Yoga for Duckhunters

from the studio to the tidal flats

Category: i love dirt

take me to breakfast

As I write, an Irish setter named Red lays on blankets. My partner and I can tell that he is afraid. We’ve lived with him for five years, and our best guess is that he is 12 years old. The family that fostered him told us he was seven the year he came to live with us. He weighed just 63 pounds, which gave him supermodel proportions, as he was the tallest Irish setter I had ever seen. The color of his fur is a royal red, and his long nose, ears that hang like locks of hair, and doe-like eyes give him the appearance of a noble creature – half horse and half wolf with a dash of red stag thrown in. “We have a hard time getting him to eat,” the woman who gave him to us said.

It was after the last line that I stopped to think about Red’s condition again. He had fallen in the yard and, after making it to the shop floor, had not gotten back up. It had only been a few hours, but I had typed “was” instead of “is” and then corrected the error. Then I stared at the screen as my eyes filled with tears. Tonight, he is not with us anymore. I have a column due on the subject of rescue dogs as hunting dogs, I have work in the morning, and somewhere – because he can’t be gone – that lovely creature is roaming the heaven of places that must exist because we still feel the gravity of those who live there.

We never had a hard time getting Red to eat. We were also told he barked a lot, and this was true. He barked orders for food, especially. But, he also barked when he wanted out or when he wanted attention. Those giant setter lungs could put out a bark so painful to the ears, he was impossible to resist. I’d like to think we were the first people who listened to what he was saying instead of making futile attempts to quiet him, and that’s one of the reasons we all got along so well.

There were times we tried to preempt his bark. Before we settled down to write or read, we would offer him a trip outside to do his business. “Do you want to go outside?” my partner would ask in the kind voice he only had for animals. Come to think of it, his hospitality is squandered completely on the non-human. Red would not lift his head. “Red,” he would say, “outside?” The situation amused me. “You can try,” I said, “But Red calls the poops around here. You can’t call the poops on Red.” More often than not, once we settled in, the tympanic sound of Red’s bark lifted us from our seats. “Now,” he seemed to say. “Outside!”

He preferred cooked food to chasing wild birds. When we took him to the grouse woods, he obliged to walk ahead of us and, if he got overheated, he laid his now 90-pound body of groomed red hair in the largest mud puddle or dirt pile. He was the woman in the million-dollar red satin dress jumping on the back of a motorcycle. Why? Because he was more beautiful than aspirations of beauty. And that’s how it looked to see him in the mud – damn beautiful.

The veterinarian showed us the pellets on the x-ray. We had seen them before. He had got them in his life prior to the one he had with us. It’s hard to say if that’s why he didn’t care for hunting. Probably not. For the last few years, his favorite thing was going to breakfast on Sunday mornings. He barked relentlessly on those mornings until he was secure in the back seat of the truck. His bark said words in a voice I remember for its demanding and darling Irishness. “You’re going,” I would say in attempt to get him to stop barking. “Just five more minutes.” And he would respond, at least in my mind, “Shut up! and take me to breakfast.”

He lay on the bed behind us as we looked at the x-ray. He was still wrapped in the blanket we’d brought from home. He’d laid on the blanket all night with my partner, unable to get up. We folded him in the blanket to load him in a sled to take him to the vet. There were three strangers in the room now, and one asked us what we wanted to do. Red had not stood up, eaten, or drank water for over a full day, and his eyes were tired. He trusted us to make the decision on whether or not this was his last moment on earth. It was a trust we had never earned, and now we could not earn it. Not in the way we wanted. Not by giving him a heaven that was not ours to give. Not by answering a question that held the weight of his giant red body and life on an x-ray table.

Red knew what he was doing when he won our hearts. He knew how we adored his demands and were at a loss when he stopped demanding. Demanding of each other is a show of love. And, as it’s so difficult to find thoughts that comfort or words to write on the subject of why a rescue dog makes a good hunting partner. The only thoughts I could conjure were memories of Red, who never really hunted. Maybe, I thought, there isn’t one kind of wilderness two souls find together. Maybe it isn’t always a bird that a hunting dog hunts. Maybe, when the world enlarges enough for all things to be possible, it’s more likely that a dog knows just what kind of dog you need him to be. That was the kind of dog Red was. A hunting dog.



nothing to do with results

The art of wingshooting, like other arts, is more of a practice than an acquired skill. How else would I have fallen in love with it or enjoyed it in a way no one could teach me? And yet, some words have stayed with me.

This is what fall smells like.

Nothing in nature is dirty.

We’re in the country now.

These words do not appear in my mind as if they are on a white page. They appear in a duck marsh, a river flat with the feel of tidal mud caking on my cheeks, and just above the tree line where the trail ends as if so many before us agreed exactly where to stop just to tell us where to start.

The art is in the imagination and recollection, something we are maybe born to recognize. Others may never see it. Fall smells like fall. Dirt is dirty. The trail is life.

But I’d like to think I knew before I ever shot a gun – like you know before you ever make love – that your heightened sensitivity toward the object of your affection is half of your making. It’s a dream embodied in life. In wingshooting, the field awaits at dawn.

When you go out, it is with a dog. There are hunters who don’t hunt birds with a dog and painters who don’t use paint brushes. I’ve done both but prefer to see paint brushed onto a canvas and the flash of a dog work a field. It’s my dream, not just something to be done.

For me, the way a hunter hunts is not a practical matter. No matter how many instructional books or how-to-do-it articles exist on a subject, they exist to fill the cup, not empty it.

It matters that there are ways to do things properly. The bare necessaries of wingshooting require that a hunter become a good shot and have a gun, shot, and choke that make sense. The poetic nature of the pursuit informs the practical so that there is some joy to be had by an obsession with every detail so long as the lessons do not become limits.

A dog to find birds provides a division of labor that allows the wingshooter to perfect his or her art. That is not the only reason. For some, a dog is a partner who lives between the wild and the human worlds. Maybe they are a medium. Maybe they are reincarnated zen monks. I really don’t know.

What I do know, is that bird hunting did not come to me as an inheritance. No matter what I’ve learned from books or days afield as an adult who woke up to life late, the birds I hunt are close to my heart. When a bird is in your heart, it’s on your mind. And when you go out to hunt it, you cannot fail to bring it home. I can’t tell anyone how that magic happens – how to fall in love, how to digest food. Even though I am sitting down right now trying to figure out how exactly to do just that.

So this. Don’t love what I love. Love what you love. Open your heart up to everything that belongs to that other world whether it is Frisbee golf or collecting cow figurines. I don’t know how you do it.


Without thinking much about it, my day starts in a darkened bedroom. The yawn of an English setter lends a voice to my stretching of arms. Half-asleep, the faucet in the bathroom runs cold while I stand bare-footed in front of the mirror, daring not to look. My short hair is standing on end. My eyes are smudged black from a forgetting to remove yesterday’s mascara. I had crashed into bed recklessly again. The cold water feels good on my puffy eyes and hot skin. If someone asked me why I felt a need to “put myself together” before the office or a day in the field, it’s because they haven’t seen me in the morning.

Source:’s long been a fantasy of mine to leave the civilized world and live alone for a year in the wild. There, I would get wooly and wise. The wreckage of my morning looks would be purified by abstinence of all things contaminated and contaminating. Free of alcohol, espresso, and mascara, I would instead breathe mountain air and feel the sun and wind on my skin. My eyebrows would surely grow together as nature intended, but I would see my image in the river and not know the difference. Such are dreams.

The civilized world, on the other hand, provides a set of problems and solutions that do not exist in nature: the economy requires a vocation; the sedentary life requires a gym; the food industry requires a diet; pain and boredom require medicine and entertainment; relationships require excessive verbalization and therapy; time requires time-saving devices; the home environment requires cleaning products and organization; technology requires meditation; safety requires security; and, “education is the cure for imagination.” When asked if I wear makeup while hunting, it seems an arbitrary question given everything else a human brings (or ought to leave behind?).

Conservation, in the hunting arena, is the way in which hunters value, restore, conserve, and share wild resources. It is the marriage of the human world with the wild. My love of hunting began with a desire to recognize my dependence on other creatures to survive and encompassed the benefits of doing something difficult with skill and reverence. Until asked, whether or not I wore makeup in the field did not occur to me. It was something I put on like a clean shirt. However, the discussion with other hunters on the subject grew to include such topics as vanity, fashion, and the sexual objectification of women.

Those discussions are the sort of thing that make me want to run to the mountains. There is little difference between a man who purchases a gentleman’s upland hunting outfit to wear in the field and a woman who puts on a little bit of makeup. The idea that we should go afield un-washed, un-shaved, un-clothed, and sans made-up doesn’t make complete sense. Should every article of our person and personage be held to such a high level of scrutiny and sliding scale of judgment?

Interestingly, while discussing the subject with women hunters, many deny wearing makeup in the field, but wear it nonetheless. It’s a polite deceit that is something like saying to an unexpected house guest “I didn’t have time to clean the house” when the eyes of every taxidermy mount shine and say otherwise. Some women don’t wear makeup because it is not their idea of beauty. They leave the modern world to breathe and experience the outdoor environment. Still others admit to wearing it because they look the way I do in the morning and want to spare the world the ravages of a work-week and night spent face down and drooling on a pillow.

source of image:


about face

Upland hunting is often looked upon as a genteel activity. In the days of old, hunters were seen wearing tweed jackets and tailored brush pants. They shot fine double-barrel shotguns and worked over well-trained and groomed pointing dogs. This upland hunter paid close attention to appearance whether he had money to spend, as he often did, or not. But recently a discussion amongst upland hunters on whether or not an attractive female hunter should wear makeup on a grouse hunt revealed a compelling divide over representations of women hunters in the field. What does a woman upland hunter look like? Does she wear makeup? Why and why not?

Photo courtesy of Sarah Fromenthal

Photo courtesy of Sarah Fromenthal













The aesthetic difference between a well-groomed, outfitted, and physically fit hunter and one who has dirty nails, well-worn gear, and a face spent in the mountain sun has little to do with the solace such a hunter finds in the field. While fashion, style, and beauty involve personal preference, they are disconcerting when they move into the realm of frivolity, vanity, or pressure for a woman to “look” a particular way. The wearing of makeup is as old as archeological evidence of hunting, but that has little to do with what happens in front of the mirror for today’s female hunter.

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.”
~ Rene Magritte

Elaina Spraker leads the Kenai Peninsula Women on Target and Teens on Target firearm education clinics in Alaska, and harvesting wild food has always been a part of her life. For Elaina, makeup is a way of enhancing her appearance, and she wears it at the range as well as in the field. “Being part of wild, beautiful, scenic places makes me feel obliged to enhance my appearance.” She hunts with her husband and has enjoyed the look on his face when he discovered she had brought her makeup along on a sheep hunt. “The look on his face is priceless,” Elaina said, “and even more priceless, when he finds out that he carried a nice bottle of merlot up the mountain.”

Becca Moffat, who hunts avidly and has been filmed for national television, doesn’t wear makeup hunting, and made the conscious decision not to wear makeup just because a specific hunt was being filmed. When she appears on Alaska Outdoors Television, she is often on un-guided hunts for weeks without a shower and in difficult country. Although she wears makeup in her daily non-hunting life, she doesn’t see the need to wear it hunting and feels strongly that wearing it on film or in photos while hunting sends the wrong message to other women or young girls who may be interested in the sport. “I feel like the photos I take in the field should reflect the difficult and very physical work that often goes into hunting.”

The fact that photographs or video have become a growing part of hunting has caused many women to base the decision on whether or not to wear makeup solely on whether or not they are likely to be the subject of a photo or film. Some women dye their lashes to avoid the need for mascara, pack a small kit to apply makeup in the field (should a photographic opportunity arise), while others bring along a pair of sunglasses. Still others find the field itself offers a chance to enhance beauty. Ladies in Camo Director Diane Baxter Hassinger jokes that her “rosy cheeks are from the cold” and her tousled hairstyle is “from briars ripping my hair from my pony tail.”

While most agree that Vogue-sque makeup has no place in the woods, Sarah Fromenthal, who was raised hunting small game and fishing the swamps and brackish marshes of the Louisiana coast, acknowledges that for many women, makeup is such a part of a daily ritual that going completely without it would be unnatural. She follows the makeup-middle-road, realizing that a morning routine makes her feel more alert in the field “versus just rolling out of bed.” Sarah uses a basic tinted moisturizer that has SPF in it for the dual function of providing a barrier from the sun as well as any camouflage she may apply in the blind or stand.


A hunting girl’s makeup compact. Photo courtesy of Sarah Fromenthal

Tracy Harden, co-founder of EvoOutdoors, knows that hunting is not only about being with nature but about the internal confidence hunting requires. Although she does not personally wear makeup on a hunt, she believes the outdoors is about being yourself (whether made-up or sans makeup), getting away from it all, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the hunt. Her focus is more on skin-care, “You can change your hunting gear every season but you only get one skin to live in.” On eight-to-ten-day hunts in the backcountry, Tracy packs cotton rounds, witch hazel, nightly moisturizer, daily SPF, and mascara as a “guilty pleasure.”

Professional outdoor photographer Chip Laughton of Days Afield Photography offers some practical reasons why a woman hunter might wear makeup. When creating professional images, he makes every effort to take as flattering a picture as possible. While he admits to not knowing “the ins and outs of makeup,” it is something that makes his job easier. “The camera is going to show every wrinkle or blemish on your face. Makeup saves me time – shiny spots are eliminated, and it hides the skin imperfections that everyone has. Any minor blemish really sticks out.” In the same way that it helps if his subjects wear a completed hunting outfit, from a photographer’s perspective, makeup “helps the photographer make you look the best you can.”

Whether makeup is an enhancement of femininity, a comfort in the field, or an opportunity to “put your best face forward,” it is a personal preference that not all women share to the same degree. Sometimes the feel of the sun and wind on bare skin is too irresistible, the appeal of the simple life, or the realities of the day make the same woman who wore makeup one day pass up on it the next. The aesthetic difference between a woman in makeup and a woman without it is best overcome by what is going on behind the image. More women are taking to the field, regardless of their “make up” and they’re doing it with passion, reverence, and skill.