The Fine Art Of Observing

Boddington and sheep hunters
Lisa McNamee and Donna Boddington flank Craig with their gorgeous 2019 Brooks Range rams on the porch of outfitter Dave Leonard’s “Ram Hole.” Craig spent a lot of time pacing this porch hoping for word from the distant sheep hunters!

There’s nothing new about women who hunt. We know about Diana, goddess of the hunt, and one of the major evening events at our convention is presenting the Diana Award, honoring one of our great modern huntresses. However, it shouldn’t be politically incorrect to state as historical fact that hunting has always been primarily a male-dominated sport.

It still is, but this is changing. Women are still a minority, but now comprise a significant and increasing percentage of our ranks, and are the fastest growing group among both hunters and shooters. This is very good. In fact, it’s critical because, overall, the number of hunters is static at best, static—so we need all the help we can get! One of the benefits of increased numbers is there’s now a good market for clothing and equipment designed for women. So, the ladies can be better equipped than ever before…and thus more comfortable, effective, and successful afield.

And, yes, they can be extremely effective and successful…with no boundaries. In recent years two women, Barbara Sackman and Renee Snider, have won the Weatherby Hunting and Conservation Award, almost certainly the most difficult distinction in our hunting world. However, for much of my career the majority of women I’ve shared hunting camps with have been present as observers, enjoying the experience, but primarily supporting their male partners. There’s nothing wrong with this; to hunt is a personal decision, and hunting isn’t for everyone. It isn’t necessary to take game to enjoy wildlife in beautiful country, camp camaraderie and participate in all the joy, excitement—and disappointment—that’s part of the deal.

However, nobody ever said it better than Donna, somewhere in the middle of her first African experience 15 years ago: “Hunting is not a spectator sport.” So, I have long admired the ladies who joined their partners, often walking the miles and enduring the hardships, but without fully participating. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this approach…but I submit that it requires an extra level of patience and a lot of love!

In recent years, as more and more barriers fall, I’ve seen a lot more women hunting actively, and a lot more couples sharing the experience with both partners hunting. Exactly how this is done varies widely—and there’s certainly no right or wrong. For most of us, there are budgetary constraints (trust me); it usually isn’t two for the price of one! There are also practical issues to be resolved. One example: On African hunts I’ve seen a lot of couples decide “you take this animal, and I’ll take that one.” Another: Few couples have “his and hers” trophy rooms and space is never unlimited, so it may not make sense to duplicate species.

In any couple one partner is likely to be more avid than the other…in any activity…and this can change over time. Perhaps most importantly, almost no one, regardless of age or sex, starts out with well-defined hunting goals. These develop over time, often changing and expanding. Some like antlers, others like horns; others have absolutely no desire to ever hunt certain species. This is all fine, and please understand that none of these are male/female things—but all put together can lead to some interesting role reversals.

This is not new. Like most of us with family members who hunt, we’ve done a lot of hunts where Donna, Brittany or Caroline were the primary shooters. Even so, I was surprised when Donna planned a Dall sheep hunt with Lisa McNamee, a good friend and long a leader in our Orange County SCI chapter. They bumped into each other at the convention. As I was told, the conversation started when someone said: “We should plan a hunt together.”

            “Good idea, but for what?”

            “Well, I really want to do a sheep hunt while I still can.”

            “So do I.”

Dall ram
Image courtesy Mountain Monarchs

Next thing I knew, they had a backpack sheep hunt booked with Dave Leonard’s Mountain Monarchs of Alaska up in the Brooks Range. I was not invited but it wouldn’t have mattered. I didn’t need another Dall sheep, and wasn’t eligible anyway because I was within Alaska’s “every four year” restriction for nonresidents to hunt sheep. This was just as well because, on this kind of hunt, the old rule of “two’s company and three’s a crowd” holds. Dave is set up to handle two sheep hunters simultaneously, each with a guide. Depending on what his summer scouting turned up, they might hunt different directions out of the same base camp—or spike out from different base camps…but adding a third sheep hunter would be a recipe for failure.

I went along as far as Bettles, on the south slope of the Central Brooks north of Fairbanks…and that’s as far as I got. Leonard has a comfortable cabin there, really a house, dubbed the Ram Hole. Most experienced outfitters today have surely hosted women hunters—but it is not yet a common thing (if not quite historic) to have two women on backpack sheep hunts. Dave’s scouting suggested the two ladies should hunt separately in different drainages. So, from Bettles, each with a guide and packer, Lisa flew off to the northwest and, a day later, Donna to the northeast.

I waved goodbye to Donna and her team at the floatplane base and spent the next few days learning the fine art of being an observer. Dave and I told stories, I wrote a couple of stories and, if the truth be known, we watched some old movies. Mostly, I watched the weather and paced a lot while Dave got occasional progress reports—mostly brief texts—via satellite communications.

Current Alaska law is “no aerial spotting for sheep after sheep season opens.” Weather had been clear the week before the August 10 opening, so Dave had looked around with his Supercub. At the time they were dropped off both guides—Jordan Wallace with Donna and Dave Fischer with Lisa—had good lines on bands of rams and where to spike out. After that they were on their own, but with the wonderful optimism of all Opening Days we sat at the Ram Hole, expecting word within a day or two that at least one ram was down.

It didn’t happen that way. After a tough 12-hour climb to their first spike camp, it took Donna’s team three more hard days to get in striking distance of rams. From my unfamiliar position as totally helpless (and unhelpful) observer this was the good news—at least they were seeing sheep! Lisa’s hunt was much more of a cliff-hanger. The band of rams Lisa’s team went after vanished. She was past the mid-point, lots of climbing and many miles, before she saw a single sheep.

Fortunately, Mountain Monarchs is an experienced outfit and the sheep were there, waiting to be found. Nobody needed my help…it’s just that I’m not accustomed to feeling useless. Unable to do any flying, I’m sure Dave Leonard felt the same, probably times ten. It took time, more stories told (and written), more old movies watched, but somewhere up on their respective mountains things finally came right.

Donna took a fine ram on her sixth day. Two days later, finally knee-deep in sheep, Lisa took a monster. At the end of the hunt we had fresh backstraps at the Ram Hole, and I could properly agree with Donna’s summation from so many years ago: Hunting, especially sheep hunting, is not a spectator sport!–Craig Boddington  

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Father's Day 2024