The Synthetic Hunter
The Synthetic Hunter

The Synthetic Hunter

Every red-blooded hunter or outdoorsman has heard of Jeremiah Johnson, or they have at least watched the movie several times. Loosely based on the book Crow Killer, which was about a real mountain man named John Jeremiah Garrison “Liver-Eating” Johnson, the movie has become an iconic anthem to hunters. Every hunter, whether they’ll admit it or not, thinks they’re a little bit like Jeremiah Johnson. They’re not. Still, quotes from the screenplay are repeated around campfires, on open plains, in big stands of timber, and on mountain tops, all around the world – “You’ve come far pilgrim.”

But have we?

Some would say hunting has came a long way. Has it really?

Modern hunters revel in their pursuit of wild protein and furry hides. They’ll brag about how many pounds of meat they’ll get from an elk and how the tanned hide is huge and useful. The elk steaks end up on a plate with a sexy garnish, begging for likes on social media so the hunter can demonstrate his mountain man like persona. The hide ends up thrown across the back of the couch, so guests will ask about it, prompting the glorious – there I was – story, as our modern-day mountain man points to the antlers on his wall. The real Liver-Eating Johnson, or even the imagined Jeremiah Johnson, had a different approach. The elk hide made his coat and leggings, the antlers were crafted into knife handles and buttons, and the meat was aged and used as the primary, as opposed to a vanity driven, form of protein. But we’re more civilized now, you say. 

Maybe. Or do we just act that way?

The modern hunter is poor imitation of real mountain men like Boone, Kenton, Johnson, or Lewis Wetzel. They are simply a synthetic version of even more recent hunters, like those of the early 20th Century who a lot of us called “Grandpa.” If more civilized means, the use of hunting tools crafted from man-made materials, I guess we’ve at least become more cultured and sophisticated.

As opposed to boots made from real leather – leather taken from animals we’ve killed – we now slip our poly sock covered feet into big rubber galoshes imprinted with simulated leaves and branches. Our hunting britches are no longer wax covered canvas made from southern grown cotton, because cotton is now organically racist. Nope, our hunting pants are now crafted out of polymerized petroleum-derived ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid – whatever the hell that is – just like our hunting shirts and jackets, which all look like a forest has been painted on them. And, they are lined with a water impervious fabric made from polytetrafluoroethylene. Ant no real mountain man ever heard of that shit.

What happened to wood stocks, wool jackets, and leather boots?

We no longer look to sheep’s wool – which can react to changes in your body’s temperature, is packed with tiny air pockets to absorb and release moisture, and is odor resistant – for warmth while hunting. Instead, we rely on battery powered socks, battery powered vests, and believe it or not, little disposable chemical packets we can cram in our pockets, under our arms, and even in our boots, or next to our giblets. If that’s not sufficient to keep us toasty, we can carry a little propane powered heater with us to that little box we like to hide in. Virginia born Jim Bridger, mountain man, scout, trapper, and one of the first to explore what is now Yellowstone, had none of these modern man-made materials. Yet, he killed elk, griz, and even Indians, and he never froze to death. He was 77 years old when he died, peacefully on his Missouri farm in 1881.

Like the real and movie Johnson, Bridger had a rifle with a wooden stock, probably walnut, cheery, or maple. The wood was dried, sometimes stained with tobacco juice, and then sealed with boiled flaxseed oil. The steel for the barrel, lock, trigger guard, and thimbles, was browned instead of blued. Browning is a rusting process – sometimes initiated with urine – and then kept smooth and controlled through the application of tallow: animal fat. These rifles were loaded with blackpowder, linen patches, lead balls, and sometimes a wadding of bee’s nest. They were used to kill thousands of every animal in North America.

Today, most rifles have stocks crafted of fiber reinforced plastic, carbon, or heat resistant synthetic fibers, suspended in a hardened epoxy resin. The steel, which is often stainless, is frequently coated in a rust resistant, scientifically engineered ceramic coating, which if applied properly, is subjected to high heat. Not only are modern firearms impervious to the elements, they also launch bullets that are basically tiny magical machines, at velocities equaling that of a German 88. And, just to make sure we use plastics every way we can, these bullets are often tipped with colorful pointy ends made of polyoxymethylene.

My grandfather, grandmother, and dad, after a late-night coon hunt in the Appalachian hills.

Yeah, we’re hunters. But we are only a synthetic imitation of those hunters who tamed America or raised our parents. Given all these modern man-made advancements in the gear we use, are we any better at hunting than those mountain men and frontiersmen of yesterday? I doubt it, rarely are the things men do for pleasure done as well as those things done for survival. The traditions we try to honor and someday hope to pass on, are now nothing more than that of the hunt itself. If we’re not careful, we’ll synthesize that too.

“The way that you wander is the way that you choose. The day that you tary, is the day that you lose. Sunshine or thunder, a man will always wonder, where the fair wind blows.”

The Way That You Wonder, John Rubinstein and Tim McIntire