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Bowhunting: Passion, Obsession or Addiction?

by Randy Ulmer   |  October 21st, 2016 0

Bowhunter Magazine is turning 45 years old! My, how time flies! I began bowhunting not long after this magazine’s inception, and after reading my first issue, I immediately became a subscriber.

I’ve been an avid reader ever since. I can honestly say without reservation that Bowhunter and its writers have molded me into the hunter and writer I am today.

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This is the first muley buck I ever killed with my bow.

Forty-five years is a long time, and certainly cause for reflection. Most long-time bowhunters feel very passionate about their sport, and I’m certainly no exception. However, us grizzled veterans rarely take the time to contemplate how bowhunting impacts our lives — for both good and bad.

Well, I’ve come to a point in my life where I’ve been giving this issue some serious thought. And at the risk of sounding too touchy-feely, I want to share some of my musings with you.

The issue I’ve been wrestling with lately is the prominent place hunting has taken in my life. Most profoundly, why do I hunt? What are my true motivations? And more importantly, why do I hunt so much, and why do I love it so much? Is this acceptable behavior? Is it justifiable? How did I get to this point, and where do I go from here?

Just for context, as I write this, I’ve just returned home from a couple of months in the mountains. Believe me, I realize just how fortunate I am to be able to say that. It hasn’t been easy getting to the point in life where I’m able to take this kind of time off. I’ve spent the last 40 years working hard towards that end. I’ve arranged my career, my finances, and my personal life in such a way as to make this annual sabbatical possible.

However, even though this has always been my end goal, now that I’m able to spend so much time hunting, I have doubts about my choices. When I spend long periods alone and away from my family I question myself, especially my suitability as a father and a husband. I always miss my sons, Jake and Levi, when I’m gone. And the longer I’m away, the more I realize how much I love my wife, Tammy. Why do I seem to love her even more when I’m away from her than when I’m with her?

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My brother Rusty (left) and I with our Hart Mountain bucks.

Toward the end of every long hunt, I question my value system — and my sanity. Am I addicted, or obsessed? Is this a problem that I need to address?
Those of you reading this publication might say I’m not obsessed or addicted, but you’re probably just as deranged as I am.

I’m fairly certain most normal people (non-hunters) would say I definitely have issues. My wife’s friends certainly think so — and they aren’t shy in voicing their opinions. “He’s hunting again?” they say. “How in the world do you deal with that?”

Tammy just brushes them off — or at least that’s what she tells me. Bless her heart. What she really thinks, I may never know — until I come home one day to find all my belongings in the driveway!

This love of hunting isn’t anything new — I’ve been hunting my entire life. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of our annual family deer hunt. Each October, Mom, Dad, and all five kids would pile into our old single-cab truck and head to the woods.

Our camp was primitive. Mom cooked with a cast-iron skillet over coals from the fire. We ate bacon and eggs for breakfast, home-canned venison sandwiches on homemade bread for lunch, and fried potatoes and beans for dinner. Once we shot a deer, we ate fried heart and liver and onions. When that ran out, it was backstraps dipped in flour and fried in leftover bacon grease.

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After dinner, we sat around the fire and listened to stories until we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Then all five kids would crawl under the truck to sleep in a pile of quilts on a canvas tarp. We didn’t own a tent.

My dad wasn’t around much when I was in high school. There was a lot of work to be done, and as the oldest boy, I was in charge. We had a cow that had to be milked twice a day, and other animals to be cared for as well as pastures to irrigate.

I sold firewood for money. Every weekend I was in the forest with my chainsaw and pickup truck cutting wood. I split and delivered it after school on weekdays. My mother worked as a waitress in our town’s café. I didn’t feel sorry for myself then, and I certainly don’t now. I think the responsibilities I bore instilled a tremendous work ethic in me, and helped shape me into the person I am today.

Hunting became an escape for me. I could pick up my .22 rifle or my recurve bow and head out the back door. As soon as I climbed over the fence, my troubles vanished. That time alone in the hills helped me sort out what was important in my life. I made a vow that my life’s priority would be my family. I would be a good father, and I would always be there for my children.

I had another goal, and that was to someday have the wherewithal and the time to hunt where and when I wanted. At that early stage in my life, this dream seemed completely out of reach.

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As my brother Rusty and I worked our way through college, we quit our summer construction jobs a few weeks early every year and went bowhunting. What a joy it was to be free from responsibility and living in the wilderness! I renewed my vow to make the time to do this every year for the rest of my life, even if I had to trade time away from work for a more modest lifestyle. Time has always been more important to me than money.

Well, thanks to the vicissitudes of life, I’ve been able to reach both goals. I have a wonderful family. I worked incredibly hard to get through college, and worked equally hard building up my practice and my businesses. I’ve reached the point where I can spend a great deal of time in the woods.

And as with many of life’s major dreams and goals, once attained, you’re less content and sure of yourself than you thought you’d be. Your dreams may have been fulfilled, but you don’t feel fulfilled. You’re left with more questions. The questions I’m most surprised to have are: Why am I willing to sacrifice so much time and energy for hunting? What does it provide for me that is so all-important?

If I’m honest with myself, I see several things hunting does for me. First of all, there is a little ego in all of us that says, “Hey, look at me. See what I’ve done.” And I think I’ve got a little more than my fair share of this vanity. But there’s certainly more to it than that.

I think another factor is the inexplicably profound emotion I experience when I stalk close to a big muley buck, bull elk, or sheep. These feelings are more intense and primordial than any others I feel in my civilized life. The reality is that small bucks and does just don’t give me the same thrill.

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Here my boys and I celebrate my Colorado muley buck.

These feelings are precisely what compel me to go back year after year. It’s also what draws me to hunt with a bow instead of a gun. I don’t think I could fully appreciate a massive mule deer buck at rifle range — I need to experience him at bow range.

I need to emphasize one very important point: The deer themselves are only a part of what draws me to hunt each year. There’s much more to it than that. I’ve hunted mule deer in the flatlands of Eastern Colorado and Alberta, and to be honest, it just didn’t do that much for me. Something was lacking. I’m fairly certain it was the mountains and the wilderness!

From early childhood on, I’ve had an attraction to wild places. Why I’m drawn there, I’m not exactly sure. It is a passion without a clear explanation. I think on some primordial level, my soul is nourished by the wilderness. Remote places hold something vital that I yearn for, and I’m certain that without it, I would not feel complete.

I spend 30 to 40 days every year with a backpack on, scouting and hunting, and sleeping alone in the mountains. To most people, spending weeks alone in the wilderness is incomprehensible, but not to me. Each year when I return to these remote places, I sense the same familiar stirring within. It is a powerful feeling of connectedness and peace. Sitting on an alpine mountain alone, watching the sun set and the sky change, the old, good feelings always return. I feel I am at home.

During the long hours I spend alone there, I pull together the scattered thoughts from the past year and try to sort them out. This time becomes my personal journey of discovery — a respite for reflection and renewal.

Nearly every season I get myself into a few tough situations: I have to spend the night out without a sleeping bag, or I run out of food for a day or two while packed in on a deer, or I get stuck waiting out a storm. When this happens, I often become very physically and/or mentally uncomfortable.

When I was younger, it was tough for me to handle this discomfort. I was impatient. I dreaded being alone for so long. But as I’ve matured, I’ve come to embrace this discomfort and loneliness. Life, as modern man lives it, is lacking in discomfort. Discomfort makes the experience far more powerful. I believe that it is good for me to be uncomfortable. It is good for me to be lonely. It is good for me to be still.

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I was so proud of my son Levi when he killed this big bull elk.

Nowadays, paradoxically, discomfort and loneliness tends to bring me peace. They make my senses keener and my emotions more intense. I feel more alive. When I’m in the elements, alone, lacking the trappings of civilization and away from the drone of the world, I find contentment.

I feel most spiritual when I’m alone in the wilderness. Here I can truly experience Creation — the valleys, the mountains, the sky. I’m awed by the intense blue sky and the brilliant white clouds. I smell the air — earthy, clean, comforting, western. Here I more clearly understand what is important in my life, and what is not.

Unless rain is imminent, I do not use a tent. And always, before I drift off to sleep, I look up at the stars. They’re incredibly intense in the thin, clean air of the high country. Lying there, I’m overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe. I find my troubles much less important than I previously believed.

Now I enjoy helping my boys and my nephews more than hunting for myself. My son Levi, who is 17 years old, said something that affected me profoundly. “Dad, you probably don’t realize this, but you and I have a lot better relationship than any of my friends have with their parents,” he said. I think all the time we’ve spent together in the outdoors has a lot to do with this.

Soon enough my boys will have careers and families of their own. Their time spent with Dad will diminish. But hopefully they’ll give me a few grandkids to hunt with!

As my friends get older, I often see them lose their passion for life, as well as their passion for the things they once loved. I tell myself this apathy can’t be inevitable. It has to be a choice. Maybe it’s not a conscious choice, but it is a choice nonetheless. I refuse to let myself get caught in this downward spiral.

As I age, I’m supposed to be maturing as a hunter, but I’m not sure I am. I still feel like a kid when I’m out there. Maybe I’ll never grow up. My views and my goals regarding bowhunting may have changed, but my passion has not waned.

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I’m not sure it is possible for one person to fully rationalize their addiction to others. However, it’s hard for me to have the self-confidence and inner strength not to try and justify myself.

So, I have to ask you: How much hunting is too much? I don’t know. Other than work and family, I do few other things. I exercise fanatically, I shoot my bow, and I’m involved in my sons’ activities. But there is little I would rather do than hunt.

The bottom line is that hunting is my passion. It is a huge part of who I am. Is that an inherently bad thing? Who gets to decide — me, or the rest of the world? Why do I care what anybody else’s opinion is? Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I do seem to care a little less about what others think. It is good for a man to get to that point in his life. I wish I would have arrived there sooner.

We each must decide what hunting means to us. We must weigh our responsibilities against our passions. I believe we will be better men if we allow ourselves to be a little wild at heart. We should not allow ourselves to become the domesticated, emasculated, politically correct men “civilized” society has mandated us to be.

Someday I hope to fully retire and spend even more time afield. There are just too many mountains I haven’t climbed, and too many basins I haven’t looked into. When I get old and I realize the end may be near, my prayer will be: “God, please let me return, just for one more year.”

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