RENO, Nev. Perceptions about women and hunting sure have changed in the last quarter century or so.
Case in point: It was about that long ago when Donna McDonald, owner of Upper Canyon Outfitters in Alder, Mont., found herself (as she always did) in an elk camp full of men. As they entered camp, eager to wrap their tags around southwest Montana's monster bulls, one of the hunters innocently asked if she was the cook.
"Since I am interested in repeat business," said McDonald, recalling the level of restraint required to answer the question civility, "all I said was 'no, I'm not.'"
Fast-forward to the present and it's a rare season that finds McDonald the sole lady in camp. That not only makes her proud but it also signifies another ray of hope for a hunting industry that is constantly looking to the future.
These days, the notion of "it's a man's world" has pretty much gone the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon in many places and that includes hunting camp. But ask anyone who's ever had the hairs on their neck stand on end from the screams of a lovesick bull and they'll tell you that elk hunting runs a close second to sheep hunting as North America's most challenging, expensive big-game pursuit.
So why are women virtually unrecognized and absent from the hunting landscape as recently as Ronald Reagan's second term flocking toward elk hunting at such surprisingly high rates?
In 2008, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which is hosting their annual Elk Camp event through Sunday in Reno, released statistics showing that elk hunting has the second-highest per capita rate of female hunters among the country's game species, second only to whitetail deer.
The results surprised some, given the fact that elk, unlike whitetail deer, are pretty much confined to western states, plus pockets of huntable populations further east.
But Christine Thomas of Plover, Wisc., the founder of Becoming an OutdoorsWoman, an educational outreach program designed to do teach women exactly what its name states, said that new hunters both women and men jumping headlong into the upper echelons of big-game hunting doesn't surprise her at all.
In fact, Thomas said, it's a nationwide phenomenon, predicated on the bulk of the population residing in urban and suburban areas and the lack of available free time among Americans.
"I think it's because (in the past) when everyone grew up on a farm or a rural area, we'd grab our BB guns and there were a lot of opportunities to hunt small game," Thomas said. "But not living on the farm or having access to a place to go hunt squirrels, when people set out to plan and organize a hunt, instead of trying to figure out where they could go and shoot squirrels for a couple of days, they put that effort toward hunting a big-game animal."
Since its inception in 1991, Becoming an OutdoorsWoman has reached approximately 40,000 women a year in more than 40 states, six Canadian provinces and New Zealand. The impact, Thomas said, gives women increased confidence and fuels an inherent passion for being outdoors. As well, it solves the biggest issue identified by the program as it relates to getting women involved in the outdoors: the "don't know how" factor.
"Women have always had that passion," said McDonald, echoing Thomas' idea that women need not be held back by a perceived lack of knowledge. "The ladies of today can do it if they want to do it, it's not just a man's world."
McDonald knows a lot about living in a man's world. The first female president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, recently completing her two-year term in 2009, McDonald has seen the increasingly user-friendly and women-specific gear, increased information about hunting via print, TV and Internet open the hunting door to many women.
In her experience, women make splendid hunters, providing complementary sets of skills and abilities to the hunting experience where many men struggle, like spotting, being open minded and being serious while remaining unafraid of failure.
"I have a lot of couples who come to hunt with me and almost always the wife will approach the hunt more seriously than the husband," McDonald said. "It might be a new experience for them, but for women, there's no one there to say 'why'd you do this?' and 'why'd you do that?' when something doesn't go as planned. It's all so open and new to them, they soak up things like a sponge; they want to learn."
With quality family time suffering as a result of increased commitments and tightening schedules, some women see the outdoors as the perfect opportunity to spend quality time with their spouse and/or their children. When the husband is also a hunter, the likelihood that the entire family will become involved is even greater.
"We live close to elk, we see them all the time, I take pictures of them all the time, and I never get tired of them. To hear them bugle, even after all these years, is still incredible to me," said female hunter Kim Herzog of Rapelje, Mont. "And we totally love to eat elk meat. We feed our family with elk meat all year long. We hunt as a family, too, and to able to raise our kids in that kind of environment is very special to me."
And whereas the regionalization of America's elk population is often one of the roots of peoples' surprise at the RMEF's statistics, Thomas said that because most of the elk are found in the Rocky Mountain states, that probably leads even more women to the sport as these states are also the home to the some of the highest rates of outdoor enthusiasts, from anglers to hunters and skiers to mountain bikers.
"A lot of places where elk are, especially in the West in places like Wyoming and Montana and Colorado, for ranch women especially, elk hunting has been a way of life forever it's how they fed their families and someone had to do it," Thomas said. "So it's not new for most women in the West to go elk hunting or to just be outdoors."
It doesn't look like women in elk camp, deer camp or the duck blinds is going to cease anytime soon. The onus, then, falls onto men (and, in some cases, women) to change the way they perceive the average hunter, to ensure that Thomas' own eye-opening story about the perception of female hunters doesn't return to the norm.
The year was 1991, the same one that saw Thomas establish Becoming an OutdoorsWoman, and she, her husband and another hunter were planning an elk hunt in the West, spending more than a year researching outfitters before booking a hunt. Throughout the process, they submitted numerous questionnaires required by most outfitters of prospective clients, in which the trio would reveal that one of the hunters (gasp!) was female.
"Most of them didn't even answer us back," Thomas chuckled.
But once they found an outfitter that welcomed the idea of a woman in elk camp, the trio set out to fill their tags. As she expected, Thomas was the lone woman in the group. Not only that, she quickly learned that she was the first woman in the outfitter's hunting camp ever. Not even the outfitters female family members, a single camp cook or any other female had ever basked in the warmth of that campfire.
But Thomas went home from the nine-day hunt with the pride of having overcome personal anxieties about acceptance and a claim staked in the knocking down one of hunting's age-old barriers, if at least in one specific hunting camp.
And to top it all off, she went home with her first bull elk.