By Liz Lynch
Rifle in hand, my mind is racing while my boots carry my body at a more deliberate pace, towards a spot where I’d crossed paths with a few nice mule deer this summer. There’s something that’s pure, Rocky Mountain magic about the way golden, mid-morning light drifts down through aspen leaves in mid-September in Wyoming. The autumn color show is one of the things I miss the most about the northeastern hardwoods I grew up around, but the aspen and sumac here do their damnedest to stand up to the aesthetic test.
Another thing I miss about my childhood hardwoods is the lack of a wildfire season back east. As we creep down the hill, my eyes pore over the innumerable elk and deer tracks pressed into the blackened soil, while stepping around and over deadfall: scars from the Fontenelle Fire in 2012. For the first time in several days, the air here is clear of wildfire smoke, thanks to yesterday’s snowy squall. The only scents hanging in the air now are the inviting warmth of sunlit leaf litter and damp soil, and the thick, pungent, omnipresent aroma of elk. One barks at us from below, unseen in the dense cover. Not to worry; they weren’t my target anyhow.
"With no awareness of the North American Conservation Model’s existence, let alone its inner machinations or complementary Fair Chase ethics, I stereotyped all hunters as universally bloodthirsty, backwoods know-nothings with no respect for nature."
Moving from the suburban east to the semi-rural west has added many shades of grey to my previously black-and-white ways of thinking. Hunting has been particularly essential to adding nuance where none existed for me previously. For example, it’s helped me understand that fires can be a good thing, if they don’t burn too intensely. The amount of ungulate sign I’m seeing is proof in the ashy pudding.
"I learned very quickly that hunting was less about killing, and more about taking a gun for a walk in gorgeous places at ungodly hours that I’d likely never see otherwise."
It’s also changed my mind about the fundamental nature of hunting, of course. With no awareness of the North American Conservation Model’s existence, let alone its inner machinations or complementary Fair Chase ethics, I stereotyped all hunters as universally bloodthirsty, backwoods know-nothings with no respect for nature. “If the old me could see me now,” I thought as I set down my pack on the glassing knoll. Below us, in the opening, a herd of pronghorn jets away from the road – the incessant hum of vehicles would make one believe we’re the only hunters burning boot leather today. Shortly after, a group of mule deer does poke out, moving the opposite direction, with their fawns in tow. No bucks appear; I just observe. There’s something decidedly wonderful about nestling into an outcrop of boulders and being a student of nature. My heart gets hungry for it every time September rolls around.
In my first year as a hunter, I took up waterfowling; one non-big game license was all I could afford as a non-resident. I learned very quickly that hunting was less about killing, and more about taking a gun for a walk in gorgeous places at ungodly hours that I’d likely never see otherwise. I learned to identify ducks by their hushed morning conversations, even the whistling of their wings. I learned how massive the wingspans of some Canada geese could be. I learned that, even if the temperature is -17°F, the thrill of running across a failing abandoned beaver dam can keep you warm, and certain sunrises are greatly enhanced by frost and solitude.
My second year, I decided I wanted to try my hand at deer hunting. Finding a secondhand Remington 870 the year prior had been a warning for what I was about to learn in full: hunting is expensive. Even the bare minimums – a license, good boots, a pack, and the proper weapon with the proper corresponding optics – can come with high price tags. While I’m grateful to own high quality gear, I also appreciate the versatility of work Carhartts, a second hand Patagonia fleece, and an old Osprey pack that came at a fraction of the price of my premium camo. Not to mention investing in raffle tickets from fundraising events, which can yield the occasional rifle, but mostly just yield good conservation karma.
"I still grapple with gender biases as a hunter all the time. I find myself walking a fine line..."
My third year, I tried hunting alone for the first time. I’d like to say I’ve gotten more comfortable being alone in the woods since then, but truth be told, I’ve made little progress there. I presume this is a side effect of growing up in virtually predator-free woods, then moving to some of the most predator-dense parts of the country. Fortunately, the same excitement I felt then, seeing a herd of elk for the first time, has yet to fully wear off. I don’t cry now every time I see a clump of them stream out of the woods or hear a group of them lighting up the woods with chirps, whines, and roars, but I still got chills this year, a month after this mule deer hunt, when I heard cows chattering their way down a hill, their herd bull and satellites tailing behind. And, as always, I shed a few tears when I walked up on one of those satellite bulls, a smaller 6-by-6, as he lay in the timber after I’d gone on to shoot him.
But in the meantime, I’m switching between peering down and out through my binoculars, hoping for a buck, and idly chatting with Craig. Like going out on my own, I always find hunting with someone new a bit nerve wracking. Mostly, I wonder if I’m being treated with “girl gloves”: like being treated with “kid gloves,” but through the lens of a gender bias that chips away at the corners of my credibility. That first solo hunt was my first clear “girl gloves” romp: if I had a dollar for every likely well-intentioned – but really, to me, patronizing and frightening “Oh, you’re out here alone?” comment I got that weekend that made me doubt my knowledge, skills, and personal safety, I could’ve gotten myself a badly needed bottle of wine.
I still grapple with gender biases as a hunter all the time. I find myself walking a fine line: be honest and forthcoming, but don’t diminish my accomplishments or second guess what I know; be modest and low maintenance in my appearance because that’s what makes me comfortable, and not because it’s what the male gaze commands when I’m in camo (sometimes); be thoughtful and deliberate, but stay on the grind; be tough, but stay tenderhearted.
Fortunately, no such worries are felt today. Craig is as easy-going a hunting partner as anyone could ever hope for, and although no bucks grace us with their company before it’s time for us to hit the road, I’m proud that the spot I found in the summer revealed a few of its other hooved residents to us. Smiles abound – despite tags left notchless – as we gather our things and head back out along a ridgeline, watching ATVs and trucks rumble past my humble drainage of choice, teeming with game hidden from their view.
I take a second, here and there, to pull the smell of elk back into my nostrils; to practically chew on the flavors of the woods in autumn as the air slips into my lungs; to listen to the birdsong and squirrel chatter; to make sure, just one more time, there isn’t a buck below us. I’m fully present, fully aware, fully content, and fully myself. The dividends of taking it slow pay out, as they so often do for me when I’m taking the gun for a walk. When the road dust settles, the cool air clears again, and life amongst the golden aspens carries on for the rest of us.