I coach middle school cross country. Most weekdays from late August through mid-October, I drop whatever it is I’m doing, lace up my running shoes, put a whistle around my neck, and encourage three dozen awkward, gangly kids who are not my own to run (and, some days, to simply walk) with purpose.
Most autumn weekends, I get on a yellow school bus and accompany the team to a race somewhere in my windy corner of northeastern Montana.
I started coaching because my own kids were on the team, and it was another way to be involved with their lives. What I realized along the way—at about the same time they did—is that I was doing a lot more coaching of other peoples’ kids than I was of my own.
What I also realized along the way, and am reminded about daily, is that coaching is not really about teaching my Glasgow Scotties about racing tactics, or accumulating team titles and individual medals. Coaching is about encouragement. And the foundation of encouragement is simply showing up. Many of these kids don’t have an adult in their lives who simply shows up, every day and without excuse, on their behalf. It’s a small but critical ingredient in coaching at any level.
I mention this not to impress you with my level of civic engagement, but because many of you who read this are attracted to the notion of coaching. Not middle school runners, but prospective hunters. Equal to your interest is your apprehension. How can you ever mentor people you don’t know? How do you start? And what are the expectations?
Mentoring is a little like sewing a quilt by hand. Or carving a chair out of a stump. Every new hunter is the result of hard and custom work, but that’s also what gives each of us our unique grain and combination of experiences. Where the relationship between a mentor and an apprentice goes is impossible to predict, but each one is handmade.
And every single relationship starts because the mentor showed up.
As this autumn unfolds, and each of us experienced hunters thrums to the possibility of the season, think about introducing someone new to your world. Don’t fret about where your path goes. But start somewhere. And then keep showing up. It makes all the difference.
The single most popular day for American hunters is Sept. 1, the dove opener in most states. In Texas alone, over 400,000 hunters are likely to be in the field, and you can almost hear the drawl-cussing from here as most of those hunters whiff their first dozen shots.
Missing is half the fun, because with early season dove, there’s almost always another opportunity. The other half of the fun is the company. Dove hunting is one of the most social activities you can have while wearing camouflage. Maybe you have a special memory of a dove opener with family or a group of close friends. There was probably as much laughing as there was cussing. As many excuses for poor shooting as there are congrats for making nice shots. And as much cursing of dogs as praising them.
If you’ve been following Powderhook, then you know one of our foundational principles is the notion of passing on outdoor traditions. And there are few better traditions that deserve perpetuation than a good dove hunt. So here’s my challenge to you: Invite someone new to your group this year. If you hunt with your kids, ask them to bring along one of their friends. If you hunt with a group of buddies, enlarge your circle to include someone new. If you hunt with your parents, ask if it’s okay to bring along a classmate who may not have the family tradition that you have.
The asking can be the toughest part, as any mentor can appreciate. But everything else is easy, from sharing your gear to showing where to set up, from showing how to read the acrobatic approach of a fast-closing dove, to demonstrating how to clean a limit of birds.
There are plenty of dove to go around. Make a new tradition with a beginning hunter. It’s one way to ensure that Sept. 1 remains a sort of unofficial national holiday for hunters well into the future.
Where I live in eastern Montana, February is a brutal month. Hunting seasons are over, the ice fishing can be slow, and we annually have a bout of soul-searching cold in February when the mercury dips to -30. And stays there for a week or two.
But I’ll trade a year of Februarys for a single August. For me, August is the cruelest month because it’s hot, dry, buggy, and I’m daily reminded that I need to be prepping for the fall, but I can’t seem to find the time to adequately do it.
August is the cruelest month because nothing is happening yet, but everything is about to happen, and I feel simultaneously like I have too much time and not nearly enough of it.
Let me explain.
The first big-game season to open in my neighborhood is for archery antelope, on Aug. 15. I don’t have a tag this year for pronghorn, but the approach of that date reminds me that I’m not shooting my bow nearly enough. So for the past couple weeks, I’ve been making time in the evenings to tune up my archery gear and my shooting eye. It’s been going okay, but where I live, the mosquitoes are ravenous and out of every 5-shot group, one arrow typically goes rogue. The blame is on the inability to hold my form as a mosquito drills into my flesh. But I also have a self-imposed rule that I can’t stop shooting until I can stack all my arrows in a space I can cover with my hand. And every skeeter-skewed arrow keeps me out in the bugs that much longer.
Sept. 1 is the dove opener, and I know I need to sharpen up the field skills of both myself and my dog. But it’s so hot that I feel guilty working my pup until late in the evening, at the very time I usually shoot my bow. I should probably wake earlier and get in some solid dog work in the mornings, but I simply don’t. I’d rather sleep in, even though I know I feel guilty about it.
Then there’s fishing. The landlocked Chinook salmon are biting on nearby Fort Peck Reservoir, but I can’t seem to find time to go. Ditto the walleye bite on the Missouri River. And I keep promising myself that I’ll break out my fly rod and throw some hopper patterns at big-river trout. But I don’t.
I need to shoot my deer rifle a lot more, and work up a new load with Nosler’s AccuBond and Hornady’s ELD-X bullets. I need to mount a new riflescope on my daughter’s deer rifle. I need to waterproof my hunting boots and fix a torn strap on my backpack. There’s a pile of hunting knives that I told my kids we’d spend a rainy afternoon rebeveling and sharpening.
Then there’s the big ticking clock, reminding me that my kids are about to return to school, but also that we haven’t gotten done all the summer honey-do’s around my homestead that I said we’d tackle this summer. I’m reminded that we haven’t camped together nearly enough. Or fished. In another month, my boys will enter their senior year of high school, and that clock ticks louder, reminding me that this may be the last August we have together.
I know that September will be here before I know it. And I know that August is the time to get all the necessary prep done. I want more of August. I want less of August.
Are you a cat or are you a dog?
I’m not asking whether you crave catnip or bury bones in your yard—though you might do both. I’m asking you as a hunter what sort of predator you are.
The topic came up in an oblique way the other day as I admitted to a friend that when it comes to deer hunting, I’d rather be on my feet than sit a stand. My preference probably owes to the area I normally hunt, which is fairly open and populated by more mule deer than whitetails. But it also comes down to personal preference. I simply feel like I’m going to have more encounters with animals and convert encounters to success when I’m on my feet and on the ground.
My friend called me everything but a rich man. He just couldn’t understand how anyone would abandon all the advantages they get by being on an elevated platform—containing their scent, maintaining their silence, and having a vantage point—in order to shuffle about on the ground.
That’s when I called him a cat.
You have to understand that my buddy is the ultimate dog owner. His Labs are well-trained and well-honed hunting machines. He drives a big pickup, and there’s usually a dog kennel in the bed. Hell, my friend even looks like a dog, with floppy jowels and a nose that’s wet most of the time. But he’s clearly a cat.
Why? Because he’s an ambush predator. Me? I’m a dog. I’m a pursuit predator.
Think about it. If you’re a hunter who lays in wait, whether it’s a ground blind or a tree stand, you’re an ambush predator, behaving exactly like a leopard or a cougar or a ginger tabby. Yo
u maintain your silence and blend in to your surroundings. You wait for the right moment and then spring into action. You’re a cat. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I feel like I’m at my most lethal when I can spot an animal and then figure out a way to move into killing range. I make my own luck, playing the wind, hushing my steps, and keeping my profile low and hidden. If the animal moves, I move with it. And when I get my chance, I close ground and make my move. I’m a wolf. A coyote. A jackal. A scrubcountry cur. I’m a dog.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
So, I have to ask the question—no judgement here: Which are you, a dog or a cat?
I was describing Powderhook to a friend the other day in one of the simplest ways I could. “It’s using technology to connect people who want to know more about hunting and fishing with those who want to share their experience and knowledge.”
I could tell I wasn’t getting through, so I tried again. “It’s a digital mentor in your pocket,” I said, patting my phone for emphasis.
That got him.
“I thought the whole idea of introducing people to the outdoors was to get them out to put down their phones and disconnect from technology.”
His statement hit home for me, because for years that’s precisely how I’ve imagined we would recruit a new generation of outdoorsfolks. We’d convince them that the wild world beyond their smartphones was somehow more real, tangible, authentic, and worth their attention than anything projected by the pixels of an aluminosilicate screen.
For the record, I still believe that with every fiber in my sunburned body, that the real world—made of mud, sunsets, poison ivy, October frosts, venison backstraps, and honking geese—is what connects us to our ancestors and to our neighborhoods, and by extension, to our neighbors. Figuring out the natural world over eons and generations is what evolved us into hunter-foragers, then farmers, and ultimately into Snapchatters.
As technology has come to dominate almost every aspect of our lives, it’s a natural impulse to think that it’s disconnected us from nature. In many ways, it has. We all have examples of people who mistook an Instagram sunset for the real thing.
But just as we’re not likely to replace our cars with carriages or our microwaves with hearth-fires, we’re unlikely to put our phones aside as we stalk a deer or hike a trail. Instead, the smartest hunter-gatherers among us have figured out ways to use technology to be more proficient outdoorsmen and women. They’re using digital maps to find their way in the woods and to fetch weather forecasts that will shape their day. They’re making campground reservations online. They’re using digital apps to identify the mushrooms that will make their day and the ones that will make them sick. And they’re using their phones to record their experiences to share with people who couldn’t join them.
For the record, I’m not a digital native. My best days in the field did not have an on/off switch, and I’m happiest with the wind in my face, not a phone in my hand.
But if we’re serious about introducing more people to the outdoors and the profoundly human experience of hunting, then we have to use whatever tools we can to build connections. For modern humans, that means harnessing the power of technology to bring people together. That’s what Powderhook intends to do, by connecting people who want to know with those who do. And when I tell my buddy that it’s a “mentor in his pocket,” what I mean is that if we’re smart about how we use technology, it can help us achieve something that humans have been doing for thousands of years: when we share our experiences, we make the world both bigger and smaller at the very same time.
You read both parts of that sentence correctly. The first part is easy to understand. Get outside. Go fish. Go camp. Have a picnic. Lay on a blanket and look up at the clouds.
The second part takes a little ‘splaining.
It’s Independence Day, America’s 242nd birthday. The Fourth of July. A celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and a statement to our British overlords that the American colonies would stand alone as 13 sovereign states.
But I’d argue that as much as the declaration asserts independence, it also makes a strong case for interdependence. Those 13 colonies had to stand together, to rely on each other and to present a unified front in the fight against the world’s reigning superpower that culminated in the creation of America.
I mention this because I think outdoor recreation—the kind that’s come to define how many of us Americans celebrate our national holiday—is equal parts independence and interdependence. As humans, we crave the freedom we get from the outdoors, the ability to explore, seek, and traverse a world unbound by walls or wifi. But think about the best days you’ve had outdoors. They were probably made even better by the company of someone – your kids, your buddy, your spouse, or your parents.
Now think of how you got juiced about the outdoors in the first place. It was because someone, maybe your father or a sibling or a good friend, introduced you to the wide, wild world. That’s interdependence. Even those of us who find solace in the solitude of the outdoors started with a dependency, being shown places and skills by someone who knew more than we did.
When this interdependency works, it’s self-perpetuating—just as national independence is. The Americans who came before you have given you these great self-evident truths: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
If your pursuit of happiness is being outdoors, then perpetuate that great American tradition by showing someone else how to fish, camp, picnic, and lay under the clouds.
ANCHORAGE, AK – The International Hunter Education Association USA (IHEA-USA) has awarded its 2018 Innovations in Technology Award to Powderhook. The award was announced last week at the annual international hunter educators conference held in Anchorage, Alaska.
Powderhook is at the lead of a national effort to recruit, retain, and reactivate new hunters and recreational shooters. The company’s digital technology, including a mentoring app and website, are designed to leverage technology to connect new hunters and shooters seeking knowledge with experienced sportsmen and women who have it.
The IHEA’s award recognizes “any individual, group or member of industry that exhibited outstanding support of the IHEA-USA and its mission by developing better ways of delivery of the hunter education program through technological advances,” according to the association.
Megan Wisecup, IHEA-USA Awards Committee Member, noted that while her agency is the portal that educates beginning hunters, offers them certification, and moves them into the ranks of the hunting community, efforts of Powderhook are critical to give beginning hunters the resources and information so that they can be successful, which is a leading barometer of continued activity in the outdoors.
“Hunter education is a crucial step in becoming a hunter, and Powderhook is focusing on creating opportunities for next steps that aren’t currently in place,” says Wisecup. “If we cannot keep people engaged at their peak interest in hunting, then we are failing to be the support system these students need.”
Hunter education courses train and certify more than 670,000 students annually. The programs utilize 57,000 instructors, many of whom are volunteers, who teach hunting and shooting safety and responsibilities throughout the United States.
Eric Dinger, CEO of Powderhook, said that receiving the award from the hunter education community is confirmation of the power of mentoring, but also evidence of the strength of maintaining consistent messages and support at every stage of the development of a hunter.
“It’s crucial for us to have a strong partnership with IHEA-USA because it’s in their certification courses where many people discover their hunting passion,” says Dinger. “Receiving this award from such a prominent group in the outdoor space and being recognized for all the work our small staff has been able to accomplish is truly an honor.”
IHEA-USA is the professional hunter education association affiliated with the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the 50 state hunter education programs. Since 1949, almost 40 million students have completed hunter education courses that cover firearm safety, bowhunting, wildlife identification and management, field care of game, responsible hunting, and landowner relations. More information is available at ihea.com.
Earlier this summer, I had the great honor to deliver remarks at the Jack O’Connor Dinner in Lewiston, Idaho. It’s an annual homage to the Outdoor Life writer and shooting editor who defined for a generation what it meant to be an American sportsman. In the years after World War II, O’Connor hunted wild sheep on distant mountains, worked with manufacturers to perfect their products and introduce them to eager consumers, and maintained a cool, almost academic, distance from most of his audience.
My presentation featured Outdoor Life covers from the magazine’s founding in 1898 up through O’Connor’s tenure into the 1970s. Those classic cover images are a pretty good reflection of the evolution of the American sportsman over the last century, starting with romantic paintings of what was, in the years before America’s conservation movement, a vanishing world—sad-eyed Native Americans hunting and gathering and big-game animals posed in nostalgic landscapes. In the 1920s, Outdoor Life covers depicted a brand-new vocation: the outdoor professional, usually a manly Western big-game guide wresting a living from a wild world.
During the Depression era up through the early 1950s, cover images featured workaday hunters, relatable characters actually having fun outdoors pursuing the fish and wildlife that conservationists of a generation earlier had gifted them. The classic Outdoor Life covers of O’Connor’s era featured conflict: snarling bears charging unprepared hunters, wilderness pack trains threading through intimidating landscapes, and sportsmen on the brink of some sort of tragedy.
As I built my presentation, I was reminded not only how American sportsmen have changed with the times, but also how we portray ourselves.
This identity is still evolving. Think back to just a decade ago, and all the hero photos you’ve seen (and probably taken yourself)—the grinning hunter holding a buck’s rack, or the angler holding his catch out as far as he can toward the camera to make the fish look even bigger. Those photos feature the animal, sure, but they’re really about the person, as if to say, “Look at me! I’m a bad-ass sportsman, getting it done!”
Those photos are not about the place where the action happened, or about the experience that culminated in success, or even about the critter. They’re ultimately about ego, and a demonstration of our own capabilities. If this sounds like I’m throwing shade on my fellow sportsmen, you should know that I have entire albums full of photos of me in this very pose, showing off my prowess and my bounty.
If you’re reading this, then you have undoubtedly heard the trends. America is losing hunters at an alarming pace. As a population, we are aging, male, and homogeneously white. More than 2 million hunters have faded away in the past 7 years. In Michigan alone, 20,000 hunters stop hunting every single year, and they’re not being replaced.
This is more than the loss of an American architype, the sort that’s featured on magazine covers. The attrition of hunters means reduced citizen funding for wildlife conservation, public-land management, and participation in wholesome, sustainable outdoor recreation.
Many of us are rising to the challenge to not only slow the decline of hunters but to build our ranks with a new and energetic population of American sportsmen and women. We are committed to introducing new people to our field sports, to the rich American traditions of hunting, managing our public’s wildlife resources, gathering our own wild food, and building character-defining relationships with wild places.
In the past few years, as I’ve awakened to this challenge, I’ve noticed the photos in my album have changed, too. They’re less about the trophy—the big rack and giant fish—and more about the people I’m with, the place where we’ve had success, and the animals that enrich our experiences and fill our freezers.
I want you to think back to a century of Outdoor Life covers. Our predecessors have gone through eras of depletion, restoration, conquest over nature, and me-first consumption. Now we have entered the give-back era of the American sportsman. Take someone new hunting. Introduce your passion and love of the outdoors to a neighbor. Lead a group to improve a local marsh. Share your gear and your wild bounty.
Picture yourself on a magazine cover, posing with someone who doesn’t look like you, happily sharing a memorable day outdoors. That’s the necessary next stage in the evolution of our collective identity. The perpetuation of an American icon—the citizen sportsman—depends entirely on you.
(About the author: Andrew McKean is the former editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life. A longtime outdoor communicator, he is now an independent journalist and director of Powderhook. He lives in eastern Montana.)
By Andrew McKean
Since I joined the Powderhook team a week ago, lots of friends and colleagues have asked me the same question: Why? What is an ink-stained wretch of an outdoor writer doing with a bunch of computer geeks half my age? And how can a high-tech start-up ever have the grit and blood to speak passionately to people who define themselves in terms of grit and blood?
The answer is both easy – the Powderhook team is small, scrappy, and composed entirely of avid hunters, anglers, and outdoors folks like me who are committed to welcoming more people to each of those activities – and it’s hard. Hard because media – communicating ideas and information that has defined my career – is so fractured and noisy these days that trying to build an audience and deliver information has never been more challenging.
This is the competitive edge of Powderhook: It’s not your typical media company, or content-delivery device.
It’s mainly an app – a digital community that you can engage with on your phone. If you do one thing today, download the Powderhook app and plug in to the community. The element of Powderhook that I’m most excited about is our digital mentoring program, which connects people who want to learn more about the outdoors with people who have a lifetime of knowledge to share. Want to know where to catch crappie this weekend? Ask the app. Someone (probably a local) will have an inside tip. Want to help someone trying to figure out whether to hunt deer with a 6.5 Creedmoor or a .338 Win. Mag.? Then communicate your perspective through the app. Want to find a place to camp next month? Ask the app.
Eric Dinger, Powderhook’s co-founder, created the brand out of his belief that everyone in the country should be able to enjoy a good day outdoors. All the tools in Powderhook’s kit exist to enable that goal, to inspire, educate, prepare, and celebrate current and future outdoorsmen. More specifically (and ambitiously), Powderhook aims to create 3 million hunters in the next 5 years; participants who buy guns and ammunition, purchase licenses, and fuel the economy that sustains the American system of citizen-sportsmen and public wildlife.
So far, so good. But where do I fit in?
The best way to answer that is to look back on my career. My first job out of college was editor of a little weekly newspaper in Wolf Point, Mont. I love newspapers for their ability to responsibly inform their communities, an obligation that I took seriously as a reporter and editor. As I climbed the ranks of journalism, I always considered my next post on the basis of nearby hunting and fishing opportunities. So it was probably natural that my next career was in magazines – specifically outdoors magazines.
For half a decade, I was the editor of Fishing & Hunting News, a mashup of newspaper and magazine. It was the hook-and-bullet bible for its subscribers. It came out every two weeks, told readers specifically where to fish and hunt anywhere and everywhere in the West. I’d probably still be its editor if it hadn’t gone out of business, a victim of the digital economy. Who needs a newsprint magazine when you can get that same information off the internet?
I moved on to a gig at Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, where part of my job was coordinating the hunter and bowhunter education program. I fell in love with the idea of minting new hunters through our classes, but I also surprised myself how much pride I took in being a public servant. Wearing FWP’s grizzly bear patch on my shoulder made me stand a little taller and has given me a lifetime of respect for the game wardens, wildlife biologists, and technicians who keep fish and wildlife in the field and available for our enjoyment.
Then it was back to magazines, this time at the only brand I ever wanted to work for: Outdoor Life. I started as Hunting Editor, but worked up to editor-in-chief, and in that gig oversaw a team of talented storytellers. That’s the magic of magazines, packaging cool stories in ways that transport readers – to the Pennsylvania whitetail woods, Colorado’s elk mountains, Montana’s trout streams, Africa’s lowveld. Great brands tell great stories across all sorts of campfires – the print of magazines, the screens of computers, the speaker of radios…
This is a long way of telling you that Powderhook is simply another way, a very modern way, to tell great and timeless stories. Some will be profiles of mentors who inspire. Some will be illustrated tutorials that show you how to do something cool and useful. Some will be come-along adventures that transport you outdoors, to the world of grit and blood.
Powderhook is a campfire. Come join us around it. Tell your story. Make a hunter.