We all loaded our gear into the bush plane and said our goodbyes the the guides thanking them for the incredible adventure that we had been on for the past week. Joe, the pilot, began taxied along the lake - getting far enough back to have room for take off. Jayme stared out the window, turned away from me, not saying a word. Joe threw the power to it and the plane roared as we took off and soared up above the tree line headed back into civilization. I looked out the window at the incredible Alaskan wilderness below me and tried to spot bears and moose in the open breaks in the forest below. I thought I heard something and turned my head towards Jayme and saw her wiping tears off her face. My heart dropped and I asked her what was wrong. She said, "I've just realized that bowhunting feeds my soul! This is the first thing that I have done in such a long time for MYSELF. Im a mom, Im a wife, Im a daughter, I worry about what everyone else wants or needs. I did this trip for me and it felt SO good. I really just don't want to leave." Suddenly at that moment, it hit me. My heart swelled a thousand sizes and felt full. I realized that I had done something really great. I had influenced these ladies to go out on their first bow hunt; and effectively changed their lives. I looked back at Nancy and she was smiling and nodding. She knew exactly what Jayme was feeling.
Rewind one year. I was the co-owner of the largest archery store in the State of Alaska. We had opened our doors in 2010 and grew rapidly as my husband and I shared our passion for archery and bowhunting with our community. I had become very involved in teaching lessons with a special emphasis on youth and women. Jayme and her friend Nancy came into my archery store looking to take lessons. Both of their husbands were also interested in archery and they thought it would be something fun that they could all do together. I had known Jayme in high school but hadn't seen her for over 10 years so we were excited to get reacquainted and she had had no idea that I was the owner of the store. The ladies did both group and private archery lessons with me. They both were instantly hooked; loving how shooting a bow made them feel strong and confident. Over the course of the next 7 months they purchased bows, shot in our leagues and continued to do lessons with me to perfect their skill. One night I approached them both and told them that I was going on a black bear hunt in the summer and that I would love for them to come with me on the trip. They looked terrified. They kept asking if I thought they were ready for that? We still had another 3 months to get ready and I assured them that I could have them prepared and confident in their skills by that time. In my opinion, a tree stand black bear hunt is a great starter hunt for a new archer. You are at a fixed distance, you can sit and range the area around where you will be shooting so you know exactly what yardage you will need to shoot. Additionally, you feel safer being elevated over the animal. Jayme told me she trusted my judgement and if I said she could do it; then she would go for it. Nancy was much more nervous. She was not sure that she even wanted to get into hunting, she had taken up archery only to target shoot and was not sure how she would feel about harvesting an animal. Eventually she agreed to go to the camp with us, to go out and sit in the tree stands but said she would only be taking photos. I thought this was a great compromise to get her more comfortable. I arranged for us to go over regularly to a friends house who had a ladder stand set up in his back yard. We could climb up, sit in the stand and practice shooting a 3D bear archery target to get everyone used to what it was going to be like. I am honestly terribly scared of heights - so this was wonderful practice for me to get my nerves in check of being up that high on such a small seat!! I helped the ladies pick out the proper arrows and broadheads for bear hunting and helped them prepare all of their gear. We hunted in Alaska's Unit 16 near Beluga Lake. This area is not accessible by road, only by bush plane. There is no lodge to stay in, no cell phone reception, no electricity, no running water; I hoped that they would be okay with our remote tent frame set up and being completely cut off from their daily lives.
I went over to the camp two days early with my friend Corey and got all set up and began hunting. By the time the ladies arrived; I had already taken a black bear and was on that incredible adrenaline high that you get when you are out in the wilderness, really allowing yourself to detach from the rest of the world and have harvested game with your bow. They were both quite hesitant and intimidated and I could see them wondering what in the world they had gotten into. However by the end of the first day, as we sat by the camp fire, telling stories with the guides, looking out over the beautiful lake at the glacier in the distance - they slowly started to see the real beauty behind getting out on a hunt. It is so much more than just the harvest itself. The connections with friends, with nature and with God are incredible. The simplicity of life, a slower pace, the appreciation of what nature has to offer; I could slowly see these things warming their souls.
Both ladies were incredibly nervous. They each had their own guide and so would be going out to their stands separately. Everyone loaded into little metal skiffs and ran up or down the river to the stand locations and hiked in to their hunting area. Nancy took her bow along but was adamant that she just wanted to watch the bears and hold it in the stand to see what it would be like if she ever wanted to hunt in the future. This particular area is a Predator Control Unit. This means that the bear population in this area has exploded and they have been decimating other animal populations there. Alaska residents can take several black bears in this area to try to help the moose population numbers rebound. On this particular year, the lead guide at our camp said he had seen 21 moose calves that had been born in the area. He believed that there were only 1 or 2 left still alive at that time. Due to the high number of bears in the area; when we all came back to camp that night - everyone had lots of stories of bears that they had seen! Nancy was estatic. She had really enjoyed watching the bear activity and I could start to see a change in her outlook about hunting. She started to ask questions like "now if I do decide to take a bear...." Jayme and I smiled - I knew by the end of the week we were going to have a hunter on our hands. That night we all sat around the camp fire. In June in Alaska, it stays light all night long. This makes it hard to go to bed when you are swapping stories, laughing and having an incredible time
with friends. All of a sudden across the lake we heard screaming. It literally sounded like a child screaming in pain. Everyone was dead silent and Dean, the lead guide, looked incredibly sad. He said, "its a baby moose calf. He's being killed." There was nothing you could do to block the horrific sound. Although we couldn't see him, his crys carried loudly across the lake in the still of the night. It seemed like it went on and on. I felt sick at my stomach. When it was over, Dean said, "thats why you guys are hunting here. That is why they are doing Predator Control. There has to be a better balance between the bears here and the moose population." We all sat in silence for a while. Jayme and Nancy started to talk about how it made them feel, it was a great discussion and really was an eye opener for new hunters to see the importance of hunting for conservation and managing populations. They understood more fully, the role that a hunter plays in that process. These ladies were now 100% ready to hunt.
That night the ladies had a ton of questions for me. They were taking the ethical harvest of these bears seriously and wanted to get a refresher on shot placement at different angles. We went into our tent frame and I had Jayme get down on all fours on the ground. Nancy stood on a chair and acted like she was shooting. I had Jayme turn in all different directions as I showed them different angles that were or were not going to be ethical shots. Just then our friend Corey walked in. Heres Jayme on her hands and knees, me over her "shooting her" and Nancy standing on a chair acting like she's at full draw. His shocked face was hilarious. He just smiled, shook his head and said, "it sure is different hunting with a bunch of girls! Continue on ladies" and left the tent. We all busted up laughing and I continued the lesson. I honestly think he felt good that everyone was taking it so seriously.
In the following days Jayme, Nancy and I all took black bears. We all went through a range of emotions. I have taken quite a few big game animals with my bow and I can tell you that I honestly feel remorse and sadness every single time. I feel a lot of other emotions too like joy, pride, satisfaction, purpose and many other things. But yes, I do feel sad. I don't take it lightly that I took a life. This was Jayme and Nancy's first bowkills and they certainly went through all of those emotions. There was everything from tears to the biggest smiles and joy that you can imagine. I loved being there for them through that process. There is something really special about getting to hunt with your girlfriends. There is a special kind of bond and experience that just doesnt happen anywhere else. As we flew away from camp after that incredible week and Jayme told me that she didnt want to leave; I agreed with her 100%. But I also knew in my heart we would have many more hunting adventures together in the future; because she really GOT it. That week had changed her and she was a bowhunter; once you've got that bug - it just never goes away. For me; starting a woman or child into archery, fueling their passion for the sport and then introducing them to the life changing experience of bowhunting....well there just isn't anything more satisfying than that. My true passion is to encourage, inspire and empower others to bowhunt; and I will continue that passion till the day I die.
Joni Marie is an avid bowhunter, National Factory Pro Staff for Xpedition Archery, HHA Sports, Prois and QAD. She is a former archery pro shop owner, and the current
owner of Rockstarlette Outdoors: a women's lifestyle clothing company that encourages and empowers women in hunting and outdoor adventure.
Instagram @rockstarletteoutdoors @rbgrrrl