CHENA LAKES - Walking lightly down a trail lined with blazing yellow birch trees, Don Cameron stopped. He looked around, straining to hear or see signs of life in the woods to his left. He turned to look behind him, down the path. Nothing.
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He continued, taking each step more carefully than the last. If the rocks under his boots made a sound louder than a whisper, he sidestepped to the soft grass on either side of the trail all the while cautiously watching and listening.
He hoped to hear or see a moose.
Cameron was one of four hunting experts summoned to the Chena Lakes area this week for the Beyond Becoming an Outdoors Woman program. Becoming an Outdoors Woman is a national program offering workshops to women (and men) in topics ranging from big-game hunting to Dutch oven cooking. In Fairbanks, the program has been offered since 1995.
This week three women, all past BOW attendees, were chosen by lottery to attend the weeklong Beyond BOW big-game hunt. Each neophyte hunter was paired with a hunting aficionado each day from Tuesday until today, when the moose-hunting season closes.
This week's hunt was the first for BOW in Alaska, said coordinator Cathie Harms, who, along with fellow Department of Fish and Game employee Nancy Sisinyak, was on-site all week to help out. The Beyond BOW hunt was a joint partnership between Fish and Game, the Alaska Hunter Heritage Foundation and the National Rifle Association's Women on Target program.
"We've talked for years about needing a next step after the BOW program and so we're calling this Beyond BOW," Harms said. "Our goal is that these three women, who have been to Becoming an Outdoors Woman and gotten that introduction, will now be able to plan their own hunts in any part of the state and use a number of different moose-hunting techniques."
The three hunters were entitled to take any moose during this educational hunt, though at least one was holding out for a bull. For the other two and the instructors, any moose would do, as it was all a learning process.
"These women are not going out with people who have never been hunting; they are going out with people who have instructed hunting for many, many years and this is more of an instructed hunt than a guided one," Harms said, adding that three of the four hunting experts are master guides.
Thursday afternoon, Patty Tucker shot the first moose of the week, a young bull right off the roadway beyond the Chena River Dam. It was her first big-game kill and even after the animal went down, Tucker was shaking.
"I shot once and hit it right behind the shoulder and it flinched and ran into the woods where it laid down," explained Tucker, keeping an eye on her fresh kill. "We snuck up on it and shot it a second time. You should have seen my hands shaking afterwards.
"This is it," Tucker said. "This is what we came for. This is the first time I've ever shot anything. It's a relief, I'm starting to come off that little high and now I'm just glad I have some moose meat for the freezer."
In fact, the whole crew was excited; hugging, dancing around and giving congratulatory pats on the back.
"You can learn a lot if you don't take a moose, but you learn so much more when you do, so this makes it a real moose hunt," Harms said. "Now she gets to learn how to take the meat and I am just so jazzed for her."
"I've got goosebumps," added Sisinyak, pulling up her sleeve to show the group.
Together with guides Mike Tinker, Pete Buist and assistant guide Cameron, Tucker first skinned, then quartered the moose. From the first shot to hanging the pieces of meat at camp took about two and half hours.
"The bigger pieces you can take, the more meat you're going to recover," said Tinker, hands bloodied, who has been guiding for nearly three decades. The work went quickly with several people there to help. It also made it easier that the crew was able to pull a truck up to within 20 feet of the carcass.
All four instructors volunteered their time for this educational program, but Tinker said they get just as much enjoyment as the participants.
"We're getting our hunting fix by helping these ladies get the skills and the confidence they need to go out and do this," Tinker said, adding that hunting isn't just a hobby for him and the other guides. It's a lifestyle.
"We always hear about how fathers would take their sons hunting and fishing and leave the girls at home, so it's nice to be able to enjoy the enthusiasm of these ladies while bringing them the skills they need. This is just as exciting for us," he said.
For greenhorn hunter Kim Schauss, learning to hunt through BOW has given her an edge that she may not have received otherwise, she said.
As a kid she was left out of moose hunts with her dad.
"It's been my dream to go moose hunting for a long time and now 'Here I am, Dad! I'm doing it!" she hollered, looking up at the sky.
Over the years, Schauss has taken five separate BOW programs. This week was her first moose hunt.
"I just love the outdoors and the whole gamut of things," she said. "The BOW program has been amazing and so educational. There are so many classes to choose from and these guys all volunteer their time and they are so knowledgeable and fun. If you've never done a BOW workshop, I strongly recommend it."
For the women and their volunteer guides, their recent days in the field began at 5 a.m. They were up and out at their respective hunting spots - blinds and stands were set up within the area - by 5:30 a.m.
And there they would wait. They headed back to camp for lunch and a nap before heading out again mid-afternoon until dark. They learned the finer points of watching and listening for the sounds of moose.
Even the smells were important.
"It smells moosey here," said seasoned guide Sharon McLeod-Everette walking back to camp Thursday night. She and her protégé Kat Hobson stopped to sniff the air. The whiff that caught McLeod-Everette's nose was a musky scent, stronger than that of the high-bush cranberries that crowd the forest floor. It was a mix of odors that varied between the ripening, wild cranberries and a smell like a horse, she explained.
The evening hunt was a bust for McLeod-Everette, who was one of the first licensed female guides in the state, and Hobson. But they weren't giving up hope. The pair started the afternoon at a makeshift stand on the edge of a field and later moved to a blind down the road and over the dike.
With binoculars poised and all ears waiting for the telltale crunching through the woods, they sat and waited. In the blind, while keeping an eye on the woods and field, the conversation, never rising above a whisper turned to reasons for participating in BOW.
"All the men I know, with the exception of my husband, would throw you into these situations and they wouldn't tell you anything," Hobson said. "They would set you up to fail, but with BOW you've got instructors that don't make you feel self-conscious, and they don't think you're stupid because you don't know anything and it's a safe and fun environment to make mistakes and learn."
Although men are also encouraged to attend the workshops, it's predominantly women who attend.
"BOW opens up a whole new world to women that wouldn't normally be there," said Hobson.
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