Alaskan women are known for their self-sufficiency. Many female hunters first learn to hunt with their families and take part in harvesting a moose each year as a way to put food on the table. Given the size of the animal, the process usually requires a group effort to butcher, transport, clean and preserve the meat. Alaska hunter Sue Entsminger, recently recognized by the Wild Sheep Foundation’s Artemis Award, demonstrates the hard-working capabilities of many Alaska women who make an effort to utilize every edible part of a game animal, including head meat, innards and bones (for soup broth). Entsminger is also known for her self-taught talent in creating “fur fashions” inspired by her love of Alaska’s wilderness and wildlife. The following are just a few of the unique ways Alaskan women hunters have found to make the most of the game they’ve harvested.
Alaska hunter Joni Marie Kiser discovered the brown bear she had taken in 2012 had made the Pope and Young Record book; she was the 6th woman on record to take one with a bow. She also discovered her bear had been ruined by tannery machines; it came back to her with large burns and sections of hair and the claws ripped out. Kiser decided to make the most of what was left and contacted Stacy Leigh, a leather artist known for her bags made from deer and other natural materials. Leigh had never made a bag using brown bear hide and bought special needles for her machines so they would not break in the thick hide. She created a custom bag using the hide and claws, as well as American bison leather. The rustic bearskin bag with fringe and bear-claw embellishment is the only one in existence, carried by the woman who shot the bear herself.
Chrissy Aldridge makes a variety of items from game, including beaver slippers, antler buttons and knives from horn and bone. Her favorite gifts to friends and family use her creative abilities and share her love and respect for life. When her doctor, a dear friend, provided her with a life-saving diagnosis, Aldridge wanted to thank him by giving him a gift from the heart. She used the skin from her first caribou to create his gift. It was on this Arctic hunt for caribou that Aldridge faced the first risky fly-out hunt of her life and fell in love with Alaska. She personalized the gift by sharing a part of the caribou hide she had saved over the years after using other pieces for sewing projects. Her gift was a wine cozy made from her caribou, a deer hide, and beaver, since her friend is an avid beaver trapper.
Alaskan native Christy Ruby lives in the coastal city of Ketchikan and hunts game, including deer, harbor seals, and sea otters. She utilizes the hides to make apparel and unique items that she sells throughout Alaska. She also salvages the seal meat, telling me it has the flavor of the ocean: “It is very dark, oily and rich in omega fatty acids.” Many people who purchase Ruby’s items are interested in the story behind them, so she has written about the process from “pelt to purse,” as well as displaying photos in her shop. The seal purse was a custom order to fit a sealskin wallet she had made for a customer. Ruby traveled 2 miles by boat, alone and with little visibility, to harvest the seal. She skinned the seal, rendered the fat, and utilized the meat for consumption. Ruby puts two tablespoons of seal oil in her oatmeal to keep warm and lubricate her joints. “Seal is nutrition at its best,” she says.
When avid bowhunter Stacee Frost flew into Resolute, Canada–100 miles south of the magnetic north pole–for a polar bear hunt, she was dressed in the best modern outdoor gear available. The Inuit people who live there, however, understand that people coming that far north may not be appropriately prepared for the harsh environment. When the hunters arrived, the locals offered them an array of parkas, tents, and mukluks to borrow. While most go with modern gear, Frost was grateful for the surprise option to be fully kitted out in clothing made by the community. She selected a caribou parka, pantaloons, and mukluks made out of seal and sheepskin. Her eyelashes froze in the -40-degree temperature, but her outfit “was the warmest I ever wore,” said Frost.
Alaska hunter Kerribeth Bahr utilized remnants from a musk ox hide for a one-of-a-kind bikini that won a Make Your Own Bikini contest in her hometown of Nome, Alaska. As part of the Iditarod festivities, local bars in Nome host events on different nights of the week. The ground rules of the bikini contest require a garment handmade from materials not normally worn as clothing. Last year, Bahr, who works as a mechanic for a regional airline in Nome, had riveted together a bikini out of aircraft aluminum salvaged from the scrap pile at work. Bahr made this year’s bikini by cutting small pieces of musk ox hide with a box knife and sewing the pieces together using waxed dental floss. She added pieces of bear fur from a small bear donated by a friend. It took a few backstage gin-and-tonics before Bahr had the courage to emerge and show off her creation.
These Alaskan women know how us their game to the fullest. Do you have any creative ways to share with us?
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham