The world was static. I was bundled in a thick snowsuit, atop an all-terrain vehicle. The snow beneath the massive tires was a muddied, dirty color—not yet the pristine shroud that would coat the world around me come winter. The .280 Remington rifle wavered, the wooden stock braced against my shoulder, and my corpse-white finger on the trigger. It was a clean shot towards the caribou. I inhaled, the frozen air biting at the back of my throat and shocking my system. The static nature of the world fell away as the animal lifted its head. The breath froze in my lungs as I sensed the mottle-furred animal tensing to flee. I closed my eyes, resigned to the understanding of what needed to happen, and fired.
It was the second shot I had been given that day. I had moved up to Alaska a few months earlier. I totaled my car in the Yukon on the way to Anchorage, and turned up in town only to have my job offer at the nearby ski resort revoked due to lack of demand. It was looking to be a hard winter. I was working minimum wage, and just had enough to make rent. The hunt had been designed to pack my freezer with enough protein to survive until summer kicked around again. I had been lucky to help one of the natives who held the bush territories—the frozen tundras and undeveloped, pristine frontier of Alaska—at work. He introduced himself as John and we got to talking. He suggested I come hunting with him and his friends.
“You need a tribe up here to keep yourself afloat” he advised, sagely. “You should consider it”.
That was how I found myself here, with my borrowed rifle and alien sensibilities. Still the outsider. We had tracked the small herd for hours, deep into the tribal territories that scattered the tundra outside of the sleepy village. The first pull around, they lined up their shots. My benefactor suggested that I claim the first kill.
“We’re better shots. We can hit them when they scatter,” he justified, but I could tell it was a test of merit.
I was an outsider. One tentatively welcomed into their fold, but still an unknown, unquantified entity. I had sighted down the stock of my gun, the metal gleaming like an ominous hand—one that cut across the pale knoll we sat upon to point in judgment at the grazing animals. We were the horsemen, riding down our prey, and momentarily, I took the grim visage of death at their head. And yet, I wavered. No amount of poverty, hardship or fear could compare to the anxious guilt I felt as I watched the animals move. I sat there, struggling with myself. The cold wind cut right through me then, and I fully lost my nerve. The rifle dipped, I let out a breath, and a sound of disgust made from behind me echoed across the grass-dotted snow-plains. The caribou perked and then began to move away from the sharp rebuke. I could feel nothing. A hollow sense of wrong so greatly encapsulated me that a pit formed in my stomach, and the hands upon the body of the elegant rifle began to tremble.
My benefactor, unlike his friends, showed sympathy. “Everyone struggles their first time,” he said jovially. He encouraged me to sling my rifle on my back. It was mere hours from night, and we would have to hurry to make our kills and treat the carcass before the sun finished settling its pregnant red weight in the hazy sky and again came to rest below the horizon. We tracked for another hour. As the men I was with spoke in hushed voices amongst themselves, I began to absorb the context of their being. The genuine fear that the caribou would roam too far to be recovered. That they would have to go home empty-handed. What they would tell their wives. Their daughters and sons. What they would or could tell themselves about this failure.
In that time, it struck me. The quiet importance of the task at hand, and the understanding of my selfishness and shortcomings. I was a spoiled child, playing coquettishly with the idea of ethics, putting the arbitrary wants of my own sporadic empathy before the real need of these others to feed their families. I was, in this case, hunted, pursued by the impractical and theoretical viewpoints of my hometown: the casual liberal ideal of a world where hunting was anathema and the views of the community were shaped in checkerboards of black and white with no room for the grey of context. The deep distress and fear I felt were hallmarks of my insufficiencies, and a measure and direct result of my own misplaced idealism.
In a perfect world I could put down the rifle and walk away from the beast both before and within me. I could ignore the gnawing wolf of hunger through the lean months, and maintain the righteous understanding that my own hard work and rejection of “senseless” killing had paid off. I could avoid the specter of my cowardice by excusing it as principled abstinence from the norm of those around me.
But all the self-righteous justifications in the world would not feed these men’s families—or stock my freezer. None of it could temper the understanding that I was adrift in a world that would, without bias or malice, see me starve or freeze to death. You cannot eat righteous indignation.
When we saw caribou again, we were in a small valley. They walked along the ridge of one of the hills on whose dip we rode. Once more we unslung our rifles. A round was chambered into my borrowed, weathered weapon. For a moment we all sighted down our barrels. I could feel the slight chips and slices in the metal of the trigger guard, a lifetime of use and wear folded into the steel. I was holding hands with the hunters that came before me, and leaving my own faint impression for those members of John’s tribe who would carry the rifle after. The sun at our backs painted the hillside red before us, blood flowing down to pool at our feet as we inhaled, held and finally filled the still air with the sound of thunder. Three caribou buckled. The rest scattered like frightened children, lowing pathetically into the uncaring emptiness of the Alaskan bush.
As we approached the corpses of the animals, we could see the steam escaping their wounds, their heat leaching into the cool environment. The more experienced hunters took over the preparation of the meat. They skinned and gutted the animals, removing their insides, head, and feet. We butchered them there in the snow, wrapping the meat up into the skins, or into the storage bins on the back of the ATVs. I remember feeling dirty, the weight of the death at my hands derailing the celebration. Perhaps that was when I began to understand that I did not belong. Crouched in the midst of animal entrails and bloody, slushy snow, I began to examine my position within the group. I watched the efficient deconstruction of a carcass into a butcher’s pile of steaks. As the meat was pulled from the animal, like puzzle pieces falling away from the whole, I felt a certain sickness in my stomach. The horn on John’s ATV sounded as we finished up. My fingers gently traced along the discarded cheek of one of the caribou. It was nothing more than coarse fur and dead flesh. I turned my back on it, and with the sun setting at our backs, we began the long trek home.
As evening fell, and snow started to fall, I began to ruminate on everything. As I grew more and more withdrawn, my company seemed more elated. They joked and laughed as our vehicles crested the sweeping snowy hills. I was accepted now, as I had not been before. The man who had scoffed at my cowardice reached over and tousled the top of my thick woolen hat, as one might a beloved child. The voices around me blurred into the ponderous nature of my own thoughts. I had been, at the beginning of the day, what I would consider a moral person—and yet, now that I had a chance to examine myself, I discovered a fractured dichotomy between what I had been taught, and what I found necessary. I was sickened by both opposing halves of myself: the weakness that cowered in the face of the need to survive through killing, and the woman who cast aside her worn out, hand-me-down righteousness and finally took the shot.
I would have wrestled forever with the quandary I found myself in, but it was solved for me in a curious way. I had fallen a few feet behind the rest, pulling back and out of their community. John, perhaps sensing the struggle, pulled back alongside me. We rode in silence, abreast of each other until the faint lights of his tribal city appeared on the inky skyline. He glanced out of the corner of his eye, the wrinkles there softening his steady brown gaze as he watched me. My morose thoughts were no secret. They were written in my stern, frozen expression and the jagged, broken slump of my back. He kept quiet company with me until we were a few minutes out of the halo of welcoming light that danced around his home. He looked over at me, and lightly reached out and gave me a bracing pat on my shoulder
“We are animals,” he said calmly, as the light struck us, “just trying to survive the winter.” He nodded forward, and we rejoined the group, riding in a small herd back into the town.
To this day, I remember his words. We are animals. We are raised and conditioned by our tribes and societies. We struggle with ethics and choice, archaic or alien idealism that—as we age, and grow, and experience diversity—is outstripped by our own experiences, needs, and circumstances. To relate to others, and to understand and quantify the nature of our own existence, we must face this cognitive dissonance. We must, oftentimes painfully, shatter our preconceived notions and to reconcile who we are, with who we are becoming. At some point all of us must take the shot.