Meditations on the Nature of Courage

Hunting takes guts, but not the kind of guts you might think.

Field & Stream Online Editors

If you hunt big game seriously, you'll eventually have stories about the time you looked over The Edge-the floatplane that didn't land right, the horse that rolled, the widow maker that landed a foot away. You will freely admit how scared you were, and you will come to see that courage, although an unspoken part of the sport, is a very real part of the sport.

One of the hunters I know is a young man who suffers from a rare genetic disorder called dystonia. The disease makes it difficult and exceedingly painful for him to do things like walk and aim a rifle. Yet he has hunted over much of North America and in Africa and is a deadly rifle shot. He accepts in advance that he is going to suffer the torments of hell for what he wants to do, and he does it. I don't know of anyone braver.

African professional hunters know that even if they are very careful, they will probably be seriously hurt and perhaps killed. Yet they persist, year after year, and while comparatively few are killed, just about all of them get clobbered sooner or later. They persist because they love what they do, and leading an ordinary life would be a form of living death, and so they are willing to take the risks. A perfect example of this is the PH I once hunted with who was openly terrified of elephants. He had very nearly been killed by one years before and had never gotten over it. But he would go and hunt elephants with you, knuckles white on his rifle, swallowing every few seconds, muscles bunched under his jaw. He was a brave man.

In 1981, I hunted in Zambia, and on the safari before me, the PH had guided two married couples. One of the men had shot a leopard poorly, and the cat had escaped into the brush. This situation sits right at the top of every PH's list of nightmares. Leopards are not big but they are as quick as¿¿¿cats. Often, your first inkling that a wounded leopard is close is when his dewclaws hook in your collarbones, his fangs sink in your face, and his hind claws do their best to redistribute your intestines to the four points of the compass. But the PH went in and killed it.

To appreciate the rest of this tale, you have to understand that many of the people who go on safari are very rich, very used to getting their way in all things, and must be handled with kid gloves by the professional hunter.

For the rest of that day, all that evening, and into the next day, the client who had wounded the cat caught hell from the two women. Coward, they called him. If he'd had any guts he would have killed the cat himself.

Finally the PH had had enough. "Listen, you bloody fools," he told them. "He had no business going in after the cat. I get paid to do it; that's why I went."

I've thought about that story ever since. The hunter who wounded the cat may not have been brave, but he was certainly no coward. And the PH was definitely brave-but not necessarily because he went in after the leopard.

In Alaska, I met a guide who had run into a grizzly a couple of days before. His client had killed a moose, but the bear got to the carcass first and charged them from 25 yards away. Despite their size, big bears are deadly quick. There was nothing to do but stand and shoot. The two men hit the grizzly three times in the space of a second or two, and it died instead of them.

But the guide hadn't gotten over it. He wore a .44 magnum revolver everywhere; his eyes were still pinwheeling from fright, but he was going to pick up his next client, handgun and all. He was a brave man. Years ago in South Carolina, the plantation truck was going around after sunset picking up hunters from their tree stands. Off in the distance, we heard the muffled blam of a shot. It came from the only other Northerner besides me.

"Sounds like that Yankee got hissef a deer," said one of the Secessionists.

A minute went by. Blam.

"Musta got two."

Another minute. Blam. Now we were all looking at each other. What the hell?

It took us 10 minutes and 10 blams to reach the Yankee's tree stand, and when he got in the truck we asked him where all the dead deer were.

"I didn't see any deer. I was afraid of the dark and the noises, so I fired off a shot every minute to keep the animals away from me."

He was not brave.

On an elk hunt in Wyoming, a whole line of hunters and guides on horseback rode up a mountain in search of Cervus canadensis. The hunter ahead of me had never ridden a horse before and was flopping around on his nag's back like a sack of feed. He was also scared and loudly voicing complaints to the guide ahead of him that he wanted to quit.

The guide turned in the saddle to reassure the hunter, but at that moment his horse misplanted a hoof and went tumbling down a chute in the mountainside. Yelling, neighing, arms, legs, stirrups flailing, down and down the chute guide and horse tumbled till they hit bottom.

First the guide stood up; then his horse. They were unhurt. The hunter who didn't like horses said, "That's it," and rode back down the hill. I believe that what he did took more courage than riding on.

Back in the 1970s when it was still possible to do so, a friend of mine went hunting in Iran for an obscure mountain sheep. He and his guides rode to a point where they had to continue on foot and then followed a twisting path, not much wider than a man's foot, along the side of a cliff. Below was several thousand feet of Iranian air.

This was bad enough, but then they came to a gap where there was no path at all. They would have to leap from one side to the other like a gymnast on a balance beam. My friend thought, I'm going to be killed here, so I might as well take a picture of the spot where I died so my wife can see.

He took the photo and jumped to the other side. This was not only brave but thoughtful as well.