“Please do not stop on the stairs or tarmac to take photographs. Proceed directly to the terminal.” Those words spoken by the flight attendant upon rolling to a stop in the Jackson, Wyoming airport struck me as bizarre until I stepped out of the airplane and found myself instinctively reaching for my camera. She was right to warn us. The grandeur of the Tetons really did overwhelm passengers stumbling their way to the terminal. So began my week at the American Wilderness Leadership School in Wyoming’s Bridger- Teton National Forest. The ride from Jackson to the campus in a large passenger van full of strangers was among the most memorable of my life. I was processing new people, stunning views, and the staff driver teaching our first lesson. That trifecta of engagement would remain, all day every day, until I reversed the journey back to the airport for the flight home.
Instead of articulating the day to day, which I’ll get to in a moment, I want to state the most important thing readers of this article deserve to hear: the American Wilderness Leadership School is without question the most valuable pro-hunting and conservation tool currently functioning in the United States. I state this not because I am familiar with all of them, but because I witnessed teachers than had never knowingly been in the presence of a real firearm high fiving each other after breaking a clay target. I spoke with others that came to see venison as a true alternative to grass fed beef. Most importantly, I watched people who had negative and sometimes legitimate stereotypes about hunters replace them with a new, much more positive image. This happened in seven days.
This isn’t to say everything went as smoothly as possible. The days were very long and tightly scheduled. Students quickly figured out that if you wanted to brush your teeth after a meal you had to inhale your food and sprint to your cabin to find a spare few minutes. Two hour lectures stretched past that mark without breaks. This did get frustrating but added to the intense camaraderie that rapidly formed among attendees. Regrettably, on a few occasions debate took place on topics that should be approached outside of the scope of the school’s mission. Upon seeing an AR- 15 among the examples of sporting rifles one teacher, utterly new to everything the school was offering, asked the instructor if that was the type used to murder kindergarteners at Sandy Hook. Things devolved for a bit and created some negativity that was hard to shake, but all involved in this conversation parted with civility. There were literally teachers from California districts so large that schools are simply given numbers instead of names and others, like myself, who came from areas in which hunting and conservation are relatively close to being a way of life for many. This presented obvious challenges that the instructors met quite impressively on nearly every occasion.
The setting for the school defies description. The campus, made up of a massive main lodge with dorm rooms, classroom, trophy filled annex, library, gift shop and dining facility, is flanked by a variety of shooting ranges, a 3-D archery range, cabins, maintenance facilities, and a fire pit. Flowing in front of this expanse is Granite Creek, all of which is surrounded by mountains. Hiking trails snake this way and that and ever present are mule deer, the occasional moose, and little critters known as chiselers which provided a lot of Caddy Shack jokes. Days were a mix of classroom and field work. A great deal of time was spent on archery instruction, culminating in a 100 question test that led to National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) certification. Handgun, rifle, and shotgun were given fair time too as was ecology, wilderness survival, and local history. Time was made for pure recreation like white water rafting and hiking. The instructors were fantastic, particularly guest speaker Harlan Kredit, the longest serving ranger in Yellowstone’s history. Our first meal was brook trout and the dining bar stayed that high the entire week. Coffee was plentiful and often enjoyed before breakfast on a porch facing the mountains. Woven through all activities were Dr. San Julian’s lessons on conservation and the enormous financial and personal commitment America’s hunters stake in our wild places. He ended by asking the class if this work wasn’t done by hunters and their organizations, who would take over this billion dollar challenge?
I am a dedicated a hunter and recreational shooter. Debating which era produced the best Model 70s or the ideal choke for pass shooting geese are conversations I love to have. Having said that, I’ve learned to keep that part of me quiet when in new settings until other, more universally accessible aspects of my personality begin to sync with new people. To that end it wasn’t until the third day that my new friends at AWLS learned of my hobbies. By then they saw me as a professional peer with whom they had much in common. This led to me being a sort of after-hours representative of hunting, a challenge I feel I rose to credibly. One morning I was doing a sunrise hike with a teacher named Kimberly from Ohio. A mule deer crossed in front of us and after we quietly watched its passing she asked me if I could really shoot an animal that beautiful during hunting season. I replied that I could, and then went on to explain my nearly spiritual relationship with killing, how my wife and I take great pride in having wild game being our family’s primary protein source, and the honesty I feel in eating an animal killed on my own terms. Moments like this occurred regularly. An already incredible week was further enhanced by leaving feeling that not only had I learned, but contributed to the school’s vital mission of demonstrating the conservation model ethical hunters embody. I am very thankful for the experience as it was unquestionably among the most powerful weeks of my life.