Outside a small cabin hidden by ponderosa pines and groves of aspen stands northeast of Durango, David Petersen relentlessly chops wood on a late August day to stock up for the long winter months.
But his mind is focused on one thing: September, what he calls the most beautiful month in Colorado, when not only all the “tourists and other bugs go away,” but also, more importantly, it’s the start of elk hunting season.
“For me, personally, I don’t enjoy the kill,” Petersen said. “I enjoy hunting.”
Petersen is a local author and former conservation activist whose biggest contribution, colleagues agree, is championing a voice for ethical hunting, which at times, proved divisive in the tight-knit and opinionated hunting community.
He also is the subject of a new documentary, “On the Wild Edge: Hunting for a Natural Life,” which provides a rare, intimate view of a man who prefers to remain a recluse, having even escaped the attention of his local paper, The Durango Herald, for almost three decades.
“I consider myself a small fish,” he likes to say. “But it’s also a small pond.”
Petersen, 70, wanted out of his hometown in rural Oklahoma so badly that he joined the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War. He excelled in training to be a helicopter pilot, and, oddly, promotions kept him from seeing action.
After the war, Petersen did not return to the plains of the Midwest. He met his soon-to-be wife, Carolyn, in Laguna Beach, and the two bounced around the country for a few years until they stumbled upon Durango in 1981. They haven’t left.
Petersen whimsically recalls those first few years in Durango, living “dirt poor” while the couple struggled to build a cabin on a plot of land they purchased. In the meantime, Carolyn “worked a litany of dead-end jobs” so that Petersen could pursue a career as a writer.
The risk paid off: in 1983 Petersen landed a job with Mother Earth News, which at the time thrived on the growing “back to the land movement,” and an increasing public sentiment for preservation of the environment.
Over time, as Petersen admits, a career as a “nature writer” turned out to not be his calling. His real voice emerged when discussing controversial issues surrounding the ethical practices of hunting.
“He’s been the sole voice for ethical hunting and how it needs to be done right,” said longtime friend and BearSmart activist Bryan Peterson (no relation). “He rails against any advantages that makes hunting more than pure sport. No gadgets, no gizmos, no drones.”
Each fall, almost like a religious mecca, Petersen roams the San Juan Mountains, armed only with a long bow, which requires him to be within a 20-foot range of his prey.
“I want the hard way,” he said. “It makes you have to be more dedicated. You have to actually hunt. All these new devices take the hunt out of hunting.”
Citing a stronger connection to nature with a pure hunt, Petersen thrust his views into the hunting world, openly criticizing over-the-top tactics in an attempt to bring a self-awareness to the community.
“It’s a real easy group to be critical of,” Petersen said. “I realized if I wanted to be a hunter, I’d have to be the anti-hunter.”
Like many hunters or anglers who depend on a healthy environment, Petersen became a prominent voice in conservation efforts, playing a huge role in Trout Unlimited and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
“He is unwavering, and he comes from a place of knowledge more so than a lot of people who work in this industry,” Trout Unlimited’s Ty Churchwell said. “He is the consummate hunter, and as such, his opinion on these matters carries a huge amount of weight.”
Petersen retired from writing a few years ago, having “said all I need to say about hunting and hunting ethics.” But in the early 2010s, he was approached by Christopher Daley, a European filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary about hunting.
Petersen, if begrudgingly, agreed, hoping to educate a wider audience.
“I live in a big city, so it’s not really something I had ever been exposed to,” Daley said “Anyone who lives in a big city has a fantasy of getting away by living a simple life, living closer to nature, being able to provide for yourself, and he and Carolyn managed to build a very independent life for themselves.”
Yet tragedy struck in 2014 when Carolyn suddenly died. Daley said the focus of the movie then shifted to their life together, rather than solely about hunting.
“She gave me a good life,” Petersen said of his wife of 33 years. “It felt like the end of my life in a lot of ways.”
The past few years have been hard as Petersen adjusts to life without Carolyn, but slowly, the wounds have begun to heal. One day, he said, he woke up and thought he heard Carolyn talk to him.
“She said: get your (expletive) together. You’re alive. You’re still here.”
Since then, Petersen has been going out more, listening to live music, dancing and enjoying Durango’s breweries. And of course, looking forward to September’s hunt.
“At some point after her death, I felt I didn’t want to kill an elk, that I was done with hunting,” he continued. “But this year, I’m really feeling it. And I really miss the meat.”