History Stories

Watch the water. And cook that bear meat well. Famed hunter-adventurer Steven Rinella mines early frontier history to deliver 7 ways to safely navigate the backcountry.

Steven Rinella stands at a curious intersection in American culture. He’s an adventurer, a conservationist, a hunter, a TV host, a best-selling author with an MFA in writing, and a student of the history of frontier explorers like Daniel Boone. Not many figures can tell such eloquent stories about “eating questionable meat” in the wild and getting charged by grizzly bears—stories that are peppered with practical advice on how to handle yourself in the backcountry, based on the adventures of hunters from hundreds of years ago.

The 43-year old author of The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game volumes I and II and host of the television show “MeatEater” (you can see it on Netflix) has hunted game across Montana, Michigan and Alaska, among other places. His campfires have seared the meat of everything from bear and mountain lion to red stag and waterfowl.

We asked Rinella to distill his adventures and his reading on Daniel Boone into seven fundamental guidelines. Read up, then set out.

A family of settlers building their own homestead following a move westwards to the American Frontier, circa 1830s. (Credit: Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A family of settlers building their own homestead following a move westwards to the American Frontier, circa 1830s. (Credit: Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

1. Wild Game Can Be Dangerous

What does trichinosis feel like? “Intense muscle pain,” Rinella says. “It can take a month to hit, and that’s why it is hard to figure out what is going on. The worms burrow out of your vascular system and into your muscles.” Rinella contracted trichinosis by eating undercooked bear meat in Alaska. That is a mistake he will never make twice.

Just about any omnivore or carnivore can carry trichinosis, and the way to kill the parasite is to make sure meat is cooked to 160 degrees. If you’re in the wilderness, you’re not likely to have a meat thermometer. Rinella cautions to cook meat so it’s entirely brown—not a hint of pink.

In the days of frontier people, he says, trichinosis must have run rampant. “Daniel Boone, in his hunting camp in one fall [circa the turn of the 19th century], once killed 155 black bears and prepared it to sell to markets. That was a lot of meat potentially contaminated, and people did not have the knowledge of what might have been in that meat,” he says. “I suspect people at the time had very high parasite loads.”

While trichinosis is pretty much gone from USDA-inspected grocery meat, it can still be found in the wilderness. The upshot: Save medium-rare cravings for a steakhouse—after the backcountry adventure is over.


Video: How He Contracted Trichinosis
: Steven Rinella breaks down how he and several members of the ‘MeatEater’ crew contracted trichinosis after eating some questionably cooked bear meat.

2. Marksmanship Is Paramount

In the days of Boone, commercial hunters would often be hunting on land that did not belong to them. Native Americans, for example, would protect their hunting grounds fiercely. Which meant that hunters were often being hunted themselves. It was imperative that every kill be accomplished with a single shot, because a second shot could give away the hunter’s location, and he himself could then become the prey.

“When you’re out in the woods, and you hear a gunshot, it is very hard to place—where it came from,” says Rinella. “But once you’re paying attention and you hear a second shot, you can place where it is coming from. For hunters like Boone, marksmanship meant getting the job done in a single shot, for reasons of survival.”

Today hunters stress marksmanship for another reason: “The humane nature of how you kill an animal you intend to use for food,” says Rinella. “Today, you want to be as fair to the animal as possible by diminished suffering and waste. If you have to shoot an animal more than once, you’re losing that much more meat.” There is another reason too, he explains, telling the story of the time he got “a bad hit” on a moose, in British Columbia. The moose charged him. He made it out alive, but, he says, “that’s not something you can afford to have happen to you.”

American explorer and frontiersman Daniel Boone. (Credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

American explorer and frontiersman Daniel Boone. (Credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

3. Always Pay Attention to the Direction Water Is Flowing

“When you read Daniel Boone’s descriptions of his travels,” says Rinella, “he is usually describing them in terms of creeks and drainages. Follow this creek to that creek. Follow this drainage to that drainage. Early maps were generally big flat landscapes with few internal features but all the waterways were marked on them. People knew to pay close attention to that, because that is how they could figure out where they were and where they were going.”

What does that mean for people in the outdoors today? Water, and the direction it is moving, are the best ways to give you a sense of the topography around you, to keep track of where you are, and to find your way if you are lost. “Small things are going to flow into bigger things,” says Rinella. “Typically, settlements, habitations, roads and major trails are in river valleys and on bodies of water. If you are lost, your best bet is to find water and follow it downstream.”

The real trick, however, is to use water and its movement to keep yourself from getting lost in the first place.


Video: The Best Bacon Story Ever
: Steven Rinella tells the story of his hero Daniel Boone’s black-bear enterprise.

4. Keep Meat Cool, Dry and Insect Free

Rinella points out that today, as in the times of early frontier explorers, field care is a key skill for hunters. What is field care? “When you’re in a survival or a hunting situation,” he says, “when you kill an animal, the animal’s flesh is very hot. Our body temperature is 98.6 degrees. Some big game animals will run warmer. An animal’s own heat can make its flesh spoil quickly.”

Field care is the practice of quickly separating the meat from the hot organs. The first step is getting the heat out of the animal, then keeping the meat cool, dry and insect free. In Boone’s day, hunters had tricks to keeping meat safe, such as packing it in the hulls of boats where it would be close to cold water that would keep it cool. Today, modern conveniences can help, like waterproof hunting bags that hold raw meat and can be buried in snow or kept in a cool creek.

“When you get good at this, it’s crazy what you can get away with,” says Rinella. “You can keep meat stable and usable for an amount of time that would be shocking to most people.”

Frontiersman Lewis and Clark fighting off bears. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

Frontiersman Lewis and Clark fighting off bears. (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)

5. To Find Prey, Follow the Food Chain

“In the early frontier days,” says Rinella, “hunters were mindful of paying attention to food sources. They knew that the best way to find prey is to look for the food sources that this prey will be looking for. This is a prime example of how we can learn from these earlier hunters.”

What does this mean practically? When hunting for bear to kill for food, look for the food the bear will be looking for first, being mindful of the season—skunk cabbage in spring, for example. The same with deer. Rinella points out that deer cannot eat acorns off of oak trees. But during autumn, when acorns scatter the earth under oak trees, the deer will feed on them. So wherever oaks drop acorns, there will likely be deer.

A lot of hunters get around this issue these days by creating artificial food plots. Hunters can manipulate animal behavior by planting sources of food in certain places. For hunters in undisturbed landscapes, however, it is best to follow the advice of Boone. “To ‘hunt in the animals’ own kitchen,’ ” Rinella says, “is a saying I have been hearing my whole life.”

VIDEO: False-Charged By a Grizzly Bear in British Columbia: Steven Rinella and Ryan Callaghan have a close call with a grizzly sow and her two cubs.

6. Learn What’s Worthy of Fear—And What Isn’t

It is human nature to fear animals that have the ability to kill humans. Sharks, grizzlies, big cats, little snakes—all have the capacity to strike terror in human beings. But…reality check! “People become fixated on glamorous risks,” says Rinella, “but being afraid of things like mountain lions is not warranted, by any kind of data we have.” The real potential risks for the outdoor adventurer are much more mundane, says Rinella: getting cut by tools, burned while cooking, hypothermia, heatstroke and drowning.

“We have hundreds of thousands of black bears in the U.S.,” says Rinella. “Every year, statistically, less than one person gets killed by a black bear. Yet people live in fear of these creatures, and that is distracting from the things that can really be problematic.”

Rinella has spent much of his life in the backcountry in bear territory. But the closest calls for both himself and those around him have been from hypothermia, while traveling in remote Alaska. “The problem with hypothermia is that you lose your ability to troubleshoot,” he says. “You’re already in a bad spot because you have hypothermia, then it strips you of your ability to deal with it. There’s this downward spiral.”

Point? Worry less about traveling with bear pepper spray and more about having the proper equipment for weather and plenty of water.

Explorers crossing the Hellgate River in Montana, 1854, where their horses fell into the frozen over river. (Credit: SSPL/Getty Images)

Explorers crossing the Hellgate River in Montana, 1854, where their horses fell into the frozen over river. (Credit: SSPL/Getty Images)

7. Expect Freakish Occurrences

Several years ago, Rinella was hunting in the Chugach range in Alaska with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend. There were potential risks—rock slides and grizzly bears. The group came upon an alder patch when from above, a porcupine smacked his brother’s girlfriend where her neck met her shoulder. A beautiful day turned ugly quickly, as porcupine quills cause severe pain and, if the wound is not treated, infection can occur.

“Going into that trip,” says Rinella, “if you had asked me to make a list of the 100 things that could possibly go wrong, a porcupine run-in would not have made that list.”

The potential for freakish occurrences has always been part of hunting and outdoor adventure, says Rinella, pointing to an instance during Daniel Boone’s day when someone in Boone’s camp was bitten by a rabid wolf. He became rabid himself and died of the disease some years later. What are the chances of getting bitten by a wolf, even in Boone’s time? Not high. In the same vein, Rinella can recount tales of his own strange mishaps. Once, in winter in northern Michigan, he was hiking on a lake frozen with 12 inches of ice. “You could drive a car on ice that thick,” he says. He came across a part of the lake where heavy beaver travel had kept the ice thin and he plunged through. He has seen other instances of limbs falling off trees, nearly killing people.

Point? “Whatever list of potential problems you can create before you head out on an adventure, it will never be long enough.” Prepare mentally for that which can never be prepared for.

Tune in to the docuseries The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen Wednesdays at 9/8c on HISTORY.

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