By Jenny Neyman
Few genera are so inherently dramatic as hunting stories. The stakes are literally life and death, and the details are endlessly variable — from the quarry sought to the method and means used; the lengths of time and distance covered; the weather and geographic conditions in which the event unfolds; and the background, experience level, strategy, motivation, purpose, patience and harvest philosophy of the hunter.
Each element has the potential to determine the outcome, from the minutiae of how a gun is sighted to the magnitude of a charging brown bear.
At least, that’s usually the case when the hunter is male. When that’s not the case, all those myriad details and the consequence they hold tend to get compressed, downplayed or glossed over, save one — that the hunter is a woman.
“When guys tell hunting stories, they’re all different. Every little detail takes importance. There’s significance in everything. When it’s a woman, a lot of times the import of the story is her gender — anything beyond that doesn’t matter as much,” said Christine Cunningham, of Kenai.
Cunningham is a hunter herself, which makes her part of the fastest-growing segment of that tradition, bucking the otherwise declining trend of participation across the country.
“Hunting in general was on the decline. The only demographic that was increasing was women,” Cunningham said, referencing a nationwide survey in 2006. “We’re the ones that are new hunters. We’re taking it up, we’re involving families in it. If you’ve got the moms telling the kids it’s OK to go hunting, I think it does a lot for hunting, for a tradition that is on the decline. I think women will be at the forefront of bringing it back.”
The growth in numbers of women taking up hunting has spurred a growth in interest in that trend. But often, Cunningham said, women hunters are portrayed flatly, as just that — women hunters, not hunters who happen to be women.
“There’s so much written about women hunting and the movement or the general interest about women as hunters, but there’s not a lot of women telling their own stories. Not to be stereotypical at all, but it’s been a predominantly male tradition. A lot of the stories are a father to son experience, and they focus on the trial and the trophy. And if it’s a woman, a lot of times you see the stereotype of a girl in a bikini hunting,” Cunningham said. “I think, even in Alaska, where everybody probably knows a woman who’s a hunter, they don’t really know what that means, and it means a lot of different things.”
Cunningham has been immersed lately in those different things. Rather than spending as much time as usual this year at the shooting range or in the field, honing her skills in obtaining meat for her table, she’s been seeking tales of women hunters in Alaska and honing her writing craft so as to share those stories in a way that honors and prioritizes what’s truly important to and unique about each of them, beyond the simple detail of gender. The result is her forthcoming book “Women Hunting Alaska,” which she recently sent off to her publisher, with an expected release in January.
Along with her full-time job as assistant to the Kenai city manager and her as-much-time-as-
possible pursuit of hunting and fishing, Cunningham also is a freelance writer, having been published in Alaska Magazine, Fish Alaska, the Redoubt Reporter, Wildfowl and the online forum Women Hunters.
She said she wanted to write a book for the experience of tackling such a big project from start to finish. Though she often mines her own exploits and learning experiences for humorous effect, she particularly enjoys sharing other people’s stories, and found that women hunters have an unmined wealth of them.
“If women are the future of hunting, and I believe they are, I think they’re going to take the lead and show the world how it can be done. Luckily, women aren’t burdened with that redneck, beer-drinking stereotype that men hunters sometimes get stuck with. Women get a fresh new look at it, and I think they’re being good ambassadors for hunting.”
Cunningham writes about 17 Alaska women in her book, each with a profile, photos and a hunting story. Their biographies are about as diverse as if the subjects were randomly plucked from the phone book — from an 84-year-old to a 20-year-old, girly girls to tomboys, city dwellers to a Native villager, wildlife biologists, an artist, a medical doctor, a professional hunting guide, an Olympic trap shooter and a librarian. Their approaches to and styles of hunting are equally varied — some seek the thrill and the trophy, others mainly want food for the freezer, some want to experience, conserve and pass on hunting tradition, or a little of all the above.
“Each of us, hunter or not, who we are is a confluence of how we were raised and where we find ourselves and our experiences, so what hunting means to each of us is so different, so it was cool to have this conversation with so many different women,” Cunningham said. “Hearing their stories was like meeting a person, and the way they found hunting was almost like the way they found themselves. It was really important for me not to change the stories so they mirrored my own style of hunting or my own hunting beliefs. I really wanted to honor the differences, so there’s an array of kinds of hunters, types of hunters and different styles of hunting.”
There’s Ethel Leedy, of Delta Junction, who is one of only three women — and, at age 81 at the time, the oldest — to be recognized by the Grand Slam Club/Ovis international hunting organization for taking the Super Slam of all 29 of North America’s big game species, including a polar bear on an all-women hunt. She’s taken 11 Dall sheep, one when she was 76 years old.
“She says every animal is a trophy,” Cunningham said.
Anna Norris Vorisek, of Fairbanks, was the first woman to be recognized for taking a Grand Slam of Sheep (all four types of North American wild sheep) by bow.
“Anna is an example to her granddaughters of what’s possible. If it’s what you want to do, you can do it, and that’s a great message,” Cunningham said.
Sue Entsminger, a guide in the Tok area, has lived without electricity since 1976, grows her own vegetables, harvests her own meat, traps and uses the hides for sewing fur skin.
“She’s the man we all want to be,” Cunningham said.
Corey Cogdell, of Eagle River, won the bronze medal in women’s trap shooting at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and took time out from her training for the 2012 Olympics in London to talk to Cunningham about the differences between competitive trap shooting and shooting for hunting.
“I’m on the phone with an Olympian — she’s taking my call. That’s somebody who cares about the hunting heritage,” Cunningham said.
Molly Copple, of Kenai, is the youngest in the book. She was born in 1992 and her father died when she was 12, before he was able to make good on his promise to take her hunting. Now she wears a necklace with his ashes around her neck, and plans to take him on her first hunt.
“She talks about her dad and how he came home telling stories about hunting, his attitude in life, that she wanted to grow up and marry a hunter. I’d never seen somebody so revere a person for their having been a hunter,” Cunningham said.
Heather Wilson, of Anchorage, is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and airplane pilot who started hunting for subsistence in order to participate in providing her own food.
“She had been a vegetarian but decided if she could harvest it herself, that was different. That was the right thing to do,” Cunningham said.
Wilson’s story is about taking a moose when she was 6 months pregnant, with her 1-1/2-year-old son in a pack on her back.
“She told me, ‘I could very well have said, ‘My husband’s capable of getting our moose. He can do it.’ But she thought, ‘If I can do it, then I need to do it, too.’ She wanted to make sure she and her kids always had a seat at the table,” Cunningham said. “You think, privately, ‘Is that responsible, as a mother?’
“But after talking to Heather you come away with such an original and fresh perspective on motherhood. To her, if things were possible, she never wanted to not do it. After reading her story you come away with this idea, not just that things are possible for women in hunting, but just being inspired by a woman who all things are possible for — the sky’s the limit.”
The hunter to which Cunningham most personally related is Charity Green, originally of
Sterling, now an artist in Juneau. After getting divorced from her hunter husband, she still wanted meat in her freezer.
“She thought, ‘I’m going to have to do this myself, and am I really capable of doing that?’ Her story was about gaining confidence,” Cunningham said.
It took Green 150 days in the field before finally getting her first Sitka deer.
“For whatever reason, even though she would come across game, it just was never right. She knew that hunting was right and that she had to be able to do this. She kept continuing on even though she started to feel a little silly about it. You know, ‘Here I’ve gone all these times, some hunter I am,’” Cunningham said. “Finally, she found her deer and it was the perfect moment and she took it. One of the things she said that I really liked was, ‘If you don’t have doubts about pulling the trigger, then something’s wrong.’”
That statement most closely mirrors Cunningham’s own experience getting into hunting. She
started duck hunting at 25, somewhat surprisingly finding her salon-styled hair slicked by rain, her manicured hands gripping a shotgun, and her usually makeup-ringed eyes level with the stinky muck of the Kasilof River tidal flats. An even harder transition was from a vegetarian and a devotee of Eastern philosophies to someone who shoots to kill.
“That whole, ‘Don’t hurt your fellow sentient being.’ That was hard for me. That’s part of that discovery process for me is still answering those questions. When you’re taking the life of an animal so that you can live, that’s one of the harshest realities in life. To me, being a vegetarian was a denial of that reality. How to do that the right way and honor that and not deny that — if you can’t handle that, can you even handle life? I wanted to be able to handle it,” she said.
Writing the book was a way to hear of the many different ways hunters — who happen to be women — answer those questions.
“In a lot of ways these stories are about hunting, but they’re also about living what you believe. This state has so much potential, you couldn’t possibly do all the fishing and hunting and running and hiking and kayaking and boating. You just couldn’t do it all, but there are these people out there, women and men, who are up to their eyeballs in it,” Cunningham said. “I just think that women are capable of so much. I want people to know what’s possible — if you want to be a runner or mountain climber, it impresses me when people go out and do it. You want to be a captain of a sailboat? You do it. If you wanted to go hunting, that’s totally possible. Just go out and hunt.”