Author Timothy Ferriss recently sat down with us for an interview to discuss his recent Northern Alaskan caribou hunt with Steven Rinella, host of MeatEater on The Sportsman Channel. Check out the season premiere at 9 p.m. E/P Sunday, Jan. 6.
HUNTING: How much hunting and rifle experience did you have before your caribou hunt?
TIM: When it comes to hunting, I had next to no experience. My only prior experience was also with Steve: whitetail deer in South Carolina. Regarding rifles in general, I had a bit of shooting experience from maybe twelve to fourteen at summer camp where I went from pro-marksman, to marksman, to sharpshooter with NRA certifications, but nothing beyond that.
HUNTING: You guys flew pretty far off the grid. How did it feel to be so deep in the Arctic?
TIM: I’d never been to Alaska before, let alone five hours total flight time north of Fairbanks. To call it “remote” is a bit of an understatement. On the north slope of the Brooks Range, dropped off on the side of a lake with a satellite phone that you probably would never use with a, “Have fun, boys. See you in a week.” That is as remote as it gets.
I would say that the satellite phone, having this “break glass in case of emergency” satellite phone, is not a joke, but it’s a bit of a joke. It’s like the airplane safety instructions, “In case of a water landing, brace on the chair in front of you,” as if that would help even if you’re going 20 mph on a scooter and ran into a fire hydrant.
Similarly, you can call someone if a grizzly bear is gnawing on your leg, but it’s gonna take five, six hours, maybe a couple days, for them to get to you. So, you have to be careful. If you twist an ankle, break a hip, whatever it might be, you’re gonna be in dire straits until help gets there, which could be a long time. I mean, we were grounded for days due to weather, and the same thing can happen with anyone coming to see you, coming to find you.
HUNTING: What else made this caribou hunt stand out from your first experience hunting with Steve?
TIM: I’d never stalked anything before. I’d read about it and I’d heard Steve talk about it. The experience of “glassing” was eye-opening: looking from high point to low point, high point to high point, planning the route almost like two armies convening to try and predict where the caribou will appear, where you stay below their field of view to avoid spooking them. That was all fascinating to me and Steve is really, really good at it. Steve called it perfectly, and we just ended up in an ideal spot to shoot.
The pulling of the trigger itself, for whatever reason, I don’t get too excited about.
I’m calm when I shoot, but I was less calm this time around because caribou are so much larger than the deer [on the first hunt with Steve], and it was further away. In my mind, at least, the bull seemed to never stop moving, which was very frustrating. I didn’t want to have an injured animal; I didn’t want to hurt the caribou or maim it. That was my biggest fear. I wanted a good shot and a clean kill.
HUNTING: How did the caribou butchering go?
TIM: It went really well. I was very happy with the heart shot, which left the organs intact. There was no spillage or spoiling of the meat. Guided by Steve, the process of removing the viscera and skinning, butchering, packing, etcetera, was smooth. I had a little experience with whitetail deer and I made a study of the butchering afterward. I went into that first hunt “blind” on purpose, as I wanted to document the experience with fresh eyes. Later, I looked at veterinary textbooks, looked at basics of butchering, manuals from the 1950s and 1960s, and so on. It is fascinating to me how parallel, let’s say, field dressing a caribou is to field dressing a deer, or even to field dressing a squirrel. There are so many similarities, which, in my opinion, is a fun discovery. You don’t need to build from scratch each time or for each species. This makes the learning curve much steeper.
[Field dressing and butchering] are arguably my favorite part of the entire process, which I think might be odd. I don’t know. People seem to try to avoid it, but personally speaking, I think that if you’re going to take the life of an animal, you should be responsible for handling the most gruesome part of the process. Then again, who am I to say? Who am I to judge? True hunters will forget more about the craft today than I’ll ever learn, but that’s my perspective.
HUNTING: MeatEater is all about watching something wild transform into really delicious food. Considering your recent experience learning to cook, what stood out to you about turning your grayling and caribou into dinner?
TIM: My new book, The 4-Hour Chef, is subtitled The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life. Steve actually spans across all three of those, which is very unusual.
One of the sections of The 4-Hour Chef is titled “The Wild”, and this is where the hunts Steve took me on appear. The section on [cooking in the wild] comes after “The Domestic”, which is cooking indoors. Needless to say, there are definitely big differences between cooking in a normal kitchen and cooking in the middle of nowhere. One of which would be the gear. If you have to make do with, say, a multitool and a bone saw, plus lack of cutting board, things can get interesting. I remember watching Steve trying to filet the grayling on a caribou scapula that we salvaged from somewhere on the shore of the lake.
A scapula is pretty flat, but it’s not perfectly flat, and it was a huge pain in the ass. It’s far easier to cook the fish whole, which is what we did the day before. If you’re going caveman, it pays to keep it simple!
HUNTING: We heard you guys had some bear encounters while hunting. What happened out there?
TIM: We had a number of grizzly bears come into camp. I had never set eyes on a grizzly bear before. To state the obvious, they’re big—even the young and lanky bear was pretty damn huge—and they weren’t remotely afraid of us. They came back again and again because we had piles of meat in camp, as well as gut piles upwind. Having huge grizzly bears right in your camp literally 50 feet away isn’t something I’d experienced in San Francisco or on Long Island.
Steve was pretty nonchalant about the whole thing. He procrastinated for about five minutes because around the same time this huge grizzly bear was rounding the corner towards camp, he realized he’d left his cell phone in a box that was now filled with insect repellant. It had destroyed his cell phone. He was ranting and raving, cursing and throwing a fit about his phone, whereas my bigger concern was the enormous predator coming into our camp. And then he was like, “All right, all right, fine,” and scared the bear off with a shotgun and by waving his arms. I waved my arms to feel like I was participating, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
HUNTING: And the bear was gone for good then?
TIM: Going to bed that night I remember thinking, “Yeah, good night, guys. Hope you’re not dead in the morning.” And maybe that makes me a coward, but I don’t think so. I think I’m just not used to being around things that have the capability of eating me. Suffice to say, we all had our bear spray and guns with us that night. If bears come around two to three times, there’s a good chance of more visits.
HUNTING: How has your view of hunting and hunters changed from all of this?
TIM: I’ve always been conflicted about hunting because I grew up on Long Island, where we had wounded deer die on our property because bow hunters hadn’t killed them properly. I developed a very early aversion to hunting, assuming all hunters to be irresponsible and disrespectful.
Even now, I don’t enjoy pulling the trigger and shooting an animal, but I don’t have any issue with responsible hunting. I enjoy feeling 100-percent responsible—logistically and karmically—for my own food. For me, it’s been a way to reclaim my hands in a world where many generations in the first world could be called “manual illiterates.” They use their thumbs for the spacebar and not much else. I was in this group for decades. To return to my primitive (or fundamental) roots as a big-brained hunter, to make full use of a gorgeous animal from kill to meal, it’s been a really wonderful and eye-opening experience.
Certainly, part of the reason we are who we are is due to increased protein intake. Think hunting plus fire. I think it was strength coach Charles Poliquin who said that [we are designed] to throw a rock at the rabbit, not to chase the rabbit. He’s right.
In the case of Alaska, we just replaced older tools (slings, spears, rudimentary traps) with newer tools: a hunting rifle. It was otherwise a return to basics. I loved stripping away all the B.S. and noise of modern life for that week. It felt like a six-month vacation.
HUNTING: Would you go hunting again?
TIM: I would, but there are caveats.
People have asked me, “So when are you going on your next hunt?” My response is, “I’ll think about it when I finish consuming all the meat I already have.” Until then, I’m not going to amass animal after animal. It’s not interesting to me. The self-sufficiency aspect of subsistence hunting appeals to me, but I don’t believe in killing more than you need, unless it’s orchestrated for over-population control.
I plan on only killing what I’ll eat.
HUNTING: How have your fans responded to your hunting exploits?
TIM: I was prepared for a lot of backlash, given the guns, hunting and everything else in The 4-Hour Chef, but even in places like San Fransisco, my readers have been more curious than critical. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by this. In the book, I worked really hard to explain the motivation, the context, the background, and everything else that led me to the first hunt.
Modern men and women are realizing that technology can be a prison as much as a savior. Living 23 hours a day indoors is not living. The pendulum is swinging the other way, and urbanites are eager to get away from screens to use their hands to make things. Physical things, whether tables, tools, or caribou steaks.
I think this is a good thing. Engaging with the physical world teaches you to respect it.