take a deer or an elk, when her skills allow it.
“After eating game, even the best beef tastes like garbage,” she said. “When people ask, I tell them that game tastes like meat and everything else tastes like it is trying to be meat. I could live very happily eating elk and salmon.”
Hunting for wild game is an essential element in Nagata’s vision for living lightly upon the earth, which includes sustainably harvested meat, wild fish and homegrown vegetables. She recently moved to a farm in Langley.
“Given the state of the world, I think it’s really important to learn to do these things properly,” she said. “My whole family is hilariously apocalyptic. A lot of our lifestyle choices and justifications for things hinge on peak oil or disaster. You never know.”
Even if the apocalypse never comes, Nagata is eager to opt out of human civilization as it is currently practised, especially the industrial-scale food business.
Optics and ethics
Hunting is an endeavour that comes with baggage, and it suffers at times from its duality. Dreams of splendid meals built around healthy, sustainably harvested wild protein — the goal of the vast majority of hunters — are a sharp contrast to widely circulated, jarring images of blood-soaked trophy kills, animals brought down simply for sport, a fur rug or antlers.
Vancouver Canucks forward David Booth ignited a vitriolic public debate last year when he published pictures of his kills — a mountain goat and a bear that was lured to the kill site — on social media.
Eyers, by contrast, integrates hunting training with gourmet wild game dinners and sausage-making workshops to keep the conversation about hunting firmly focused on food.
“I never want to be in a position of having to defend a David Booth, because that’s not what I’m about,” he said. “What he does is a completely different thing.”
Based on the sales of species permits issued by the government, the number of hunters who shoot trophy animals is dwarfed by the group that hunt for food — deer, elk, moose and game birds.
The CORE course, although required of all who would hunt, is not focused on hunting, but rather on conservation, outdoor safety, ethics, the idea of fair chase, and, especially, accurate wildlife identification.
There is one inescapable truth — that hunting requires you to kill. After a lifetime of eating meat from animals slaughtered in a factory a thousand kilometres away, pulling the trigger and seeing an animal drop to the ground is a sobering experience.
“You need to think of yourself as a predator, part of the natural environment,” Eyers said.
He explains the ways of animals without the anthropomorphic hue of Disney animal stories.
“Animals don’t die of disease and old age in the wild,” he explained. “When they are weakened or aging, they become prey for predators. Nearly every animal that lives is eaten alive in the end.”
Eyers encourages his students to treat killed game with reverence. He performs his own personal ritual to thank his prey each time he kills.
When Eyers’ students finally harvest their first animal, they feel changed by the experience.
“There’s nothing easy about taking the life of an animal. But once you do, it gives you an appreciation for that life and what it provides for you, which is nourishment,” said Rogers, now a successful goose hunter.
Even though Rogers had used guns before, it took time to learn how to shoot moving targets. And that was after many fruitless weeks of not really having anything to shoot at.
When he eventually got the chance, Rogers didn’t overthink, and had no concerns about gutting his prey.
“People tend to overestimate the barriers in hunting,” Eyers said. “Most people think they will have trouble gutting an animal. But once you get in there, you recognized things — there’s a heart, those are lungs — and it comes pretty easily.”
The far bigger hurdle for urban dwellers is sitting still in the brush for three or four hours with no smartphone, waiting for game to walk into view, Eyers said.
Finding game is a skill set that is easily underestimated. Many animals survive by being hard to find and quick to escape, and beginner hunters usually come away with little or nothing to show for their time.
Hunters who succeed in the field become a part of a human tradition that stretches back millennia, and they find an unfamiliar part of themselves awakened by the process of hunting, Eyers said.