The Environmental Spectator

Wilderness Dreams

Growing up on diet of perfect magazines.

By 12.28.10

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The digital age continues to put hard copy newspapers and magazines in a bad way. My mailbox is no longer stuffed with must-have subscriptions. Yet there was a time when even children read magazines, an amazing fact on its face.

To open the mailbox when I was a kid and see a fresh new issue of Field & Stream (F&S) was a small joy. I had a subscription to that premier Hook and Bullet, as I did to Outdoor Life (OL) and Fur-Fish-Game (FFG). In the days before cable nature television these magazines gave a kid growing up in the borderland of the outer suburbs of Gotham and the hinterlands of upstate New York a window into a sought-after wilder world. Throw in the novels of Jack London and Kenneth Roberts and that kid was adventure-struck.

F&S, founded in 1895, with a circulation today of one million, was the original gentleman's sporting magazine. One famous contributor was the prolific Canadian Roderick Haig-Brown, whom I envied because he got paid to go fishing. OL (founded 1898; current circulation 800,000) in a 1930s heyday featured the writing of Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey, both obsessed fishermen. OL also had on staff the great Jack O'Connor -- hunter and gun expert -- who had the desirable job of wandering the world's remote regions in search of big game, bagging it and writing well about it.

But the real keeper was FFG (1925; current circulation 116,000), though its production values compared to the previous two were rudimentary. Printed on cheap stock and at the time featuring a non-glossy photo format, FFG was essentially a trapper's how-to manual, and ran stories about homesteading misanthropes living in remote cabins in Alaska or elsewhere. A typical photo showed a grizzled guy posing with the season's take of pelts stretched on boards, or lining the outside wall of a cabin or barn. Scores of beavers, lynx, bobcats, muskrats, and foxes with their bushy tails. I planned to head to Alaska upon my high school graduation to live this life, though it didn't quite happen that way. Today FFG is more in the mainstream F&S/OL magazine mold rather than a trapper's bible.

The Hook and Bullet -- along with exciting adventure fare -- was also big on the how-to stuff. How to caulk a leaky canoe. How to start a fire in the rain. How to stalk a deer depending on landscape and weather conditions. How to catch bass on a hot day. How to train a hunting dog. Even how to properly fold a topography map.

But nowadays these publications are not your father's Hook and Bullet. They all have a web presence designed to attract readers with such literal fare as recipes for gourmet game cooking, and a Green milieu of stories and videos about preserving prime hunting land and riparian (rivers and streams) areas. They've also by necessity become politically-active with pieces and blogs on 2nd Amendment rights, hunting rights, and in-general goings-on in Washington or the state capitals dealing with related pending legislation. PETA is a particularly demonized adversary.

I also had a subscription to National Geographic, an annually renewed Christmas gift from a relative. Its arrival every month meant that I would take an armchair journey to places both exotic and wild, though the tropical parts of the globe held no interest for me. I liked cold, snowy mountains and conifer-carpeted wilderness. One issue transported me to the North Pole on a snowmobile expedition; another to Yellowstone to study grizzly bears with the legendary wildlife researchers John and Frank Craighead.

National Geographic is famous for its photography, of course. The selection regimen obviously remains rigorous. But even in the non-digital 1960s the photos were known for their crisp lucidity. Before the advent of cable nature television, National Geographic offered the best medium as to what the Earth's remote regions actually looked like. And the first uses of satellite shots were the antecedent of "Google Earth".

Then there were the maps. Just about every issue provided one, usually related to one of the articles. I had piles of them, they fascinated me, and helped get me straight A's in Geography. Alaska, Canada, the Rockies, the Himalayas. I memorized them: the mountains, the rivers, the tiny towns that in places such as Alaska were nothing more than outposts in the wilderness. But these microscopic municipalities were on the map. What did they look like? And who lived there?

A National Geographic article first led me West in 1975. Titled "Golden Ghosts of the Lost Sierra," it sent me and two friends to the banks of the Middle Fork of the Feather River in Northern California for a month of camping and futile gold prospecting. Though I came home with empty pockets, I'd had the experience of seeing some of the American West for the first time.

So here I sit in Salmon, Idaho with the snowy Continental Divide visible from my bedroom window. Nice view. But I've seen it before.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.