It’s About The Journey, Not the Destination
By John Warren
“The hunter that travels out into the woods is lost to the world, yet finds himself” – Unknown
With the impending launch of SOLUS, I wanted to get this rifle off our testing range and into the field. So, I called Matt, our creative director, and asked a simple question, “Do you want to go hunting”? Not surprisingly, it was a resounding yes, so we began to plan. I identified three goals for our trip. They were to test our product afield, get in the backcountry, and create memories with people we care about. If we can harvest some animals, that’s great; if not, we have still succeeded in our original goals.
Hunting is one of the oldest human pursuits and still lives in our DNA. Growing up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Oregon, my love for hunting began early. I spent my summers with my grandmother, living on a scaffold over the tribal waters of the Columbia. Catching and selling salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon to urbanites from the surrounding Portland metro areas and learning cultural skills like hunting, primitive weapon making, and horsemanship at a tribal program called “Culture Camp.” The fall and winters were spent with my cousins chasing mule deer and rocky mountain elk on foot or by horseback. I walked logging roads to harvest fast-moving Black-tailed jackrabbits with my lever action rimfire, dreaming of how I would fare as Brian from the novel “Hatchet.” These core memories live with me forever.
Tools of the Trade
My first big game rifle was a Winchester model 70 chambered in 30-06 with a gloss Weaver 3-9x optic, a classic hand-me-down hunting rifle. I did not realize until much later that this hand-me-down rifle with the wooden stock and target barrel was modeled after the rifles that saw combat with Marine Corps snipers in Vietnam. At that point in my life with that rifle, I thought all rifles were inherently accurate. I would eventually retire this rifle when I was issued my first sniper weapons system in the Army, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. My issued rifle, an M24A1, was a massive upgrade from the old Woodie I was accustomed to. With that rifle and training, I learned what precision could be and the dedication it took to master. If I am being honest, it also helped me grow up. It gave me confidence, I learned to be intentional, and it started me down the path to becoming a precision rifle shooter and technical mountain hunter, technical meaning the act of hunting with specialized tools and equipment. I borrowed this type of designation from another sport I obsess over, Alpine Climbing.
I’ve been in the field with a bolt-action rifle, personally and professionally, for the last 21 years, and I have realized that hunting is a sliding scale. Not every hunt is going to require stiff mountain boots and lightweight equipment. Sometimes all it takes it’s a truck or tree stand. I use the word technical to differentiate between the types of hunting and add the word mountain as a locator. I am aware certain people do not like this phrase, and it is not meant to pedestal this type of hunting. I am as happy walking sage brush shooting grouse as I am in the alpine looking for Muley’s, this style of hunting requires a base level of fitness and is what I think of when I hear the phrase “western hunting.” It is also the most challenging, both physically and mentally. There are days that you must really dig deep to make it happen, you will be sore and tired, and if it all comes together, you get a successful but heavy reward on your back.
A Challenge in the West
The High Buck Hunt has always stood out to me as a classic western hunt. Chasing mule deer through the large wilderness areas of Washington State and dealing with volatile weather, terrain, and energy management shares a kinship with the frontier stories I grew up reading. In a world full of technology and instant gratification, it stays an authentic wilderness experience. This hunt has gained popularity over the years but has been around for 40+. It is an excellent opportunity for anyone to get a taste of western hunting because it is an over-the-counter tag. Although easy to get and, for the most part, a choose-your-own-adventure that can include some road hunting or a lot of backpacking, both options require a ton of boot leather and hard-to-find shooters. This is not a hunt where you pass up a legal buck hoping to find a monster another day. The name “High Buck” would make you think that there is an elevation minimum to harvest an animal, but there is not, and best I can tell, nobody really knows why it’s called the high buck. The harvest elevation varies greatly depending on where you are hunting. Hunters have taken deer at 7000 ft of elevation on the side of a mountain, and others have harvested bucks at 2500 ft on the edge of alpine meadows. I succeeded at 5880ft on a steep slope with heavy tree cover. Engagement distances vary significantly and depend on terrain, wind, and contact distance. The shot I took on my buck this year was not the distance I expected it to be or one I regularly train for. For all those reasons, It is one of the best hunts I can think of to learn the sport of hunting, not to mention the chance to harvest multiple animals or adapt to what’s in the area because it overlaps with bear season.
The Importance of Responsible Mentorship
Taking a new hunter out for the first time is a lot of responsibility; not only will you be part of their first lived experience tracking and seeing big game animals, if successful, you will also be part of their first harvest. Sometimes that comes with emotions, happiness, regret, or any combination of feelings on that spectrum. I am by no means a professional guide or even a casual one, but I do believe as hunters, it is our duty to be stewards of the sport. I only take close friends and family out with me. I have had the luck of having great mentors in shooting and hunting, and it is truly an honor to be that for others. Empowering them to learn something that can feel unobtainable will deepen their connection to their food and its environment while simultaneously enriching the ecosystem and herd populations is an indescribable feeling for me. I know every hunter does not think deeply about it in this way, which is okay, but I strive to pass on the connection given to me.
Before I take anyone in the backcountry with me, I tell them one thing: to go in without expectation. Hunting is called hunting for a reason, especially when going into an unknown area that you have only E-scouted. The first iteration of this trip put us in place I was smoked out of two years prior but that I knew had successful harvests. This is a well-known area in my circle of friends and an excellent experience for a novice to learn and seasoned backcountry hunters to challenge their field savvy. It has tons of hiking, elevation, and terrain problems to solve. However, after chatting with a mentor, I found that the area would be saturated with several groups, so we decided to look elsewhere. We found several regions of similar terrain, water, and food sources. I believe in second and third courses of action with almost everything, and this was no exception. We identified good, better, and best areas and watched the onX Maps for wildfire activity. September is peak fire season in Washington State, and smoke can both kill visibility and drive animals out of patterned areas. The old saying, let the glass do the walking doesn’t always work in the PNW; smoke, fog, and heavy rain can quickly turn a hunting trip into an extended tent stay, and this year was no exception. This being Matt’s first-time backpacking, hunting, and building a precision rifle, it only made sense to opt for the genuine article. The adventure we wanted to pursue was a “premium experience” that offered the most remoteness and suffering of the three, real tier 1 fun stuff that requires a sizeable aerobic engine and a lot of the who dares wins attitude. It also gave us the most opportunity for a new hunter to gain experience. Gear management, shooting style, and fitness must be accounted for. All these things are done right to increase the odds of a few different things. The right gear ensures we are safe and can stay in the field. Good fundamentals of marksmanship increase the chances of a first-round impact, and fitness will allow us to recover easier and injury-proof us in the field. As you will find out in later articles, not all plans solve all problems. Sometimes you make a last-minute change that bites you in the ass, or in my case, the heels, and how gut instinct and persistence can help it all come together.
A Hunter’s Rifle
Mine and other shooter’s/outdoorsman’s life experiences went into the creation of the SOLUS. These are the products I am most passionate about; it aligns with my professional and my personal life. My design principles are simple and anchored to two questions, will this honor my former community, and would I take this into the mountains? We have created something at home in both the field and competition. In future posts, we will highlight the equipment, training, and how we got it done on a classic western hunt while also lifting the veil a little on our design process and company ethos. In reading these, I hope you discover your own stories to share and are filled with a sense of adventure. Our products are built for whatever pursuit you choose, be it plinking or chasing game far in the backcountry.