Our hunting camp was like any other, really. We were tucked into a high, wooded spot in the mountains of southwestern Montana. In our two wall tents, fires blazed in wood stoves. Jackets, socks, and gloves hung to dry on clotheslines lining the tents’ interiors. On a snowy Saturday night, in the biggest tent, all eighteen of us ate elk, bear, and antelope with fine wine and hot whiskey ciders in hand. There, we traded stories in an old way that felt ancestral and important.
The women in attendance represented an age range of 12-57, experience levels of first-time observer to lifelong hunter, and a geography that covered four states. Cindy Stites drove from Indiana and Amiste Sanders from Michigan. Both came alone. The majority of us had hunted for less than five years, and most came to hunting as adults. We were nearly all strangers, with one connecting factor: our desire to hunt for our meat, together.
This camp felt reflective of greater forces in the hunting world. The hunting industry is abuzz with declining numbers of participation and quickly shifting demographics. Yet, women over the age of 18 are buying hunting licenses in droves. In 2001, 1.8 million women hit the board as registered hunters. In 2013, 3.3 million registered. These numbers (from the National Shooting Sports Foundation) show an impressive 85% leap in just 12 years.
The industry has responded in kind. A wide swath of hunting gear is now available for women, from female-specific guns to burly boots for off-trail hiking. An extension of the National Wildlife Federation, Artemis Sportswomen, brings women together on a national landscape to discuss wildlife management, conservation, and mentorship. And Becoming An Outdoors-Woman (BOW) programs are popping up in states’ fish and wildlife departments, offering workshops and single-sex hunter ed classes designed to create more access for women.
However, it’s still difficult to find communities of women that hunt together. And it’s doubly difficult to find a space without any agenda other than putting food on our tables. In an effort to create that space, I put out a call on my social media platforms to see if any women would like to start our own casual hunting camp. To my surprise, more than fifty women responded. Eighteen ended up showing on that snowy and blustery weekend.
We rose early and went to bed late. Hours were spent navigating the many landscapes offered by our surroundings. One group followed high mountain trails chasing elk, hot on fresh tracks and their deep musky scent. Others went into the sagebrush steppes in search of mule deer. Many hunted agricultural land hoping to fill a whitetail tag.
What most people don’t understand about hunting is the hours, the miles, and the patience it takes to harvest meat from an animal. And, most of the time, you end up with an unused tag, a totem to your trials. There are rarely any shortcuts, and there weren’t any for us as we scoured both public and permissioned private land.
We had a lot of close calls. In one case, a flock of turkeys blew at the last moment, and the whitetail deer being pursued took off for the ethers. Another group had cattle break loose into the area they were pursuing a herd of mule deer. The elk—the great ghosts of our Montana woods—disappeared into their own tracks as they often do. Many of us sat in bemused and entertained frustration as hordes of deer grazed quietly and peacefully just across lines of legality. Like any animal, deer move away from places where threat exists. It’s an easy trait to respect. We honored it in those moments.
But in the last few hours of our time together, a Michigan hunter named Courtney Nicolson connected with a beautiful whitetail doe. Her shot was true and merciful, clipping the top of the doe’s heart. Death came swiftly and without prolonged suffering. Our hard work paid off; meat was on the table. We celebrated in reverence, and that meat procured by Courtney since has been shared by many.
Those few days were, of course, about hunting. But the most important point became the enduring process of creating a space to be together, of spending time examining who we were and who we could be in this traditionally masculine environment, and of learning what a deer camp forged and made by women could look like.
For me, it’s best encapsulated in those hours we spent with the wood stove roaring in the corner. Laughter echoed beyond the white canvas, into the snowy mountains around us. There was a tangible sense of joy and freedom of being together in a space bound by nothing but our intent to fill our freezers and to support each other in the process.
Many of our women went home and filled tags on other hunts—some for the first time. They fed their families and friends with the fruit of their labors. And we, as a newly intact community, were all able to share in that joy. Our first camp is already on the books. Our freezers are slowly emptying. We count down the days.
WHAT'S MEAT GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Nicole Qualtieri is the Hunt/Fish Editor for GearJunkie, a freelance writer and editor, and an avid outdoorswoman. From serving in the AmeriCorps to working her way up the corporate ladder to the 180 degree switch to a process of self-discovery and a life outdoors, she has learned the importance of simplicity and creativity. When she’s not writing, you can find her on the back of her horse with a border collie on their heels in the mountains of Montana.
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Photography by Lindsey Mulcare.