The Call of the Wild
What does it mean to be a Middlebury student—and a dedicated hunter?
At 5:15 am on opening weekend of Vermont’s rifle deer-hunting season, the Mobil Short Stop at the corner of Commerce Street and State Route 116 in Hinesburg is the province of pickup trucks and bearded, camo-clad guys buying coffee from Joanne, the affable cashier who wishes the hunters good luck.
Then there’s John Montgomery ’14, who has a monogrammed bag in the back of his Suburban with Texas plates. A varsity lacrosse player and an international politics and economics major, he already has a job lined up in energy-investment banking in Houston.
But right now, Montgomery is after something even more elusive than gainful employment after graduation: a 12-point buck that’s been seen wandering through a marshy meadow not far from this Mobil station.
Yes, Montgomery is a serious hunter. And he’s not alone at Middlebury. In little pockets around campus, students and faculty members are waking up in the dark to pull on orange caps, load up rifles, and pursue wild animals.
Some, like Montgomery, have been doing this their entire lives; others have picked up hunting as first-years because it’s the most sustainable way to consume meat at Middlebury. They are part of a massive rebound in hunting culture across the United States—according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife-related outdoor recreation jumped “dramatically” from 2006 to 2011, with nearly 14 million people now hunting.
And in Vermont, the state’s laws are some of the most hunter friendly in the nation, explains Pat Berry ’91, the Commissioner of Vermont Fish and Wildlife. “Vermont is founded on the theme of the commons, which is that, yes, land is owned by individuals, but there’s a sense of community and shared ethics around communal land use,” says Berry. He points to Lake Champlain, the Green Mountain National Forest, and the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area as rich hunting resources in close proximity to the College.
Today, hunters spend nearly $300 million in the state, which ranges first among the lower 48 states in wildlife-related recreation rates. Just witness Governor Peter Shumlin grinning over the six-point, 186-pound buck he bagged in East Montpelier in November.
Greg Buckles, the Middlebury dean of admissions and longtime hunting and fishing guide, says that when he arrived in the community from Ohio in 2008, he was pleasantly surprised to find how much of an ethical and responsible hunting culture existed at Middlebury. “It’s a low-key, natural way of life,” says Buckles. “Many more people than I ever could have expected hunted. I’d not seen that before in my 30 years in education, where a progressive, academic community coexisted peacefully with a hunting lifestyle.”
Self-reliant, committed—and culinary wizards with game—College hunters just may be part of the most ecologically minded and coolest (if most socially complicated) unofficial club at Middlebury. It’s one that has fostered friendships with the greater Vermont community and one that teaches lifelong skills about hard work—respect, mortality, time management, and discovering joy and gratitude.
“Everybody goes and hikes Snake Mountain,” says Montgomery of his non-hunting fellow students. But it’s another level of commitment to get up “at 3 am to go duck hunting when it’s 20 degrees out—and then go to class.”
But there’s that social complication, one that can push back against the hunting lifestyle that Buckles describes that has existed at the College for generations.
“I think that there are some really misguided perceptions among people who are not from a rural setting and simply don’t understand hunting and have prejudged it,” says Berry. (While all of the students interviewed for this story were comfortable speaking about their hunting experiences, not all faculty and staff were. One longtime hunter asked not to be identified and spoke of hunting companions who wish “to stay fairly closeted, if you will, for fear of push back from colleagues.”)
This troubles Berry. “Hunters play a critical role in wildlife conservation management; there’s a tremendous ecological value,” he explains. “I think people misunderstand the hunting culture, which is easy to do if you ever turn on any of the hunting shows. Hunting is one of the safest activities; there are fewer incidents of accidents with hunting as a sport than most outdoor activities.”
Hunter-safety education is a prerequisite for a Vermont hunting license, and hunters such as Montgomery and Alex Cort ’14, who grew up practicing target sports while at summer camp in North Carolina, have years of experience under their belt. Those students new to hunting describe an intensive learning experience—state-sanctioned classroom and field-study courses must be completed before being issued a hunting license. Hunting rifles, shotguns, knives, bows, and archery supplies must be registered with the College’s Department of Public Safety and either stored there or at an off-campus facility.
“Some people might look at you like you’re doing something bad, but there’s not too many of those,” says Montgomery. “The majority think it’s neat or cool; they just don’t understand it.”
Cort recalls a time when he returned to his suite with four dead geese in plastic garbage bags, and the reaction from his roommates was “wow, that’s a lot of dead birds.” Most of his friends are on board with his hunting, he says, though he also takes pride in how his extracurricular activity can set him apart and allows him to interact with non-Middlebury students.