This past year, I spent weeks extensively scouting for good deer-hunting grounds without ever leaving my house. Thanks to satellite imagery from Google Earth and Garmin, I was able to explore hundreds of square kilometres without getting a speck of mud on my boots. It wasn’t until I got those boots dirty, however, that I learned what a bird’s eye view couldn’t possibly show.
Like a lot of other modern recreational hunters, I only occasionally spend time on my hunting grounds. I live and work in the city, about an hour and a half from where I hunt. This means that I don’t go out to walk around on the land very often. Today, few hunters have anything resembling the intimate experiential knowledge of the land and its animals that was the norm among indigenous cultures and some early settlers. What we have instead is technology.
Satellite imagery can’t give you a small-scale feel for the landscape. That you only get by spending hours exploring and observing on foot. What it does do, however, is quickly convey the general lay of the land. Traditionally, scouting involves extensive legwork. Being able to see the terrain from the air doesn't exactly excuse hunters of that requirement, but it lets us be strategic about our exertions. In the absence of a lifetime spent getting to know the land, I was able to spend a few weeks focusing my attention on getting to know a few likely areas (and wound up seeing quite a few deer, which I count as gratifying success).There are some serious drawbacks to satellite scouting: Google’s images of the area, for instance, are over ten years old. Back when they were taken, parts of what is all now Wildlife Management Area were still being actively farmed. And evidence suggests that water levels have risen in the past decade, as what clearly show up as hay fields in Google Earth are now impassable marshes. Because the prairies are so flat, I rely on variation in ground cover to find strategic hunting zones such as pinch points and funnels. And images that are a few or several years old can only ever be a very general guide to forest succession. But being able to make educated guesses to narrow down an enormous area is a huge advantage for a novice hunter like me.
Learning about hunting skills and game animals from books is remarkably similar to scouting via satellite. My growing collection of tomes about deer and deer hunting distills a hundred years worth of mammalogy, wildlife study, and hunting experience. These texts convey a vast quantity of very general information. I can learn the basics of what modern science and modern hunting knows about my prey in a few hours or days of study. What these studies can never tell me, however, are what the actual deer in my actual forest are doing and why. Reading can give me a lot of general information, but learning about the animals I will actually hunt still requires personal effort, perception, and interpretation.
Hunting and zoology books distill the wisdom of my forbears, and aerial perspectives condense vast tracts of land. Neither offers me the depth of local lore that a life spent in the woods would provide, the kind of deep traditional knowledge that David Adams Richards mourns in Facing the Hunter, his elegaic book about growing up hunting. But they mean that I can turn to hunting as an adult, without the lifelong apprenticeship in skills and knowledge that characterize traditional hunting cultures, and not be an utter failure. In the absence of a detailed apprenticeship, adult-onset hunters need to learn foundational generalizations that let us then discover local realities. Hunters can’t pretend that a generic overview of either the land or the animals will let us hunt successfully, however. Both satellite and textual information about hunting are only so relevant to anyone’s actual experience of hunting, and their shortcomings won’t become apparent until they are put to work.
Modern hunting can, in its worst moments, seem like a wildly commercialized gadget fest, with ever-more high-tech equipment and clothing promising ever-more sure success. Some kinds of technology, however, can very quickly put new hunters into a position to begin. And that’s what reading about hunting and scouting from afar have done: taught me enough that I can now begin to learn.