Welcome hunters and shooters; let's explore Alaska's opportunities

EDITOR'S NOTE: Beginning this week, the Alaska Dispatch News will include regular columns on hunting and guns by lifetime Alaskans Christine Cunningham and Steve Meyer, who will alternate. Who are they? Read on.

In the fall of 2006, I first discovered the pleasures of duck hunting. The ground was cold and unforgiving, and the nearest escape from the misery of damp cobwebs and the flesh of rotting salmon in the marsh was a 400-yard crawl away. Mascara dripped into my eyes as the sky opened up with rain.

Life, at that level, was as foreign to me as anything I'd experienced. The raw sludge of the swamp, filled with spider webs and shrews, was a kind of hell I wondered if I had the grit to bear.

As I crawled on, each throw of the shotgun ahead of me was a decision not to stand up and leave. When I reached the edge of the pond, two widgeon glanced at me. Their bodies broke from the surface, shedding pond water and lifting into the rainy sky.

Growing up on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, my early outdoor experiences provided an abundance of recreation and scenic landscapes, but not until my first duck hunt on the Kenai River tidal flats did the reality of the outdoors come to life. Participating in the outdoors as a hunter meant acquiring new skills and building new relationships. I was lucky enough to have a partner, Steve Meyer, who was a firearms instructor with 40 years of experience in the Alaska backcountry. He emphasized firearms safety from the outset as my appreciation of the relationship between hunter and the outdoors grew.

Meyer grew up on a small farm in the prairie pothole region of eastern North Dakota with an extended family that hunted for the table. For him, there was never a question of where or how food was harvested.

His family moved to Alaska in the spring 1971, fulfilling an 11-year-old's hunting dreams. Steve often recalls the abundance of opportunity back then. The state had an early moose season that started in August and a late season that ran for 20 days in November. The goat season in Alaska mountains started Aug. 10 and concluded Dec. 31, with a two-goat bag limit. Caribou in the Nelchina herd were available to all Alaska residents, with a three-caribou bag limit.

When Steve first invited me hunting, my main interest was the chance to obtain wild game for the table. As a non-hunter and yoga enthusiast, without experience in firearms, I was new to all aspects of guns and hunting.

Steve was the opposite. He had memories of taking his .22 target rifle on the bus to school to shoot afterward at the Kenai National Guard Armory. He served on the board of directors of the Snowshoe Gun Club, shot competitively, and held a position as a team leader with the Alaska State Troopers Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) for most of his law-enforcement career.

I had memories of autumn drives to Anchorage from the Kenai Peninsula, but the smell of fall evoked the thought of school supplies, not the smell of gunpowder in the morning.

Despite different introductions to shooting and hunting, there's no doubt the pursuit has shaped our lives and changed our perceptions of the natural world.  My experience as a hunter was limited when I had the opportunity to undertake a book project in 2012 that brought together 17 female hunters in Alaska. As my involvement in the hunting and shooting community grew, wildlife conservation and the hunting heritage appealed more and more. I joined Steve in volunteering as a hunter safety instructor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's Hunter Education Program, participated as an instructor for women and youth shooting events, served on boards and initiatives supporting female hunters, and represented women in the outdoors industry.

Meanwhile, our hunting family grew to include three chocolate labs, two English setters, and an Irish setter. Although we hunt all types of game, any Alaska outdoor pursuit offers the prospect for not only a hunt but adventure. Even small game hunts can include Bush planes, grizzly bear encounters, craggy mountains, glaciers, wind-swept seas and northern lights.

My time spent in the outdoors previously — hiking, kayaking, mountain biking — also included adventure, but hunting has provided a deeper experience of pursuit, awareness, and disappointment.

I missed the first single shot I took and watched as the two widgeon flew into distant clouds. My spent 12-gauge shell lay in the marsh beside me. My hunting partner picked up the shell and held it up to his nose.

"This is what fall smells like to me," he said.

Now that's what fall smells like to me too.

Our Guns & Hunting column will share what we have learned from the places, characters, wildlife and adventures in the Alaska outdoors. Our pursuits take us to remote camps, waterways, and coastlines where we prepare for things not to go as planned and explore varied environments where we shoot, hunt, fish and camp. For each of us, our love of the outdoors developed over time and reflects how we were raised, how we've lived. We look forward to sharing our outdoor life with those who live it too, or love it from afar.

Christine Cunningham and Steve Meyer are lifetime Alaskans and avid hunters and shooters. On alternate weeks they'll write about firearms and Alaska hunting. Contact Christine at cunningham@yogaforduckhunters.com and Steve at oldduckhunter@outlook.com