Thursday, September 29, 2011

Three story lines from women's hunting camp: The unknown, the uncertainty and the fever

I was present for the birth of three new huntresses last weekend at Cal Waterfowl's women's hunting camp at Bird's Landing, and let me tell you: Watching the delivery never gets old.

But this camp was really interesting because of three striking story lines among some of the participants.

The first story line was Jamie's. Probably her biggest fear was making a mistake with gun handling and ending up hurting or killing someone.

I didn't help. During the hunter safety class on Saturday morning, I told a couple stories, one I'd read about, and one I was there for. The story I'd read was about an experienced shooting instructor who gathered with his pals in the shooting range parking lot after a shoot. He leaned his gun up against the car - bad idea, but hey, it was unloaded. Except it wasn't. It fell over, something hit the trigger, and someone died.

I could see Jamie recoiling. Had it been a mistake to bring it up?

But, hey, I was on a roll. The other story happened with a friend of mine. She was having trouble unloading her autoloader. Safety Measure No. 1 failed: The safety wasn't on. Safety Measure No. 2 failed: Somehow, she hit the trigger.

The boom was deafening and shocking. We'd stared at each other, bug-eyed. I looked at her legs, and at mine. Had either of us been hit? Were we bleeding? "Are you OK?" I asked. She nodded. I was OK too. But we saw where the shot had gouged the concrete in front of us.

My friend was pretty freaked. "Ya know what?" I told her. "You had the muzzle pointed in a safe direction." This is, of course, exactly why we're taught so many layers of safety - because you never know when the fail safes might fail.

Jamie looked green. Had I scared her in a bad way, or in a good way?

The next morning, when we all split up for the hunt, I ended up with Jamie first. We walked and walked and walked our field, Jamie with muzzle dutifully pointed up. The dog smelled birds, but they were running - we couldn't get anything in the air. At least not at first.

Finally, the dog scared up a rooster - a passing shot not too far in front of Jamie.

Jamie swung on the bird. Our dog handler ducked. Then Jamie eased the gun off her shoulder.

"Why'd you decide not to shoot?" I asked her later.

"Zone of fire," she said. There was a parking lot on the other side of the bird. It didn't seem safe to her.

"Good," I said. "That's exactly what you were supposed to do."

Before the day was over, I reminded her of her nerves on the first day, and asked her how she'd felt handling the gun. "Oh, it was fine," she said. Turns out guns aren't quite as scary when you know the rules for handling them. And follow those rules.

And oh yeah: Sometime after I'd left her that morning, she'd gotten one:

The next story line was Rachel's. Rachel had a practicality to her that reminded me a lot of Tamar Haspel. Her husband hunts. She's interested in taking personal responsibility for the meat she eats. And she's not shy about asking questions that people more immersed in hunting culture might be hesitant to voice, like what's up with fair chase, and why does it matter? You're killing the animal either way.

The thing I said during hunter ed that took her off guard (I know, nice job, Holly) was that animals don't always just drop dead when we hit them; sometimes we have to finish them off.

"What do you mean? How do you do it?"

It felt like I was telling a kid Santa wasn't real, which is not to suggest that she's naive - I'd made the same assumption when I started hunting. I thought a hit meant death. I learned immediately that it doesn't always.

I didn't get to hunt with Rachel on Sunday. When I left Jamie's party, Rachel was too far out in the field for me to chase after her without running the risk of botching a shot by being in her zone of fire. But when she came in, I asked how she did. Turns out she got one:

I had to goad her to smile. Something was wrong.

I didn't ask. But I just rattled on about hunting. I don't know what I said - something about downing birds by breaking their wings, rather than killing them outright.

"That's what happened with this one," she said, grimacing. "He had to ..." She finished the sentence by making a fist and twirling it in a circle.

"Helicopter it," I said.


"That's the hard thing about bird hunting," I told her. You can't be precise the way you can with a rifle.

"If you want to hunt birds, you're going to have to get comfortable with that," I said. "And if you can't, you might want to stick with big game - things you can hunt with a rifle."

When we all gathered at the end of the hunt, she brought it up on her own. "They're telling me I might be a better farmer than a hunter."

"That's OK," I said. "It's not for everyone."

In fact, that's one of of the things I tell people is great about this women's hunting camp. For $200, you do it all in one weekend: hunter ed, shooting practice, hunt. You don't have to have a gun; you can borrow or rent one. And if you hate hunting, you're out $200 and two days of your life.

Rachel's fear is one of the most common ones with women: We have a deep aversion to causing pain. It can be a stopper.

Finally, I come to Monique.

Monique is one of last year's grads who came to the camp for a hunter ed refresher, shooting practice and the hunt.

While she has gotten some hunting in since last year's camp, I know it hasn't been enough. She wanted more.

By the time I caught up with her in a field parking lot on Sunday, she'd already gotten a bird, which she was more than happy to show me.

A bunch of us were standing there in the parking lot jawing, giving the dogs a rest,  when someone else fired at a bird in a nearby field and missed. We all looked up - everyone had been instructed that you should always look to see if the hunter missed the bird, sending it where you might get it.

Sure as hell, the rooster sailed past our parking lot, just out of range. But of course, everyone was unloaded.

"Anyone got a gun handy?" I asked, watching to mark where the bird would land. He hadn't even touched down on terra firma when Monique walked past me with her shotgun, stepped out of the parking lot, loaded up, and said, "Let's go!"

We didn't get that one, but we marked a couple other birds that other hunters scared our way, and ultimately, one of the dogs flushed one in range.

Aaaaand, she got it:

It was nearing noon. "Tell me if you want to stop," Monique said, "because I could do this all day."

I grinned.

I'm not sure why I love witnessing that kind of transformation. Is it because she's now part of the sisterhood? Is it the fact that there's one more person in the world who understands how hunting can grip you in a way you never imagined? Is it taking pride in having played a small role in getting her to this place?

I don't know. I just know it was a beautiful thing.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Blessed said...

"...hunting can grip you in a way you never imagined..." yes, that's it exactly!

Sounds like a great weekend! I'm looking forward to doing something similar around here when my daughter gets a little older or when I can talk my sister into doing one of these weekends with me... she wants to, it's just the whole coordinating schedules and a stretch of 1500 miles thing :)

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I would have given my left arm to be there, only that would make it even harder to handle a shotgun competently.

I think one of the reasons hunting traditions like fair chase exist is because the ideas are passed from generation to generation -- i.e. from father to son -- and hunters are therefore steeped in them from childhood. An adult-onset hunter (Tovar Cerulli's coinage) is probably more likely to wonder about those traditions, to question them.

If my hunting season this year is anything like my hunting season last year, you can sign me up in advance for this workshop next September. It'll be worth getting on a plane and flying across the country for.

Thanks for an interesting, thoughtful write-up.

Holly Heyser said...

Blessed, that will be so cool to do that with your daughter. That's one experience I'll never have - no kids.

Tamar, I think you're 100 percent right on that. It's one of many reasons I'm glad I started hunting as an adult from a non-hunting family.

FowlHuntress said...

Holly, It was an amazing weekend and we were all so grateful to have you there. We all learned so much from everyone, even from each other. It was just an a great experience all around.

I'm looking forward to seeing you and the other girls at the duck weekend!

Holly Heyser said...

Me too! That's gonna be fun because there are actual lodging accommodations. Three-day slumber party!

Josh said...

It's funny that somebody told one woman she'd make a better farmer than a hunter, seeing as farming animals is all about close-in killing, and farming with tractors maims a lot of animals.

Great stories, Holly! It sounds like you had a powerful time.

Peebs said...

I usuall give all my birds the "Coup de grace" even if I think they are dead don't need them suffering or wakeing up and getting away crippled. I took out a guy at Delevan who put every bird he shot on his strap after things slowed down in the morning I looked out on the pond and there was a mallard pulling his strap away from the tulies he was in.

Holly Heyser said...

Josh, I don't think she's squeamish about the kill; she was unhappy with the bird's suffering before that kill. I think she understands that farm killing is more personal, but the control it affords can, properly done, lead to quicker death.

But she's going to give it one more try: She's already purchased an expensive duck hunt, so by God, she's going hunting!

Peebs, that's not a bad policy. I don't like looking over and seeing their heads up either.

Rachel said...

"Uncertain" was/is the perfect word to describe me. The class/hunt put me so far out of my comfort zone. I am told that this is the place where personal growth happens. It feels a little like swimming in molasses though.

I was devastated that I merely injured that bird, rather than getting a quick and clean kill. I was also struggling with the ethics of the whole thing because those birds were planted there that morning. If my goal is an honest dinner, why not just wring its neck before planting it in the field? Why all the extra steps?
And please don't say "fair chase". I call bullshit on fair chase.

Holly, I was so glad to have you there. I really enjoyed meeting the other women too. I may not be a farmed pheasant hunter, but I am going to give the duck hunting a try. We did purchase an expensive duck hunt. I also signed up for the Women's Duck Hunt weekend because it is too good of a deal to pass up in terms of education and experience.

I am still forming my personal hunting ethics. I am a work in progress. Thanks for pointing me over to Tamar's site. I think she hits the nail on the head every time.

Holly Heyser said...

Rachel, you are AWESOME! If you do decide to keep hunting, yours will be a welcome voice in some of the discussions we have about things like fair chase. (And I thought you'd like Tamar.)

The most important outcome for you, in my opinion, is that you feel free to take it or leave it, and to decide for sure whenever you feel like it.

On hunting planted birds that morning, though, I would encourage you to give yourself a break. I'm reasonably certain that starting out with easy hunts is as old as humanity. I still think it's important to start with hunts where you have a decent chance of success.

Can't wait to see you at the duck hunt! And beyond, if you decide to stick with this. :-)

Gary Thompson said...

Good on ya! Great job getting more women into field sports. I spent my day yesterday with a group of people fishing the Big Thompson. One participant was a terrific young lady who agressively is learning how to fly fish. She's independent and driven to have success, plus she pays attention to the environment around her and has the good sense to change tactics when the conditions demand it. I have taught literally hundreds of people how to cast and fish. Women are so much better at this than men, primarily because they have an eye and touch for detail. I wish more would get hooked.

Holly Heyser said...

Fun! I love working with good and smart students :-).

SimplyOutdoors said...

Thankfully, I've only been involved in one incidence, and it involved an auto-loader, too.

We were at a gun range shooting trap, and as I leaned down to launch the clay pigeon my buddies gun went off about 2 ft from. He hadn't put the safety back on after the last shot, and with the anticipation of the next shot, his finger was STILL ON THE TRIGGER, and it caused him to fire the gun.

As you said, though, he had the gun pointed in a safe direction - at the ground - so no harm, no foul.

It does make you fully aware of what CAN happen though, doesn't it?