What if you could use your philosophy toward food to fuel a life of adventure? And we don’t mean digging around in your veggie garden. How about hunting octopus off Maui, crabbing in Alaska, or even gathering snails in San Francisco’s sprawling Golden Gate Park? For consummate outdoorsman Steven Rinella adventuring to eat is a way of life. The Brooklyn-based writer and his family only eat meat he has hunted himself. It’s a noble idea—if you can’t kill it, why should you be eating it? Rinella’s culinary exploits take center stage in his new show The Wild Within (Travel Channel, Sundays at 9 p.m. EST). Whether you are ready to bowhunt for peacock bass in Guyana or track buffalo in the Badlands, it’s pretty amazing just to be along for the ride. Here Rinella tells us about his greatest adventures, the gear he can’t live without, and the benefits of truly “eating local.” —Mary Anne Potts
Your eating philosophy—to only eat meat that you have hunted yourself—guarantees a lifestyle with adventures in the great outdoors. Is having amazing adventures big part of it for you?
Steven Rinella: Absolutely. I love wild game for the simple fact that I love to eat healthy, high-quality food. But there’s an added element that wild game carries with it: the adventures that went into harvesting and preparing it. I view my freezer as a repository of these memories, almost like a bank. I fill it up with adventures when I’m flush with them and then make small, one-pound withdrawals on a daily basis. It’s a wonderful way to live. And it’s a wonderful way to eat.
How do you pick your locations? By desire to experience a part of the world or by craving for a certain type of meat?
SR: When it comes to locations, there are almost too many considerations to list them all. Novelty is important to me, but then so are routine and tradition. We filmed an episode of The Wild Within in Guyana, a place where I’d never been before. One reason I was drawn to the region is that many of the Amerindians still fish with handmade bows and arrows on a daily basis; they feed their families with these weapons.
From what I’d heard, the Amerindians will climb into trees that overhang the water and pluck out a 20-pound fish from beneath them. Also I’d also heard that they fish in raging river rapids with bows. This makes bowfishing twice as difficult—not only do you have to deal with the refraction of the water (that’s what makes a stick look bent when it’s poking out of the water), but you also have to deal with the effect of the current on the arrow’s path of travel. So I wanted to visit this place to check all this out—it seemed so unusual and unbelievable. I also wanted to eat these fish—peacock bass, black piranha, pacu, aruwaina—which I’d never encountered before.
Tell us about your craziest adventure in the field.
SR: I’ve had a lot of crazy things happen to me in the field throughout my life. But the craziest thing to happen while filming The Wild Within occurred in Hawaii. We were on Molokai collecting opihi, a type of limpet, which live in the tidal zone where the waves bash into cliffs of volcanic rock. These limpets are known locally as the “fish of death,” because supposedly more people die collecting them than die surfing or spearfishing or anything else. Nonetheless the description struck me as a little hyperbolic. So the crew and I got out there on this island with a couple of native Hawaiians, and we started collecting. And just when I was thinking that it really wasn’t that dangerous, here comes this huge wave that just sweeps three of the crew off a rock and then deposits them in a scraped, bloody mess upon the rocks below. They were gashed all over. Our director, Nick, had a shattered knee cap and needed to fly off the island for treatment. He’s still wearing a cast.
Have you had an experience where you were not at the top of the food chain?
SR: Yes. A few years ago I hunted wild buffalo in the Wrangell Mountains of south-central Alaska, where I had to take raft down the Copper River and then pack in from there a few miles on foot. After a long, arduous hunt, I killed a buffalo—and then the work really started. I had to move 500 pounds of meat along with the skull and hide out of mountains on my back. That’s a total of about 700 pounds. In the meantime, I had a pair of grizzlies take a strong interest in my project. They stalked around the kill site, backtracked along my trail, and left tracks in the snow about 30 inches away from where I was caching the butchered meat. I got awfully paranoid after a few days of this. It honestly started to affect my psychological state. I chronicled this adventure, as well as the dramatic history of the buffalo, in my book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon.
Let’s talk about the octopus episode. Now it’s one thing to shoot a deer from hundreds of feet. It’s something else to bite into an octopus’s nerve center to kill it. How to you prep yourself to be ready for anything?
SR: I’m not sure how to answer that. I suppose it comes down to having a killer instinct that enables me to jump in and make my food, no matter what that involves. I’m not totally sure if this killer instinct is innate behavior or learned behavior. I suspect it’s innate, but that it’s been buried under a veneer of civilized and sanitized behavior. Either way, some people have this killer instinct at their disposal and some people don’t. Those that don’t take one of two paths in life. If they’re really honest with themselves and hold themselves to a high moral standard, then they choose not to wear leather or eat meat. They just steer clear of animal death, period. Those that are less honest, or that live a less examined life, simply choose to let others do their killing for them.
What’s the most invaluable piece of outdoor gear you always bring with you?
SR: A Leatherman multi-tool. I like the big ones, with needle-nose pliers, an assortment of bits, a bone saw, an awl, a serrated blade, and a knife. Not only do they have everything you need for field butchering, but you can fix and rig up a million things with them. I’ve gotten out of some tight pinches with a big multi-tool. Now I feel pretty much naked without one.
Is this philosophy potentially the next wave of “eating local”?
SR: For a long time we’ve been hearing a lot about free-range, organic, low-impact, sustainably produced, humanely harvested meat. Hunters have always eaten that way, but they just thought they were eating wild game. Now in recent years the buzzword “local” has joined the lexicon, and yes, that can be applied to the bulk of wild game that is consumed in the U.S. When I was a kid we ate scores of deer, hundreds of squirrels, rabbits, and grouse, and thousands of fish killed and caught within an eight mile radius of our home. And I remember my first year away from home, when I was going to college in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, my two roommates and I ate four deer in ten weeks. Burgers for lunch, steaks for dinner. We killed these deer 11 miles from our rental home. We rounded out our diet with many salmon and steelhead caught within just two miles of our home. That’s pretty damned local.