Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Steven Rinella (@MeatEater, @StevenRinella), the host of the Netflix Originals series MeatEater and The MeatEater Podcast. He’s also the author of seven books dealing with wildlife, conservation, hunting, fishing, and wild foods, including the forthcoming The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival, coming out on December 1st, 2020. Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: My guest today, I’m very excited to have on, finally, Steven Rinella, R-I-N-E-L-L-A. You can find him on Instagram @meateater, also @StevenRinella. Steven with a V. He is the host of the Netflix original series MeatEater and The MeatEater Podcast. He’s also the author of seven books dealing with wildlife conservation, hunting, fishing and wild foods, including a forthcoming book, The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival, coming out December 1st, 2020. You can find all things MeatEater on TheMeatEater.com. And you can also find Steven on Facebook @StevenRinellaMeatEater. Steve, so nice to have you on the show. Thanks for coming on.
Steven Rinella: Thank you. That was a good delivery there, man. I feel like that was A-grade hosting.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you know, we met, I was trying to do the math on it, and I’m guessing. I want you to correct me if I’m wrong, but I want to say maybe mid to late 2011. And I was trying to do a trip down memory lane. It’s almost 10 years since we first met, which is just bonkers. And I promised that if I screwed up the intro, I would not make you suffer through 20 retakes, and that I would fix any flubs later. But it seems like lifetimes ago that we first met in the context of 4-Hour Chef.
And I thought perhaps a trip down memory lane, at least as I’ve been doing prep for this, there’s been quite a bit of that, could be fun for setting the stage. Because there’s certainly going to be some listeners of this podcast who have hunted, and there are going to be many, many who have not. And I wanted to read just a tiny little piece from the first chapter. I had someone on my team poll everywhere you appeared in The 4-Hour Chef. It was like a quarter of the book. So I only dug into a few pieces, but there’s a chapter called The Anti-Hunter’s First Hunt. The anti-hunter referring to me, because I grew up on Long Island having very bad associations with the hunters who did a very poor job in my neighborhood and around my house where I grew up. But you are the counterpoint. So I wanted to set the stage. I’m going to skip things a little bit, but the heading is 6:00 a.m., South Carolina, and then I’ll skip down.
Steven Rinella’s tutelage in all things hunting was encyclopedic. My 6:00 a.m. brain struggled to absorb a motley assortment of miscellanea:
- Deer are classified as corpuscular. In simple terms, they move mostly at dawn and at dusk.
- Kiefer Sutherland was once swindled in a cattle-rustling Ponzi scheme. I’d forgotten that one.
- If Steve could only eat one meat for the rest of his life — let me know if this has changed — a monthly 50-pound allotment of any wild or domesticated animal, it would absolutely be elk, specifically, cow elk or young bull elk.
- The original version of The Joy of Cooking had instructions for how to fatten a trapped opossum with milk and cereals for 10 days before slaughtering and cooking it.
- The neck of a male deer in mating mode, in other words, a “rutty” buck, can double in size, making it look like a linebacker.
- Skinning a rabbit is easier than taking off your socks — grab the scruff and peel, pulling down toward the head. Eating rabbit requires caution though, as you can die from tularemia, an infectious disease named after Tulare County in California.
Steve is as down-to-earth — this won’t go too terribly long, so bear with me — Steve is as down-to-earth as you would hope any good hunter to be, but he didn’t fit my stereotype. For instance, he applies physics terms to skinning. And most relevant to my food quest, as he put it: “There are far better chefs out there than me. There are far better hunters out there too, but there aren’t many who can combine the two like I do.” He’s a master of turning the wild into “ingredients” people recognize. Now I’m going to need some French help. In 2004, he prepared a three-day, 45-course — so let that sink in for people — a three-day, 45-course banquet from Escoffier’s landmark 1903 classic — is it Le Guide Culinaire? I have no idea how to say it properly.
Steven Rinella: I’ll tell you what I do.
Tim Ferriss: What do you do?
Steven Rinella: I’ll say The Culinary Guide.
Tim Ferriss: The Culinary Guide. Nice. All right. And then the last paragraph I’ll read here is: By “prepare,” I mean that he foraged, killed, and otherwise procured every ingredient from the outdoors, then recreated the feast himself, which took more than a week. This experiment was chronicled in his first book — now here’s another French word — The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine.
Steven Rinella: I’ve been well-trained on this one. And still every time you do it, you’ll get corrected. Haute. It’s like —
Tim Ferriss: Haute. Okay. The Scavenger’s Guide to — Haute. Haute. Okay, I see. Without the H. All right. The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine.
Steven Rinella: There you go. That was great, man. That was better.
Tim Ferriss: He started trap — thank you; you know, I’ve been working on my French on the side — he started trapping for income in rural Michigan when he was 10. Now 38 — that’s, of course, changed — he writes for a living and his work is as likely to be seen in The New York Times as in Field & Stream.
So I wanted to set the stage, because I think a lot of people in their minds, as soon as I mention hunting or anything else, will have an image pop up, and I don’t think that image matches you all that well, at least the kind of stereotypical image that will pop up for non-hunters.
Steven Rinella: When I was younger it matched me perfectly well, man.
Tim Ferriss: Say more.
Steven Rinella: So I grew up in Michigan, but across the lake, not terribly far away, the sad state of Wisconsin. And my good friend Pat Durkin of Wisconsin had once said something along the lines of, where he lived, that if you weren’t a deer hunter, you at least slept with one.
There wasn’t a ton of self-reflection at the time, and also raised up by a generation that hadn’t been invited into and cultivated any kind of real conservation ethic. And there was a bit of a get what’s yours while you can get it mentality that I grew up on. But I don’t want to derail you. I just get a little bit — Maybe we’ll touch on this later. I often get accused —
Tim Ferriss: Well, there’s no rail. You can’t derail me.
Steven Rinella: I often get accused of being somehow different than hunters, or different than normal hunters, or different than what you’d expect as a hunter. And man, I feel like I’m a lot like the people that I spend a lot of time with. I’m a lot like a lot of the people that I spend a lot of time with.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s dig into it. There’s no rail to get derailed from. So, for instance, in an interview that I read in prep for this, you self-described as a hunter-conservationist, right? Hyphenated. And I want to talk about that. And I guess by introing you the way that I did, what I wanted to point out, and I’ll just personalize this, is that growing up, my exposure to hunters was very limited. It was limited to seeing wounded deer with arrows stuck in them on my property, my parents’ property, because people were A, trespassing, B, just not doing a very good job of hunting, understanding that you’re not going to have perfect shots all the time, but they’re like beer cans everywhere. And it just wasn’t a positive association.
Now in contrast though, at least if we look at, I guess at the time, 38-year-old Steve, who I went to South Carolina with for my first hunt. The experience and the explanation and the care and the attention to detail was something that I never would have associated with hunting growing up. Right? So I suppose all I’m trying to do is contrast those two things, which were largely an imaginary figure in my head, based on a few bits of exposure as a kid. And then my experience with you, which were very, very, very different. And that’s not to say that most hunters are what I experienced as a kid and not what you are, but let’s dig into it. Why do you call yourself, if you still do or identify with, hunter-conservationist?
Steven Rinella: Even sitting where I’m at today, so you’re reading from when you’re 38, I’m 46. Even sitting from where I am today, when I look back at what our relationship — when I say our — my family’s, the people I was around — what our relationship was with nature and the outdoors was very much based on a deep, deep love and appreciation for resources, for wild places, for nature. It was almost like — we would have never put these words to it, but it was a sacred thing. And it was almost like a sort of worship for animals and a worship of wild places.
But, the perspective on it, I didn’t know the history of how things came to be the way they were. We had a lot of national forest around us. We were sort of on the southern terminus of the Manistee National Forest. I think now it’s the Huron-Manistee National Forest, it was combined with another national forest. We were sitting at the southern terminus of that national forest.
I couldn’t have told you the first thing about how that place came to be, what sacrifices were made in our history to have the abundant wildlife that we had. I couldn’t have told you how bad things had gotten in this country in the late 1800s and early 1900s with regards to wildlife. If there was a sign on that national forest that said closed to vehicular traffic, if it wasn’t physically blocked, that sign wouldn’t really mean much to us. If it looked like somebody else drove there, we would drive there as well. I, at times, when faced with an abundant surplus of things, sold things for money that — sold wild game for money, knowing you weren’t really supposed to do that with some species that we would sell. But it was just, it was a thing that people around you did. You didn’t really know that it was wrong.
At the same time, we would see behaviors that we recognized as abhorrent. Things that would probably blow away any negatives that you might’ve seen growing up. I’ve probably seen worse behaviors from hunters and anglers than you have. So I always lived with a — even from my perspective right now, we had some poor behaviors, some ill-thought behaviors. I always recognized the spectrum of bad behavior. And there were things that would happen around us that my father would be incensed about and would dissociate with people who had extraordinarily bad behavior.
And if you look at that sense of there being a spectrum of ethics or a spectrum of a conservation ethos, throughout life, with education and with various epiphanies that come with just learning how to think and having exposure to books and ideas, scientists, biologists, ecologists, philosophers, whatever. It’s become more fine-tuned. And I now have a very acute sense of what it takes to have wildlife in wild places. I have a good understanding of that now. I understand our history now, and that has led me to an extraordinary amount of reflection over the years about what role a hunter or an angler should play when it comes to environmental stewardship in hunting.
So I associate as a conservationist, because I try to really put my money and actions where my mouth is on conservation, meaning clean air, clean water, lots of animals, lots of wildlife habitat. Those are things that I stand for. And I see that that is a thing that’s increasing among my kind, but it’s a little tough for me to think of myself as somehow extraordinary, because I see many, many people go down the same path that I did. A long exposure to this seems to lead in this direction for most people.
Tim Ferriss: For people who not only have no exposure to hunting themselves, but who have no real familiarity with how hunting works in the US from an economic perspective, the ecosystem, not necessarily the natural ecosystem, but sort of the fiscal ecosystem. I was reading an article and you seem to comment on the decline in hunting and fishing license sales as worrisome. Could you expand on that or speak to that?
Steven Rinella: Oh like how funding works?
Tim Ferriss: I’d love to give people an idea of how —
Steven Rinella: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How funding works. Exactly.
Steven Rinella: I would love to, because this is something that’s — there’s a catch-22 almost within this. But yeah, I’d love to talk about that. You have a global audience, but this is going to be — I’m going to run down how it works in the United States. I can claim subject matter expertise in the US, and I have a passing familiarity with other places, but I’m going to focus on the US. US has 50 states, right? So all 50 states have a state fish and game agency, and your state fish and game agencies are responsible for the stewardship of wildlife in your state.
There are exceptions to this, because migratory birds, so migratory fishes and things, where an animal isn’t going to live its entire life in the confines of a particular state. Then you’ll have federal oversight over what happens in a state. There’s sort of some federal guidelines about how a state might handle its wildlife resources.
There’s other exceptions too when you get an Endangered Species Act and things like that. But generally, you can say that the people in a state own the wildlife in that state. So if you’re sitting in New York and you see a deer, you, as a New Yorker, own that deer. That deer is managed for you by your state agency. So it doesn’t matter what that deer is sitting in a cemetery, if it jumps a fence into a county park, if it jumps a fence onto a farm, if it jumps a fence into a national forest. That deer is the state’s, meaning it’s yours.
These agencies manage wildlife in terms of access to it. Oftentimes, states manage boat launches and trailheads on state lands and things, but they also do disease work on wildlife. So they do researching diseases, wildlife management, enforcement of wildlife laws. So if someone’s poaching, it’s a state issue. That all comes from your state fish and game agency.
Some state fish and game agencies get no hard funding. When you pay your taxes in your state, in a lot of states, no money does — none of your general tax money goes to your state fish and game agency. The bulk of state fish and game agencies finances come from the sale of licenses, tags, and stamps. Hunting licenses, fishing licenses, permits, tags, all the stuff that goes with hunting and fishing. And another major funding source for state fish and game agencies is excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, various use, like very use-specific sporting goods items, marine gas, fishing tackle, fishing line. These excise taxes, which could be on guns and ammo, these excise taxes committed around 11 or 12 percent.
So when you go down and buy — a person that lives in New York City goes down, and they have a concealed carry permit, say, then they go down and buy some ammo for a concealed carry permit. About 11 or 12 percent of the cost they pay on that ammo goes to fund wildlife. And that’s how we pay for this whole system. There are complexities to it, but that’s how we pay for it. A fear about declining hunting and angling numbers. And angling numbers, this is — since COVID, they’re seeing a pretty strong uptake in fishing numbers with people. I think people weren’t able to go do what they would normally do. They’re like, “Fuck it. I’ll go fishing.” And we’re seeing a fair bit of that. And whether or not they’ll be fishing in two years is not known. A fear about declining hunter numbers — and I’ll tell you an interesting point. I think that there are about as many hunters right now as there were in the years following World War II.
Tim Ferriss: And they were low after World War II —
Steven Rinella: That was the peak in terms of per capita.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that was the peak?
Steven Rinella: All those do — this actually plays into my — I got to remember where I was at. This actually plays into my own sort of genesis, right? My dad had me when he was old. My dad had me when he was 50. He fought in World War II. And when he came home from World War II, he, like just about every other guy that went off and fought World War II, got into hunting and fishing. It was sort of the — that era, the late ’40s, early 1950s, that was the birth of the modern American sportsman. People had money, they were buying cars, they were traveling around, there was this — we were fetishizing the great outdoors. And my dad was part of that generation.
What I’m saying, hunting participation was so high then — I don’t know, I guess you could look up real quick what the US population was in 1947, say, or 1950. But I think we’ve quadrupled our population, but we had about as many hunters then as we have now. So participation rates decline. In many cases, numbers of people who hunt declined, and a long-term fear, besides whatever that might mean for a disassociation with nature and the disassociation with wildlife, it has funding implications. Because states, even if you hate hunters and anglers, you can’t get around the fact that hunters and anglers fund your state’s wildlife apparatus. If people aren’t doing those activities anymore, those funding structures fall apart. And there’s a —
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the components of the wildlife apparatus? For somebody — let’s just say someone says, “Hey, I don’t care about hunting.”
Steven Rinella: Oh, some components of it?
Tim Ferriss: Why should I care about this? What are some of the pieces, exactly?
Steven Rinella: Anyone who hunts ducks, okay. Anyone in this country who hunts ducks, any kind of waterfowl, migratory waterfowl. Ducks, geese, cranes, whatever. Besides buying your state license, state hunting license, you usually need like a base hunting license. You need a state waterfowl permit. You need to go buy a federal duck stamp. And for years, the federal duck stamp had been 15 bucks. It just raised up. I can’t remember what — it was a significant raise. Maybe check that for me, what the cost of the federal stamp is and throw it in for me. It raised up into the 20s. All of that money, from all of those millions of individuals buying those federal duck stamps, all of that money goes into fund waterfowl habitat, meaning it goes into wetlands work.
If you have a bear in your yard, or let’s say you realize that you have a bear in your yard getting into your garbage, when you call a number, that’s going to be — someone from your wildlife agency is going to show up. That wildlife agency individual will show up, and when they show up, their salary, equipment, everything, their agency is funded by expenditures from hunters and anglers. A fear is that if hunter numbers go down, our ability to fund habitat work, like habitat improvement, habitat expansion, habitat acquisition, wildlife work, disease work, reintroducing species that were extirpated from the landscape, that a lot of that work will lose its funding structure and will go away.
Tim Ferriss: Can you define “extirpate” for people who are not familiar with that word?
Steven Rinella: Yeah, it’s a great word. I also want to get into the catch-22 of this all. But yeah, extirpate.
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Steven Rinella: People are familiar with extinction, right? Extirpation is regional extinction, meaning grizzly bears are abundant. Grizzly bears are recovered in portions of Wyoming. Okay. Wolves are recovered in portions of Wyoming. Wolves are missing from the — have been extirpated from the bulk of their range in the US. Grizzly bears were extirpated from California. They’re not extinct, but they’re regionally extinct, so you could say that they were extirpated, like brought to regional extinction in California.
There’s an ongoing bit of effort, much of it funded by hunters, for instance, around reintroducing species that were extirpated through habitat destruction over harvest. For instance, at a time, New Mexico had literally run out of elk. They had none. Now, they have thriving populations of elk and elk hunting seasons across the bulk of the state. But still, with as many elk as we have, as much as we associate elk hunting and seeing elk, elk are still missing from some 90 percent of their historic range. Michigan was — like everywhere — was elk habitat, and they’ve been extirpated. They’re gone from those places. Some of the work that’s done by state agencies and other wildlife groups, many of them hunter-based wildlife groups, is doing as much as we can to put those animals back where they belong.
If you look at it in terms of the turkey, at the time of European contact, we had wild turkeys in probably 39 states. There’s some debate about where they were, and it wasn’t static, right? Wildlife’s dynamic. It expands its range, its range shrinks. We probably had turkeys in 39 states. By the late 1800s, early 1900s, we only had wild turkeys in 19 states. They vanished from 10. Only a couple states maintained any sort of turkey season. Most states, it was illegal to touch a turkey. We now have turkey hunting seasons in 49 states. So they did recovery and then some on turkeys, and that was driven by hunters. And someone could sit and say like, “Yeah, you guys did that because you like to hunt turkeys.” And I would say, “Yeah, there’s a lot of truth to that. There’s a lot of truth to that. There was an incentive to do it, but it was done.” And this is the sort of work that would go down, that you would lose if you lost that funding mechanism.
Now the catch-22 is that, and this is legitimate. The catch-22 is that if hunter numbers go down, it’s great for any individual hunter who has less competition. If you could live in a world where you’re the only guy that went out and hunted, you’d have a pretty sweet situation. As long as you had public approval and didn’t lose in the legislative process and hunting got banned everywhere, which would probably happen pretty quickly if you were the only guy up to it, because there wouldn’t be a lot of people there guarding the gate, right? So that’s the catch-22. That’s the hard part of this. Some people find it deeply offensive. Well-intentioned, well-reasoned —
Tim Ferriss: Find which part?
Steven Rinella: — find it deeply offensive that you would want to expand hunter numbers. Like, “What are you talking about? Why would you do that?” I feel like when I was in, I think I was in eighth or ninth grade, I had a civics teacher. No, he was in the high school. I had a civics teacher who was supposed to help all of us kids get registered to vote. And he was like, “Why would I want you people to register to vote? Why would I want to dilute my vote?”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man. If we look at the different extirpated species in portions of the United States, that whole spectrum, are hunters 99 percent or 100 percent focused on reintroducing basically target prey species? Or are they also involved in reintroducing species, I’m not saying necessarily, but you mentioned the grizzly or other carnivores who would compete with them for the game that they hope to capture themselves?
Steven Rinella: Yep, that’s where it gets pretty tricky, man. I would like to tell you, I would love to tell you that my hunting compatriots were as supportive of efforts to recover non-game species as they were game species, but that’s not true. When you look at it though, when you look at the habitat work, you’ll find that we have these terms we use like capstone, keystone, species, and when you look at organizations that do habitat work, they would tell you, and they’re right in telling you this, that there is a massive trickle-down effect.
For instance, let’s look at the work by two groups, like Ducks Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk — we’ll do three: Ducks Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wild Turkey Federation. Now, you listen to those names — we’ll throw a fishing one in too and say Trout Unlimited. You look at those names, these are like species-specific conservation groups and their constituencies are hunters and anglers. I’m sure there’s probably some person that belongs to the National Wild Turkey — I’m like a lifetime member of National Wild Turkey Federation. I’m sure there’s people who belong to National Wild Turkey Federation that don’t hunt turkeys, but in the words of Pat Durkin, I bet they sleep with someone that does.
What their work winds up focusing on is, it’s not so much that you’re managing the animals, though that happened at a time. At a time, wildlife work in this country really was focused pretty heavily on moving animals around, putting them back in places. That’s become complicated for a variety of things, including disease transmission and other issues, like red tape issues, bureaucratic issues, disease transmission issues that make — you can’t just willy nilly truck animals around the country, dumping them out where you wish they were anymore. It’s tough.
These organizations now mostly focus on habitat work. Oftentimes their primary thing is simply buying and protecting habitat. When you get into something like keystone species, let’s say you’re Ducks Unlimited and you take money and you buy wetlands. You’re looking for pristine, imperiled, wetland habitats. Then buy them, often through like a willing seller willing buyer transaction, which is also one of the things Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation does, and Turkey Federation, these places all often do the same playbook. They get grants, they raise money from donors, they do fundraisers, and a big part of their work is they identify keystone habitats for — and you’ll hear keystone species.
So it’s a thing that they want. It’s a thing they like. And by securing habitat for that animal, you’re securing habitat for everything that lives there, restoring natural ecosystems. In the West, for instance, one of the more imperiled ecotypes in the West is large riparian areas. Elk winter in these large riparian areas, meaning they go down along the main rivers, they go down into big river valleys to get out of the elevation, get out of the snow, get into good grasslands and eat. If you want to help elk, it used to be the best way to help elk was tranquilizing them, lifting them up with a helicopter and moving them over a couple of mountain ranges and letting them go again. Now we recognize the way to help elk is to look at, where is the bottleneck in their well-being? And the bottleneck in their well-being is often riparian habitat areas. So we’re going to go and preserve, protect as much riparian habitat as we can.
Who else uses riparian habitat and who else likes there a lot of elk? Well, wolves like it in the winter. Wolves need a lot of elk. So by helping elk through improving their habitat and protecting their habitat, you’re helping everything on the landscape from songbirds to insects, pollinators, raptors, you’re helping everything. People definitely recognize this when they participate in these activities, but the motivation is that people like elk, they like to hunt elk and they want a shitload of elk. And you can critique their motivation all you want, but you have to then look at what is the sum thing? The sum part of it is that a group like Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or National Wild Turkey Federation, every year they add to the net amount of pristine wildlife habitat that exists in this country. And you cannot say the same thing about PETA. You can’t say it. When it really comes down to really saving animals, that’s saving habitat. The animals, you give them the right place, the animals, for the most part, take care of themselves. And that’s what’s being done by hunters and anglers.
Tim Ferriss: And I suppose that would, and you know so much more about this, but that would be in some respect conditional upon letting the full spectrum of species flourish that are supported by this preservation or conservation of habitat for, say, the elk during the winter —
Steven Rinella: Yeah. I forgot that part. There’s a tremendous amount of animosity toward wolves in the hunting community. It’s definitely not across the board. I know a lot of hunters that really like to see wolves and welcome wolves on the landscape. But yeah, I should clarify that when it comes to — I’m speaking very generally here, I’m speaking very generally, I would say in general — let me put it this way. Let’s take a state that doesn’t even have wolves. I would say that if someone proposed reintroducing wolves in Missouri, they would get an enormous amount of pushback from deer hunters. When someone decided to do reintroduction work in portions of Missouri on turkeys, I do not think they would have gotten any pushback from hunters.
So yeah, people, like all predators — I look at it a little bit like this, when a coyote runs into a red fox, he likes to kill it. When a wolf runs into a coyote, he likes to kill it. Predators tend to want to reduce their competition, and I think that you could say that about hunters in general, though there are many, many, many exceptions. I know some very avid hunters, lifelong, very avid hunters who really welcome wolves, as wolves expand their range every year, welcome wolves back on the landscape. And even within those people that welcome them back on the landscape, you’ll find differences.
There’s a push right now, there’s a referendum vote in Colorado coming right up to mandate the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado. A lot of people are uneasy with that. The reason they’re uneasy with that is wolves are coming in naturally, drifting down from Wyoming. It’s as nuanced as this; you’ll have people say, “Why would we reintroduce them when they’re showing up at their own pace through natural migration?” And that’s a pretty nuanced perspective, right? “I welcome them walking in. I don’t welcome them flying in.” So it’s hard to draw these real hard and fast rules about people’s attitudes about it.
And there’s a real contradiction, like a funny part of this I like to point out to people; Alaska still has wolves and grizzlies across 99 or 95 percent of their historic range in Alaska. Alaska doesn’t have large land mammals on the Endangered Species Act. They’ve maintained all their stuff. Wolves, everywhere you go, there’s a likelihood of running into wolves. You’re going to run into grizzlies. Yet American hunters all dream of going up to hunt in Alaska. And you always want to point it up like, “Are you sure? You hate wolves? That place is full of wolves. There must not be any game in Alaska. How could there be game in Alaska? They have wolves.”
And you would think with some people that wolves coming back into certain areas would mean these sure death of all ungulates that live there. And I think that’s an exaggeration, but wolves don’t eat granola bars either. You know, they eat seven pounds of meat a day. Seven pounds of meat a day. They’re alive 365 days a year. They kill a lot of shit. And to say how hunters think about it is really tough, man, because it’s the full array of thoughts. But say this, we don’t like those wolves as much as we like those elk, and that I can promise you is true.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The wolf conversation, I remember somebody put it to me as, “Wolves in general are the Middle East of conservation.” He said, “If you want really, really strong emotions and a lot of polarity, then that is the right place to focus.” There’s a really good piece in The New Yorker, there’s a profile on, I think it’s Karin Vardaman, called The Persuasive Power of the Wolf Lady, which is about a go-between between these two polar extremes. And you actually had — I had someone named Mike Phillips, I don’t know if you know that name, who’s in Montana, but was involved with the Yellowstone reintroduction. And you had a scientist also on your podcast in an episode that was outstanding, that was a really, really dense and also entertaining episode. So for people who want to dig into that — and I think Dave Mech, is that another? Am I getting that right? M-E-C-H —
Steven Rinella: That hasn’t been a guest of mine, no. But we had — okay, go ahead first.
Tim Ferriss: No, but he’s very involved. I was just saying he’s also somebody, if people want to learn more about this, he’s another person who focuses quite heavily on the —
Steven Rinella: Yeah, Colorado is faced with a very similar situation that is what Montana was faced with when they did a reintroduction, and essentially in Wyoming, but in Yellowstone National Park, is that there were animals coming in naturally. There were animals coming in naturally from Canada. We probably would have, not probably, we would have landed eventually where — in the future from today, we would have landed where we are now without doing the reintroduction, and some people would say the same thing about Colorado. They’re headed that direction. There are wolves showing up. It used to be a rumor, it was debated. It’s just an absolute fact now, there are wolves in Colorado coming in on their own. And some people prefer that because the social tensions become lower.
There’s a thing that can happen with animals, you might call it the spotted owl-ification of certain species where, when conservation becomes so partisan and so political, oftentimes an animosity toward the animal develops, because the animal becomes emblematic of what some people might view as federal overreach and something being shoved down their throats. And so politically and culturally, it seems that it’s a little safer to let things happen gradually and naturally than it is to force your hand by politicizing biology.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It seems super tricky because you have so many subtleties here, and like you said, whether it’s face masks or spotted owl, or wolves, once things become politically associated, whether by just circumstance and momentum or by some kind of engineering on one side or both sides for voting purposes, it complicates matters a lot, but also —
Steven Rinella: It’s really interesting that you — I love that, the mention of face masks where yeah, you’re right. We’re not talking about face masks. It’s not about — the thing on your face, we’re talking about this whole set of ideas associated with the thing, that’s a good point.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. Exactly. And humans are motivated, so you really have to take into consideration the motivations of whoever is speaking, whether they are hunters, non-hunters or anyone with incentives in the world. Because there are people who would say, and we don’t have to spend a ton of time on this, that wolves were so forcefully removed, I don’t want to apply the word artificial, but they were certainly, with overwhelming sort of show of force and poison—
Steven Rinella: They were removed with intent. With specific, stated intent. Elk were removed, they were removed not with specific intent. No one set out to be like, “I would like to remove elk from the landscape.” It just happened. But yeah, wolves, there was a plan, there was a bounty, there was poison, there was a plan and the plan worked too well.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So if anybody wants to wade into the Middle East of conservation, that’s a good place to do it. You mentioned —
Steven Rinella: Friendships end over wolves.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It is a tense conversation for a lot of folks. You mentioned Alaska. I want to talk about Alaska and I want to give a slice of life, a mini profile of Steve Rinella. So this is going to be another flashback moment, and for those interested, this is captured on footage, but I’m not sure all of it is captured. So you and I traveled up to Alaska at one point and ended up fair to say pretty much in the middle of nowhere, I mean, one of the most remote points in North America. Got grounded for weather for a while, and it was just an incredible adventure.
And we had at one point, actually more than one point, but at least at one point on camera, we had a grizzly, a barren ground grizzly, which you could explain, run into our camp. And the reason I bring up that is A, that was something I’d never experienced before and I and other members of the film crew were like, “Steve, what do we do, Steve? What do we do?” And this bear was running around this body of water straight towards camp. And I don’t know how far away it was, let’s call it half mile, you can correct me, but let’s just say a half mile, which is not very far. And meanwhile, you had just gotten out of your tent, this is the part that I don’t know if it’s on camera or not, you had just gotten out of your tent and I don’t know if you remember this, a bunch of mosquito repellent had spilled in your tent.
Steven Rinella: 100 percent DEET. It had spilled and eaten a hole through the floor of my tent and warped my phone case and ruined my phone. It ate a hole through my tent. And that’s the stuff we wear on our skin.
Tim Ferriss: So you get up and you were like “God dammit, motherfucker, god dammit,” so you’re just stamping around, furious, cursing, while this bear is running around this body of water. And everyone’s like, “Steve, Steve, what do you want to do here? Steve, say, Steve.” And you were like, “God dammit, motherfucker,” you were so angry. And eventually they were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” And you could grab a shotgun and shoot in the air and wave your hands and spook this bear, which was a pretty large grizzly bear, you could speak to it, at least from my perspective, certainly a lot bigger than my dog, ran like a quarter mile away, sat down and looked at us and just kind of waited. Could you maybe add some color to that story? Because it certainly burned and etched the experience indelibly into my mind, but what are some of the details that I’m missing?
Steven Rinella: You’re right about the DEET, a bottle of 100 percent DEET, and man, it wound up ruining a lot of my stuff, because I had given it a lot of time to fester. It spilled in the corner of my tent and leaked out, it was a mess. In terms of the bear, I’ll point this out. We’ve been talking about grizzly bears. We’ve touched on grizzly bears in the lower 48. Any time we use the word grizzly bear, if you asked a taxonomist, like a geneticist, they would tell you that grizzly bears in the lower 48, brown, what we call brown bears, Kodiak bears, barren ground grizzlies up on the Arctic slope where we were up in the Brooks Range, it’s all the same species.
They have big differences, physiological differences, they look different, they act different in these different places, but it’s just different manifestations of the same animal. And one of the things that these barren ground grizzlies up there, bears in the interior, the thing they’re known for is they have these enormous home ranges. A brown bear, let’s say a Kodiak brown bear, let me start with that: biggest bears in the world, biggest brown bears in the world, but they might have a very, very small home range. They eat a lot of salmon, they live in a resource-rich environment, they’ve got their spot and they stay there and defend it against other ‘vores.
But up in these areas, you have — I hate to say it because I don’t want people to take it the wrong way. Up in the Arctic slope into the Brooks Range, it’s a resource-poor area. It looks amazing. It’s gorgeous. When you’re out in front of a migrating herd of caribou, it looks like the land is crawling with animals. But the thing is you could sit there at times of the year, you could sit there for months and nothing will come by. And so a big animal like that just covers ground and they need to be extraordinarily opportunistic. They’re going to be eating primarily, probably the bulk of that animal’s diet is going to be vegetation — berries, root — but they’re just on the move all the time, because they’re always out looking for that big windfall, a big hit, a big protein hit. And so they cover ground and they have an amazing nose on them.
I, one time, was caribou hunting in a different area, east of where you and I were. And we had gone three miles up a tributary to a river and killed a caribou and gutted it and hauled the meat back down to the main stem. That night we were sitting on the main branch of the river at the mouth of that tributary and watched a grizzly coming down, digging up roots in the gravel bar, and it got to the mouth of that tributary and you can see something strike its nose, like a scent. And it stood up on its back legs, waved its nose in the air for a long time, spun around, did it again, and eventually ran up that tributary. And I didn’t go check, but I am certain based on the wind patterns that he smelled that gut pile from three miles away. And that’s what they’re out doing, man, they’re covering ground.
And so on that trip we arrived, we had, I don’t know, at the time one or two caribou on the ground. And there’s no trees there, it’s a barren land, a treeless environment, and the trees that are there are shrubby and doesn’t do any good, meaning you can’t hang it up in a tree to keep it safe. So if you have a cache of meat that you’re trying to protect, the best thing is to put it where you can keep an eye on it, like close to camp. If you move it away a mile, it’s just going to get consumed and you won’t be able to protect it. You won’t even know that it happened. If you put it right in your camp, you’re inviting stuff to come right into your camp, so you just put it off where you can keep an eye on it, 75 yards away, 100 yards away, depending on what’s going.
And this bear comes along to claim that caribou. He’s probably done that a ton of times, he comes in and probably has in his life countless times fought off other bears to claim a dead caribou, fought off wolves to claim their caribou. In that place too, it’s probably likely, it’s very likely, that that animal had never had a direct experience with a human before. It sees aircraft, whatever, maybe smelled people somewhere, but probably never had direct experience. It just is knowing that it’s cruising along and probably had, miles away, long before we knew it was there, had smelled that animal and it was coming to get it.
And then it gets there and you present to it in a way that’s kind of authoritatively saying, “This is already mine. This thing is claimed. You have no right to be here.” That’s what you’re trying to express to that animal. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. I got a lot of friends, people lose stuff to those things all the time, but in that case, that little show of force like, “I’m not afraid of you. This is my shit, it is not your shit” worked and he ran off and then surprisingly didn’t come back in the dark and try again.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I remember going to bed that night and we were in these sort of skin thin single person tents, and I was saying to, I’m half blanking on his name, was it Nick?
Steven Rinella: Yeah it was Nick Brigden.
Tim Ferriss: Nick who was on the show? Yeah, Nick. Yeah, Nick was with us and I was like, “Well, hope you don’t die tonight.” And he was like, “You too, man!”
Steven Rinella: They can have a real attitude about claiming stuff, man, claiming to kill. And people get, every year — it’s kind of an amazing thing. Every year in the lower 48, multiple people get killed most every year from grizzly bears. Not to, this is going to sound callous, but that that could happen, I hold that risk is kind of cool. I like it. I don’t mind there being something big and scary like that out there, in fact I drive a lot of emotional satisfaction from it. And this is beyond any sense that I don’t like it when humans play God and decide to remove animals from the landscape, but I like that. I feel more alive, better, more engaged, happier in places that have that full suite of large predators, omnivores, out on the landscape.
So I relish those interactions and I also am aware that at some point in time, I’m part of a very high-risk group around bears, and I don’t think something will happen to me, but I’m part of a high-risk group and it’s like, I recognize that — I’ll feel lucky if I get out of life without having someone I’m very close to get mauled by a bear or killed in a small airplane crash. It’s just things I recognize is, those are actual, real threats. People fixate on the wrong things when they imagine danger, but if you’re spending a lot of time hunting in these areas, that’s not a fantasy that you could get mixed up with a bear.
Tim Ferriss: It strikes me that if we’re talking about, for instance, the bear attacks which are so visually memorable for anyone who’s seen The Revenant, for instance, they’re going to have a movie they can play in their mind of what a bear attack looks like, where a small plane crash may just be off menu. They just don’t have a reference for it.
Steven Rinella: That’s great. We definitely don’t have one for hypothermia. No one goes in the woods like, “Dude, I hope I don’t die of hypothermia.” But you know what? I’d be watching out for that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s not as cinematically compelling, but it sure will kill you just as well and are you more afraid, because you take a lot of small aircraft, I would imagine, and certainly we did, we took these bush planes. These are tiny, tiny aircraft and you are not landing on a perfectly manicured asphalt at all times. Do you worry more about the aircraft, or in this case, bears?
The thing about the aircraft is there’s a sort of statistical bit of it, right? You go to a place like Alaska where it’s a primary mode of transportation. In most places having a private, single engine plane is a hobbyist. Right? Or a flying enthusiast, who’s oftentimes flying for the sake of flying. You go to a place like Alaska and much of Canada, that’s how you get around. Right? It’s how you do it.
I remember it was — I think it was Ted Stevens in Alaska. I think it was him. And he talked about an occupational hazard of politics in that state was small aircraft, and then died in one. But you can look at crashes per hour or whatever. So someone like me, no, I don’t have any real reason to worry about it. I have a brother who’s an ecologist in Alaska and he spends a lot of time in single engine aircraft. A lot of time in fixed wing, and helicopters. And, yeah, man. You get to a point where all those people that do that, they all know people. Right? They all know people that that’s happened to. I’m to the point now where I’ve been in planes that I later knew crashed.
Tim Ferriss: That’s spooky.
Steven Rinella: Yeah. But, for me, it’s just so minor, some number of trips a year. But the people I know, especially people who do fish and wildlife work up there, I do worry, man. I do worry. My brother spends a lot of time in those things and I worry about that. But, for me, if you’re at least open to thinking statistically, personally, I have no reason to be concerned.
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, for people who want to get a glimpse of Alaska, you could certainly read some amazing books like Coming into the Country by John McPhee. But if you want a visual sampler, I just pulled this up, I don’t know if this is accurate because it’s on IMDB. It could be. It says season three, episode one of MeatEater.
Steven Rinella: That sounds right.
Tim Ferriss: Is our episode where we traveled to the remotest corner of Alaska to catch the annual migration of the famed Western Arctic caribou herd. Where can people find, if they can, these older episodes?
Steven Rinella: Yeah. You can find those older — see, there’s some moving parts here, but you can find all the older episodes if you go to TheMeatEater.com. Go there and you’ll find your avenue to all the older episodes.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, great. Yeah. It looks like the episode is called True North: Alaska North Slope Caribou, season three, episode one [Ed. Note: numbering scheme may have changed; it’s currently showing as season two, episode nine at TheMeatEater.com].
Steven Rinella: Yeah. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll put that in the show notes also so people can will be able to find that.
Steven Rinella: They’re also available and are broadcast by Sportsman Channel — Outdoor Channel, and Sportsman Channel. But then you can also find them by going to TheMeatEater.com. They’re not available on Netflix. We’re going to be doing some things soon around distribution with some of our older material, but that’s where you can find them right now.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect. Let’s move from television to books. And in this case, books that are not yours. We can certainly spend more time on books that are yours, but I read that you recommend, and I don’t know how old this interview was, a few books very commonly. Son of the Morning Star by Evan S. Connell, Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, and Boone by [Robert] Morgan.
Tim Ferriss: Do you still, or would you still recommend them? What’s special about these books?
Steven Rinella: Son of the Morning Star is about the events leading up to, and including, the Battle at the Little Bighorn where — Custer’s last stand. It’s a great story. I mean, it’s just a story that just makes its own gravy. It’s just incredible. The brutality and just weirdness of that campaign, the culmination of Custer’s involvement in that campaign.
One of the things I love most about it, besides just phenomenal reporting, is the openness with which the author approaches how different people remember things. And, reading it, you get a sense of how there are, at any given time — and this is just so applicable today. There are a hundred truths. I don’t mean 100, like one, zero, zero. There are as many truths as there are people about what went on during something.
And his exploration of people’s accounts of what happened that day and the days surrounding it, when Custer died, and who did what, and who was where, and who thought what, and what was going on — it’s just the question marks that loom over that stuff are unbelievable. It’s a great telling, it’s a great piece about just human memory, but also a phenomenal history of the American West and a phenomenal history of the Indian Wars.
To say what led up to the Battle at Little Bighorn, you can approach that in a hundred ways, man. You can take a 500-year approach, right? You could take a decade approach. You could take a week-long approach. And he manages to cover off on all those ways to lead up to how in the world did a couple hundred US soldiers get wiped out, killed off, by Plains Indians armed with antiquated firearms and bows and arrows in — to quote one of the Sioux participants in the battle named Gall, “In the amount of time that it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner.” It’s just so bizarre. It’s just candy. It’s history candy. And he’s such a great — he’s just great. I feel, like a Western literature masterpiece.
Arctic Dreams is a work of natural history. Arctic Dreams is a book about the Arctic. One of the most profound parts about it for me is that the author, Barry Lopez, is very uneasy with hunting. I would venture to say that Barry Lopez would probably not like me too much. But—
Tim Ferriss: What would he dislike about you?
Steven Rinella: He’s uneasy with hunting. He spends a lot of time with indigenous hunters in the Arctic. So he spends a lot of time with Eskimo and Inuit hunters. And he’s relatively at peace with that, though he recognizes the violence. But he’s at peace with that indigenous approach to hunting. You would look at that — and I find that it’s often quite true. People who would be like — they don’t want violence toward animals. Right? But they’re very accepting if it’s done by an indigenous person as though the animal somehow feels that pain differently.
You can’t really ignore that. If you’re a walrus getting shot in the head on an ice flow, I don’t know that you care who’s pulling the trigger. I really don’t think that that is of issue to them, but people tend to be much more comfortable with that. And he gets into it and Arctic Dreams is also just — it’s someone trying to comprehend an incomprehensible landscape. Tim, I don’t know if you remember being out there in the Arctic there? Do you remember the tussocks?
Tim Ferriss: Oh. Well I was going to bring those up because you mentioned the lack of trees. I was going to make t-shirts for everybody. Remember that? “I love tussocks.” Because those fucking ankle breakers, man. You got to — I mean, you can describe them. They’re like one-third inflated volleyballs covered with fucking dog hair. I mean, they’re the most dangerous things you can think of and it’s just many, many hundreds of square miles of these things.
Steven Rinella: Yeah. You can’t decide if you’re going to try walking between the tussocks or on the tussocks and the tussocks are — they might be 12 inches, 18 inches tall. And they flop around. I always liken it to if you filled a gym full of six inches of water and then took basketballs and somehow tethered them to the floor so that all the basketballs are touching. And then you’d be like, “And now you’ve got to go across there for a few miles.”
Tim Ferriss: And then try to walk across that. Yeah.
Steven Rinella: And then you might figure out some way to walk on those basketballs. I don’t know. Or you might find some way to get your feet wedged down between those basketballs, but either way I’d invite you to do this little journey. But in Arctic Dreams, one of the best parts of Arctic Dreams is about a botanist who spends their day face down on a tussock counting — doing a survey on that tussock, of the vegetation on that tussock, and the thousands of blades of sedges, and forbs, and — right? And just trying to comprehend what’s going on on this tussock. All these plant species. Right? Incredibly dense.
And then having this feeling of doing that and then looking up and any direction you can look, as far as the eye can see, it’s just more, and more, and more of those tussocks. Right? It’s just an incomprehensible landscape. And that book does a wonderful job of spelling that out. And it does a wonderful job of challenging some things. Of challenging some things and challenging some assumptions. Yeah. It’s phenomenal.
Tim Ferriss: And that book won the National Book Award. I was just looking it up. So that’s no joke. Just as a side note, I still want to hear about Boone, but I think perhaps the most nervous that I was at any point in that trip in the Brooks Range was — well, if I’m being honest, it was probably the grizzly bear, acutely, but nothing happened. But when I had a lot of time to meditate on the dozens of ways that I could fracture a leg or dislocate a hip and really be fucked, because you know how hard it is to get to this place. And it’s not like you just call someone on a cell phone and an Uber helicopter shows up in five minutes. You could be stuck there for a very long time.
Steven Rinella: Oh. Yeah. Weather depending, you could be there —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So when we were packing out the meat from the caribou hunt — and, so imagine you’re in this gym that you visualized earlier. Right? With the six inches of water, with all the basketballs touching and tethered to the floor, and you have to walk across that. And then take a backpack with, I don’t know, you tell me, I don’t recall what percentage of the body weight of a caribou would end up being harvestable meat, but — I don’t know. What? 60 to a hundred pounds on each person’s back, maybe something like that? I have no idea.
Steven Rinella: Oh. Yeah. You could have total of over a couple hundred pounds, potentially. Well, that might be a bit much, but — yeah. You’d be, with the bones in there, you’re moving a couple hundred pounds for sure, plus.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So that’s [inaudible].
Steven Rinella: Yeah. In packs, bringing anything like — 50 pounds a backpack is substantial. It decreases your mobility. At 90 and a hundred pounds a backpack is — you’re like, “Wow, this is sort of — you need to step carefully.” You could hurt yourself carrying this weight. It’s not good for you to carry this weight.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And I remember you commenting that if there were a sport that just involved carrying heavy weights for long distances, that you could be an Olympic medalist.
Steven Rinella: That would be the one sport I’d be good at.
Tim Ferriss: And in my case it’s like, when’s the last time that I walked on half inflated volleyballs for a mile with a hundred pounds or 80 pounds on my back? And the answer is never. And I was like, “Wow. Like, okay. My glute medius and all these stabilizers in the hip have no training for this whatsoever.” So thank God there are people like Dan Doty and other monsters behind the cameras who are like, “Yeah, let me just grab that for you.” I’m like, “Okay.” It hurts my masculine pride a bit, but I’m less interested in fracturing both my legs. So I’ll take the help. Thanks very much.
Steven Rinella: Yeah, trained tussock walkers.
Tim Ferriss: So Boone by [Robert] Morgan.
Steven Rinella: Yeah. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Boone. And any little kid that grows up loving to hunt, and trap, and fish, and stuff, you’re aware of Boone. Right? You’re aware of this pioneer, Boone. And at various times in history he was remembered as an Indian fighter. Right? Even though he didn’t really have a big appetite for that. And if you look at what he did, he actually went out of his way, typically went out of his way to avoid violence. But an Indian fighter, a pioneer, an explorer, a hunter, a trapper. And at various times in my life I’ve been in love with different aspects of what he did. And he often, in old books, he was kind of presented as this swashbuckling Davy Crockett figure. Right? Whistling through the woods, just being a hero. But there’s a lot of complexity there around this person and this idea that he was heavily involved in destroying what it was that he loved.
He made his money in a variety of ways. And he had made a lot of business mistakes, a lot of land mistakes, and different investments, and stuff. But for the most of his life, he was a commercial hunter, and he was a trespasser. So he was hunting places, one, that had Native Americans that claimed it and lived on it. And they fought amongst themselves over ownership of these hunting grounds. But there was that, which meant next to nothing to him. And then there was the fact that he was trespassing on land that he wasn’t supposed to come on from his own government. In the time of the colonies we were always striking these deals where we would assure the tribes like, “Oh. No. No. This is about it. We’re not going to go any more west. We promise our settlers won’t go over that line. And the rest of that’s yours, we’ll take this,” and Boone didn’t care about that stuff at all either. He just went where he wanted to go.
And we now describe this as a sort of celebration of freedom, but if you took that attitude today you would be called an interloper and a poacher and you’d wind up in jail. But he was pursuing his trade. He hunted deer for leather, not so much meat. They hunted deer for leather. Leather workwear. It was sold, and tanned, and they made the equivalent of making Carhartts today. And he did that for a lot of the year. And then he hunted bears for the oil and meat markets. He would go out, kill bears, smoke the meat, render the fat, sell the smoked meat, bear bacon, and sell the bear oil. And that’s how this guy made his living.
The book does a great telling of all of this stuff, but a thing that I love about Boone, and I’ve come to respect about Boone, is he exemplifies this part of my history as a hunter. When I say my history, I don’t mean the things that happened in my life, but as a continuation of a discipline. As a continuation of hunting in America, he’s this really pinnacle moment where you have this person that loved wilderness, loved the outdoors, risked his neck day-to-day to go to the wildest places and celebrate that.
And he liked those places, he wanted to be there. Boone would sometimes go on a hunt that would last two years. Gone from his wife and family for two years hunting, and lost all the hides he built up twice by having them confiscated by Native Americans who resented his trespassing. He liked it. He could have found a hundred other ways to make a living. That was what he was. He was a woodsman. But he was one of these guys in our own history who was instrumental in wiping wildlife off the face of America.
And it’s this part of this conundrum we’re in where we look and I’m like, “I celebrate that guy.” Right? His skillset, you can’t begin to comprehend his skillset. All the shit they did, they did without flashlights. It’s, like, you can’t begin to comprehend the skillset and admire. And if I could go back in time, my number one pick would be to go through the Cumberland Gap with Daniel Boone the first time he went through the Cumberland Gap. He crossed down into the hunting grounds of Kentucky. To do that walk with him. But, my God, the damage. The damage.
Tim Ferriss: Now was the damage his influence, or was it just the manner in which that he hunted and what he represented being done on a wider scale?
Steven Rinella: Both.
Tim Ferriss: What was the damage?
Steven Rinella: Influence, by opening up those places. It would have happened anyways. Someone else would have done it. By opening up settlement, opening up — clearing the road for the displacement of indigenous people, clearing the road for people who would destroy the habitat. But, also, just the mechanical, physical removal of all that wildlife.
He one time processed — I think it’s right around us. I think this is correct. I think, one time, he processed 109 black bears in a year. Oh.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a lot of bears.
Steven Rinella: They wiped them — we talked about extirpation earlier. They were wiping out stuff without even knowing they’d wiped it out. There used to be bison in Nashville. There’s a guy that saw a thousand bison at a mineral lick near Nashville, one time. People came into New Orleans and saw a bison. They were on the beach. It seems as though people ran into them near Washington, DC.
These guys, they shot stuff so fast and so thoroughly that the shit was gone and they didn’t know it was gone. We sit around now like, “He killed the last bear in Indiana,” or whatever. It’s like people used to celebrate it. I mean, they were just rapacious, but I don’t think they had any comprehension of what they were doing. There’s a story I like to tell a lot about with bison. There’s a story I like to tell a lot about the hide hunters that — oh. Oh. Please. Please. Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Can I pause you for one second? Just to establish you’re bona fide. So I’m looking at one of your many books and this one is American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon. 1,213 reviews, average five stars. So you’ve done a lot of reading and research regarding this. Please continue.
Steven Rinella: Oh, yeah. I knew that world real well back when I was working on that book. But this is a great story about the damage that hunters do without knowing they’ve done. So I’m going to just throw some wild round numbers out. At the end of the Civil War it’s estimated there were maybe about 15 million bison, buffalo. I should say it the other way. Buffalo, bison on the Great Plains. Right? And we were hunting them for their tongues, meat, but mostly we were hunting for their hides. There was a strong market for leather and hides. And we had a lot of market hunters chasing after them. So the civil war ends, people say there’s maybe about 15 million, and we really turn our attention to the west. We start cutting railroads, we open up avenues of trade. Meaning you could kill Buffalo and stick the hides on rail cars and send them to market. We were feeding an industrial revolution.
And so there’s a lot of money to be made shooting hides. And they killed off the ones in the south from the Texas plains, Kansas. Right? And then they started working on the northern herds. And some people say that by the time the Northern Pacific Railroad had crossed the Western Dakotas and made it into Eastern Montana. There was maybe a couple million left in the last wild herd. And they shot that herd out in the winter of ’81, ’82, 1881, 1882. Gone. Right?
A couple years later, this guy Hornaday, William T. Hornaday goes out there to collect specimens for the Smithsonian. The assumption is they’ll just be gone, they’ll be exterminated, extinct. And he wants to collect some hides, and bones, and stuff so that man in the future will be able to behold what these things looked like before they were driven to extinction.
And he comments, when he gets out to Mile City he comments how the people that live around Mile City, the ranchers, the merchants, were people that had been involved in that last big slaughter. And then they were just hanging around, waiting for the next herd to come through. Everybody knew there must be a bunch more up north or somewhere. And they waited, and a year goes by, and none came. And they waited, and two years go by, and none came. And, eventually, they got like, “Huh.” And set up various businesses and ranching operations, and gradually it occurred to them that, “Oh shit, we got them all.” Accidentally. Right?
So when you look at these people — getting back to this Boone thing, which is the question. When you look at these people that were engaged in this stuff, I don’t think they — they knew. They knew that something was amiss, and they knew that things were changing, because that’s why Boone had to constantly move. Pennsylvania to North Carolina. He constantly marched west. By the time he died, it’s rumored that he had made it all the way up into the Rockies, following the Missouri river up on a hunting trip.
He always had to move west because they killed everything, and it forced them to need to move. He was aware of this. But I don’t know that they really were villains. I don’t know if they really were acting with malicious intent. But, my God, were they destructive. And also just cool. It’s a good book. It’s the best piece of work about Boone.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Well, I mean, these are all amazing stories. Your story is pretty incredible. And I want to rewind to your first sold piece of writing. So you mentioned this in passing, we didn’t get really into it, but your plan A was to be a professional fur trapper up until something, like, 22. Right?
Steven Rinella: Yeah. Yeah. I had to give up on that.
Tim Ferriss: And, yeah, had to give up for a whole host of reasons. And you decided that plan B was to become an outdoor writer. So your first story sold in 2010. Is that right? Something like that.
Steven Rinella: Yeah. Yeah. That was the first piece I sold for money.
Tim Ferriss: What was that piece about?
Steven Rinella: Oh, dude. I’m still mad about the title. You don’t get to pick your own title. They called my article Gettin’ Jiggy, which I’m still mad about it 20 years later. I love dearly, and I’m still friends with the person who oversaw that process. I’ve never told her about my anger. So for a while, for a semester, when I was young — I was young in Michigan and everyone that — if you hunted and fished, where you needed to go live with what we called the UP. That was the cool spot.
And, so some of my closest friends, my brothers, they went up to the UP to go to college. Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Tim Ferriss: UP, Upper Peninsula?
Steven Rinella: Yeah. So, and it’s just the promised land. Or that’s how we viewed it, anyway. And I went up there to live for a semester at Lake Superior State University. My brother, Danny, he stayed up there and graduated from there. So I was in and out of there all the time.
And there was this hydroelectric diversion canal in Lake Superior where they peel water off the St. Mary’s River and then run it through a channel, then run it through a hydroelectric dam. Right? So just turn turbines to make electricity. And this canal had a lot of aquatic insects that lived in it. And, so fish would gather at the outwash of this dam. So where they released the water out after passing through the turbines, they release this water back into the St. Mary’s River, and it would carry with it a lot of food.
And you’d go up and we would actually tie our boats up to the dam and you’re just fishing for whitefish. Lake superior, or Great Lakes whitefish. You’re fishing for whitefish in the outwash of the dam. And we would sometimes — my brothers had figured this out. You could leave the bar. It was competitive to get the right tunnel, the right turbines that seemed to hold a lot of fish for whatever reason I never understood. Certain turbines held a lot of fish. No matter how early you got up, some dude would beat you, some old-timer, beat you to the spot, so my brothers hit on this idea to just leave the bar at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, whatever, and go out with a sleeping bag and sleep there.
Tim Ferriss: I thought the bar was a technical term.
Steven Rinella: No.
Tim Ferriss: You mean the bar right here.
Steven Rinella: Screw getting up at five. Let’s just sleep there. I would go out with my brother Danny and we’d run a boat up in and, we’d go in the tunnel. You’re in the bowels of the dam because it’s warm in there from the turbine. There’s these little hooks in there, and you could drive your boat into the tunnel and tie off and just sleep in a sleeping bag. Then at 5:00 in the morning when some old-timer fishing fanatic shows up, lo and behold, you’re laying there hungover in a sleeping bag, ready to fish. I wrote a piece about this. You know what? I was wrong earlier. That wasn’t the one they called Gettin’ Jiggy. I was mistaken about that. That was called Dawn Patrol. Gettin’ Jiggy was another article I wrote about something very similar in Seattle. I’m sorry. I screwed that up. Dawn Patrol. I was still in graduate school and it sold, I remember, for 4,000 bucks. I couldn’t imagine that amount of money. It was an unfathomable amount of money.
Tim Ferriss: That’s pretty good.
Steven Rinella: We partied. We partied for days after that.
Tim Ferriss: Were you always an able writer, or did you do something between, I guess, 22 or whenever you began thinking about outdoor writer as an option? What enabled you to get to that point, because I am not a features writer or a magazine writer, so it’s hard for me to speculate in that world, but I wouldn’t imagine that most folks start off with a $4,000 payment for a magazine piece. They’re probably doing small stuff.
Steven Rinella: Yeah. I did all that small work after that. It took a long time. I got encouragement. It’s so hard to pick out what exact moment turned, but absolutely this goes out to all the school teachers out there. When I was in 10th grade, I had an English teacher named Bob Heaton. Mr. Heaton took interest in me as a writer. I later went to, I did a Master of Fine Arts. I studied with phenomenal writers. I’ve had many mentors. I’ve had people pull strings for me. I’ve had great advantages, expert technical training, all the stuff. It’s really hard to talk about how you got somewhere, where you are, but I feel as though if Mr. Heaton, if this 10th grade English teacher hadn’t spotted something there and made me aware of it, that I probably wouldn’t have done what I did. I think that’s pretty fair to say. He, this is kind of interesting.
I don’t know how much you pay attention to the education system today, but there’s this thing where we’re more and more into grooming kids for, this fear that we’re more and more into grooming kids for standardized testing. I guess at that time, Mr. Heaton didn’t really give a shit about whether you’re doing the assignments. If you were a slacker or weren’t trying, he wanted you to do the assignments, but this guy gave a lot of room. If he saw something you liked, he just gave you a lot of room to focus in and explore. This sounds like a lot for 10th grade English. You go there for an hour a day, and half the time, you’re not paying attention, but in that time and a couple classes I took with him after, in that time, he took the time to develop things in kids. Maybe he took the time to develop things in kids who otherwise didn’t have a lot of prospects.
That’s what led me on the path. It’s been like, wow, because I wanted to be a writer and backed into doing television and backed into doing a podcast and now helping to run an outdoor media company. Yeah, man. Maybe it boils down to that. The trapping thing is, I set my first trap with my brothers in 1984. There had been these insanely high fur prices in 1978 through 1982 and people were making a bunch of money trapping muskrats and stuff. I came in at the tail end of that, and fur prices just went down, down, down. In the beginning of that, I thought that’s what I would do for a living.
Tim Ferriss: Now, you’ve expanded quite a lot, as you mentioned, beyond the writing. Before we leave the world of writing, if you were teaching a class and for all I know, maybe you have, but if you were teaching a class, not an English class but a writing class specifically, could be to 10th graders, could be to freshmen in college, doesn’t really matter, but I would say it could be MFA, but by that point, people have already decided and honed some of their skills, so probably, let’s just call it 10th grade through to end of college. You could pick the age. What would you do? What would your approach look like? Are there any core books or practices or anything that you would use in your class?
Steven Rinella: Yeah. I’ll tell you what. I’m not going to do the 10th grade one, but I’ll do the college one, grad school one. I just don’t have the expertise. It’s hard for me to understand 10th graders, even though I, once upon a time, was one. I understand college. I’m more aware of where I was just more cognizant by then. If I was going to, just writers in general, writing in general, if I was going to give advice to someone, I don’t know if anyone else gives this advice this way. I would read everything you can get your hands on. I would pay a lot of attention to the things that you read that really speak to you, that make you feel jealous, that you wish you would have wrote it.
Tim Ferriss: I see. Got it. Jealous of the writing itself.
Steven Rinella: You’re like, my God, if I could do that, right? Pay attention to the things that make you feel like you want to die, it’s so good and you’re so jealous. Find that handful of writers that make you feel that way. Try to understand what they’re doing and then don’t try to mimic one of them, but create a way in which you’re trying to mimic or you’re trying to capture the thing that you envy about three or four different writers. They’re too smart to be emulated. You can’t copy them. They’re geniuses. In trying to copy them, you will, if you’re lucky and you’re good, you will come up with something new because you will never succeed in copying them. That would be my advice to writers. That’s what I did.
Tim Ferriss: Is there anybody, outside of the books that we already talked about, is there a particular writer who inspires that, “Jeez, if I could just do that” sense in you?
Steven Rinella: Joan Didion. I’m dating myself because these are the books that were cool when I was in graduate school. Joan Didion, Ian Frazier, John McPhee, and David Foster Wallace. Those are the people.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good team.
Steven Rinella: Those are the people that were like, “If I could do that, I would be happy.” Those are the magicians. Black magic shit.
Tim Ferriss: We were talking about —
Steven Rinella: I don’t know how they do it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah, they’re definitely those experiences. I’ve been having those experiences in fiction quite a bit, even though I’m not a fiction writer, but it’s funny. When I talk to, I don’t know if you’ve written fiction. I have not, and I’ve spoken to some very competent fiction writers who have been like, “Non-fiction’s too hard.” I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding?” Good non-fiction is hard. Don’t get me wrong. To do anything really well takes dedication and some degree of talent, I suppose, but when I read really good fiction, I’m like, “Yeah, no. I can’t do that.”
Steven Rinella: That’s art. It leans in the direction of art, and I think non-fiction leans in the direction of craft.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I agree with that. We were talking about Season 3, Episode 1. You have Season 9 of MeatEater that just launched, and you have all these different projects, but if we’re looking at MeatEater the television show, you have more than 100 episodes now. Are there any particular episodes that really stick out for you, any particular trips that are favorites? I guess it could be to film or experience. Maybe that’s not an easy question, but I’ll throw it out there anyway, just to see if there are any that —
Steven Rinella: No, they’re different. What we do isn’t overly produced, and so there’s a huge amount of, a lot of it you just can’t product because you can’t be like, “The animal shows up now.” They’re not overly produced, which means that there’s an actual trip happening. There’s an actual journey happening with a question mark around it, since it’s not scripted. There can be the actual journey, the physical trip you go on and then there’s this product that comes out of it, this piece of work, this craft that comes out of it, which is the show. You could have a trip that isn’t hugely impactful, but the thing you make from it, the piece of entertainment that you make from it is memorable. You love it. You’re like, “I want to have that if, in the future, tombstones have something playing on tombstones instead of just inscriptions, I would like my tombstone to play that episode over and over again.” It doesn’t mean that the trip was great.
I think the things I’ve done, the trips I’ve been on that were phenomenal trips and, in my view, great episodes were the handful of times, a couple times when we’ve been able to go travel on rivers and hunt and fish with Amerindians in South America, particularly in Guyana, in Bolivia, hunting with people who are ancestral hunters and gatherers, who are on a landscape, hunting and fishing on a landscape that, from their view, is that they’ve been hunting and fishing in perpetuity, probably for thousands of years, father, grandfather, on down the line, and the level of intimacy they have with the land and water where they have been raised and where they hunt and fish 200, 250 days a year.
To see that is a very eye-opening experience, because it really invites you to imagine what was lost here where we live in terms of this continuity, that there’s still places there where Indigenous peoples, even though there’s technologies emerging and stuff happening all the time and people can have email addresses, where there’s a continuity of the same people, the same culture doing the same practices in the same place for hundreds or thousands of years. A level of awareness and fine-tuned thinking comes out of that, which is stunning to witness. Then there’s the cool shit like just how they cook and hunting practices, fishing practices. That’s been things that have really impacted my worldview, episodes that doing them impacted my worldview and then also the delivery of the product, the thing that people go watch when they’re sitting on their living room couch at night is, in my mind, good work. We did good work when we did those shows.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned the awareness. Are there any particular sensitives or types of awareness, any examples that you could give where you just thought to yourself, “Wow, that’s something I haven’t seen before. That’s something I haven’t felt before.” Do any snapshots come to mind in spending time with these people?
Steven Rinella: Tracking, detecting sign on the ground, footprints, broken blades of grass, bent things, just the awareness, animals passing through and knowing that they passed through. An awareness of bird sound in a place where it just feels like cacophony. Have you ever watched that movie about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo movie?
Tim Ferriss: That is so strange that you’re bringing this up. Burden of Dreams, I just started watching it last night. That’s bizarre. That’s super bizarre. This is not a movie that you hear — it’s not widely spread.
Steven Rinella: No, no. It’s not a movie —
Tim Ferriss: Yes, I literally just started watching it less than 12 hours ago.
Steven Rinella: He gets to the point where he is very sick of the jungle, and he’s explaining that birds don’t sing. They scream in agony. It’s this incredible cacophony sometimes. It’s just noise. They can sit there and dissect that. It’s this big. It’s this. It’s this. It’s this. It’s that bird. It’s that bird. It’s that bird. That was impressive. Hunting, being able to hunt with bows and arrows made entirely from native materials except for a piece of wire cut from a fence that was them hammered into the shape of a projectile point. Finding a tree, a plant called arrow plant, which you get your arrows. Shooting a black curacao to get his feathers for fletching. Taking a yucca type plant and pulverizing it, braiding it into a string, waxing that string with rubber from a rubber plant, lashing the fletching onto the shaft, making a glue from native materials with which to put things together, cutting a tree, making a bow string and then wading out into a river and seeing a fish that I can’t see and shooting it with an arrow. It’s good stuff. It’s good stuff, man.
Tim Ferriss: That sounds amazing.
Steven Rinella: You’re also watching things change. A thing I come back to again and again about that is there’s an individual I love quite a bit down there. He was explaining to me one time about the white-lipped peccaries. They haven’t been seeing a lot of white-lipped peccaries, and there’s a fear in his village that the shaman from a neighboring village has grown jealous of his village, so this neighboring shaman is mad at my friend’s village because they’re so prosperous. He has —
Tim Ferriss: And a peccary is like a pig? A pig-like animal?
Steven Rinella: At a passing glance, a javelina is a collared peccary. People in the southwest, in Arizona and western Texas, are familiar with javelinas. Yeah, that’s a collared peccary. There’s a slightly bigger, more gregarious version called a white-lipped peccary. He said he was concerned that this shaman in a neighboring village had grown jealous of his village and had locked up all of their peccaries in a mountain. They had their own shaman trying to develop the necessary skill set to release their herd, their peccaries from that mountain. I’ll point out that you can email this individual if you have a problem with what he’s saying, so they are at a real crossroads. It’s been a long crossroads, but to intersect them at this place at this moment was fascinating.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. What a time to capture the experience on film. I’ll get the specific episode information from you afterwards, and we can put this in the show notes as well.
Steven Rinella: That would be great.
Tim Ferriss: Last question for this conversation, actually maybe second to last, for people who want to reconnect, attempt to reconnect with nature, whether by themselves or with their families, I’ve also spent quite a bit of time in South America and other jungle-based communities. You do see this, what they take for granted. It’s almost, you mentioned David Foster Wallace. It’s like the old fish that swims by the two young fish and says, “How’s the water, boys?” They nod and they go by and they go, “What’s water,” right? To them, referring to the communities in places like you mentioned, the idea of being separated from nature is just inconceivable.
Steven Rinella: Yeah, they wouldn’t describe that problem.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the problem itself would be hard to explain. For people who are listening to this and want to reconnect, feel engagement, kinship with nature, what would you suggest?
Steven Rinella: It’s interesting you ask, because we’re working on a book right now about kids and nature. Kids and nature, but you could also say kids in nature. I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit because there’s a risk of making, we’re talking about these extreme forms of nature. The jungles of South America, Arctic Alaska. We’re talking about all these extremes, and you can create this problem where people think that engagement with nature needs to be a radical version. I think that, as I’ve pondered this a lot lately, I think that there are some things that I find myself trying to do with my kids that aren’t for kids only. I think you need to start trying to develop the mindset of what it is to be native. I’m not trying to take away. I don’t mean Native in terms of, that you’d be Native American, say, or Native Alaskan or Amerindian. I don’t mean that.
I mean native like trying to belong to a place. We associate ourselves belonging to a fan base, belonging to a social media community, belonging to a municipality, belonging to a political persuasion, but if you want to start thinking about yourself as belonging to nature, start a list of all of the, first, define what your yard is. It could be the grounds on an apartment building where you live. It could be your yard. Whatever it is, start a list of every bird. Get a good bird book. Get Sibley’s Guide to Birds of North America, if you live in North America. Sibley.
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell it, Sibley? Sibley?
Steven Rinella: Yeah, he’s an illustrator and ornithologist. S-I-B-L-E-Y, I believe.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. All right.
Steven Rinella: Get that book and start a list of every bird you see from your property, from your place where you live, from your balcony or whatever it is, a list of everything you see, and allow yourself to count things that you see way off, so if you’re in an apartment in New York and you can see out over the Hudson and you catch a seagull, count that. Allow yourself to count every bird that you hear, and then do a couple other things. Acknowledge the solstices and the equinoxes. On those days, acknowledge what is happening, that today, the day is as long as the night or today is the longest day. The sun will shine for the longest time tonight or this will be the shortest day. The sun will shine the shortest amount today, and tomorrow, the sun will start marching back in another direction.
Ask yourself, when you turn on your faucet and water comes out, where did that water come from? Did it fall as snow, rain? Where was it collected? Is it from an aquifer? What feeds the aquifer? Then ask yourself, when it goes down the drain, what is its path to where it hits the ocean? Make a mental map of, if you were to take a piss in your yard, make a mental map. It would flow into this ditch and that ditch flows into that stream and that stream flows into that river and that river flows into that estuary and that estuary flows into that part of the ocean and make a mental map and look at that map. These are some of the things you can do sitting at your desk.
I think that as you do these things and think about them, you’ll start to realize that you’re a participant in something, and you’ll start to realize that there are things that are extremely reliable like the solstice, the equinox. There’s things that are so unbelievably reliable and there’s things that are so chaotic, like the coming and going of birds. I think that you’ll, as you do those things, you’ll find yourself feeling a part of something that’s way cooler, outside of being a part of your community and family, that’s way cooler than being part of a fan base or part of a social media network. I’d venture to say you’ll find, do that and then go down to South America, but start at home, man. You’re never going to understand it if you can’t just understand where you’re sitting and how it fits. Get some awareness. You’re in nature, man. You’re in nature. It’s just we’re trained to not notice it.
Tim Ferriss: That makes me think of the thousands of tussocks that I walked over, never actually getting down on my stomach and looking at one.
Steven Rinella: Yeah. Plant your face in one of those things, like Barry Lopez describes.
Tim Ferriss: Those are great recommendations. I think I will actually look at the water investigation later this afternoon.
Steven Rinella: It’s fascinating. I haven’t gone so far as to make my kids memorize it, but I try to talk about it a lot.
Tim Ferriss: Steve, we’re going to hopefully do round two of this. That’s the plan.
Steven Rinella: I would love to.
Tim Ferriss: Is there anything else that you would like to mention? Any closing comments, any asks or requests of the audience? Of course, people can find a lot of what you do at the MeatEater.com and we’ll include all the social. @MeatEater @StevenRinella on Instagram, @Steven Rinella MeatEater on Facebook. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Steven Rinella: If you allow it, I could be so audacious as to just ask people to go to the MeatEater.com. You’ll find not only stuff from me and about books that I’ve done, but from all of my great colleagues, and our podcast network and daily stream of written material and other things, so, yeah, please go there and check it out.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect. And for everyone listening, as mentioned, I’ll also include links in the show notes, which you can find @tim.blog/podcast to the website, meaning Steven’s website, the podcast, specific episodes of the TV show, books, and many other things that have been mentioned in this conversation. So people can find those, as well, in one place. And Steve, what a pleasure to catch up. It’s been a little while.
Steven Rinella: Yeah. Thanks for taking the time, man. It was fun to talk to you as usual. You do a great job.
Tim Ferriss: Thanks man. And we’ll figure out scheduling for a round two very soon. And to everybody tuning in, until next time. Thanks so much for listening.
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