Photos by Paul Ross
A month ago, if you mentioned "hunting" to me, I would turn blue, as though my oxygen supply had been cut off. Guns? Shooting innocent animals? Skinning? Gutting? Blood lust?
Born to kill? My imagination ran wild.
But that was before I went to Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch, in Raton, New Mexico. It's not like I went hunting there, but I went hunting for photos with my husband Paul. And our guides were real hunting guides, who were asked to shift gears and lead the ranch's first photo safari.
You probably know that Ted Turner is a media mogul. You may know that he is also an arch conservationist. He likes to buy up huge chunks of land (he never does anything small) and restore it to its natural state. He also likes to protect endangered species. And he raises the original, unadulterated breed of original American bison.
Until recently, Vermejo Park Ranch, which is 593,000 acres big, was a playground for hunters and fishermen. But climate change arrived with a bang, lakes got smaller, the animals exhibited different behavior, and the ranch couldn't live on hunting and fishing alone. They decided to open it up to folks like you and me, so we could experience cultural and historical gems like an once-thriving cowboy camp, 25-foot-high beehive-shaped charcoal ovens, paleo Indian ruins, abandoned mining facilities, gourmet dining, impeccable star-studded skies at night, and teeming wildlife. Ted owns the land that is probably home to more wild animals than anywhere else in the Lower 48 states.
A few weeks ago, Paul and I packed our camera gear and headed for the ranch. The other photographers proudly showed us their photos of rutting bull elk locking horns; cow elk bounding across the plains; bison with their babies; a bear devouring his prey. We hid in a blind, and one lone elk came close to lap up some water. We got up at 4 a.m. to shoot animals. Virtually nada. We went out before sunset to photograph the beautiful wild beasts. But where were they? The other photographers were bagging National Geographic shots. Paul is a very good photographer, but it's impossible to shoot what isn't there.
We had a lot of down time with our hunting guides, so instead of being frustrated, we became interested. We found out that Frank Long is not only a hunter, but a lighting designer who makes unique furniture and elk antler chandeliers. He is also a cowboy poet. As we walked the range, he recited fabulous, evocative poems about the cowboy lifestyle.
Gene Coon guides hunters, and he also owns a cowboy BBQ joint in Show Low, Arizona, and has become a fine outdoor photographer. He loaned me the grizzly bear claw he wears around his neck to wear around mine for protection while I was at the ranch.
James Reidy knows every inch of the ranch, and is a keen observer of animal behavior. He's also soulful, spiritual, and a source of rich, resonant native lore.
They all harvest animals to eat. And the three of them said, at one time or another during our time together, that they weren't interested in the kill any more. They loved their outdoor cowboy lifestyle, the authenticity of their lives, the great expanse of nature, the West, the excitement of the hunt, and the animals. They have a deep, abiding love and respect for the wildlife, and are concerned with fair hunting--which means it's fair to the animals and gives them a chance to survive.
It really stopped me in my hiking boots. Everyone who eats meat is, in a way, a hunter. They may hunt for their food under plastic in a butcher shop or supermarket, but the animals they eat were still killed. And often the animals are raised in inhumane, boxed-in, conditions where they are stuffed with chemicals and readied for market.
At Vermejo Park Ranch, the herds roam free, and sometimes overpopulate. Hunting is deemed to be necessary and is strictly regulated.
I stopped turning blue and I just stopped judging. I watched, I reflected, I learned. I opened my mind and it opened my heart.
My time at Vermejo Park Ranch was very meaningful to me. It put me in close contact with cowboy hunting guides with whom I never would have crossed paths. I learned so much about wildlife from them, and I felt as though I were transported back to a time when people hunted for survival, and lived interdependently with the land.
As an added bonus, Paul also got some great photos.
The comfortable but rustic log cabin-style main lodge overlooks impressive scenery and serves award-winning meals, Vermejo Park Ranch, New Mexico.
The lodge has a full bar and taxidermize examples of local fauna, Vermejo Park Ranch, Raton, New Mexico.
In the first light of a cold mountain morning, horses emerge to forage, Vermejo Park Ranch, Raton, New Mexico.
Recent years of drought have forced the Vermejo Park Ranch to drain some of its mountain fishing lakes for conservation purposes.
A herd of cow elk move through a mountain meadow, Vermejo Park Ranch, Raton, New Mexico.
Using hunting techniques -and a qualified and highly-trained guide- you can get very close to the wildlife, Vermejo Park Ranch, Raton, New Mexico.
New Mexico's Vermejo Park Ranch is home to one of the largest herds of pure bison in the United States.
During rutting season, this elk buck is either looking for a mate or a fight, Vermejo Park Ranch, Raton, New Mexico.
At Vermejo Park Ranch, black bear abound ..though they can actually be many colors.
Brick beehive-shaped charcoal kilns were once part of a thriving mining industry at Vermejo Park Ranch.
Vermejo Park Ranch guides: Frank Long, Doug Johnson, Keith Johnston and Gene Coon.
Vermejo Park Ranch guide James Reidy gets close to nature with wild hummingbirds.
Vermejo Park Ranch guide Gene Coon is also photographer and a cook!
Vermejo Park Ranch guide, Doug Johnson knows horses, the back country and good place in town to get a green chile cheeseburger and a cold beer, Raton, New Mexico.
Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications and is the author of the book LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her new book, THE SPOON FROM MINKOWITZ: A Bittersweet Journey to Ancestral Lands, will be published in January 2014. Her website is www.GlobalAdventure.us