Baldonnel is a small community just east of Fort St. John. There’s a cluster of houses with some horses around, and the biggest building is the school.
One of the residents is Chris Cushway, an antler-carver who lives there with his wife and daughter. Cushways have lived in Baldonnel for almost a hundred years, since Samuel Cushway first homesteaded there in 1919.
Chris has lived there all his life, with land being passed down through the generations. He and his wife keep 14 large, quiet, strong horses, good for mountain riding, and Cushway has a passion for the outdoors.
“We ride around up in the hills looking for antlers,” said Cushway. “We do quite a bit of hunting.” The horns that he does carve aren’t from any of his own kills, he uses only cast off antlers, those that aren’t considered wildlife.
He’s always been fascinated with antlers, even from a young age he would collect the antlers he would find and keep them, initially making knife handles, but the hobby escalated.
A look around his living room gives a good snapshot of Cushway’s interests: antler and wood carving, mounted game heads, and an oil paining in progress, his first.
“The thing I like about it is, I get to go out there and do what I love to do,” he said. “I love picking up antlers. I love going out and spending the time riding around looking for horns. It’s just trying to figure out what to do with them when you’ve got them,” he laughed. “There’s no rhyme or reason to where they drop them.”
Although he has a few hidden spots that he visits regularly to find horns, he said that most of it is simply putting the time in looking for it, and a heavy dose of luck.
“I’d like to tell you that it’s easy, [but] no, it’s luck,” he said. “There’s places you can go to increase your luck. If you go up into the mountains to the bare hillsides you can set up with a spotting scope and a pair of binoculars and you can actually see the elk horns laying on the side of the hill sometimes.” Having said that, he said as much as he might plot the path to take to collect them, he can still completely miss them.
Cushway has stories of spotting one antler and, knowing there is likely another one nearby, spending a large amount of time trying to find it. One time he had completely given up, and spotted it shortly after a few yards away. Another time he spotted what he thought was the matching antler, only to discover much later they were from two different sets.
The kind of horses he takes with him are important, too. His big, meek mountain horses are strong and calm, which means that they can carry a lot of antlers, and they aren’t frightened of the rattling noise they make or an unexpected poke. “You’ve got to have good horses,” he said.
To Cushway, it’s a way of life that he’s seen in other people as well. He was at a farmer’s market last summer when he spotted an artisan who made furniture out of driftwood, and said he could spot the same kind of passion in her work.
“I said to her, ‘I can tell that you enjoy walking around, picking up driftwood, it’s the time that you spend out there,’” he said. “Doing something you enjoy.”
How long does it take him to carve out one of his antlers? “You don’t want to know,” he laughed. He said that if he had his way he wouldn’t sell any of them, but he doesn’t have the space. One of his recent pieces that he didn’t want to part with he gave to his wife for Christmas.
The inspiration for the images he carves comes from various sources, mostly having to do with images he’s seen himself. One is a standoff between a moose and a wolf, the moose in the water, with the wolf eyeing him from the shore. Another is a giant moose that he saw when he was out hunting with his father years ago. He told the story of how he hunted this moose for three days, the biggest he had ever seen, surrounded by 19 cows, but Cushway said he couldn’t decide if he wanted to kill it.
Part of that indecision came from the idea that this wasn’t the trophy he wanted. “If I’m out here hunting for meat, I’ll shoot any moose that’s legal. But when you’re back there looking for a set of horns for a trophy, he’d better be what you want.” Cushway explained. “If he isn’t exactly what you want, why are you shooting him?”
It’s a more conscientious way than some people look at trophy hunting, a kind of thoughtfulness that comes through in his art.
“It’s not about killing something,” he said, explaining that there should be a lot of consideration behind it.
He has an idea of what that perfect trophy will look like, but he still hasn’t found it yet, nearly twenty years later.