28 September 2006

On the Trail with Boris and Natasha

Next week, in my never-ending, unintentional quest to have the oddest filmography possible[1], my trusty camera and I will board a plane for the great state of Maine to document a real, live moose hunt and, hopefully, the culture that surrounds it.

Certainly, moose hunting is an odd choice for a film, especially for someone like me who tends to keep his distance from firearms and isn't exactly Grizzly Adams. My family, on the other hand, is littered with hunters and fishers and other various types, so much so that it effectively defines a large portion of who they are. Hell, half of my extended family has either been a game warden, tried to become a game warden, or majored in wildlife management (which is how you become a game warden, I think). Suffice to say that if I were to become a vegetarian, it wouldn't sit well.

According to the State of Maine webpage, the moose population is estimated at 29,000, which qualifies as a slight over-population problem[2] that's potentially of danger to the surrounding community, since in a battle between a car and a moose, both the car and the driver inside will likely lose. So, the state holds a lottery every year for moose permits (2,825 issued in 2006), and the lucky winners get their shot at an animal that can yield 1,000 lbs. of meat. Naturally, that amount of food will easily last the winter, so pretty much every hunter in the state applies. Once you get a permit, you're ineligible for the next two years, and every year you don't get picked, you get an additional entry for the following year.

This brings us to my father, the Susan Lucci of moose permits, a man who'd faithfully entered 27 years in a row before finally seeing his name drawn this year. Friends of his had been drawn multiple times, but this year is the first he's ever won and, as he puts it, he may not ever get drawn again, assuming this pace holds.

In my family, this qualifies as a big deal, so when Dad asked if I wanted to come along on the hunt, it seemed like the natural choice to say yes. It was actually his idea for me to film it, reasoning that this is exactly the sort of rare opportunity that makes for a good documentary subject. So, film it I will, even if I really don't have any real sense of what exactly I'll want focus on or how I'll want to film it. There's no opportunity for a crew, so effectively it'll just be me and the camera and what I can carry, a definite limitation, but one I've dealt with before.

If anyone has any suggestions, fire away.

Oh, and my cousin is getting married the day we leave for the hunt, as in we're leaving directly from the wedding and changing in the car on the way north. Rumor has it he's actually going on a moose hunt (not ours, a different one) the day after his wedding and no one finds this strange, which should tell you a lot about how people think up there.

[1] Thus far: yesterday (2001): a short student film about suicide, window shopping (2003): an odd, risky short that attempts to be poetic and fails completely, Reclaiming Our Past (2003-2005): three documentaries about the civil rights movement, guard duty (2003): a verite short about old men cooking potatoes, L'Attente (2006): a french film about coffee, Il Matrimino (2004): a sort of wedding video on steroids that I don't officially claim, some corporate HR videos, and various other aborted projects.

[2] Partly because the moose's natural predators are now rare in the state.


levi said...

watch some Outdoor Life channel to see what is being done in the "hunting documentary" industry. It might give you ideas about what to film and what not to. Or what sucks and what's cool. To put it in technical terms.

lucas said...

i don't think we get that channel...but maybe my father has some DVDs i can check out when I'm up there.

johanna said...

you'll probably discover who your best subjects are as you film it, but I would suggest keeping it broad at first, focusing on the fullest range of ages and personalities (sounds like you've got a caravan) until you get inspired

i did read a while back that there's a lot of concern about hunting becoming a dying father/son tradition (or father - daughter) and that camps and other programs had been set up in Maine and some of the Mid- and Northwest states to counteract that trend.

if I can remember what I put into the search engine, I'll provide the article link for ya.

johanna said...

grr. it's on a database that won't allow for a direct link. at the risk of clogging up the comments on this post w/o providing a lot of useful material...:

"Once or twice a week this fall, high school freshman Davis Asherman dons a kid-size camouflage jacket, pulls a warm hat over his dyed-green hair, and heads out with his dad to hunt for ducks.

Asherman, 15, is following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, but new statistics indicate that his children might not.

In a trend with broad political consequences, government data show a distinct decline in the number of American hunters, the outspoken outdoorsmen who helped turn the National Rifle Association into one of the nation's most powerful lobbying groups.

"Hunters have traditionally been the mainstay of the pro-gun movement," said professor Robert Spitzer, a gun-politics expert at the State University of New York at Cortland. "But if this decline continues, and there isn't much reason to believe it won't, over the next couple of decades there is going to be a major shift in the base and nature of gun practices in America."

The American population soared in the past decade, yet the number of adult hunters fell by 7 percent to 13 million nationwide, according to a new report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

More important, according to hunting boosters and analysts, the pool of young hunters such as Asherman is not deep enough to offset the loss of older devotees leaving the sport or dying.

"Everything is going in the same direction. License sales are down. Total hunters are down," said George Smith, head of the Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine, the state's powerful hunting association. "We have got the Youth Hunting Days, and those have been a success. But we're still not rebuilding hunter numbers. The demographics just aren't there."

Amid the national downturn, hunting maintains solid footholds in parts of the country, and it even grew measurably in a dozen states, such as South Dakota, Minnesota and Alaska, which retain vast rural stretches. Still, from Maine to Georgia and Illinois to California, America's busiest hunting grounds are facing declining turnout.

The trend is reshaping political debate in traditionally gun- friendly states, draining the coffers of wildlife agencies that depend on license fees, and spawning cultural standoffs between hunters and suburbanites, many of whom resent guns in their parks and wooded lands.

NRA reshaping itself

The trend is spurring the 4-million-member NRA to redefine its image as a more conservative voice of urban gun owners and 2nd Amendment advocates.

"Hunting is a very important segment of our membership, but people own guns for a variety of reasons, and the No. 1 reason is self-defense," said Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist.

The drop reflects many currents in American life from the spread of suburbs into rural land to the rise of year-round youth athletic seasons.

Loyalists see its decline as the death of a rugged, simpler way of life in which fathers took their children out to open lands to hone their shooting skills and possibly bag dinner.

Critics such as the Fund for Animals say killing animals for sport simply has failed to attract significant interest beyond its core of aging white males in a country that is more diverse every day.

Many in Yarmouth, a coastal town in Maine, still recall the time, a generation ago, when students would store their shotguns in the principal's office after an early morning bird hunt. But these days, many students are no more likely to hunt than their big-city counterparts.

"If I'm going to get up two hours early before school, it's going to be to play hockey," said Rob Kurtz, a Yarmouth High School senior. "I tried hunting once as a kid, but it never did it for me. I never got into it."

Groups target youth market

The gun industry and sportsmen's groups have launched aggressive recruitment efforts, ranging from hunting-themed toys to outings, in hopes of snaring younger and more diverse adherents.

Since 1990, the National Wild Turkey Federation, a hunters group in Edgefield, S.C., has invited 9,000 urban youths to its annual conventions to learn about the outdoors. The non-profit Becoming an Outdoors-Woman organization has grown since 1991 to offer weekend workshops for 20,000 women each year nationwide. For less-energetic newcomers, the Buckmasters brand Deer Huntin' video game is encased in a plastic toy rifle that lets users peer into a plastic scope and shoot at digital deer.

Despite these recruitment efforts, the number of hunters continues to decline. The largest drops have occurred in states with fast-growing suburbs, including Massachusetts, California, Delaware and Illinois. The Fish and Wildlife Service study, based on phone surveys, shows the number of Illinois hunters is down 31 percent since 1991, to 310,000. State figures, based on license sales, show a drop of 12 percent. Even so, officials say, that dip has cut license revenues by $500,000 to $6 million last year.

"When you have revenue falling at that rate, it's a major concern," said Tim Schweizer, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "That is the revenue you use to pay biologists and to do the work of wildlife management, so when that falls, it is a major problem."

The effects also ripple through rural restaurants, equipment suppliers and other businesses that depend on hunters. In Wisconsin this year, a dearth of hunters--deterred by the deer-borne illness known as chronic wasting disease--is threatening to sap $100 million from the state's tourism industry.

Wildlife officials in Georgia expect hunter numbers there to fall 52 percent between 2006 and 2025.

Strongholds face standoffs

As hunting fades, the sport is encountering political opposition in some of its traditional strongholds. Six towns in Maine have passed or considered hunting restrictions in the past two years, limiting where, when and how animals can be killed.

Town leaders in Yarmouth suspended hunting last fall in a 250- acre wooded park amid concerns that cross-country skiers and dog walkers could be shot accidentally. The ban sparked soul-searching in the town and, ultimately, hunting was allowed to resume this fall, albeit with stricter rules.

To Smith, of the Sportsmen's Alliance, the debate hinted at more standoffs to come.

"In my 53 years in Maine, we have never been so challenged by anti-hunters," he said.

Nationally, advocates on both sides of gun issues say the sag in hunting will have a more gradual impact in Congress than in state legislatures, particularly regarding gun control. With both houses of Congress and the White House in Republican hands, gun-control activists say they do not expect success in the near future. In its most recent survey, Fortune magazine last year declared the NRA the country's most powerful lobbying group.

Gun-control lobby pleased

Still, many gun-control advocates celebrate the decline of hunting as a long-term factor in their favor. As the NRA seeks new supporters among conservatives, the gun-control lobby sees a chance to persuade moderate gun owners to back "sensible gun control."

"As the NRA sheds its hunters, they are left with the hard-core members," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control group.

To some pro-gun lawmakers, however, fewer hunters in Congress already means fewer allies.

"You get people coming to Congress now who don't know a shotgun from a rifle, or a bolt-action from a semiautomatic," said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), an opponent of gun control and founder of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus. "It's obvious when they make speeches about guns that they don't know what they're talking about."

- - -

Number of hunters slipping

Although the U.S. population soared in the past decade, the number of adult hunters fell by 7 percent to 13 million. This change has some worried about the future of hunting and gun laws.

STATES WITH THE MOST DECLINE Single-year totals in thousands of hunters

1. Massachusetts 108 66 -38.89%
2. California 446 274 -38.57%
3. Delaware 26 16 -38.46%
4. Illinois 449 310 -30.96%
5. Iowa 328 243 -25.91%
6. North Carolina 398 295 -25.88%
7. Connecticut 57 45 -21.05%
8. Ohio 615 490 -20.33%
9. Colorado 348 281 -19.25%
10. Arizona 182 148 -18.68%"

-- Chicago Tribune, Dec 2, 2002

Thom said...

Johanna is right about that father/son tradition. Some of my fondest memories come from the bonding experience of hunting with my father. You won't regret spending this time with your dad. That's an angle you might want to consider for your film. Or some after-the-hunt storytelling? Some of the greatest tall-tales, funniest moments, and most amazing true emotion spill out when your sitting around a campfire, cookstove, etc. swapping stories of the day's events. By the way, I like the title of this post :P

Ryan said...

Brilliant, rock-solid idea (are you ready for this?): MOOSE-CAM.

Here's the deal: you get to the moose FIRST, outfit it with a camera (attached to the antlers, perhaps?), and we experience the moose hunt from the animal's perspective. It can't fail!