In the dictionary of bowhunting terms, the word "average" has no meaning.
Like a lot of kids growing up, I lacked direction in my life. After high school, I had nothing even remotely resembling focus or purpose. I longed to define myself. The problem was, I didn't know what I wanted to be and had no goal to shoot for.
Then Roy Roth, a buddy from my hometown, introduced me to bowhunting. Bending my first bow back and loosing one arrow after another empowered me. It was like a drug, and I couldn't get enough. From there, the challenge of the bowhunting woods stirred my soul. And then I found myself drawn to the backcountry, and as a 20-year-old greenhorn, I felt as if my life had purpose in the wilderness. Finally, I had found purpose, a goal. I wanted to be a backcountry bowhunter.
Will You Bleed?
At best, I am an average guy who has experienced above-average bowhunting success over the past two decades. One thing is for sure -- if I can do it, anyone can. I came from nothing and had no one pushing me or even believing in me. For this reason, my story proves that, in bowhunting, the most average person can achieve the grandest of dreams.
That's because bowhunting is not like other sports that demand super running speed, agility, strength, and coordination. In bowhunting, anyone committed to doing their best and to respecting their quarry, the country, and the sport can reach great heights. From personal experience I can tell you it boils down to how bad you want it. Are you willing to bleed? In most cases, it takes some blood to achieve your goals.
The truth is, many bowhunters aren't willing to bleed. Bowhunting is just a fun hobby, right? A great way to pass the time. A way to get fresh air and put meat on the table.
While I agree with all of that, I am not motivated by it. What compels me most is the test.
Since my early, clueless days, I've enjoyed some elk-hunting success, and along the way I've learned that achievement often involves some blood -- your own.
Bowhunting is not easy, which is perfect. I despise easy. Easy does nothing for my spirit.
Easy can't change my life. That's why I love backcountry bowhunting. It is not easy. It is a powerful mental, physical, and spiritual journey. It is life-changing.
In the Beginning
I got hooked on wilderness bowhunting on my first elk hunt in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon's largest designated wilderness. Roy and I were 400 miles from home and 15 miles from the trailhead. This was a big deal, because prior to this trip, Roy and I had done 99 percent of our hunting within 20 minutes of our western Oregon homes. Suffice it to say, we were in way over our heads.
Normally we bought gas for our trucks $5 at a time. To get enough gas money for this trip, we had to sell a collector's edition .30-30 Roy's grandpa had given him. We could ill-afford to hire a horse packer, so we convinced Roy's dad to buy two llamas, which we led into the Eagle Cap.
Not five miles from the trailhead we came to a big outfitter's camp. We'd come here solely to get away from other hunters, so we kept going and eventually ended up 15 miles from the trailhead, at the bottom of a canyon, where we crossed paths with a long-time wilderness bowhunter, a dentist from Eugene, Oregon.
Eyeing us and our packstring, the man said, "Do you guys need some help?"
This is the country that has taught me to bleed.
"We've been walking all day and are just looking for some good elk country away from other hunters," I said.
That's when the dentist told us a life-changing story about a man named Billy Cruise, an Oregon elk hunting legend and founder of the Oregon Bow Company -- the same brand of bow I held in my hand. Billy had died in a plane crash while scouting for elk a few years earlier, but his legend lived on, especially for a couple of young, hungry bowhunters like Roy and me. The dentist had shared many camps with Billy.
"Most of the guys in our party hunted within a few miles of camp, but Billy would head to the deepest and nastiest country in the Eagle Cap," the dentist said. "Every year, without fail, we would all be sitting around camp, eating dinner or playing cards long after dark, when Billy would burst into the tent and roll a couple of bloody elk ivories onto the table. He would then launch into a story of how he arrowed another big wilderness bull and packed it out of a hell hole.
"I could tell you guys where Billy hunted," the dentist continued. "No one ever goes there. It is too rough for horses, and too steep to hike. You boys are more than welcome to give it a try."
"Perfect!" we responded. "We just want to get away from people."
"You won't see a soul," the dentist assured us.
This lonely spike was my first wilderness elk. The crazy-long pack out with the meat did little to deter my enthusiasm.
Lining out down the trail, Roy and I tried not to look back. We wanted to play it cool and hide the big grins tattooed across our dirty faces. That dentist had just given us the secret to happiness. We had never met Billy Cruise personally, but walking in his boot prints had put a new bounce in our steps.
Making one last 4,000-foot vertical climb, we ended up 21 miles from the trailhead and our truck. We didn't care. We were living for the moment. It has been said that life offers two paths, one easy and one hard. Beginning with this trip, Roy and I have always been drawn toward the hard one. To us, harder is ALWAYS better.
After 10 days and a number of close calls with some really big bulls -- in terrain every bit as nasty as the dentist had promised -- I arrowed a lonely spike, my first wilderness bull. The crazy-long pack out did little to deter our enthusiasm. Backcountry hunting was in our blood.
Oh, the dentist was right. We did not see another soul. And even now, many years, hunts, and bulls later, I still have not.
After that first trip, Roy moved to Alaska, and while I tried desperately to find another partner who shared my backcountry passion, I ended up hunting in the Eagle Cap on my own for nearly 10 years. For all those years, that was THE annual adventure for me. My entire existence seemingly revolved around preparing for just one crack at the wilderness bulls and bucks where Billy Cruise had walked.
Back then, I thought about that hunt every single day of the year. And I learned more about myself on those solo wilderness hunts than I could have in a lifetime in the real world. Maybe that's because those hunts have taught me to bleed.
Train for Pain
I love bowhunting for many of the same reasons I love endurance running. At times, both disciplines will push even the toughest of human beings to the brink. And over the long haul in both endeavors, justice is always served as the people who work the hardest and sacrifice the most gain the most.
While training for ultramarathons, I have learned to suffer, and that has helped me endure the guaranteed pain of backcountry bowhunting.
In a posting on my website, www.cameronhanes.com, titled Sheep & Suffering, which chronicled my preparation for my first-ever sheep hunt, I discussed my philosophy on running great distances by posing the questions: Why run ultramarathons? Is running marathons, or ultras, mandatory for bowhunting success?
Absolutely not. However, I believe learning to deal with pain is mandatory. I can promise you, anyone who completes a 50-mile mountain trail run can deal with pain. The training in itself will teach you to push beyond your comfort zone, to bleed -- and to deal with it.
I personally love that aspect of running and bowhunting not only because the challenge enriches my life and builds confidence, but also because it increases my ability to suffer. I want to hurt. I want to hurt in training and in races because I know hunting will hurt, and I want to be ready. When running I often tell myself, "Cry in training, laugh in battle."
Let me clarify one thing: Backcountry bowhunters are athletes, but they will face challenges other athletes will not. For most sports the training and goals are pretty straightforward. Sprinters train to increase speed. Weightlifters train to get stronger. The goals are easily defined, the results easily measured and tracked. And cheering crowds justify the effort.
What does running the Boston Marathon have to do with bowhunting? Everything. Yes, that is Lance Armstrong -- behind me.
Bowhunting has none of that. The bowhunter's arena is God's Country, and the only witnesses are the hunter and the hunted. There are no crowds to push you on. You must be self-motivated. To experience victory, you have to be tough, and you don't get tough by thinking about it. You must train for tough.
At some point in every long run, I want to quit, and the same holds true on tough bowhunts. Many times I've wanted to cry, "¡No mÃ¡s!" By no means am I a great hunter or a world-class archer. What sets me apart is my ability to suffer. I love every minute of bowhunting, but I have yet to be on an easy backcountry bowhunt. So I train like a professional athlete. I train to bleed.
Power in the Blood
If you hunt the backcountry long enough, you will draw blood, and I'm not talking that of your quarry. I mean your own. Nasty blisters, accidental lacerations from knives, falls, puncture wounds from sticks, even broken bones -- all will spice up your backcountry hunts. At least they have mine over the years. The mountains are unpredictable and unforgiving. Yes, blood will spill, and eventually it will be your own.
Given this fact, and always trying to find my own breaking point, I often relish the sight of my own blood in training. That might sound crazy, but it's part of my goal of making myself impervious and unyielding in the backcountry.
There have been times on long runs, pounding for hours, when I've looked down at my feet and noticed blood seeping through my shoes. I suppose normal people would stop to inspect the damage, but I do not. The sight of blood -- my own -- motivates me. In my mind, the sight of my blood symbolizes my advantage over others -- I am willing to sacrifice more than anyone. My feet will heal, the blood will wash away, bandages will cover the wounds, but my ability to sacrifice will be etched in my mind forever, and it will empower me to new heights on my next against-all-odds bowhunt.
This might sound crazy, but the sight of my own blood motivates me. It symbolizes my advantage over other people in that I am willing to sacrifice more than anyone else.
Fear of Failure
Bowhunting is hard. Hunting statistics prove that. Average success on deer runs about 20 percent, on elk about 10 percent. I know guys who have bowhunted for many years and have never killed an animal.
Yes, bowhunting involves failure. Still, I have a hard time accepting that. While I might be an average guy, average bowhunting results don't sit well with me, and average effort yields average results. So I ramp it up. I've always felt that being satisfied dulls my edge and makes me hesitate when I should attack.
Thus, instead of resting on my laurels, I focus on what I could or should have done better.
For instance, I haven't missed a shot at an elk in 10 years, but I spend little time dwelling on my successes. Rather, I think about my last miss, in 1999. I was on my annual 10-day solo hunt in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. On the first day, I arrowed a chocolate-colored bear, packed it 18 miles to the truck, and hauled it to town before packing back in to keep hunting.
Then, on day four, I called-in a 6x5 bull. As he worked his way up a draw to me, I was already thinking about my awesome wilderness double -- a bear and a bull on the same trip!
Then I missed the bull -- twice -- and I still cannot shake the memory of my arrows ricocheting off the rocks and watching that bull crash away. That was my only chance at a bull that year, and the sting remains with me. I didn't bleed physically on that
one, but I bled emotionally. And that blood will make me a better bowhunter.
The Big Question
During 20 years of bowhunting, the backcountry has come to define me in many ways, and that's pretty amazing. My evolution from a kid who knew nothing about nothing into a seasoned backcountry hunter proves that anything is possible.
Still, I must be honest -- even now I sometimes feel like that clueless boy with cheap boots, cheap cotton camo, $30 binoculars, and wavering confidence. The backcountry will do that to a person. It can always make you question your motivation, your ability, yourself. But through all the trials I have learned one unquestionable fact -- whatever your bowhunting dreams, you can achieve them. The only question is, are you willing to bleed?
Cameron Hanes lives near Eugene, Oregon, with his wife, two sons, and a daughter. When not spending time with his family or hunting, he's training to run ultramarathons.