At least three of the nine women circled around the dead deer were former vegetarians.
None of us had shot the deer (it had been shot earlier by Alaska Department of Fish & Game staff and then frozen) but most of us were there because we thought that someday we might shoot a deer and we wanted to know how to field dress it. Or, in a few cases, we were curious if we could field dress it.
Several people eschewed the gloves that were offered, nobody mentioned the smell (at least not until much later) and everyone eventually dug into the field dressing under our instructor’s watch. We passed the knives around, helped hold legs out of the way for each other, and offered tips on parts we’d mastered.
“Deer field dressing” was one of the classes offered at the Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) workshop offered at Echo Ranch Bible Camp May 20-22 by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the Outdoor Heritage Foundation of Alaska. Becoming an Outdoors Woman is a nationwide program that’s been around for 20 years, but this was only the third year workshops have been offered in Southeast Alaska.
Some of the classes on our schedules sounded like those offered at the summer camps that typically fill Echo Ranch - archery, horseback riding, kayaking. We slept in bunk beds and had evening bonfires. We wore nametags around our necks and made new friends.
Yet for all the weekend seemed like summer camp for adults, for all the time we spent laughing and shouting and grinning, our motivation for being there was always near the surface.
“Field dressing” has a certain cachet even in the most urban parts of our country (thanks in no small part to a former governor of ours) but the relatively unsexy “skiff trailering” class drew similar nods of understanding when I mentioned it to people around town.
Trailering a skiff, like field dressing a deer or filleting a fish, is something you can only really learn by doing. You can read about it and watch others do it all day long, but until you wield the knife or the wheel, you’re just a spectator.
And for many self-sufficient Southeast Alaskans, observing too long can make us antsy. I’ve never been on a joy ride as joyous as zipping around Echo Cove with a group of women who were finally getting their turns at the helm. Our instructors egged us on, encouraging us to go faster, delighting in our wild grins and whoops.
Confident in our strengthened skiff-handling skills, in our crabbing boat the next day we offered to drive. Our instructor sat back as we drove, set crab rings, pulled crab rings. I forgot we were in a class, that we weren’t just a group of friends, out trying to get some crab on a sunny afternoon.
In our “deer hunting skills” class, instructor Neil Barten told us that in his 40 years of hunting in Southeast, he’d only run into five women hunting, so was excited to see so many of us interested in taking it up. Yet he also began his class, as many instructors that weekend did, by welcoming those with hunting experiences - which several had - to share their perspectives.
We talked about “hunting mode,” when your time slows down to “deer time.” We snuck around the woods, distinguished deer from porcupine scat, looked in every direction, paused after each step.
In the rare times my hands were free from the weekend’s hands-on activities, I took a few notes. “Don’t cut into the paunch - and wear orange.” “Cotton balls soaked in Vaseline make good fire starter.” “Always hunt into the wind (otherwise deer smell you).”
But my hands weren’t free too often. None of ours were. By the time our group hiked out on Sunday, our hands had held fishing rods and chainsaws, rifles and bows, fillet knives and buck knives, kayak paddles and crabs. We carried out deer meat and pickled salmon, silver bullets and drawings of strawberry leaves.
As we waited for our school buses to whisk us back to town, we exchanged contact info and discussed our reluctant returns to “real life.” But we also made plans: to go to the archery range, the shooting range, to go kayaking, hiking, fishing.
Returning to the office the next day, the camp giddiness slowly dissolved in a flurry of deadlines and e-mails and phone calls. My hands stayed disappointingly clean all day. But after work I drove down to Sandy Beach. A softball game was going on in Savikko Park, a birthday party was underway at a picnic shelter. Wandering down the Treadwell Historic Trail, I passed dozens of dog walkers, runners, bikers, zipline tour guides walking home at the end of the day. And then I darted off onto a side trail and suddenly there was silence. I picked fiddlehead ferns and noticed some porcupine scat. And suddenly, I caught a sniff of something that reminded me of our deer.
In the BOW wildlife drawing class Saturday evening, Kathy Hocker had talked about the roots of the word “drawing,” as the act of pulling through - drawing water from a well, drawing a bow and arrow - that in drawing something on paper, you were pulling it through yourself, making it a part of yourself.
I doubt what I smelled was a deer. But it was enough to remind me that the weekend’s experiences had been drawn through me. It was enough to remind me that in Southeast Alaska you just have to take a few steps out of earshot of civilization to remember that by living here, we are all, always, going to be in the process of becoming outdoors women and outdoors men.
For more information about Becoming an Outdoors Woman and other outdoor education programs offered through the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, visit http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/ and click on the “education” tab.
• Katie Spielberger may be reached at email@example.com.