In a world overrun by categories and labels, hunting is the great equalizer. The outdoors is one of the few places where age, gender, race, and sexual preference don’t matter. I am a female, a bow hunter, a wife. I am NOT a “female hunter” or a “woman that hunts”. I am a hunter - we all are, plain and simple. And this is my why.
“Text if you get one!” my parents say as my husband, Pat, and I hug them goodbye prior to making the 1,400-mile trek to Montana for our annual two-week archery elk hunt. “No…we get full service, so I’ll FaceTime you - if it actually happens” I respond after a tight hug and a hopeful smile.
A few days later we leave Michigan in the rearview. My mind is busy and anxious, but my heart is full of passion and my eyes are burning with that familiar fire that warms me every time I venture into the woods.
I find that fire in the aroma of crimson leaves under muddy boots walking to the tree-stand. It’s the distant gobble of a tom while spring peepers sing backup on early April mornings. I find it every time a hunting story is told, a venison tenderloin is served or when catching a glimpse of camo hanging in the basement while grabbing a jar of bone broth from the shelves. It burns sitting next to my dad at sunrise on November 15th in Michigan and when my nieces call to congratulate me on a successful hunt. Or sometimes I find it simply sitting next to a small stream mid-hike in the summer under towering Michigan hardwoods and listening to the water race over bedrock while my eyes subconsciously close. Where I breathe deep and let go of anything that has been weighing on me. Collectively these moments kindle that fire. These moments are my why.
Making the 23-hour drive west every year is daunting, but knowing you have your loved ones full support and that they’ll be anxiously awaiting the text message that says “attachment” keeps tired eyes open and the cruise control on. It’s also a time to reflect and plan. Reliving the past four years’ attempts to notch a tag while wondering if this year will be the same. Thinking about what I might do differently to change the outcome. Honestly though, I’m most excited about immersing myself in the outdoors once again.
Stepping out of the truck after minimal sleep, my body is immediately ignited - head to toe, inside and out. I recognize the familiar “moos” of the Angus cows wandering the mountains that always get mistaken for black bear in the predawn hours, the soothing scent that can only come from fresh alpine air rushing through the cottonwoods in the creek bottom shading our tent and the rugged mountain ranges brushing bluebird skies that my soul has been craving for months. No headlights or buildings to see. No exhaust fumes or restaurants to smell. No traffic or neighbors to hear.
The mountains tend to grab a hold of me more than pursuing elk. Instead of focusing on the thermals and what was glassed or heard that morning, I’m mesmerized by the sunlight bouncing off the distant peaks or a whitetail feeding peacefully in a distant meadow. I want to absorb those surroundings - even if only for a few seconds - take a deep breath and calm my busy mind before we start the climb and the pursuit. Those moments of Zen are quickly interrupted when a bull bugles, exposing his position.
A plan is made as the sun descends and no sooner than we are in position, he’s crashing down the mountain to the irresistible cow calls Pat is making to my left. It’s so thick there isn’t a clear shot more than ten yards. A decision has to be made. His bugle echoes through the timber and the tops of the trees sway frantically back and forth as he rakes them, making his way in my direction. His cows spot me through the thick timber and high-tail it down the mountain. I assume he will do the same, but instead turns and beelines to Pat’s cow calls.
Only his tines are exposed, but he’s closing in - quickly. Darting back and forth between positions, I find a small shooting lane and draw back. Coming to full draw, years of memories and emotions rush over me. I know this is my moment. Following his tines down the trail, he pants heavily, raising the hair on the back of my neck. After blowing past the shooting lane, a cluster of trees stops him abruptly, exposing his rump. He lets out one last ear-piercing bugle while the adrenaline pumping through my body keeps me at full draw. He then turns toward me with his head down, panting once again and quickly closing the gap. I make a subtle movement, causing him to stop and pick up his head. We lock eyes at a mere seven yards, and I release the arrow…
A long, sleepless night turns into early morning and we find ourselves 250 yards from the initial hit beginning the search anew. Seeing what is in front of me, I feel like my world is crashing down. Beneath the mountain, shoulder-high brush extends for acres. Finding a downed elk amidst that tangle is the true definition of a needle in a haystack. And there I sit, in the center of it all, trying to feel something… anything… longing for something concrete, even if that emotion means anger, defeat, or sadness. All that remains is a numbing sense of emptiness.
Pat senses my uncertainty and decides to start grid-searching, a suggestion that snaps me back to reality and makes my heart sink. It’s approaching 8:00 AM and the temperatures will soar to 90 degrees by noon. If he is found, it has to be quick. Pat interrupts my negative thoughts and suggests taking a trail that continued slightly uphill. But the bull is injured - badly. He wouldn’t go uphill. Rolling my eyes, I reluctantly agree.
After a few halfhearted steps I pick up my head expecting a repeat of the disappointment experienced over the last 300 yards, only to see a motionless light brown rump in a small opening of the brush. The air leaves my lungs and my legs instantly grow weak. I drop my head along with my bow and collapse to my knees.
Placing my trembling hands on his soft coat for the first time I frantically scroll through my phone to find the “Mommio” contact and the FaceTime option. I sit next to the bull as it rings, making sure the camera is front facing. When she picks up, my hands are still quivering. Through the sniffles, with a tear-stained face, tired eyes and a shaky voice, I say, “Mama, I found him…”
I hang up after a brief yet emotional conversation and wipe the tears away, pulling myself together realizing the real work ahead. Gathering my bow, I kneel beside him for a few quick pictures, the distant mountain ranges in view. But the smiles for the camera don’t last long. Glancing down at the bull, tears instantly start falling again.
In the moment, two very different but powerful emotions overwhelm me – gratitude and remorse. I’m grateful for recovering him; for the meals he will provide; for having a husband, family and friends by my side every step of the way; for this time in the mountains; for the gift of the hunt. But taking a life to sustain mine is no small thing and is always accompanied by a remorse only a hunter can know. It’s never easy and grows more difficult with age. But hunting gives me a deep connection with the outdoors which helps keep that fire lit along with my sanity. Knowing he will nourish not only my body, but also my soul, helps get me through.
Driving home with a tired body, full heart and heavy cooler, the passing landscape and the steady trance-like hum of the tires cause me to grow reflective. My senses are still filled with the tangy scent of sagebrush, the heart-pounding bugle tearing the silence of the coming evening, the brilliance of the September sky over towering mountains and the soft, warm body of the animal that will feed me this year. I look over to see Pat sleeping in the passenger seat and I smile. My mind shifts to reuniting with my friends and family, telling the story over tenderloins and a cold beverage during whitetail season in Michigan. I’m reminded again of why.
I am a hunter. The millions of moments that happen before and after releasing that arrow fuel a fire that burns in my soul.
My thoughts are interrupted by the buzzing of my phone. I look down, smile and answer, “Hey Mama, we’re on our way home.”