Gathering around a campfire, fifteen women join for dinner. We spent the day riding horses to a secluded, high-alpine lake where we practiced yoga, fly fished and hiked to a glacier. Now we’re back at camp, filling our dinner plates and watching the horses graze in the meadow at sunset. It is mid-July, and I’m leading a week-long women’s wellness pack trip.
For dinner we have elk tenderloin, quinoa salad and veggie stir-fry. I take a moment to tell the story of our food. The veggies were raised in the ranch garden, and our meat is from an elk harvested last October. The hunter was a man from the Midwest, and I was his guide. Hunting might seem like an uncomfortable topic to discuss on a yoga retreat, but as a lifelong outdoorswoman who is both a yoga teacher and a hunting guide, I aim to bridge that gap.
The story I’m about to share is a way to give thanks, to practice remembrance and honor the process of food retrieval from the wild places of Wyoming. This story also lends itself as an example of a young female hunting guide who has found the balance of grit and grace while guiding men twice her age on wilderness big game hunts.
Introducing myself to my first rifle elk hunter of the season, I stand before him a 28-year-old woman, tall and thin with a long brown braid swept to one side. I give a firm handshake, hoping he notices the roughness of my cracked ranching hands. Maybe it will serve as evidence of my lifetime working in these mountains. My fingers are littered with turquoise rings passed down from my Grandmother. My wrists are wrapped with bracelets made from elk leather and horse hair. Dangling from my ears are earrings made from pheasant feathers. My belt buckle reads “Miss Wyoming 2014,” and I wear a dash of lipstick as a subtle exclamation of femininity.
He is a 62-year-old man from the Midwest. I understand the money and time it has taken for him to go on the hunt of his dreams, and with such high expenses come high expectations. I feel them settle on my shoulders. When I say I’m his guide, a look of surprise flashes across his face. He quickly recovers with a slight smile and nod. His eyes glance over toward his buddies who are being paired with the other guides—three men, all older than me. I bring his attention back by asking a series of questions about his previous hunting experience, his rifle, ballistics, etc. Knowing we’ll spend long, strenuous days together, I start building rapport as best I can.
On the first day of the trip, we ride about twenty miles to our campsite. Our group consists of twelve people (five hunters, four guides, two wranglers and one cook), 28 horses and my dog, Scout. The cook and I are the only women. In preparation for the hunt, it’s my responsibility to orchestrate all the details of camp: the gear, set-up, horse assignments and menu. Thanks to thorough organization and a top-notch crew, camp set-up goes smoothly. Seven canvas wall tents go up, we cut heaps of firewood and get the horses settled.
The third morning of the hunt, I awake at 3:30 A.M. to the door of the wall tent sweeping open as the wrangler comes in to light the stove—what a treat! Breakfast is at 4:00. After a full plate of biscuits and gravy, I thank the cook, load up on coffee and snag my lunch off the plywood table. Exiting the cook tent, I tell my hunter to meet me at the horses. This urges him along. We’ve been hunting hard the past few days, and I see his sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion setting in. I feel it too.
The horses stand patiently, saddled and bridled, thanks to the wrangler. With only headlamps to break the darkness, I hold his horse’s lead rope and help him get on. After riding in the dark for two hours, we near timberline at dawn. We get off and tie up the horses. I carry his rifle and the innards of his pack in mine to lighten his load, and we start creeping through the timber up a ridge.
Trudging uphill, the wind sharply whips snow into my eyes, and the crisp air seeps into my lungs with every chilled breath. My legs ignite as I pound my feet through deep windblown snowdrifts. My body feels strong and acclimated to this altitude of 11,000 feet, but I hear him gasping for air. I stop frequently, lifting my binoculars to dissect the landscape while waiting for this breath to steady.
Through the wind gusts, I hear a bugle echo off granite walls. My stomach turns, goosebumps rise and my feet trudge faster. As we crest the ridge, we peer down into a bowl to see the butts of three cows and two calves 650 yards away. They are meandering into the timber as the herd moves up a north-facing timbered slope to bed down.
Contemplating our next move, I look at my hunter—his eyes wide, breathing heavily, taking off his hat to cool down. He’s whooped. After evaluating the landscape, the wind patterns and the state of my hunter, I decide it isn’t wise to follow the herd into the timber. Instead, we’ll plop down and be patient. We find a great vantage spot tucked in the granite and begin a long day of sitting—for ten hours, above timberline in 45mph wind gusts.
Sure enough, in the late-afternoon the elk start filtering out of the trees into one of the bowls we are glassing. Our opportunity on a beautiful, mature 6×6 bull is approaching. My hunter is watching the bull through his scope, and I see the barrel of his rifle quivering with nerves. I talk him through it. I whisper to take deep, steady breaths. I narrate the bull’s movement as he weaves between cows, calves and spikes. My tone of voice is similar to that I might use while leading a meditation in a yoga class. “Just wait. Let him pass that cow. Keep breathing. Ok, he’s clear. Wait for him to turn broadside. When you’re ready, pull the trigger as you exhale.”
The bull drops instantly with one lethal shot at 224 yards. We share hugs, handshakes and tears. We field dress the bull by the light of our headlamps. We hold hands and say a prayer of thanks. We are grateful, exhausted and cold. We ride into camp at 11:00 P.M.
The next day, we ride back to get the bull with two pack horses. The hunter wants to utilize every bit of the animal, so the pack horses fill up quickly. Not wanting to overload the horses, I carry meat and antlers on my back. As I hike the few hours out, gaining 1,200 feet elevation back to our camp, I turn to check on the pack horses and my hunter. He smiles at me, shakes his head. I smile back and keep trudging through the snow, the waistband of my pack digging into my hips with antlers grazing the back of my neck. At camp, the guys guess my pack to weigh at least 100 pounds. It was a brute!
When the hunt finished, the hunter expressed his gratitude. He said having me as his guide took out some of the “machismo” he has felt pressured by on other hunts. For him, it was the calmest he has ever felt hunting, thanks to my supportive, gentle approach. “You’re one of the roughest, toughest people I’ve ever met—but still one calm, classy lady!” What a kind compliment and refreshing reassurance that yes, you can be gentle, compassionate and feminine while still tough as nails. We did so much more than just harvest an animal this week. I taught him about horsemanship, the local ecosystem, edible plants, map-reading, weather patterns and geology. Hunting is a way to dive deeper into the wild places—to go far beyond the trails and embed yourself in the land; soaking in each rise and set of the sun, appreciating the quietness of undisturbed natural life and understanding the intricacies of the ecosystem. I am a lifelong student of these mountains, and I feel honored to continue learning while I teach newcomers, like this hunter.
As a gift of thanks, he gave me one of the tenderloins for a special occasion. I chose to share it with the gals on my summertime women’s wellness pack trip. While focusing our intention on connecting with the land, my hope is that this story helps do that while we give thanks, practice remembrance and honor the process of food retrieval from the wild places of Wyoming.
Jessie manages her family’s guest ranch and outfitting business in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming. She guides pack trips for fly fishermen, rock climbers, backpackers, yogis and big game hunters, both archery and rifle. At 9,200 feet with no electricity, cell service or internet, the Diamond 4 Ranch is Wyoming’s highest elevation guest ranch. Jessie’s parents started the business 45 years ago, and now she’s taking it over. Jessie is also a NOLS instructor, yoga teacher and former Miss Wyoming. Her aim as a wilderness guide is to help folks embrace untethered, screen-free life, challenge themselves in healthy ways and deepen their connection with the land.