Welcome back to TOPOPHILIA! This month, we are talking with hunting guide Tyler Houck. Tyler leads guided elk hunts on the Zumwalt Prairie in Northeast Oregon, and has a long personal history of intimacy with the land. In this interview, we discuss the practices that allow us to learn a place intimately, lessons we’ve learned along the way, and what it means to be a skilled hunter.
TYLER: I had never heard the term topophilia before, but I instantly recognized it in myself when I did. Is this a patented word? Can I use it in scrabble?
I want Topoholic to be a word. Does that even work on a word building level?
NORTHER: What are some of the places you feel that connection to?
TYLER: I became obsessed with a piece of ground to the point that I quit my full time job and began ignoring the other places I used to hike, hunt and explore. It is around 30,000 acres or 50 square miles. Something that, depending on terrain a person could walk across it in a day. Rolling prairie plateaus of bunchgrass that break over into canyons that then dive thousands of feet to the Imnaha river below.
I am a hunting guide on a property that is managed for conservation. The native bunch grass is the main focus but in that is a hunting program that generates funds for local nonprofits and charities. It allows the general public access for meat hunting and has 4 public trails designed to inform about the land and animals there
I think to be a true hunter and more than that, to guide others… I need to know the place and an environment on the same level as what I am hunting. I have never felt more connected to a place than when I have looked at it through the eyes of a hunter and a guide.
When I am hunting elk I am not hunting only the elk. I am hunting the topography that they live in. Where is the water, the feed, the shelter? I sit in one spot all day. Where are the places that are warmest or coolest? The places always in shadow and those that never are. There are the things that I can see like trails, ponds and then those I can’t like the wind and the rivers of air flowing over the land taking my scent in front of me.
I thought I knew something about hunting. I grew up accompanying my grandfather on long walks where he carried a rifle and I held my tongue. I never did great in school too much staring out the window. Letters like ADHD and OCD got thrown around a lot. My mind was quiet when I was outside, in the woods by the creek that wandered behind my house. I would spend summers by myself; not lonely, just by myself. Building trails, treehouses and forts. Looking for arrowheads and other treasures, valuable only to young people of a certain age afflicted with limitless imaginations.
I knew every inch of the 7 acres. The best berries, the worst poison oak, where the rabbits and squirrels lived. The deep parts of the creek where tiny salmon survived the summer and the gravel bars that they would return to. It was my whole world. A place I didn’t feel judged for being awkward and strange.
I grew up, I went on adventures. I learned I could not work inside or live in a city. I discovered a place that fit me and moved there. Surrounded by mountains and canyons it has the feel of an island, secluded. You have to be headed here to get here. Not on the way to anywhere, a dead end.
I worked jobs to make ends meet like we all do. Jobs that didn’t fit or left me resentful that I had only weekends to explore. An opportunity came up and I made a choice, I took a chance and I settled for less money but more time.
I found again what I had missed from those woods and streams in my childhood… I learned more about the land and the animals on it then I ever had before in my life. I realized how little I knew about hunting and I immersed myself in the topography to try and change that. I set about exploring these new-to-me 30,000 acres. Walking the perimeter, exploring every canyon, sitting next to elk herds and watching hawks.
Time speeds up and my mind slows down when I am there. A day goes by in a few hours, miles seem to shorten and food is an afterthought. I gave up exploring the millions of acres surrounding it and obsessed on just getting to know the land that I was responsible for.
NORTHER: Why do you think outdoor popular culture is so obsessed with bucket listing? I talk to people all the time who can’t understand why I don’t pursue international travel or even leave the Pacific Northwest very often. I already carry around six lifetime’s worth of objectives in the Oregon desert in my heart, I don’t really have time to worry about how cool Montana is.
TYLER: You remind me of something that my grandfather told me once about how he didn’t need to go to far away places, that there were many lifetimes of things to explore right here in Oregon. Other than his time in the war in the Pacific, he spent his whole life exploring the oregon outback as he called it. The jungles of the coast range hunting Roosevelt elk and black tailed deer. The canyon lands after chukar and Huns. Exploring ghost towns and high deserts.
Bucket lists are understandable to me. It fits into the mindset that many have in this world that in order to live a full life there are certain milestones that have to be met.
The quantifying, compartmentalization and listing out of things gets rid of the adventure of it. Expectations can be a terrible thing, people get so focused on a certain metric that they forget to enjoy themselves. I find this in the hunting world with the obsession over trophy score on an animal.
I have had people shoot massive bulls that were disappointed in the score and then others that shot smaller bulls and had the time of their lives enjoying the experience.
NORTHER: I love what you said about how your relationship with place informs your work as a hunting guide- I often describe my work as hunting without the animals or the guns. That’s what I told the BLM when I applied for my Deschutes canyon location. They were not sure they wanted anyone guiding off trail hiking and I was like, “please explain how what I’m doing is different than elk hunting”. They had nothing to say, so they gave me the permit.
Most people would think that only hiking and hunting on the same fifty square miles of land would be boring and limiting, but limitations encourage us to go deeper.
TYLER: Even 50 square miles sounds big now that I hear someone else say it. An even more reductive way of describing it is seven miles by seven miles. Knowing I was limited forced me to memorize every gully, canyon and water hole. There are places I still haven’t been and they stand out in my mind as irritatingly blank.
The thing I was most surprised about was how little I actually knew about how to hunt this terrain. I have changed my mind on what a skilled hunter is. It is not someone who knows all about everything to do with hunting or a species, it is someone who can and is willing to accept that they don’t know everything and that they are always learning. Complex systems are just that; complex. Humans seem to stand in front of a complex system and attempt to reduce them to understandability and the things we can control.
I am reminded about this every time I make a definitive statement about elk. It is usually prompted by a question like “where are the elk at this time of year?” Or “what are those bedded bulls going to do this evening?” I have to catch myself because my experience so far is that I will be right maybe 40 percent of the time. There is no easier way of looking foolish than to tell a client that elk will always do something. Within minutes you will probably be proven wrong and I often have been.
There are negatives sometimes.
I am never bothered the long hours kneeling on a carcass in the snow as it gets darker and colder. in order to put on a pack that weighs half my weight and climb several thousand feet out of a canyon.
The challenging thing for me and I’m sure many people that are used to being alone in the wilderness is, of course, other people.
It is one thing to hunt by yourself and be successful but to get someone else in the right position at the right moment can sometimes feel like a miracle when it does happen.
The mindset toward hunting, the land, the animals of some of the clients I have are not always my own. I cannot control others or to many extents their experience. But I usually have more than enough time to talk about my views and what I find ethical or not.
I have come to see them more as learning opportunities.
NORTHER: Regarding what you said about making definitive statements about elk-
The land I guide on in central Oregon is primarily used by hunters. It’s an old ranch that sits above the Deschutes, the Criterion Tract, across from the warm springs reservation.
I moved out to Tygh Valley in 2019, and I started running in the Criterion four days a week. I didn’t have a lot of choices for places I could trail run. I heard that people hunted elk out there, but every week for four months, I saw no elk, no prints, no droppings, nothing.
I told my ex, “there’s no elk out there.”
One day I hiked in from a different side of the tract, and I went down into a steep canyon. The wind was blowing really hard that day, and I was heading into the wind when I came back up the canyon onto an old road.
Soon as I popped up on that road I saw I had just come up thirty head of elk standing maybe 20 feet from me on the other side of a road. I just stood there in shock with my mouth open until they finally noticed me and the whole gang of them peeled off into the canyons together.
I went home and told my husband, “well, it turns out I don’t know shit” 😂😂😂
There’s a lot of canyons I still haven’t been in out there, and I never did see the elk herd again.
I’m pretty lucky that most people choose to work with me because of my mindset and values around connection with place… but working with clients and connecting with other outdoors professionals, other guides has highlighted for me how the values and sense of connection I feel are kind of woven into the culture of the Pacific Northwest in a way i sometimes take for granted.
But, regarding mismatched client values, at least for myself, I think as adults we are all used to acting like we have life figured out. I think of the conversations I have as planting a seed. They might not reflect my values back to me, but hopefully my example lives on in their subconscious.
TYLER: Elk are humbling in their unpredictability. The statement I don’t know shit about elk is probably the wisest thing to say.
The idea of remoteness and what constitutes wilderness is one of those questions that seem to be interpreted differently in the northwest, where we are surrounded by it. One person’s wilderness is another person’s backyard.
NORTHER: Do you see yourself staying on the prairie forever?
TYLER: I see myself doing this as long as I can. This piece of land is as important to me as anything else at this point and it would be hard to leave.
Cold winter nights are good for dreaming up hikes I want to do and looking at blank spots on my map. I’ve been dreaming up canyon hikes that follow elevation lines for a bit now. Instead of climbing to gain elevation you can stay level and the canyon will drop away underneath you.
I get most of my ideas for hikes while I’m on a hike or exploring a certain area. Right about the time I have to turn back I will see where I should go next time and it kind of grows organically from there. My usual exploring schedule has to do with elevation more than anything. Canyons and low elevation in the winter then slowly following spring and summer up into the mountains.
With the amount of places to explore here in north east oregon I doubt I will run out of spots or get to see them all in my lifetime but I will try.
NORTHER: Any words of wisdom for the city folk who haven’t found their way home to the forests and steppe yet?
Having a adventure doesn’t have to be a epic struggle. Finding a quiet place in the woods mountains or canyons and spend a afternoon learning it. You will be surprised at what you find. Hopefully that doesn’t sound to cliche but really it is what it’s all about.