A Graduation of Sorts — My 2017 Arizona Elk Hunt

Unknowingly, this elk hunt started in April, 2016 when magically, my dad, uncles, cousins, and I drew late season 5A bull tags. I was living in North Carolina and hadn't seen my family in over a year. The plan was for all of us to stay at my uncle's cabin for a few days and hunt hard. The setback was figuring out how I would be able to make the trip happen. Unfortunately, I was unable to go; they went up, had a fun time, but ultimately came home empty handed. 


Jump to April, 2017. My family and I were in the throes of packing up our house and getting ready to move back home to Arizona when my dad texted me, "Credit cards got hit!" Immediately, all that devastation (probably too strong of a word but I'll go with it) from missing last season disappeared and it was time to get the taste of tag soup out of my mouth. I ramped up my workouts, and began researching the elk heard in Unit 5A. I read the blurbs from Game and Fish, reached out to hunters on social media, and began studying the satellite imagery of the unit. 

5A is not an easy unit to hunt, the southern portion is densely wooded and riddled with deep canyons that fall off the Mogollon Rim. The northern part of the unit is sparse, with a beautiful "transition" area where the pines break away and start to mix with junipers and wide open grasslands. There are a lot of elk in the unit, but they are simply hard to find, especially during the late season as they've been pressured since early September.

During the previous season, my dad hunted that transition area and saw only one cow elk and a decent amount of sign. Knowing our hunt fell after the rut and the bulls would be seeking sanctuary and trying to escape pressure, I focused my efforts on the wooded canyons near the Rim.

I got a great tip from a friend at work, and a buddy and I made four separate scouting trips to the area. We found a beautiful meadow with tons of water, feed, and cover around it. The meadow runs south to north and lies beneath two roads. Amazingly, we rarely saw anyone in the area. Subsequently, we saw elk on every trip.


On my last day of scouting, I woke up early and walked the edge of the meadow, I spotted a spike bull and a cow feeding. I watched them graze and eventually escape up into the timber. Using my OnX maps, I noticed an abandoned Forest Service road coming out of the meadow. Now, this road sits at the bottom of a draw that flows into the meadow. There are steep ridges on either side and a nice washout that runs along it. There is so much deadfall on the road that my dad dubbed it the Obstacle Course. 

Sometimes, as a hunter, you come across an area and you just know it's a good spot. Yeah, there are visual cues: sign, tracks, rubs...etc But there's also just a feeling. I got goosebumps walking this road, it was so elky! I walked maybe a quarter of a mile and decided I didn't want to blow out the area and headed back to camp. I kept thinking about that road for the whole next week.

Finally, after a year and a half of anticipation, it was opening day. I convinced my dad to make the hour drive to the meadow. I almost lost my mind on our way in that morning because the Forest Service decided to do a prescribed burn a mile north of my meadow. The burn turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I think it kept people out of the area. 

That first day, we walked the entire meadow. We noticed the rear end of an elk. It's head was down, and it was feeding up the ridge headed into the timber. It never lifted it's head and disappeared behind some trees. My dad and I were cautious and stayed back to try to spot it again. We played it safe, but the whole time, I wanted to try to head it off. We never saw that elk again. 


We saw a decent amount of elk that morning, but no bulls. We walked a big circle along the outer edge of the meadow and eventually made our way up that road from the week before. We jumped a few more elk, and got within 60 yards from a feeding cow. 

The rest of the day was a bust. We hiked roughly 9 miles. We got back to the cabin late, my dad wasn't too happy with the drive, the dirt roads, and the lack of cell service. I knew he didn't want to drive down there again, I also knew he was conflicted because we saw so many elk.

He begrudgingly went along with my plan for day two; walk the eastern edge of the meadow at first light and then head up the Obstacle Course. We were quietly still hunting up this road, peering upslope through the timber looking for elk filtering through the trees. When all of a sudden we hear a chorus of coyotes calling loud, somewhat close. I was literally in the middle of stepping over a downed log when my dad spotted the tail end of an elk upslope on our right with it's head down feeding. It stepped behind a tree, and another one took it's place. A cow. I'm looking through my rifle scope, still straddling the log.

The elk were slowing feeding in the same direction that we were traveling. The terrain between her and I was thick, and covered with crunchy pine needles, leaves, and sticks. There's no way we're walking straight uphill and it was too thick to make a good shot. 

Another elk steps into the gap and I notice that it's a spike. I'm not making the same mistake as the morning before. I know the road ahead bends towards their line of travel and that the timber opens up. I say "Spike, there's a spike." and I take off. I'm moving fast but quietly trying to get to the open bend in the road. My dad never heard me and is wondering "What the hell is he doing!?" as he's still trying to spot a bull in the group.

I get to where the timber starts to open up and see the elk cut down ridge towards me. I take two big steps and drop to one knee at the big bend in the road. Three cow elk cross 20 yards in front of me, and I notice a bull behind them. He stepped into the gap and I was able to make a good shot. He whipped around, ran twenty yards and dropped. Instant rush of adrenaline. I'm shaking. He pops back up and I try to settle my scope on him but it's bouncing like an Impala in a 90's Hip Hop video. I was able to settle my breath and squeeze another shot off, right through the lungs, and he dropped for good.

I'm shaking even more, my dad is ecstatic. I pick up my shells. 


When I walked up to him everything hit me at once. All the anticipation, the frustration of missing last season, the scouting, endless questioning, and doubts, tension about where to hunt, and five unfilled bull elk tags. The lump in my throat was large and I lost it when I grabbed his antlers and looked him over.

I feel every animal I kill, but this one was different. I remarked that I felt the same as I did the day I graduated with my Master's degree. I think that's because in grad school, I focused on making work about hunting. For the last four years of my life I have been studying hunting, history, and conservation. I've been looking at images, reading books, listening to podcasts, and watching shows, and videos. In a way this elk is a graduation of sorts, I earned a Master's in hunting as much as photography, and this hunt was the culmination for me.


And I got to share it with my dad, still at 60 years old, he's the best hunting partner. I got to share it with my best friend, Richard, who went on every scouting trip with me, who listened to me drone on and on about spots, and rubs, and roads and everything in between. This elk is as much theirs as it is mine.

And it all happened on public land. The Coconino National Forest. Absolutely none of this would have happened without public land. People ask me why I care so much about this stuff and this is why. These memories, the food on my table, the time bonding with my wife while we butchered my elk, and my son being infatuated with my "elko"; simply not possible without public land, PERIOD, END OF STORY. There's no question. 


Ansel Adams, Photography, and Conservation

My Public Land Owner shirt seemed like the most appropriate shirt to wear to the exhibition.

My Public Land Owner shirt seemed like the most appropriate shirt to wear to the exhibition.

This past weekend I was able to see the Ansel Adams: Masterworks exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The show is amazing and should be seen by anyone who enjoys photography and our amazingly beautiful country. I've always been a huge fan of Adams' work, first attracted to the landscape, then his technical ability, and now his conservation efforts. 

Not many people realize that Adams' conservation work is just as powerful as his photographs. Ansel got involved with the Sierra Club in 1927, became their official photographer in '28 and by 1934 he was elected as a member of the board of directors, a role he held for 37 years. He suggested proposals for improving parks and wilderness, and soon became known as both an artist and defender of Yosemite. Additionally, Ansel Adams’ photographs, - specifically his book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail - were used by the Sierra Club in their successful lobbying of Congress to designate King’s Canyon as a national park.

For many years I thought it was strange to be an artist and a hunter. It seemed that the two were opposites, however, over the course of making Fresh Tracks I’ve found that they are more connected than they appear.

Timothy O'Sullivan "Characteristic ruin, of the Pueblo San Juan, New Mexico, on the north bank of the San Juan River, about 15 miles west of the mouth of Cañon Largo" 1874 — Library of Congress

Timothy O'Sullivan "Characteristic ruin, of the Pueblo San Juan, New Mexico, on the north bank of the San Juan River, about 15 miles west of the mouth of Cañon Largo" 1874 — Library of Congress

A photograph typically isn’t taken with the intention to conceal or to be hidden; rather a photograph is meant to be shared. Photography is a visual form of communication. The photographic image is powerful, it can promote new ideas and be a vehicle for change. In fact, the photograph helped populate the west. In the mid 19th century, while serving as the official photographer for three U.S government survey expeditions, Timothy O’Sullivan produced some of the earliest and most influential photographs of the American West. The survey photographers “sought out the vantage points that might make it possible to recreate for easterners a sense of the immensity and primordial silence of the region” (Rosenblum, 144). The proliferation of stereographs brought the landscape into the homes of American families, which in turn brought Americans out west. Rosenblum writes, “As the frontier moved westward and industrialization began to change the character of the landscape, Americans increasingly turned to the photograph as a means of both celebrating technology and of expressing reverence for the landscape being threatened by its advance” (144).

  William Henry Jackson, "Lower Falls of Yellowstone" 1892 — Library of Congress

 William Henry Jackson, "Lower Falls of Yellowstone" 1892 — Library of Congress

Like hunting, photography has contributed immensely to the conservation of America’s landscape. The American survey images, in addition to being made for the public, were also "presented in albums and as lantern slides to members of congress and other influential people to drum up support for funding civilian scientific expeditions and creating national parklands" (Rosenblum, 135). To convince the United States Congress of the “distinct Grandeur of the scenery”, survey photographer William Henry Jackson printed albums of his Yellowstone Scenic Wonders in support of Ferdinand V. Hayden’s campaign for a Yellowstone National Park.

Things aren't so different now as they were in those early days. There's quite the push in Washington to transfer or sell off our public lands. Our public lands are uniquely North American, no other place in the world has it as good as we do here. Not only will the sale of our land cause us to lose our favorite places to recreate, but it will also destroy decades of wildlife and habitat conservation. Fortunately, hunters and anglers have been taking up this fight. Organizations such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are a couple of the loudest voices and advocates for our public lands. If you care about public lands, please check them out.



Reference: Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. New York City: Abbeville Press Publisher, 2007.


Graduate School: Year Two

I spent a lot of time this year thinking about history, both my personal history as well as hunting and the relationship between humans and wildlife. I have written about my experiences growing up, hunting at a young age; how my upbringing in the landscape has influenced the way I interact with the environment as well as my relationship to my family. I have been studying native North American cultures and how hunting, in many cases, shaped their social and religious systems. All of this research has helped bring my current body of work to where it is now. 

Please click here to view.

Hunting in the Superstition Mountains

Hunting in the Superstition Mountains

Being out in the landscape is hard to describe. I feel comfortable; I feel like I belong, I feel normal. I feel alive; primal. I hike and sweat, my back soaked underneath my heavy pack. I’m not carrying a burden, however. If I were carrying that load up stairs, in an urban environment, it would be unbearable; out in the landscape, I don’t even feel it.

I do feel the majesty of the out of doors, I do feel the sense that there is something bigger than me. There are systems at work out here, systems that don’t care about human life. I notice where runoff creates a small, inch deep ravine down the side of a ridge, I see that its shape mimics that of the wash it eventually flows into and how that wash carved it’s way through the landscape. I feel how these geological structures are shaped.

I find a game trail; I follow it, my eyes plastered to the earth. The ground is littered with deer tracks and scat. From that sign I learn things, the size of the heard, approximately the time when they’ve passed through, what they have been eating and most importantly I can tell, with reasonable certainty, whether or not there’s a buck in the group. I have a tag in that heavy pack of mine, and a rifle slung on my shoulder.

I hunt; I always have.

I started when I was a young boy, my father would take me with him when he would hunt small game (dove, quail, rabbit..etc). I don’t remember the exact age when I started hunting, but I would guess I was somewhere between three and five years old. Thinking back on that now, I realize how incredible that is, that my dad would bring a 3-5 year old along with him. Never mind the dangers of being in the desert, the fact that he would have to keep an eye on a 3 year old boy who would constantly get into everything and run off at any chance he could. I imagine it was a mix of hunting/fishing or being out there in the elements and the fact that my father encouraged me to explore, question, play and learn that kept my interest. Damn did I learn so much. Obviously I learned how to hunt and fish, how to tie a Palomar knot and how to navigate down a steep ridge, but there are major life lessons and deeper, more complicated concepts that were instilled in me at such a young age. I took cues from my father, I saw what excited him and that in turn excited me. When he would kneel down and show me coyote or fox scat or an owl pellet and we would dissect it, I learned about predator/prey relationships. When he would shoot a dove or quail, I would go retrieve it for him, I learned about that animal, what they looked like, how they were shaped, I learned about male/female relationships, why males were different from females and reproduction. I learned about life and death. I learned about biology, anatomy, ecology and most importantly conservation and land ethics.

Dove hunting with Dad and Grandpa

Dove hunting with Dad and Grandpa

When I was seven or eight my dad gave me a shotgun, it was a single shot, hammer action 20-gauge shotgun. I was finally allowed to hunt, although I was so small that when a dove was inbound I would have to hand the gun off to Dad, he would cock the hammer and hand it back to me. My father trusted me, an eight year old, with a loaded firearm. He instilled in me a profound respect for firearms, the realization of how fragile we are and how precious life is; that we can be here one moment and gone the next.

While I don’t remember the first small game animal I killed, I do remember the first time I saw my dad kill a big game animal. It was September 22, 1995, my sister’s birthday, a month before my 10th birthday, before I was legally allowed to hunt big game. It was opening morning of Pronghorn Antelope season, this was a big deal, it had taken my father fifteen years to draw that tag. We were hunting in Big Chino Valley, just north of the town of Prescott, AZ. My father and I had been up here to scout, to locate the herds, the bucks, to study the terrain, testing equipment, sighting in his rifle and his back up rifle and researching the behavioral patterns of the Pronghorn herd. Previous to this trip, my father and I hunted deer and javelina in spots that he knew like the back of his hand so there wasn’t a need for extensive scouting, but like I said, this was a big deal. Finally, the day was here. We drove to our spot in the dark of the early morning, gathered our gear and crawled to our “opening morning spot”. Sure enough there was a herd just beneath the ridge we were on, the problem was that none of them were big enough. You see, AZ game and fish states that a legal, shoot-able Antelope buck has to have pronghorns that are taller than it’s ears. This is to ensure that you’re harvesting a mature buck that has been through at least one breeding cycle. After watching that herd for a while and making sure we didn’t miss a legal buck, we moved on to another area.

Almost immediately, we located a legal buck he was about a mile away but moving towards us. My father got into the prone position; laying on his stomach, his rifle securely resting on his pack and me, sitting on the ground between his legs. As the buck approached, my dad’s adrenaline rose, I could hear his breath quicken. By the time the Antelope was in range my father was shaking. The buck stopped, I heard my father breath in deep, exhale, hold; a single shot rang through Big Chino Valley. I heard the whap as the bullet made contact with the animal. The shot was low, below the shoulder, the leg was broken, it was not a mortal wound, and the antelope ran. I could feel the panic my father was experiencing. We approached the area where we last saw the buck, my father on my left. The pronghorn startled us just as much as we startled him. I remember seeing him laying beneath a tree out of the corner of my right eye, he jumped to his feet and before I could alert my dad, Pops swung his rifle and shot, putting the bullet directly in the animal’s chest. The buck ran 50 yards, crossing in front of us, dropped, let out an excruciating, guttural cry and expired.

God, I felt that. I still feel that, it’s been 18 years and I still feel that. I’ve never been able to describe the feeling in a way that’s adequate, so I will defer to one of my favorite authors, Steven Rinella, in describing how killing a large animal inevitably gives him a sense of sorrow:

“I feel compelled to question what I’ve done, to compare the merit of its life with the merits of my own. It’s not so much a feeling of guilt. There’s no moment when I want the buffalo to stand back up and walk away, no moment when I wish that the bullet would retreat back into the barrel. It’s more complicated than guilt. Seeing the dead buffalo, I feel an amalgamation of many things: thankfulness for the meat, an appreciation for the animal’s beauty, a regard for the history of it’s species, and, yes, a touch of guilt. Any one of those feelings would be a passing sensation, but together they make me feel emotionally swollen. The swelling is tender, a little bit painful. This is the curse of the human predator”


Once I came to terms with what I had just witnessed, it was time to gut and skin the buck. I watched my father as he made an incision from just under the buck’s chest plate to his anus. I helped pull its organs out, its stomach, intestines, heart, liver and lungs. We then hung him up in a tree and began to skin him, carefully cutting and pulling the skin away from the meat so as not to ruin the cape. We had over a mile hike back to the truck so my dad decided to quarter the animal. Basically that means cutting the animal into smaller pieces so it’s easier to travel with.

I don’t remember much from eating the antelope, but I do remember my mom cooking brisket and how delicious it was. I would take leftover brisket sandwiches to school and brag to my friends about it. I didn’t comprehend it at the time, but I really felt that connection to my food. That sandwich carried with it experience. Not just the experience of that particular hunt, or of the months prior scouting, but all of the experiences of my childhood spent hunting. That sandwich is now remembered in every experience since.

 Dad and I with Pronghorn

 Dad and I with Pronghorn