by Cindy Stites
When you hear about a deer camp in Montana, what comes to mind? You probably think about tents, cold weather, hiking many miles looking for deer, hunting hard during the day, skinning, quartering and packing out harvested deer, camp food, stories told around the tent at night and the hard work that goes into it all. You can picture it all in your mind because you have either been there, or you’ve heard stories. Now picture that same scenario, but picture this deer camp full of women, and only women.
I recently returned to Indiana from Eastern Montana after five days spent at the second annual “Deer Camp”, hosted once again, by Nicole Qualtieri, along with her “co-captains” myself and Laura Farron. This camp was Nicole’s idea after reaching out on social media early last year asking if there were any women who might like to hunt with her. Surprising her, and seemingly everyone else, over fifty women responded. Thus, Deer Camp was born, the first taking place in the fall of 2018, in the Crazy Mountains of Montana. That event was life changing for me for many reasons and I couldn’t wait to go back again this year.
It's an experience that, overall, is hard to put into words. The women who attended this year came to camp from multiple states including Colorado, Washington, New York, Wisconsin, Montana and of course my home state, Indiana. There were all different levels of experience with regards to hunting, some had never experienced a hunt before, while a few have been lifelong hunters. But much of the group, including myself, started hunting as an adult, in just the last ten years. This is an experience that is meant to nurture new hunters and help women feel confident as they venture into this new world of the outdoors. It is a place where questions can be asked openly among your peers without feeling self-conscious, like you might around a group of experienced hunters of the opposite sex.
Deer Camp was everything I hoped it would be. We hunted in groups of two, three or four during the day, and then spent time together as a large group in the evenings. Thursday night we set up camp and snacked on elk burgers, we drove to the nearest town Friday night for bar food, we shared various wild game snacks during the wild game potluck dinner on Saturday night including duck/jalapeno poppers, squirrel and noodles, wild sheep sausage, elk borscht, pronghorn and wild sheep stew, as well as, sharing our stories about when we started hunting, where we were from, and what brought us to this camp. Sunday evening there were salmon tacos and mule deer backstrap to feast on and more stories told, recounting the day’s hunt. The comradery that we experienced over these five days is something that just can’t be matched.
There was nothing easy about the hunting this year. The weather was chilly, the wind was constant, and the deer and pronghorn were elusive. The elevation changes were challenging at times, especially for a flatlander like me, and it is always tough going into a brand-new area that you have never laid eyes on, with hopes of finding deer. But make no mistake, these women were giving it everything they had, and that was a lot. There was some serious time spent afield, by everyone, and that just shows what a strong, determined group of women we all are. We hiked endless miles and put on numerous stalks on animals who will always have the upper hand, because we are only visitors on the lands they know instinctively. But we didn't quit.
The very first Deer Camp was an experience that I hold very dear to my heart, but it cannot be duplicated, due to different camping conditions, different hunting conditions, and a different mix of women. And I, personally, don't want it to be duplicated, the change and the unexpected is what makes it so amazing. This time around may have been different, due to more time spent afield and less time in camp, but nonetheless, was absolutely amazing. Meeting new women from all walks of life, different experience levels, different expectations, that is what makes this so incredibly unique. I guaran-damn-tee you that we ALL learned something over those four or five days in eastern Montana, whether it was about ourselves, what we are capable of, or something a more experienced hunter taught us, or even for those of us who are socially awkward, just how to let our guard down and talk to new people. I learned a lot about myself and all the women who were there. That is priceless and I will be forever grateful.
Five women in camp were fortunate enough to fill their tag, four mule deer does and one pronghorn doe were taken, butchered and sent home with five happy hunters. But you must know, filling a tag is not what I consider success. Having an experience, you never imagined having, is success. Making new friends from across the country, is success. Learning is success. Helping a new hunter, is success. Feeling exhausted because you worked your ass off, is success. That moment when you realized you read a ridge right, or you were right about where an animal might be, is success.
What we were all a part of those five days in eastern Montana is a success, and it is one that every single person who was there should be proud of, and proud to talk about, because maybe we will inspire the next group of women, or just new hunters in general, to be brave and go on THEIR adventure of a lifetime. Until next year, ladies.