Bagging a holiday bird, part one

I'm sitting in the West Virginia woods, crouched against a tree, my fingers balled up in the palms of my camouflage gloves and my eyes trained on a point about 30 yards away. Through my itchy woolen facemask, I see brittle piles of leaves. I see weather-beaten twigs, which become exponentially more interesting after an hour or so — and then aren't interesting at all. Once or twice, I see a chipmunk.

"Where are the turkeys?" finally hisses Brian Dowler, the hunter who's sharing my tree trunk. He has a shotgun pressed against his bicep and resting on his knee, same as me. "I'm about to start talking about their mothers."

I ask Dowler if I'm naïve to believe a gobbler could saunter across my view-scape just then, after countless hours without seeing a bird. (Heck, who am I kidding? Of course I counted. We'd been trudging across the ridge for 10 chilly hours the day before, and were already five hours into the hunt's second day.)

No, Dowler assured me, we were "spot-on" for fall turkey hunting, which turns out to be the gun-toting equivalent of ultra-marathon running or building ships in bottles: There's enjoyment in it, but few folks will stick around to find it. Without the springtime desire to mate discombobulating their brains, turkeys don't tend to amble into a hunter's sights. "In the fall, there's no single place turkeys want to be at any one time," Dowler explains. Fall turkey hunters are lucky if they get a chance to wrestle with questions like "Can I make that shot?"

At dinner the evening before the hunt, guide Larry Nibert reminded me, "It's hunting, not killing. A bird's a bonus. When you get a kill, the fun's over."

Sitting with my back to that tree, it looked like the fun might never end.

Could a bunch of hunters save the earth?

I am not a hunter. But, this year, I decided I should shoot my own turkey for the Thanksgiving table. The impetus was an e-mail from the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, proposing that conscientious eaters should consider serving an "alternate main dish," since so many of our talented local farmers had organically grown, non-turkey proteins for sale.

I'm a great fan of Western North Carolina pork chops, trout filets and chicken breasts. But I wanted to find a way to have my turkey for the holiday and hold my higher ground too. Hunting seemed like the obvious sustainable solution.

Anyone who's even glanced at the damning exposés of the modern food system that have been all over the airwaves and bookshelves in recent years is well aware of the abuses the mainstream meat industry heaps on animals and the environment — many activists consider even turkeys sold with "free range" labels suspect. As Gary Steiner recently pointed out in a New York Times op-ed piece, "If it is raised 'free range,' it still lives a life of pain and confinement that ends with the butcher's knife."

Shooting my own bird wouldn't quell Steiner's concerns about whether it's OK to take another animal's life: Hunting is predicated on the belief that humans are meant to eat meat. That's a philosophy some eaters will never share, and I respect their choices. But my wild turkey would at least have led a fine turkey life with an itty-bitty carbon footprint. And I've always felt it's not fair to eat meat unless you're willing to kill it yourself. Thanksgiving gave me the perfect opportunity to put that theory into practice.

Getting my gun

"Perfect" is not the word my mother would have used to describe my plan. When I explained I'd be providing the turkey for her Thanksgiving dinner, she was aghast. "Hunting?" she asked. "With a gun?"

My mother had three primary objections, which slowly unfolded over the course of three anxious weeks: First, she worried I'd come home with a turkey the size of a chickadee. Then, she worried that I'd toss the carcass in my suitcase, ensuring a food-poison feast for everyone at the table. Finally, she decided I'd probably shoot myself.

When her objections failed to dissuade me, she appealed to my father, citing a cockamamie Internet legend that wild turkeys don't have any dark meat. My dad, a drumstick man, briefly rose to the bait — and then learned there's nothing but dark meat on wild turkeys.

I went looking for a guide in the same place where I found my dresser: Craigslist. In retrospect, soliciting a stranger to take me into the woods with a gun was probably not the wisest idea. Apparently, even Craigslist creeps were sketched out by the prospect; I heard back from just one hunter, and he lived three states away.

Frustration drove me to the National Wild Turkey Federation, the leading advocacy group for turkey hunters. The federation hosts member banquets, stages children's hunting programs and, occasionally, takes interested reporters out to chase turkeys. Spokesman Brian Dowler agreed almost immediately to help set up a hunt — all I had to supply was the camouflage.

There's no fall turkey season in North Carolina, so Dowler started looking for a guide in a southeastern state where it's legal to shoot turkeys in November. That gave me time to tell everyone I knew that I was hunting my own bird for Thanksgiving. The reactions varied dramatically.

Nonhunters, whose only acquaintance with wild turkeys had occurred on the streets of north Asheville, weren't too impressed. They thought of turkeys as big, dumb, flightless birds that liked to hang out in driveways. But the hunters knew better: When I told them I planned to shoot a turkey, they responded with the awe a nonhunter might summon for someone who was fixing to kill a polar bear. Or Bigfoot.

Turkey hunting, they told me, was hard. Turkeys can run 25 miles an hour, fly twice as fast and have a 280-degree field of vision. If they were blessed with even a middling sense of smell, hunters say, they couldn't be caught. Turkey hunting requires a tremendous amount of patience, something that worried me more than the prospect of accidental self-mutilation. Still, I was willing to sit quietly to find out why three million Americans every year pay for the chance to bag one of the nation's seven million wild turkeys.

See next week's issue for part two of this story.

Food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be reached at food@mountainx.com.

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