Stranded on a mountain with a pack full of sheep meat, Anne-Marie Briggs had no other option than to bed down for the night and wait until daylight. “I had no food, no water, and no gear. I lit a little fire and I just sang songs in my head to try and make the cold go away.”
Briggs recounts the story from her sun-soaked garden on Burma Road, just outside of Whitehorse. She’s young, maybe in her early thirties and built like an elastic band, all coiled power. She’s holding her two-year-old son as she talks while her other son, age four, draws absently beside us, listening to the story.
“I was hunting with a couple of guys and I just ended up with too much weight in my pack. I didn’t have the strength to make it back.”
It’s stories like these that perhaps help explain why so few women hunt when compared to their male counterparts. In hunter surveys conducted by Environment Yukon, 85 per cent of respondents are male. While this number isn’t directly linked to the number of licensed female hunters in the territory, it’s clear that women, as a rule, don’t hunt as much as men.
Briggs and her friend Nansi Cunningham are exceptions. The two women have over three decades of hunting experience between them. Both women were introduced to hunting by their partners.
“I moved up here in the early ‘90s from Vancouver,” Cunningham tells me. “My partner was a hunter. I’d never done it but always knew it was part of my belief system. I’ve been hunting ever since then.”
Nansi is older than Briggs. Wisps of her white hair blow in the wind. There’s a lean toughness to her, and when she talks about hunting her passion is striking.
“It’s physically the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s also an experience where you can be the closest to yourself. For me, it’s what the essence of living is.”
Angela Code is a 26-year-old Sayisi Dene woman who grew up hunting in the Yukon and northern Manitoba. She shot her first caribou when she was 13.
“I remember hiking out with my dad and seeing the caribou. As I was aiming for it, my dad told me to be calm, control my breathing, and aim for the neck. I got it in one shot.”
There is a pervasive element of hunting philosophy that creeps into each of these three women’s stories as they talk. All speak of the importance of connecting with nature and the food they consume, and of harvesting animals with the utmost respect.
For Code, hunting has always been a natural part of her heritage. “It’s funny to think of people who’ve never had the experience of living in a close relationship with nature. People who get their water from the tap and their food from the grocery store are never part of anything themselves. For myself, I am proud to hunt, to be able to provide for myself and my family. It can give women a strong sense of independence.”
Briggs’s passion for hunting centres on access to the outdoors and sharing that experience with her family. “I like knowing we’re part of the eco-system, being part of the land. There’s a strong spiritual aspect. When we shoot an animal, it’s sacred to be able to do that. We always say thank you. It’s very hard. The most important thing is to be out there with the animals.”
Cunningham says while she relishes the time spent in the mountains, one of the most important parts of hunting is knowing where her food comes from. “I want to know how the animal was killed, to ensure it was a good kill. I want a good clean shot so the animal never knew I was there.”
When it comes to explaining why more women aren’t hunting, Cunningham says, “Women don’t hunt because they probably haven’t had someone to mentor them.”
In an effort to bridge this gap, Cunningham works with the Yukon Fish and Game Association’s Yukon Outdoor Women program. This three-day May workshop is geared towards providing women with hunting, fishing and backpacking skills.
“It’s an amazing skill and confidence building event. We’ve had women come out of there with friendships that last for years,” Cunningham says.
But, while the course is a great introduction to hunting, it’s still not enough when it comes to equipping women with the confidence and experience required to be a successful hunter.
“It took me 10 hunts before I was even ready to pull the trigger,” Cunningham says. “But shooting is the least important piece. Everything you do up until that point is important, and everything you do after. Pulling the trigger is necessary in obvious ways, but it’s a very small part of the experience. “
Briggs echoes Cunningham’s concerns. “The actual gun can be scary. It’s loud, it kicks your shoulder back, and it’s a killing machine. If you don’t have someone very patient to help you out it can be even worse.”
For Code, self-assurance and persistence are necessary in developing hunting skills. “In my experience hunting with guys, they’ll try and take over. I’m not as fast as they are. You have to be persistent in doing it yourself. Maybe it will take longer but that’s the only way you’ll get better.”
Now that Code has begun tanning hides, she’s especially meticulous when it comes to skinning animals, ensuring the hide comes off with the utmost care. “Guys don’t do anything with the hide so they don’t care. I want mine to be really good quality.”
At the end of the day both Cunningham and Briggs stress that the right gear and food are essential for a successful hunt. “Decide what you’re going to bring, then do a two day dry run, make sure you have the right stuff. Bring lots of snacks, and lots of chocolate.”
As Cunningham puts it, whether it’s to fell an animal or simply be in the mountains, “What’s important is that people discover they fit. There’s a place for everyone, hunting, gathering, berries, backpacking or canoeing. Being out there is important.”
“And don’t be afraid to bring your family!” Briggs says, laughing.
Pavlina Sudrich is a freelance writer from Whitehorse.