McKean Minute: The Evolution of the American Sportsman

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.

This is a hunting pic.

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.)

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