2019: Deer, Defeat & Declarations
As the sun sets on 2019, I can't help but reflect on the past year– the past decade. This is the most I've ever written on this blog, and while I usually prefer to keep things light at Food for Hunters, I think I needed to write this.
It's been a roller coaster of a year. I've tried to keep this recap as relevant to hunting as possible– touching on my muzzleloader deer hunt a couple weeks ago– but I've found that when discussing a subject has been so closely intertwined with one's life, it can be difficult to keep out all the personal details. If you don't make it to the end, I don't blame you. I hope you will still enjoy the photos.
Rick and I wish you all good health and a very happy New Year!
If there’s anything I know about shooting, it’s that shooting is a mental game. Swap out the paper target with a live animal, and the stakes change. I leave the gun at home if I can’t walk into the field with a clear, resolved mind. Indifference may be too strong a word, but up until this hunting season, I allowed 5 years to pass between hunts. I had lost my drive, and it took me that long to get my head back into the game.
I remember saying aloud, “hunting isn’t fun anymore.” Rick and I received a book deal back in 2013, and I think that was when things started to fall apart. Hunting on a deadline forced me to take on too much, too fast— we chased 13 species in less than a year. The novelty of being a newer hunter wore out quickly, and I became overwhelmed, frustrated and tired. After we submitted our final edits to the publisher, I truthfully didn’t want to touch a gun again.
After that, I chose to follow hunters with a camera instead— something I had to do for my job at Nebraskaland anyway. I supported Rick when he hunted and did most of the butchering. I buried myself in the cooking aspect of hunting, which I loved, but as the other half of “Food for Hunters,” within a rapidly growing online community, I fell into the background and became an observer rather than a participant. I didn’t claim the title “hunter” for myself— I felt that I wasn’t worthy of it. I was just a solid home cook who knew my way around wild meat, and for a long time, that was enough.
|Son River, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam. Feb. 7, 2019|
Year 2019 was rough for lots of people. For me, it had its up and also its disappointments. The outdoor industry has been mostly great to me, but in some ways, it also wasn’t. Professionally, 2019 was a confrontation with that reality. It was a year of reckoning and evaluation— me trying to figure out where I fit into this world, if at all. Though outwardly I continued on business as usual, those closest to me would’ve said that I wasn’t myself. Other inconveniences, medical in nature, also didn't help.
I’ve always been the type of person who could see the bright side of a bad situation. I pride myself in being a problem solver, someone who could find clarity amid chaos. But this time was different. I was lost at sea and desperately treading water, seeing no land nor ship in sight. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling the way I did, and I didn't know how to explain it to others. I had just come home from a once-in-a-lifetime, horse-riding adventure in South Africa, with a group of really great girlfriends. I have a family who love and care for me— a roof over my head and enough to eat. I have a lot to be thankful for.
|Horizon Horse Safari at Camp Davidson in South Africa.|
Yet this feeling of doom hovered over me, clung to me like a dark cloud, and I couldn’t escape from underneath it. Negative thoughts piled on my shoulders, one by one, like bricks. I even stopped riding, the one thing that I could always count on. I became withdrawn, and simply told friends that I "had a lot going on." Whatever ate at me chewed with relentless greed.
As the summer dragged on, I became increasingly erratic and restless. I had a couple meltdowns, which only my husband saw. We talked about it, and both felt that it was time to speak with my doctor. I’ve managed my polycystic ovarian syndrome since I was a teenager, and up until now, depression—a common symptom—had not reared its ugly head. I was hopeful that was the cause. I had spent weeks, months racking my brain, trying to find the true source of my unhappiness but came up with nothing.
At about the same time, help— of a different sort— also presented itself.
|A Cheetah hunts at sunset at Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana. May 8, 2019|
A friend on Instagram, who I had never actually met, invited us grouse hunting with him and his then-girlfriend (now fiancé) in western Nebraska. I had reached out to Ross a year earlier, after seeing his fun grouse hunting photos on public land, and knew that it was something Rick would enjoy. Ross followed up on that request, even when I completely forgot about it.
I had initially planned on tagging along with a camera only, but the more I thought about— hunting in a new place, for a couple new species— it created a spark. From that moment on, I focused on that trip. I needed to keep my mind and my body busy. I got back on the treadmill so that I wouldn’t have any trouble keeping up. I went to see my doctor and politely, though firmly, asked to see a different specialist to help me figure out what was going on. Then I made some calls and got connected with a shooting instructor. Rick bought a beautiful over/under for me a few years ago, but I've had no luck shooting it, and it was about time I asked for help.
I could always use more coaching, but it turned out that my gun was also poorly fitted to me. After some running around to three different gunsmiths, the last one figured it out. He worked with me, shortened the stock and adjusted the cast to fit a left-handed shooter. It was more money than I expected to spend right out of the gate, but I became convinced that it was the one thing I needed to do for myself this summer. It was the one thing I could control.
When I returned to the range and hit that first clay target, and another, and then another, I felt the dim light bulb inside me flicker. Granted, there’s still a ton of room for improvement, but it felt good to know that my gun was shooting where my eye was looking. If I missed, then it was on me– at least now I could see what I was doing wrong and how I could improve. That was something I could work with.
|Leopard, Mashatu Game Reserve. May 8, 2019.|
I was giddy excited about our grouse hunt with Ross and Megan in September, a feeling I haven’t felt in ages before a hunt. Rick and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary out there, and for the first time, in a long time, I had fun hunting. I was ecstatic to successfully land my first sharp-tailed grouse, and kicked myself for missing the opportunity at a greater prairie chicken. It was all a part of the excitement, and I relished every second of it. The stunning, rolling expanse of Sandhills prairie, the familiar cackle of a flushing bird, the flurry of wings and pounding hearts ...
On the drive home, happiness welled up inside me. I was beginning to feel like myself again— a half-glass-full, be-thankful-for-the-everyday-type person. As I watched the warm sun rise in the side view mirror, and the fog that filled the canyons, as if we were traveling above the clouds, I couldn’t help but think of how wonderfully strange and beautiful this pursuit called hunting is.
What other activity, outside of hunting, can a group of strangers come together, walk into unfamiliar ground with loaded weapons, and come out the other side as friends? I never told Ross and Megan how truly grateful I was for the experience, not without risking awkwardness. There was too much to say. It was the trip that brought me back into hunting, that helped pull me out of the darkness where I was trapped. It gave me the confidence to buy a deer tag again this year.
|Sharp-tailed grouse hunting, Minatare, Nebraska. Sept. 21, 2019|
As a new hunter, it’s difficult to process everything. Those first few years are about following directions and being safe. There’s so much information to take in, and you think that if you follow closely, you get to shoot an animal in the end. I’ve photographed a few youth and women’s hunts, and the third-person perspective allowed me to reflect on my own experience.
Learning how to shoot and hunt is awkward. You’re still developing your form. Animal identification, behavior, terrain, weather, strategy, decision-making, emotional conflicts —there are nuances and stages that a new hunter isn’t aware of. I only speak for myself: Even though I had gone through hunter education, practiced at the range, and successfully shot my first deer back in 2011, I hesitated to call myself a "hunter.” A successful first hunt or several hunts afterward didn’t make me a badass huntress—not that I’d ever call myself that in the first, nor last, place. It wasn’t until this season, 8 years later, that I pushed myself through the barrier, and it all happened in my mind.
|Elephant at Entabeni Game Reserve, South Africa.|
Just before this November rifle season, I looked through the scope of my HOWA .243 at the range and found the view familiar, yet different. I felt a clarity and peace that I had not known before. Although I hadn't touched my deer gun in 5 years, I was able to slow down, control my breathing and quiet my mind. I looked downrange and simply knew what I had to do, with little need for coaching nor cheering from my husband— who, after 10 years of being around me, knows when to step in or back off. If anything good came out of my hiatus, it was traded for countless hours and miles observing and learning from more-seasoned hunters, and deciding for myself which habits and values to adopt and which ones to avoid.
I went into this deer season with four goals in mind: be calm, be flexible, commit or walk away, and last but not least, have fun. I’ve recounted my success this deer season on Instagram/Facebook, which you can read here: https://www.instagram.com/p/B6TtEzrFshv/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link (scroll to the top comment to read) OR https://www.facebook.com/foodforhunters/photos/a.250628018322134/2746522092066035/?type=3&theater
|My doe turned out to be a button buck. Dec. 20, 2019.|
I freely admit that my knowledge and skills as a hunter remain limited. I don’t want to put on airs. Horseback riders have this saying: The more you learn, the more you realize you don't know. I think hunting is similar, and with that, I will likely stay a "beginner" and learner the rest of my life.
Yet spiritually, I feel like I have turned a corner, having fulfilled all requirements of myself this season. Returning to big game hunting was a big hump to clamber over, and I recognize that I hunt differently today than I did in 2011– different enough that that I can now, finally, count myself among the ranks and proudly declare myself a hunter.
I can't say that I will go into 2020 with a clean slate, because that's not how life works. Instead, I leave 2019 with a clearer vision and a newfound drive to do better and be better, in whatever it is I decide to pursue.
(For the record, I don’t regret writing the book. It was a great opportunity regardless, and I am grateful for it. I learned a ton, met great people and formed great friendships. If I could go back and do it again, I don’t believe there was anything I could’ve changed. We all have to hunt our own hunt, metaphorically speaking, and that experience was a part of mine.)
|Minatare, Nebraska. Sept. 22, 2019|