Right after my GPS had authoritatively announced my destination would be on the right, I saw a sign that read, “Ucross: Population 25.” My kind of place. Just over the next hill I saw the welcoming arch of The Ranch at Ucross, the horses in the front pasture and large white tents down the driveway. I checked in, quickly dumped my gear in my room and ambled over to the meet and greet. Under the watchful eyes of a magnificent bull elk mount on the wall, one-by- one, ladies trickled in and took their seats. Old friends scurried together for hugs and how are ya’s. While some others had that look. I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen it in the mirror and in photographs of some of my earliest hunts: my uncertain face staring back at me. Some of these women had never hunted before now.
I spotted my friend, Janna Waller, and a handful of women whom I know from social media and we all got to chatting on the back porch overlooking the trout river. We ogled at what had to be close to 50 whitetails meandering around the green field next door. We updated each other on our hunting seasons so far, until our hosts called us inside to officially begin our weekend. Representatives from the Wyoming Game & Fish Department covered rules and regulations, and the the Wyoming Women’s Foundation staff answered questions from the eager new hunters. To my surprise, I learned there were 44 hunters, more than I had even expected! After some mingling, we went back to our rooms to clean up for the coming night’s festivities.
Upon entering the tents for the first evening, I liked seeing all the landowners and guides involved in the hunt. In fact, we sat with our landowners and guides for the evening. I shook hands with our gracious landowners, a charming, silver-haired couple. She had just returned to the table, her hands full with 2 plates of pie. He leaned over to slide her chair back for her and with a wink, relieved her of one of the slices. I met my hunting partner, Danielle; we hit it off immediately and I knew I would enjoy spending the next 2 days with her. Brenda Weatherby welcomed all the hunters for the weekend and told us about her personal journey into hunting: “Everywhere I went, I found women that wanted to learn. There were also women who wanted to teach. It was us all taking a step forward together. The friendships are way more important than the trophy. It’s about participation, not perfection.”
The stars still twinkled while I wandered down to the main house for breakfast the next morning. I mounded my plate with fresh biscuits and gravy and tucked into it – grateful to have this hot meal, instead of the usual Pop Tarts and gas station coffee when hunting alone. Our guide warmed the truck and we piled in. Arriving at our ranch, we set off on foot at just about daybreak. Reaching the first ridge I admired the view bathed in the clementine glow of dawn. We spotted a few groups of antelope all in the center of wide open flats; clearly they had seen a few hunters this season. We checked out all the fingers in that section of the ranch and then went to circle back to the first herd. We crawled in between an opening where a lone buck could see us. I felt thankful to have my built-in knee pads in my pants! Up the next hill we went and slid on our butts down the other side into a narrow drainage. One last climb and the herd now stood in range. Danielle readied for the shot as I peeked over the top to film the moment of truth. One shot and he fell. The rest of the herd scattered as we celebrated. He was a handsome buck and we quickly started field dressing him. We made a quick stop back at the ranch to get him on ice, before we departed for my evening hunting location.
We drove around the whole loop of the ranch a few times and didn’t see a single antelope. Setting out on foot we went to explore some areas tucked away near the edges of the property and still no luck. Our guide then told us that a buck had been shot there this morning, and the place crawled with antelope. I glanced at the clock, knowing that cocktail hour was about to get started. We started heading toward the ranch entrance. On our way, we spotted a lone buck and our plans for getting cleaned up and decent for the big auction dinner went out the window as I went out the truck door. I got him in my crosshairs just as he headed toward the side of a hill. Every time he stopped he stood either directly head on or quartering hard away. He walked out of view and the 3 of us took off in chase. When we got to the next ridge he had worked himself into the field below us, as he stood surrounded by a group of cows. For 20 minutes whenever he moved, they moved, coordinated like a Secret Service detail. I relaxed, lowered my gun, wiggled my fingers, but my heart pounded. Finally, a clear shot, at 200 yards. I pulled the trigger. The cows stared at me unimpressed while the buck took off. I completely missed. Working around the hill, we tried to find him until we came to a sheer drop off. In last flickers of daylight, I unloaded my firearm and we ambled down the cliff.
Arriving back at the ranch I threw on something clean and slipped into the main tent just as dinner was being served. The tent burst at the seams with folks laughing and hugging, regaling each other with tales of the hunt. The live auction showed some of the best brands in the industry. The Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt auctioned fine firearms and luxury hunts to enthusiastic bidders and the silent auction included beautiful works by local artists. Filled with cake and conversation, I drifted back to my room to tuck in for the night.
The following morning, I awoke to find that the temperature had plummeted. I warmed up with a large mug of coffee and stared at the thick layer of frost on the truck. The door creaked open and I hopped in, my stiff knees echoing the sound. What a big change from the previous morning – no golden sunrise bathing over the sage. The icy gray sky hung low as we arrived at the hunting property. Today Rachel came with us, an exceptionally talented photographer who donates her time to the event. We began the familiar loops from the day before. Soft flurries danced on the windshield as we glassed every ridge. Coming down one of the farm trails, I yelled, “There’s a buck!” The driver broke fast, and Danielle and I hopped out and set up the shooting sticks. The buck did not seem to anticipate the situation, staring at me while we readied the camera. Over the gusting wind I kept hearing our guide yell, “Shoot whichever one you want!” I thought it was a joke … I could only see 1 buck. Through a mix of hand gestures and binoculars I finally understood. Right next to that buck, a second one lay. By this time, buck #1 decided it was time to plop down as well. We were trying everything to get them to stand up, honking the horn and yelling. That didn’t work, so I steadied my rifle on the larger buck and pulled the trigger. He stayed down. I believe Rachel captured my uncontainable joy of the moment. I field dressed him and we started heading back to the ranch.
Arriving at the meat pole, it became obvious that others had seen success, too. Hunters in various stages of their check-in processes, a flurry of fur as the processors skinned the animals. Amidst all the hub bub, the amazing Ashlee Lundvall kept track of it all. Ashlee had been a guest hunter of the WWAH in 2014 and has returned every year since as a volunteer and is the “maven of the meat pole.” “It’s so exciting because you’re catching them right when they’re coming in from their hunt so they’re excited, and they’re telling their stories and they’ve got these big smiles on their faces. I feel like I’m a part of every person’s hunt,” she said.
I had missed a few of the afternoon events, such as fly fishing and wild game cooking, but the Butchering 101 demo piqued my interest and I attended it. Yes, I skinned and quartered my antelope and I wheeled my cart on over to meet Walt Gasson. Walt became involved with the hunt because his daughter, Beth, is a volunteer and they had been butchering their own game for years as a family. I’ve broken down a fair number of game animals before, but it’s more trial and error than science. If the pieces pull apart, pull them apart. If they are attached to the bone, slice them. A proper education of the process interested me. This is Walt’s 4th year running the demo and l can tell he loves every minute of it. “I have fun. You make friends, you’re able to see people learn this and say ‘you know I think I can do this at home.’” With a wry smile, he turned to me and continued, “But, no matter how much you consider yourself a son or daughter of the sage brush sea, after your 10th antelope or so it begins to feel suspiciously like work.”
I had the pleasure to meet hunter Kassidy Groeper one night we were seated at the same table. At 18 years, she ranked as the youngest hunter at the event, which she won through a scholarship program offered by the WWAH. I laughed as she told me that she missed 4 midterms to be on this hunt. Not to worry though, she had pulled over on the drive to Wyoming to complete them on her laptop. That is something I would have done in college, too! She is a pro staff shooter for Syren shotguns and I plied her into give me a shooting lesson. My first few pairs were pitiful. With a careful eye, Kassidy calling out “Over! Behind!” and I began making progress. The next round I shot 100% of the clays. She turned her attention to a hunter named Sarah. After quite a few missed birds, success! Sarah hugged Kassidy and they both hooted with excitement. Unknown to me, this was Sarah’s first time ever shooting a shotgun and first broken clay. How cool is that?
I filled the rest of my afternoon visiting with a few other hunters, absorbing their stories and marveling at what a diverse cross-section of women were here. Tana Hoffman felt drawn to learn to hunt by the desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle and knowing where her food comes from. “I’ve always made a conscious decision to try and get food as locally as possible. Hunting is just a natural progression for me.”
Deborah Dillinger is a Wyoming native and first time antelope hunter. She shared, “Live every day to the fullest. I went through breast cancer last year. I finished treatment in March and am cancer free.” Jennifer Barcklay was a helicopter mechanic in the Army and suffered a traumatic brain injury while overseas in 2009. For her, hunting is part of the healing process. “The whole philosophy of what they’re doing here, it’s incredible. They gave me a gift of knowledge that I can take with me, it’s truly immeasurable. For me it opened a whole new avenue for me to direct my life to.”
The closing ceremonies reflected a bittersweet experience celebrating success and also beginning to say our goodbyes to one another. The WWAH handed out awards, and several hunters told their stories. Lori DeVries won “The Roosevelt Award,” for her tenacity and drive to live out her late husband’s legacy to learn to hunt. She drove an RV solo from California to give it a shot. “My husband was always the hunter and I just tagged along. This is remarkable, you have really helped make a dream come true for me.”
Next, Wyoming State Auditor Cynthia Cloud shared her experience as a first-time hunter and gave thanks to the Wyoming Women’s Foundation. “I want to thank the WWF because they’re working hard on unlocking the economic potential of women and building self-sufficiency and self-esteem – just like this antelope hunt has done. I can tell you, it certainly built up mine when I shot that antelope today!”
The Wyoming Women’s Foundation put in a great deal of time and love into the WWAH to make it such a success. Now in its 5th year there are a lot of key people, companies and sponsors that contribute and support this event. Without the generosity and knowledge of landowners and guides, this event would not be possible. The Ranch at Ucross and its gracious staff provided the perfect home for us for the weekend. It is refreshing to see the entire region come together to support local women. We took a group photo to close the event and I reflected with gratitude on the opportunity to be a part of such a special event and to join the Sisterhood of the Sage.
Courtney Nicolson is an outdoor writer, hunter, and angler based in Denver, Colo. She is an active member of numerous conservation groups and is passionate about empowering women in the outdoors. Courtney is the senior producer/editor for Outdoor Sportsman Group Networks. View all posts by Courtney Nicolson