Public land is the essence of freedom

A hunter reflects on the gut-level connection she has to the public land she traverses.


The evening before bow season opened in southwest Montana, I loaded up a bike-trailer with camping gear and pedaled into a heavily timbered valley near Bozeman. Arriving at a hillside of very old Douglas firs well past dark, I hastily made camp as irrational fears of bears and people started to creep over me.

Later that night, something stomped on the branches outside my tent. I grabbed my bear spray and tried to stay calm. Then I heard a bull elk let loose a chilling bugle. Seconds later, more eerie whistles erupted from far up the valley.

As I settled back to sleep, fear turned to satisfaction. I was finally living out my bow-hunting fantasy: a solitary camp, eavesdropping on animals and anticipating sneaking into the woods before first light to search for deer or elk. Given a choice, I’d have been hunting deeper in the wilderness. But what I really needed last fall was a place that could accommodate a bum knee and a frenzied work schedule. So I found a familiar, hard-working valley in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, and hoped other archers would overlook its game trails, buck rubs and hidden meadows.

Despite the noisy bulls the night before, the first day passed quietly without the appearance of any elk or deer. On the misty second morning, I walked a gravelly ridge and enjoyed how deep the clouds had sunk into the glacier-carved valley.

I almost missed the two buck deer grazing the edge of a meadow. Crouching behind a ponderosa pine, I took off my boots and pack, for maximum stealth, waited for the deer to turn away, and started stalking them.

Several hours later, those deer were still weaving through the forest, searching for the last of the summer’s green forage. I’d been within shooting range of them many times, but either brush obscured them, or else one would turn my way, making it impossible to draw my bow.

The author looks across the canopy of the national forest where she harvested a deer by bike.
Sarah Jane Keller

My task seemed impossible. Ungulates practice their skills every day — as prey animals, they have to be alert — but this was my first as attempt at being a close-range predator. Small, seemingly insignificant details suddenly demanded all my attention. Shifts in the breeze, the rustle of my jacket, a sniffle, or the snap of a twig could trigger the deer’s fine-tuned flight instincts. The hunt hinged on restraining my reflexes, and letting everything line up perfectly.

Finally, both deer stopped moving. Yet from behind a skinny fir sapling, I could only see fragments of their ears and antlers. They seemed to be watching my tree, which didn’t so much hide me as break up my shape.

I reminded myself that animals look for movement. Simply breathing deeply felt precarious. After a short while, the deer bedded down, unaware of the predator standing 10 steps away. I no longer felt like an interloper, but just another animal capable of melting into the forest. Had the stalk failed at this point, I’d still have found something I came for, a heightened way of experiencing these woods.

It’s these moments during hunts, and subtler ones, too, that make me ferociously loyal to the idea of public land. When you’re a hunter, a national forest becomes much more than a recreation destination. It becomes a place to transcend the separation between modern humans and nature, if just for a morning.

In this way, public land is the essence of freedom, an open invitation to exercise a primal form of self-sufficiency, and, in the process, connect with an ecosystem. The gut-level connection to public land that many hunters have gives me hope that the ongoing movement to transfer or privatize it will ultimately fail. Hunting’s conservation legacy stems from the late 1800s, when sportsmen faced down robber barons and their political allies. That struggle continues today, as hunters confront politicians who seem hell-bent on privatizing what belongs to every American. As a natural resources journalist, I report on the land-transfer movement, and do so fairly. But as a hunter, I can’t stand the idea of losing my public lands, should states sell them off.

Eventually, the deer stood, breaking my trance, and continued grazing. Soon after that, I lost them as they hurried across a trail. I feared they were long gone, but caught up with them in a small meadow flanked by willows. This time, I knew I had a shot. Muscle memory took over as I drew the bow, aimed, and released the arrow. It hit behind the buck’s shoulder, and I watched anxiously for a few long seconds as he bounded into the conifers, then fell. As I anticipated his last breath, I felt the weight of ending a life, then a rush of gratitude toward him, his habitat, and the land around me. This anonymous corner of national forest would feed my husband and me through the winter, making it just as spectacular and invaluable to me as any famous wilderness or national park. And just as worthy of protection.

Sarah Jane Keller is a Montana-based freelance journalist who tries to spend every spare minute on public land.

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