Killing season


Lars at work/Craig Medred photo

TWENTYMILE RIVER – The dogs that have come and painfully gone return in memory every year at this time, but the memories are good. We never knew a day afield that was bad no matter the shooting though there was a scary day when a young Hoss worked himself to the point of collapse, had to be carried to the truck and then suffered seizures as we headed back to Anchorage to find a veterinarian.

He recovered on the way.

By the Seward Highway wide spot of Bird, he was good, and by Potter March on the outskirts of the big city he was raring to go again. We went home instead of to the vet, but for the rest of the waterfowl season his excursions were more closely monitored – older, wiser human judgment being better than young, canine judgment.

Sometimes better even than that of older dogs, though they do learn to pace themselves after long days spent sloshing around in flooded grass and water crotch-deep on a man.

Jump-shooting mallards and the occasional pintail in the marshes at the head of Turnagain Arm is not easy sport for man or beast, but God I love it so.

This admission to finding pleasure in killing feels an odd thing to confess in these times of life in a sterile, modern world where nothing and no one is expected to die in reality but only virtually. Far more Americans will today “kill” human avatars in video games than will kill the animals they eat.

Life antiseptic

America’s predominately urban society lives so disconnected from nature that many barely recognize the steak on their plate or the meat in their burger or the fish filet on the grill came from an animal with a beating heart and lungs and, yes, a brain that could register trauma.

Animal-rights activists like to believe the senses involved there are just like yours and mine. They’re not, if for no other reason than that animals live in a world where death is everywhere almost every day and that alone changes how even humans think about it.

Long ago in that war that is to most Americans today something only read about in history books, we thought we could bomb Germany and Japan into surrender by massacring civilians. The fire-bombing of Tokyo in March 1945 killed an estimated 100,000 Japanese and injured up to 1 million. 

The Japanese did not surrender. It took the obliteration of Hiroshima and later Nagaski with nuclear weapons – coupled to the Japanese belief the U.S. had more of those bombs and would destroy the country city by city – to bring World War II to an end.

If death is something that humans, many of whom live too much in their own heads, can come to accept as normal than surely it is the norm to the residents of the natural world where death happens on an unbelievable scale by human measure.

Salmon are at this moment busy burying tens of billions of their eggs in the gravel of the streams and rivers of the 49th state. Most of the eggs won’t hatch. Most of those that do will produce little salmon that don’t survive.

Eventually, three to five percent of the spawn might live to eventually return as adults. If the process started with 1 million eggs, you are looking at 30,000 to 50,000 survivors and 950,000 to 970,000 dead salmon or would-be salmon along the way.

Not that any of this really matters in the bigger picture in a world where agriculture, including the slaughter of huge numbers of animals, has gone industrial, and the killing rumbles on daily.

All this essay amounts to is one human’s rationalization for his particular bloodlust. Humans are good at rationalizations, or not.

Natural-born killers

One particular dipnetting buddy, one of the gentlest and most thoughtful men you are likely to meet, is annually overpowered by the passion for the kill. He needs to be dragged off the banks of the Copper and Kenai rivers almost every summer.

No matter the self-imposed limit on the day’s catch, he invariably ends up compelled to kill his legal, family limit of sockeye and king salmon if the fish are running well, and were there no limit, who knows how long he might go on netting salmon and bashing their brains out.

More than once friends and I have discussed what it is that overcomes him given how out of character and so removed from his European upbringing this behavior. It is almost enough to make one wonder if maybe he wasn’t a Dena’ina or Ahtna Athabascan in another life if you are among those inclined to believe reincarnation a possibility.

Those ancient Alaskans killed for the oldest and most necessary of reasons: survival. The north, with its short growing seasons, is not welcoming to agrarians.

Few need to kill for survival now, though. We can let others do our killing for us and pretend nothing dies, or go vegan and feel smugly above it all while dining on foods shipped north on carbon-dioxide spewing ships and airplanes.

It might be nice to believe humans can survive without impact on their environment, but that’s not reality. We’re ecological players whether we want to be or convince ourselves that we’re not.

On a personal level, our environmental impact ends only when we are gone, and our bodies start giving back to the life that inhabits the soil and the air around us all the time whether we are aware or not.

SARS-CoV-2 – the virus now terrorizing the world and causing more than a few of us to contemplate life, death and the meaning of it all – is only the lastest life living invisible to the human eye. We could, of course, debate whether a coronavirus, the cause of the disease COVID-19, is actually a life form, but there is no debate about the invisible protozoan parasites.

Proto-zoon from which protozoa came is Greek for “first animals.” The first animal most familiar to Alaskans might be giardia, which everyone seems happy to kill.

Why? Because giardia can make us uncomfortable, and because we are natural-born killers no matter how we might try to deny it. Killing is how we have not only been able to survive but to thrive no matter how some today might be troubled with the deaths of those animals they have anthropomorphized and sometimes even those they haven’t.

“Fish feel pain,” the righteous People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) will tell you, and for that reason, “please leave fish off your forks.”

PETA fails to grasp that there is a difference between an organism recognizing a stimulus designed to protect it from injury and intellectualizing the fear of the end of life that makes the threat of death so troubling to so many humans.

Homo sapiens live with fears of death because their minds create those fears and often create them illogically. Nexoid’s COVID-19 Survival Calculator says I have a 1.32 percent chance of dying from that disease. The number is high mainly because of my age. The average, the calculator notes, is 0.4 percent.

I’d expect to come in closer to the lower number than the higher number if I ran the calculator again using my biological age, which has been enhanced by a pretty solid training regime since my 30s, but that’s largely irrelevant.

Even at a risk of 1.32 percent, my chances of dying from COVID-19 are less than the lifetime chances of being killed by gunshot in Alaska (statistically most likely to be self-inflicted), and not much higher than the risk of death from a drug overdose in this state, according to a study in the American Journal of Medicine.

The AJM put the gunshot risk at 1.57 percent in Alaska with the risk of drug overdose at 1.06 percent and of death in a motor vehicle accident at 0.94 percent.

All of those are significantly above the 0.4 percent average for COVID-19, which is itself weighted high by the large number of deaths along the densely populated U.S. Northeast.

Having no suicidal tendencies and making no use of drugs on which one might overdose, I have no concerns about death from gunshot or overdose, and like most Americans, I worry little about the very real danger on the roads but do drive defensively given all the people these days staring at their phones.

Given that my contacts with other people are being kept to a minimum, I have even less worry about COVID-19 than about gunshots, drugs or motor vehicles about which I have almost no worry.

I’d expect this puts me on the level of Alaska wildlife which seem always wary but seldom worried, and there is a big difference. Worry is an emotional state. Wariness is a behavior.

Wildlife, decades of observation would indicate, lives almost constantly with wariness and seldom with signs of worry. This is the way in which the wild world is so different from our world. It is still governed by the laws of the jungle where death exists not as a thought but as a norm.

The strong, the wary and the lucky survive. The weak, the careless and the unlucky die. That’s just the way it is.

And it would seem impossible to fear death if death is normal, if it is not something of which to be afraid but simply the exchange of the last moment in this life for whatever exists in the first moment of the after life.

I have no idea of what that might be, but the novelist Robert B. Parker once observed that heaven is the place where “all the dogs you ever loved run to greet you.”

I’ll take that, and until then be happy with the one with whom I’m now doing something we both love. That the activity puts tasty, high-quality protein on the table in the process is just one of several pluses.
















18 replies »

  1. Craig- Was that seizure situation diagnosed as exercise induced collapse? I am a lab guy and it is showing up now with more frequency. Quite a bit written about it and a test available- it is genetic.
    Great read.

    • It wasn’t, Bob. But I’m sure it was exercise induced. It was a long, hot day with a young dog. And I was pretty near gassed when I finally accepted that he didn’t look good.

      In those days, I was pretty hard to gas, too. Eight hours or more of murderous swamp hiking wasn’t unusual. There was a pretty driven effort to fill out before going home. It was great marathon training.

      The dog did learn to pace himself, and it never happened again.

  2. Craig, if you don’t mind me asking what do you wear out there on your feet/legs waders or just tall mud boots? Also how about a good recipe for pintail. What are you using for shot sizes and shot gun chokes? I guess that’s a lot of questions. Always enjoyed your duck/dog stories. Regards, Brian

    • Mudboots would be full of water, Brian. I usually wear breathable, waist-high waders and then hope I don’t step in a spot where I go over them.

      Chokes and shot sizes sort of depend on how spooky the ducks. I usually start the season with modified and 3 or 4 shot, but as the ducks get warier the full choke comes out and shot sizes go to 2s or 1s.

      We pretty much roast all of our ducks the same. Stuff them with sauerkraut, cover with bacon and toss them in the oven until done. If I barbeque, I just split them in half, salt and pepper and baste with some butter.

      Ducks that get skinned because it’s early season and they are thick with pin feathers get breasted and then the carcasses boned and the meat made into ground duck. The latter is great in a spaghetti sauce or for duck tacos. The breasts usually get fried up in olive oil with a sprinkling of lemon-pepper. Thin-sliced after that and added to some Romaine lettuce, they make a great duck ceasar salad.

  3. I enjoyed your reflection on your time with your lab in the marshes and the confusion behind killing animals we hunt. I believe another piece of confusion occurs when bird dogs are bred for a market focused on ”cute’.

    • It depends on how cute. Our labs came out of a line bred for show, but they all turned into great field dogs though I must admit that I did need to teach Magic how to swim.

      Strange thing to be teaching a lab.

      And his littermate Arlo started off looking to be a lost cause – he showed no interest whatsoever in retrieving the first actual duck I shot over him and he acted like his nose didn’t work – only to turn into a phenom.

      Whatever kicked in, kicked in with a vengeance. I watched him dive to catch dugs that went underwater, track the scent trail of ducks across good size ponds, chase cripples for amazing distances (we sometimes worried we’d lost him) to recover them, and sometimes in the early season, catch more ducks than hunting partners and I shot.

      If you were a duck yet to be fully-fledged and able to fly, or a duck unable to fly for any reason, you did not want to be within a half mile of that dog because he would find you and retrieve you, and that, of course, would be the end.

      There were a few opening days when Arlo and I hit the marsh late that he caught more ducks shot and crippled by other hunters than I shot in the process of limiting out and going home. Amazing, amazing dog.

  4. Great piece, Craig. Your insights glimmer when you’ve spent the day out in the field with a dog who’s been working as hard as you. He just comes home and lies down. Meanwhile, you sit down at the keyboard and get to work. Great read, thanks

  5. The strong, the wary and the lucky survive (longer). The weak, the careless and the unlucky die (sooner). That’s just the way it is.

    Everyone is an aspiring editor.

  6. I enjoyed your thoughtful reflection. Particularly poignant at this time of year. With more sunsets behind me than in front, I have to take comfort in the memories of those past days afield and look forward to those yet remaining to me.

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