Sleeping bags, trout rods, ammo, camo—you can find it all at one of the nation's 28 Cabela's stores. And that's just for starters. Each store is stocked with enough kayaks, tents, and camp stoves to fill every pickup and Subaru wagon within 100 miles.
I've hooked a few monster rainbow trout in my time. I've hiked to mountain lakes at seriously oxygen-challenged altitudes. And I once got within a couple of feet of a grizzly. I could have had an awesome picture, but my wife ruined the moment by insisting that I roll up the window.
Still, there has long been a huge hole in my outdoorsmanship resume. OK, two holes. First, I've never shot anything. More egregiously, I'd never set foot in a Cabela's, the retail temple for outdoor enthusiasts everywhere. Each store is stocked with enough kayaks, tents, and camp stoves to fill every pickup and Subaru wagon within 100 miles. But the stores aren't just places to shop. With giant aquariums, shooting ranges, restaurants, fudge emporiums, and taxidermy displays worthy of a natural history museum, Cabela's outlets have become popular destinations for families and curiosity seekers, including quite a few people who barely know ammo from camo.
Case in point: Steve Bradley, an electrical engineer from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, is a whiz at calculus, but he's not exactly the second coming of Davy Crockett. Still, he recently brought his 7-year-old daughter, Isabelle, to the Cabela's in Post Falls, Idaho. Taking in the view, Isabelle popped the ultimate existential question: "How do they get the animals to stay so still?" Deciding to skip an explanation of life, death, and taxidermy, Bradley bought her an ice cream cone instead. She later raved about the outing.
Plans for a new Cabela's to open in 2009 in Billings, Mont., have been generating buzz in the northern mountain states. I decided to jump the gun and head to the outlet in Lehi, Utah. (The Web site cabelas.com  maps all 28 locations.) The 177,000-square-foot store, 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, is among the region's largest. It's two stories tall, with a mountain view from the parking lot and, as I would soon discover, enough animals to sink an ark.
Sure, I was expecting taxidermy. But this? I walked through the doors, looked up, and saw a V-shaped squadron of Canada geese swooping in for a landing. Straight ahead stood the Mountain, a 30-foot-tall fiberglass monolith teeming with what had once been life. A bull moose peered from behind realistic autumn foliage. A lynx in full extension chased a snowshoe hare beside a waterfall. On the side of the mountain, a polar bear reared up a few feet from an arctic wolf that clearly had designs on a nearby musk ox. A nearly hidden mountain lion surveyed a group of big-horn sheep as an obviously startled prairie dog plunged into its hole, its tail end sticking out for eternity.
Not far away, visitors wandered through a hall of North American animals, featuring five black bears, herds of deer and elk, one of the world's largest skunks, and an animatronic out-doorsman who looks like George W. Bush. On the other side of the building, two lions, male and female, tag-teamed a greater kudu against a painted backdrop of blue sky over the African savanna. The Cape buffalo and Thomson's gazelles were presumably relieved to see the lions otherwise occupied. Cabela's stores are all like this: Animals everywhere, many of them portraying their position in the food chain. "We try to appeal to the whole spectrum, from kids to die-hard hunters," says Mark Dowse, the company's taxidermy product manager. Based in Cabela's flagship store in Sidney, Neb., he's the guy in charge of designing the displays and collecting the animals. He buys hides from hunters, then hires local taxidermists to create the right snarls, poses, and scenes. He also buys mounted animals from hunters ready to free up some space in their dens or garages. According to Dowse, it can take as many as 15 semis with 53-foot trailers to deliver the mounts and other displays to each new store. The actual merchandise arrives separately.
Some of the animals—such as the African elephant in the Reno store—pose special challenges. "We're involved with the design of the store from the beginning," Dowse says. "If we plan to have an elephant, we have to make sure there's a door big enough for him to get through." A safari hunter had donated the Reno hide, possibly because his own house didn't have doors quite big enough. According to Dowse, a few of the elephants at other Cabela's stores were donated by avid hunters Dick and Mary Cabela, the couple whose retail empire started in 1961 when they sold some fishing flies from their kitchen table in Chappell, Neb.
In Utah, it's clear not everyone is shopping for new gear. Moms and dads snap pictures while their offspring stop and point. "Mommy, I see a squirrel!" said a boy who looked about 3. "No, that's a beaver," his mom said, correctly. It's all just part of the exhibit craft. "Kids are the ones who spot the mice and the chipmunks," Dowse notes.
In that sense, a trip to Cabela's can be educational. Children learn their rodents while seasoned hunters get to appraise record-class mule deer from close range. Tom Thoits, a soccer coach and physician staffing specialist living in South Ogden, Utah, says one of his daughters created a third-grade project out of photos from a trip to the store. Thoits has made the 60-mile drive about five times. "It's captivating," he says.
Thoits and his girls were among the crowd cheering the biggest spectacle: feeding time at the store's 35,000-gallon aquarium. It starts innocently enough, as schools of pike, tiger muskies, and morbidly obese trout snap up pellets falling from above. The scene takes a turn—to kids' excited squeals—when workers start plopping in live goldfish through long plastic tubes. The big fish treat these tubes like Pez dispensers, inhaling the wriggling orange treats as soon as they hit the water. Just when the carnage appears to be over, the tubes poke in again, this time shooting out panicky seven-inch trout that suddenly have the life expectancy of hot pizza at a frat party.
The aquariums, taxidermy, and other attractions form Cabela's key marketing strategy: Make each store a destination and hope visitors spend. It's a hit-and-miss approach. Thoits, for one, has never purchased much more than a key chain. But the crowds do come, especially on weekends. According to spokesperson John Castillo, about half the customers at any given store traveled 50 miles or more to get there. And not many leave empty-handed: In 2008, Cabela's boasted more than $1.3 billion in sales from its stores and another $1.1 billion from its catalog and Web site. By comparison, outdoor giant L.L. Bean claimed total sales of $1.5 billion in 2008.
There's certainly no shortage of options for shoppers. Wondrously, the racks of camouflage clothing—including onesies for babies—are especially conspicuous. And I was amazed by the range of firearms: handguns, Civil War–era Winchesters, and even a $59,000 elephant rifle.
Robert Ethington, a contractor who'd driven 40 miles from Spanish Fork, Utah, was gearing up to hunt brown bear on the coast of Alaska. He figures he comes here to shop about 15 times a year. This trip, he ended up buying a Remington .375 H&H Magnum rifle. "For the most part, they have everything a guy could want," he says.
I, in turn, rummaged through racks of pants (nothing in my size), puzzled over a turkey deep fryer ($150), and fondled some exquisite Sage fly rods ($700). Then I found something I really needed: a tropical smoothie. It wasn't everything a guy could want, but it was all it took to make me a happy camper.
Photography by Scot Zimmerman
This article was first published in July 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.