The last of the early evening light beams through Nathan Wheaton’s 1920s log home kitchen window in South Slocan, British Columbia.
He grabs a few pieces of Douglas-fir firewood he bucked over the summer and tosses them into his wood stove before sitting down for dinner.
Tonight is spaghetti night, and Nathan’s wife Mikaela airplanes a spoonful of dinner into the mouth of Eli, their 19-month-old son. He swallows it and asks in toddler speak for more. Eli likes the taste of moose meat.
“We eat a lot of homegrown veggies and meat that I hunt. We try not to buy a lot,” Nathan says. “To have good, healthy, organic meat in the freezer for the whole year is why I hunt.”
Providing food for his family is part of who Nathan is, and although he makes a living running his own home inspection company, hunting pays very well in protein.
But after another summer of wildfires, 40-degree temperatures, and lingering smoke, he isn’t sure what his hunting will look like in the future.
“It seems like it’s getting hotter and hotter and dryer and dryer every year,” Nathan says. “Pretty soon, we’re going to have an air conditioner in every room in the house. I never had that growing up.”
Providing runs in the family
Nathan’s need to provide for his family from Kootenay bounty is, in some ways, a family trait.
His grandfather, George Huscroft, taught him to hunt when he was a teenager.
“Getting my first bull elk,” Nathan remembers. “Being able to do that with my grandfather was a one-of-a-kind thing. My grandpa was my best man at my wedding. He’s my best friend and has been highly influential in my passion for hunting and the outdoors.”
Nathan and his grandpa’s connection to hunting and living off the land in a rural and wild landscape runs in their blood.
In 1891, thanks to disagreements over religious practices and the promise of a northern wilderness to settle, their Mormon ancestors moved from Utah’s sandy desert country to the fertile and forested Creston Valley.
They were Huscrofts. William Huscroft, 60, his wife Jane, 49, and their seven children travelled along rugged dirt roads and rafted the Kootenay River to live out the rest of their lives in a remote area that would later bear their name.
They learned to live off of and have respect for the land. They raised barns, were struck by polio and pond hockey pucks, and used horse-drawn sleighs to haul logs and farm alfalfa.
The familial connection to the area is strong, and Nathan wants to continue the tradition of living off the land. But since the 1890s, the land has changed.
British Columbia has become a lot warmer. Its glaciers are receding, wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense, and highway-eating rainstorms are the new normal.
“I’m not an expert on climate change, but it seems like a lot of people got the right idea to try to do our best to mediate it,” Nathan says.
Fires affect the hunter and the hunted
Nathan knows there’s a connection between wildfires and climate change.
And for hunters like him, who access their favourite deer or elk spots on foot or horseback, thick smoke during the hunting season isn’t fun and the poor air quality can suck the pleasure out of an annual and lifelong tradition.
“It’s a problem, and I’m sure the animals are feeling it, too,” Nathan says.
Sarah Bassing is a researcher at the University of Washington who was involved in a study examining how wildfire smoke might impact wildlife.
“The little bit that we do know comes more from veterinary medicine,” Saray says. “By looking at how horses were affected in a barn fire, we can apply some of that information to large ungulates (hoofed mammals).”
Sarah understands that animals and wildfires have evolved alongside each other for hundreds of thousands of years. But the more frequent mega-fires we are seeing today can devastate local wildlife and cause severe injury and death.
Like people, chronic health issues could also be worse for animals who can’t avoid breathing in smoke for months of the year, year after year. The smoke could lead to breathing problems, blood poisoning, brain impairment, and weaker immune systems.
“If we’re really interested in understanding how smoke affects wildlife, particularly from a wildlife management and conservation perspective, we need to investigate how wildlife responds physiologically and behaviorally to large smoke events.”
It’s food on the table
Nathan isn’t sure if it’s from wildfires or smoke, but over the years, he has noticed that the animals he hunts are in places he had never seen before.
In 2021, during the province’s third worst wildfire season on record, Nathan braved thick September smoke to look for elk up in the mountains. He couldn’t find any, and it wasn’t until the elk hunting window had passed that he realized they were under his fingertips. Just not where he was expecting them to be.
“There is this spot down in a very low valley where I have game cameras set up, and it has always been my white-tail deer hunting spot,” Nathan says. “After the elk-hunting season, I checked my cameras, and four or five legal elk bulls were living down there all of September in front of my camera! Here they were, living somewhere I had never seen them live before.”
Nathan wonders if he might have to start changing up his hunting spots and tactics. And while hunting year after year in smoke isn’t a future he relishes, as long as there are still animals to hunt, he’ll be out there hunting.
“If a wildfire gets in the way every year, it would be detrimental to the way I live,” Nathan admits. “Not being able to hunt is not an option for me. I don’t really know any other way.”
Hunting is a way of life for Nathan, but mostly it is a way for him to contribute. Because of him, his family’s freezer is well stocked with moose burger, elk sausages, deer roasts, and wild turkey carcasses.
While wildfires might become an issue, soaring grocery prices and supply chain interruptions won’t stop food from getting onto Nathan’s table and into Eli’s growing body.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand why people hunt,” Nathan says. “I do it strictly for a source of meat. Every time I’ve been lucky enough to get an animal, it’s been with complete respect and admiration for the animal. I am just totally thankful for the meat it provides.”