Editor’s note: As a whole, hunting participation has declined, but don’t discount the ladies who are taking to the great outdoors in increasing numbers. More and more women and girls are hunting and thriving while doing it, and that can’t be ignored when the perception of sexism is alive and well from Hollywood to Washington DC. And these sportswomen have earned their place among the guys in the shooting sports community. Writer K.J. Houtman, herself an avid outdoors lover, interviewed 17 women who hunt (there’s a also a chapter profiling the author). The group includes the cover subject, our own former correspondent and Alaskan Christine Cunningham, in a new book that proclaims on its cover, “Today’s female hunters are smart, savvy and very real.” We agree wholeheartedly. The following is excerpted from Why Women Hunt, by K.J. Houtman and published by Wild River Press. For more info, go to whywomenhunt.com. You can also order the book at wildriverpress.com.
BY K.J. HOUTMAN
Started hunting in 2005
“What’s the worst that can happen?” Christine Cunningham wondered as she and her partner, Steven Meyer, talked over the decision to breed their hunting dog, Winchester, and keep two pups from the litter.
Sure, some people could get so caught up in the dog-side of the equation it might turn into less hunting and more training, running dog trials, and even pursuing the art of the shotgun. But that wasn’t where Christine Cunningham’s head was at.
A native Alaskan, Christine’s family benefited from game meat from family and friends, but she and her immediate family never hunted. It was Steven’s brush with a life-threatening injury that forced her to have an intellectually honest conversation. She was active in yoga and looked at life from an Eastern perspective. While she’d toyed with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, she hadn’t done it, and she needed to reconcile her role as a meat eater. Kenai is notably famous as one of the finest fishing villages in the world, so the fishing life was one she understood.
“All I knew about hunters was Elmer Fudd,” Christine said, thinking of the Bugs Bunny cartoon character.
As Steven recuperated, all he could focus on was getting back to duck hunting – his first love. And when the timing and opportunity all came together, Christine, as a 27-year-old at the time, joined him on her first hunt. She borrowed a shotgun.
They would venture into the Kenai River Flats, but it was raining. “Do we still go in the rain?” she asked. Steven laughed and replied in the affirmative. She borrowed rain gear, too.
Eventually as they approached the coastline, Steven dropped down on his knees. He gestured for Christine to do likewise. They inched along on the ground with spider webs, shrews, and rotting salmon. Then he wanted to Army crawl and Christine thought, “Are you kidding me?” She was tempted to leave but decided to get this over with. She tucked in her shirt and it was as if a starting gun launched an official diaper derby. She crawled fast.
“What are you doing?” Steven asked while shaking his head. Miraculously, as they crested the view the wigeons were still there. “Shoot!” Steven said to her.
Christine pulled up and shot once and they all flew away. But Steven didn’t scold her or launch on a pedantic lecture. Instead, he reached down to the marsh and picked up her spent shotgun shell. He smelled it and gave it to Christine to smell. “This is what fall smells like,” he said.
IT WAS ALL SO cool and much bigger than any one person. Christine wanted to become better at this fascinating sport and journey afield as often as possible. She took a hiatus from yoga and bought a shotgun. She’d venture out for first light and grab every lumen of last light each weekend in Alaska.
The pair traveled to North Dakota and hunted at Steven’s dad’s place for waterfowl and pheasant. The contrast of the flat lands of North Dakota and Alaska’s majestic elevations showcased a surprisingly vast life. “It took me by surprise,” Christine said. “I was in love with it.”
Something else stole her heart, too.
In North Dakota she fell in love with hunting with a skilled bird dog. They hunted with Steve’s father’s best friend and he hunted with his English cocker spaniel, named Windsor. “We would never have done as well without Windsor and the relationship between Windsor and his human was something to behold,” Christine said. “I’d had yard dogs and family dogs, but the working dog relationship and mutual respect was new for me.”
“That is a cute little dog,” Christine said to the man complimenting Windsor.
“Did you hear that, Windsor?” the man asked his four-legged hunting partner. “She called you a dog.” He laughed.
They talked about being afield as hunter and dog. “I don’t really care to hunt anymore; I go for Windsor,” he said.
Once Steve and Christine were back hunting in Alaska, where tidal sloughs can undergo a 24-foot change in a short period of time, they realized their duck hunting would be better with a good hunting dog, too.
“We’ll need a Lab with a double coat up here,” Steve thought, thinking of the extreme temperatures. They rescued one Labrador retriever, then another. But eventually Christine got a little more focused on a finesse hunting dog; she got a running and pointing English setter from North Dakota and named him Winchester.
“We were really lucky that this dog was born knowing what he was doing,” she said. It wouldn’t take long and the drastic differences between Labs and English setters became evident. “This one was hyper-sensitive; a hard word would put him in a mood.”
By now it had been a solid five years of waterfowl hunting and every Sunday at the range to perfect shooting doubles. Confidence grew with more experience but with Winchester in the picture, everything changed.
“If I hiked 6 miles, Winchester covered 26 miles,” she said. “He taught us to see things we weren’t capable of seeing before.”
With snow fresh on the rocks of the mountain, Christine heard a cluck. Winchester, the English setter, was on point; the Lab nearby and confused. At first Cunningham didn’t see anything, but like the Appaloosa emerging from a Bev Doolittle painting, suddenly there were chestnut-and-white-flecked ptarmigan everywhere. They lifted en masse, and she shot a couple.
That shifted Christine’s attention, and she and Steven continued to get out as often as possible behind Winchester. They enjoyed their time hunting – especially hunting with Winchester.
Christine Cunningham received the coveted Prois Huntress award in 2014 and soon after Winchester started slowing down a little bit at 9 years old. “Maybe we should get a female and breed her with Winchester?” Christine asked Steven.
They certainly weren’t going to be backyard breeders, but the pair loved Winchester and they were excited about keeping two pups sired from him. “We could work two dogs and rest two dogs each day,” she said. “It sounded like such a good idea in theory.”
In a few months, they found their female in a difficult whelping stage. “She gave us 11 puppies over the course of 2½ days,” Christine said. “It was traumatic for her and for me.”
The vet helped, but the trauma unfolded as Momma wouldn’t feed any new pups until she was done whelping this big litter. “That meant we had to hand-feed the pups,” Christine said. A couple pups were crushed during the labor process and died. That forced Christine into hyper-vigilance. She stayed at the dog’s side without any sleep, but at 72 hours even Christine nodded off. “When I awoke she had another puppy pinned under her leg,” Christine said. “It was still alive, but …”
THE VET DIAGNOSED THE latest injured pup with severe head wounds. Christine thought it would be her disabled, special-ed dog. “It’ll be OK, just a little different,” she told Steven.
Then they lost another puppy that Steven had become attached to and, then the special-ed puppy. They’d loved them and named them and buried them next to the others from the days prior – it was a week of heartbreak and sadness. “The sky was gray, and I was totally crushed,” Christine said.
Eventually, there were only five puppies left to care for, and Christine was so attached to them by now there was no way she would let a single one go.
And keep them they did: Colt, Hugo, Cogswell, Purdey and Boss.
“It’s not advisable to have two dogs from the same litter, let alone five,” Christine said. “They bond with each other instead of you. They were like a super pack. Any crime against one was a crime against all.” Potty mistakes were, “Who?”
With nine dogs (the older Labs, the two English setter parents and the five puppies), Christine would look at her life and wonder, “How did I become this cat lady that’s the dog lady?” She’d never had children of her own – but this new life created an almost sacred family of four-legged love and purpose.
Christine has learned that even though they all came from the same good hunting genetics, and all were trained by the same methods – each getting turns individually to see how they’d handle their outdoor adventures, all had their own level of interest in being a working hunting dog.
“Hugo was skittish and timid in the house but an Olympian in the field,” she said. Each dog had individual flyouts with overnight hikes in the mountains. “Just like people, I learned that not everyone is a hunter.”
One female pup was sketchy and rowdy – another was like a little old man. Boss was – and still is – a lover. “They’re animal enough to go the distance, but they aren’t limited by the life preservation of a truly wild animal like a wolf.”
With the use of GPS tracking collars, it is factually evident that Hugo and Winchester will put 26 miles of hard work to find birds, while the other dogs might only get in 12 or 14 miles. Some dogs want help and others don’t want any help. “I delight in learning who they are and what they’re good at.”
Winchester is no father of the year. “I thought Winchester would teach the puppies to hunt and he doesn’t want anything to do with them,” Christine said.
What happened to their plan to hunt two dogs and rest two dogs so they have on-off day schedules? “We do rotate them, but it is overwhelming,” Christine said. “With all the responsibility of caring for them, we don’t get to hunt as much as we thought. It’s kind of a romance breaker.”
The human hunters are worn out.
“We are such poor predictors of reality,” Christine said. It’s different than what she thought – still interesting though, and she’s amazed how much she’s learned from the “pups” – now 4 years old. These dogs live in their home (yes, all nine!) and crawl up on the furniture like card-carrying members of the family.
“They’ve taught me the joy of the present moment,” Christine said. They’ve even helped her get back to yoga as they wake up and stretch in the morning. Her blog website is yogaforduckhunters.com. “They go through their day and are grateful for everything. Gratitude is their first response.”
More than a dozen years ago, Cunningham found the special place that transports her from the ordinary, civilized daily life through hunting. She described it as “the back of beyond” or “Neverland” and she found it by physically going there and partaking.
The thrill of the hunt opened the door to the thrill of being fully alive. “Often, I was outside my comfort zone,” she said, admitting she was formerly squeamish and bookish. “Hunting brought out my true grit and good character traits I didn’t know I had.”
It was something about the mountains and the tidal flats being bigger than she and it left her with an experience to remember and game to eat. She escaped indebted to nature and grateful – wanting to go again.
She’s learned to follow a bird dog. “Watching Winchester course the mountainsides is like watching the paintbrush of an artist on fire,” she said. “Then he stops and that’s where our work to find his birds begins.”
The friend in North Dakota hunted for his dog, Windsor, and Christine Cunningham has learned the same. “It’s for the love of the dogs now,” she said.
HUNTING ETHICS IS A topic near to Cunningham’s heart, and she’s spoken about it publicly and has experienced being the subject highlighted in a worldwide platform with BBC News on several occasions. She feels called to have a conversation with nature as if it were “a conversation with our own death,” she said, borrowing the quote from another hunter.
We have a spiritual need for freedom and to be in the wild, and it’s true some have lost a connection to nature. A hunter hunts with compassion according to Cunningham. “We have a civic duty and obligation because wildlife is held in the public trust,” she said. “We can’t shirk it – the future of hunting relies on our ability to show this connection, and it isn’t about being badass, elite, athletic, or even entitled because of our conservation dollars.”
There is a spiritual side for Cunningham, and she’s happiest when that spiritual connection is walking behind a hunting dog. ASJ
Christine Cunningham on …
Shotgun for sure. Over/under preferably wood stock. The first gun I bought for myself was the CZ Redhead in 20 gauge and it was durable. Then I fell in love with a 28-gauge Beretta, which is actually how we talked ourselves into getting Winchester. Steve told me, “If you’re going to have a proper upland gun, you need a proper upland dog.”
Next, I had a Syren Elso Venti by Caesar Guerini in 20 gauge, and I felt it was a historic gun, being the first line for women and representing a beautiful and authentic offering. Now, I carry a Blaser F3 in 12 gauge from the Intuition line, and it is like the Jackie O of guns to me. It is precision-built for women with clean lines and has an integrity I love, which is hard to define in wood and metal, but when you look at the gun you know it’s there.
Person (or entity) you wish knew and respected your hunting world better?
Moms. I think moms are really inspiring for me when I talked to moms who hunt. They bring their kids into it – and extended dinner conversation. The hunt is involved in family and food is a sacrament at the dinner table. I love having moms embrace learning more about that and connecting it to their dinner table. It can be so inspiring in a family aspect having a role in home and hearth.
Biggest disappointment in today’s hunting environment?
We don’t spend more time in hunters’ education courses on ethics. We spend so much on safety and firearms, but we should help understand why it is moral for all hunters and nonhunters. Not sure we’re preparing hunters for what they’ll experience critically from nonhunters. Fair chase can be limiting for meat hunters. We can be adaptable and relevant. This opportunity is for us to be the best interpreters and position ourselves that way.
Favorite sound in the woods or on a hunt?
The wing beats of any bird. It’s like a secret on the wind.
Favorite smell in the woods?
I like the smell of pine needles, wet earth. I love the smell of alpine flowers, especially in the fall when the sun is sort of burning them. There’s a sort of offering in the air.
Alive or dead, who would be the most surprised of the life you lead now?
My grandfather who passed away. He always saw me as an adorable but squeamish girl; he’d be surprised to see me hunting. He’d say, “You’re hunting? You don’t like to get dirty and you curl your nose up at everything.”
Meat or trophy or “experience?”
Meat. Even though I want to say experience, for ethical reasons you have to be after the meat. The trophy is a bonus. The experience is necessary for each hunt.
One or two bucket list hunts for you to still do?
Love to hunt the uplands in Scotland – the Highlands. It would be cool if I could go with my own dogs. I’d love to get to a place where I was familiar enough to hunt in Africa. I have a lot to learn.
Conquer fear, meet fear head on … or what fear?
I think fear is natural and healthy and you want to meet it. But I like the idea of conquer best because I don’t want to give it too much attention. It’s there to move through.
Biggest obstacle for getting started in hunting (Particularly women)?
I think there’s the possibility that it crosses gender lines; they see new experiences as a threat. Men are more typical to see a new experience as a challenge. To change the paradigm to see it as a new challenge and they’ll be more open to it. ASJ