Work Pushes Us to the Limit

Recreation converted into work intensifies experience by forcing you to engage even when it’s inconvenient

By Rob Breeding

It seems odd to say, but the most intense outdoor experience of my life was a job with the Bitterroot National Forest in the 1990s. It was a summer gig, in the upper Selway River basin, collecting data on salmon habitat.

We walked up streams, to headwaters you could step across, measuring the depth and frequency of pools, spawning gravel and snorkeling to count fish.

We immersed ourselves in that country. We knew it intimately because that was our job.

Foresters and other folks who butter their bread in the outdoors have long told me this. I remained skeptical until I did it myself, if only for that lone summer.

Years later, while in graduate school in Arizona, a guest lecturer who was working on native prairie restoration in Illinois told us that work intensified outdoor experience, the necessity of it pushed us further and farther than we’d likely go recreating.

Humans, being the clever bipeds we are, have improvised all sorts of ways to turn our fun into work. Some like climbing mountains, then decide they’ll never be satisfied unless they summit every Fourteener in their state (Colorado has the most, with 53).

Some folks start out as trail runners for exercise, only to find themselves competing in ultra marathons.

Recreation converted into work intensifies experience by forcing you to engage even when it’s inconvenient. There isn’t a fly fisher among us who hasn’t read a foul weather forecast, peered out the window at gloom on the horizon, and said, “Not today, kids.”

Become a fly fishing guide and you no longer have that luxury.

A colleague laughed the other day when I told him I was working Saturday, and by working, I meant I was going hunting. I retorted to his chuckle by reminding him that hunting is the second oldest human profession, trailing only gathering.

My apologies to practitioners of “that” oldest profession. But yours is really a close third.

I told him I was going to try to shoot a limit of quail (I didn’t), which meant I’d go early, stay out late, and generally walk myself to exhaustion trying to reach the point where game regulations required me to stop.

My colleague does something similar on his motorcycle, entering competitions in which riders visit the most states or take the most selfies at river crossings or other landmarks in an allotted time.

Competition is a stand-in for work, and I can be a relentless taskmaster.

I created my own work simulation while bird hunting. About a decade ago I decided I wanted to hunt all six quail species native to the United States. Some were fairly straight forward — Gambel’s and Montezuma quail in Arizona I’d already sorted out when I lived there. California quail soon followed.

Bobwhite and scaled quail took a little more time. I caught Oklahoma bobwhite a few years back in what turned out to be a 20-year population high. I checked off scalies a few days later in the boot heel of New Mexico.

I’ve been on five-of-six for a few years now. Mountain quail proved to be my Constantinople, with every assault falling at the city walls.

My task was made more difficult my choice of location: the mountains that separate my native urban Southern California from the Mohave Desert. Oregon or the Sierra Nevada might have been more fruitful. For a few days almost every winter, I’ve walked the base of those mountains, magical places where desert scrub gives way to Joshua trees to yucca, then scrub oak to pine forest.

Last week, I satisfied that requisition for quail No. 6. I might never hunt mountain quail again, but I’m better for doing the work to find them, on the fringes of my former homeland, in a place that will forever fill my dreams.

Rob Breeding is the editor of

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