A hungry Denali grizzly. photo by Rick Cumin

Blaze orange and common sense save lives in the field.  It’s far more enjoyable to hunt safely when we don’t let the stupidity of others put our own lives in jeopardy.

Way back in the early ’70’s, when I was in high school, I took a buddy on a government land deer hunt. Center fire rifles were legal there back then; I carried a shotgun with slugs, and loaned my 30-06 to my buddy, since he could possibly get a longer range shot than I could. I told him exactly where there was a ground blind that I had put together several weeks earlier and sent him on his way. An hour or so later, he popped out of the brush on the opposite side of where he was supposed to be. And, he was looking directly at me through the rifle scope. I was well exposed up in a large pecan tree overlooking a steep drop off into the creek bed. It scared the hell out of me. I waved my arms and he just kept looking at me. When I dropped my muzzle on him, he threw the rifle on the ground and ran backwards.

When I got to where he was, he was laughing. I asked him how stupid he really was, and he replied, “I just thought it would be fun to see what you looked like through the scope, and see what you would do when you saw me? I replied, “Well, I was just about to take your right knee out! Wouldn’t that have been fun?” We never hunted together again, and I sure never loaned him a firearm of any kind after that.

Another time, about thirty years ago, I was sitting in a clump of shin oaks above a couple of nice game trails, in Southern New Mexico, East of Cloudcroft, with my old Hawken style smoke pole, waiting for a nice buck to wonder by. I had sat there from at least a half an hour before first light and it was now well into the morning.

I looked to my right and saw one of the new smaller Jeep pickups coming across the ridge toward me but well above me, probably two hundred yards away. I continued to watch that direction, just in case he spooked something out and it ran my direction. The truck stopped where I could only see the top and part of the passenger side. I kept watching my area for deer, but saw none. Then I turned and looked back toward the truck and was half scared out of my wits! Thru my binoculars, I could see this genius was leveled off on me with his rifle and looking right at me through his scope.

Back then, in-line muzzle loaders and scopes were both illegal during New Mexico Muzzle loader Season. I was pretty startled, so I waved my arms and even took off my blaze orange vest and waved it at him. I was in the shadows, so the orange didn’t stand out too brightly, but he took off and I didn’t see him again for a good while. The so-called road he was on only went one way in and the opposite direction back out. I knew I would see him again. I should have walked up to the road and waited for him, but I was hunting and I had no idea how long he would be gone. An hour or more later, I looked back on that ridge and there he was. I could not see the truck at all, but I saw him, pointing the rifle directly at me again.

Talk about a sinking feeling! I jumped up, walked out of the shade to where he could see I was human, and not game. He just stood there, watching me through his scope. I didn’t know what to do next, so I pointed my rifle directly at him. Of course, if he was shooting a smokeless rifle, I didn’t stand a chance, but I wanted him to be one hundred percent sure that I was not going to just sit there and let him shoot me. I had on a blaze orange vest and an orange stocking cap, but he didn’t! He finally put his muzzle down and walked back beyond the ridge. A few minutes later, I saw him drive across the ridge and disappear. I tried to get a license plate, but just couldn’t from that distance.

The ‘what if’s’ started running through my mind, and I will tell you for sure, it was unsettling as hell. This genius almost made me shoot him in self-defense. Not once, but twice, he pointed his rifle at me, just to use the scope to see me. And why, when I walked out into the open, did he not put it down immediately? What goes through a guy’s head when they do dumb stuff like this? Why did this guy not use binoculars? It was no wonder he was hunting alone, nobody else would hunt with him.

A grazing Denali Caribou photo by Rick Cumin

We all make mistakes, but there is no excuse for completely disobeying basic safety rules. Never point a firearm at anything you do not intend to shoot or kill. Make sure of your target, what is in front of it, and what is beyond it. Yes, I have taught many Hunter Education Classes and I usually tell these two stories in classes.

My older brother David and I hunted on the same properties most of his life. When we were both pretty young, David left camp one afternoon and told me exactly where he was planning to go, so I went in the opposite direction. I saw a buck running from my left to my right, at a couple of hundred yards, so I took a couple of shots at it before it made its way into the trees. Not five minutes later, my brother came walking out of the very area I was shooting into. I had no idea that he had been following a deer and walked all the way around me. He may have even been the reason the buck I had shot at was running. He didn’t realize that he had followed the deer that far and I had no idea he was even on that side of the lease property. This was a pure accident, but could have been horribly worse. We lost David in 2005 to brain cancer.

What I am saying here is to think before you do, and be smart about your decisions that could change many lives in the single snap of a trigger. Use good judgment and please use your binoculars. That’s what they are made for.

Author Rick Cumins with his wife Nena in Denali National Park and Preserve