Her dad almost missed her birth because of hunting season. A week later, her mom trudged through miles of muddy swamp to a hunting camp in the Alaska bush, with nothing but her two children and a rifle slung over her back. The family lived out of a tent for the next three years until her dad built a cabin. Tia Shoemaker spent her formative years in the remote wild where she was engrossed in the rugged scenery and glamour of a world-class hunting operation near Black River, Alaska and later on the Alaska Peninsula. It wasn’t clear to her then how she fit into this world but, when she grew up, she became a big game guide.
My introduction to Tia was by reading her finalist essay for the 2012 Prois Award. In it she wrote, “It was a pitch black night on the Alaska Peninsula when the tired hunters stumbled into the cabin. Packs heavy with meat and antlers hung from their weary bodies. After another long day in the field, there were trophies and stories to attest to the elation each hunter felt in their success. By age five I knew I wanted to be that hunter who comes through the door, tired to the bone but happy because at the end of the day I have hunted.”
Growing up without phones, television or the internet, Tia was surrounded by the work involved in maintaining a hunting camp in which her dad could be away for months sheep hunting in the Brooks Range and her mother was always hosting, cooking and performing camp maintenance. When faced with the decision to pursue success in the field of education or follow the path of guiding and the family business, Tia chose guiding, becoming a pilot and big game guide at the age of nineteen. Today Tia spends the winter working with youth through Classroom with a View and, during hunting season, she guides. “Hunting is in my blood,” she said.
There are more similarities than differences between her two jobs. “All of it is service,” she said. In guiding, the clients are more mature, but she is always focused on making sure both kids or clients are “well cared for and have a good time.” In both areas she is able to express her ideals in understanding and appreciating the land and animals.
Although the decision to become a guide seemed destined, Tia was devastated the first time a client did not share her respect for nature in the field. This client took the view that “animals are all stupid” and his attitude caused Tia to doubt her profession. She didn’t want to enable a person to kill an animal they didn’t have respect for again. But, like all good guides, she didn’t give up. There’s an expression shared by biologists that “there are no value judgments in nature.” The animal world can be cruel, and it’s up to the hunter to hunt ethically. In the guiding industry, the expression often repeated is, “It’s not your judgment call who deserves to kill an animal.” Tia stayed with guiding because she lived her own ethics on every hunt. “You try to pass on all you can in being an example,” she said.
Those kind of clients are few and, for the most part, sharing a hunter’s enthusiasm when they connect with an animal and the intensity leading up to it as well as the work afterwards make up some of her best memories. “You’re out there for 14-15 hours in blowing rain and snow where everything moves because you’re sitting there watching it.” One of Tia’s best hunts was guiding the 2010 Dianna Award winner Charlotte Pyrek for brown bear. They were thigh-deep in water and mud, but instead of grumbling, the two of them got through it together, cutting grass and crossing a river, chest-high. With a great attitude and a little fortitude, misery easily becomes a great memory, even more so when the hunt is successful.
Tia credits her clients for providing her with opportunities to learn. “Bear hunting is not a cheap hunt. The people who come out there to hunt with us are all successful in their own field.” She remembers sitting next to a client “on day nine of a ten-day hunt, sitting in rain on a flooding hill eating moldy meat sticks, I tried not to get discouraged.” Her client says, “This is like sitting in the Bahamas.” And, because of her client’s positive attitude, it was.
Tia may wonder where she fits in when it comes to the world of the great outdoors and all it has to offer, but it’s easy for everyone else to see: she’s someone you’d want to sit next to on that flooding hill because those are the most critical moments, and they matter the most. Those are the moments you’re hunting.
To learn more about Tia’s guiding activities, you can visit Grizzly Skins of Alaska.
This article is courtesy of Christine Cunningham, author of “Women Hunting Alaska.” For up to date information on the Women Hunting Alaska book, please visit Northern Publishing or like Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.