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Mountain Home Magazine

The Quiet Hunter

Nov 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard

Janice Cavanaugh sets the old hunting She went up alone after giving the kids their roster on the picnic table. With it is a black and white square photo of a woman wearing a head scarf standing beside a buck hoisted to drain. Its head is above hers. She looks up at it, not at the camera. Her expression reveals no pride or surprise or weariness. The flash captures the trampled snow of the foreground but leaves her dark jacket to blend with the black behind her. This is Janice’s mother, Cleora Young, on December 3, 1951, in Bradford County. Janice’s father’s handwriting on the log documents: “Cleora shot a 6 point buck on Burnham’s Hill this year. afternoon nap.”

Janice gives the impression of a woman who is grounded. There is nothing unnecessary about her, no extra words or gestures, no decoration. She probably doesn’t get flustered easily.

She inherited her mother’s matter-of-factness and her father’s collection of hunting rosters, kept in a burgundy plastic book that covers half the picnic table when it’s spread open. The gold lettering declares “Elmer’s Giant Scrap Book.” She turns the pages, reading the logs that were faithfully filled out when the bear or deer gangs congregated for the hunt. Names, addresses, hunting license numbers, make and caliber of firearm were all collected, often along with Elmer’s remarks. These were left on a windshield for the game warden. The cursive is faded now. They span from the forties through the late eighties when Elmer, born in 1918, stopped leading gangs. Janice, raised in a family of hunters, begins telling stories.

“Some of my greatest childhood memories came in November when I’d wake up at 5 a.m., hearing the local bear-hunting gang assembling in my parents’ house in Bentley Creek to fill out the roster,” Janice says. They were mostly men but also a few women, in great spirits and kidding around. “Opinions were offered about whose gun was too big or too small for the job, or who had outgrown their coat since last year. Those were the red-plaid Woolrich days.” She’d sneak downstairs in her PJs to sit on her uncle’s lap to watch the fun. “Someone always had to run back home for their hunting license or ammo, but no one ever forgot their lunch,” she says. “Priorities!”

Then they’d head south to the game lands, making their precarious way up Armenia Mountain on an icy road out of Troy (this without four-wheel-drive). It was even more frightening coming down at night. Many of the rosters are blank in the column for “Big Game Killed.” And when there is an entry, it’s often just one. But—“If you measured success by the good times,” she says, “these hunters were very successful.” Janice says that 1958 was a doubly successful year for her parents. “Dad finally got a bear and Mom gave birth to their fourth child. Their driveway was full of cars for two days. The men ran out to the shop to see Dad’s bear, and the women went in the house to see baby Linda.”

Stalking Tales

When I met Janice, I knew her stories were what I’d been seeking without realizing it. At the start of my fourth season of hunting, having begun at age fifty-one with no family connections to it except my teenage son, who had started hunting the year before I did, I envied the legacy others had. My son loves hunting, which is why I got involved. My time in the woods with him has been precious. I try to imagine hunting with my grandchildren but, having grown up in the suburbs and only now putting down roots here, it’s hard to see myself in the role of elder hunter.

Women are a demographic of hunters getting a lot of attention these days. There are stories in all the industry magazines, stories asking why women hunt. Outdoor writer and TV host Ron Spomer bristles at the sexism and writes, “Because she’s human....Their maternal ancestors pursued everything from grass seeds and grasshoppers to gophers and giraffes for as long as men did. And often more effectively.”

According to data from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, in 2009 about 7 percent of hunters in the state were female. That has increased to a relatively steady 10 percent. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation reports a similar percentage, with a small bump in 2020 and 2021. Where it used to be extremely rare to see images of women hunting, now they are all over social media. Important as these stories are, they are not the kind I’ve been searching for.

Paula Piatt, a long-time hunter from Sayre, says, “I know when I started in PA there weren’t many (if any) other women out there hunting. And from my time in New York, I don’t remember any women either. I just don’t think they were very public about their adventures. Too bad. I’m sure there are some great stories.”

These private stories from the quiet hunters are what I’m stalking.

Hunting: A Love Story

Janice began hunting in 1961 at sixteen, when her father taught three of his four daughters to hunt. She used her mom’s Savage 22 HP with iron sights. Her dad “was heavy on safety and ethics,” she recalls. “We all unloaded our guns exactly at closing time. More than once we met the buck of our dreams on the way back to the car, but Dad would smile and say it would be bigger yet tomorrow.” Now if she hears gunshots after hours, she thinks of her old joke: “Would a touchdown count if it’s made ten minutes after the game ends? No, but you can’t eat a football.”

“The outdoors is why I liked her,” Janice’s husband, Gary, says. “We used to read Outdoor Life together on our first dates.” He bought her a fly-fishing rod before he ever bought her diamonds. Janice laughs, “It’s like I had to pass a test.” They met in high school when both played trumpet in the marching band. Their parents became good friends, hunting together. Janice was eighteen when she married and moved three miles away. For the first five years of their marriage, it was just the two of them, working and building their log cabin by themselves. Fifty-three years later, they still live on twenty acres in Bentley Creek. Bradford County has a long history of women and girls hunting, “and we’re doing okay,” she notes. “All the men I know are very helpful and respectful to women hunters. There were some problems back in the forties and fifties, but that was before microwave ovens. Men were understandably concerned about the lateness of their evening meal if women hunted.”

She got no deer the first five years but got five bucks over the next ten years. She thinks that had a lot to do with the Savage .284 Gary gave her early in their marriage. It had a scope.

Gary grew up with a mother who hunted and a father who appreciated it. His father, Bill, started the practice of flipping a coin to see if he or his wife, Virginia, would go out the next day. “He knew how much she liked hunting,” Gary says. Was his mom more likely to bring home a deer than his dad? “Probably,” he admits.

Janice got her first buck early in her pregnancy with Brian, their first child. Later in the pregnancy she went crawling around in the cornfields with her mother-in-law. She says of her eldest son, “He went goose hunting before he was born. If a woman’s a hunter, being pregnant isn’t really going to stop her.” She took her second son, Bruce, hunting when he was twelve, and he got his first deer.

She says that many people don’t realize how well women hunters did in those days, considering the limitations they accepted as mothers and homemakers. But staying at home, rather than working for a paycheck, was an advantage if you had easy access to land you could hunt. For these mothers, she says, “their time in the woods doesn’t begin until the kids are fed, dressed, and off to school.”

“Likewise, they give up prime hunting hours to meet the school bus and prepare the evening meal. And many a buck has been taken behind the barn by women who couldn’t travel to more exotic locations.” Janice thinks many mothers don’t mount their bucks because the money could go to some family need.

When her sons were teens, hunting season became extra busy, and Janice stayed home more. “If you live on soup and hot dogs for months, you realize that something has to give. And I was what had to give.” As if to banish any Betty Crocker comparison, Janice continues, “The best thing you can say about my cooking is I didn’t kill anyone.” She pauses. “That I know of.” Though preparing meals has thwarted women from hunting, it has also been a motivation. Providing healthy, affordable meat, she emphasizes, is a strong incentive.

In addition to her mother and mother-in-law, she’s hunted with her younger sister, Linda, and her Aunt Anne, both lifelong hunters. She was with her mother when Cleora got her last deer at age sixty-five. The arthritis in Cleora’s arms and shoulders had gotten bad, so Janice went along in case she was needed, while Gary and Elmer drove doe her way. Gary was with his mother when she got her last deer at age seventy. At seventy-seven, Janice still goes out.

“I was born into a hunting family and married into another one,” she says, and has loved every minute of the bonding among three or more generations. “On some occasions my father was the only male with five women hunters in the gang. He was probably praying we didn’t all get a deer or bear for him to drag out.”

Who You Gonna Call?

“My advice to beginning hunters is to take your hunter education courses very seriously and learn all you can from your adult mentors,” Janice says. “Then it’s time to develop your own skills and interests.” She thinks this advice is especially important for women, who may be more apt to ask what they should do. “Do you enjoy the open woods with close-up shots? Or watching fields and hedgerows? Above all else, listen to your instincts. Many women have a shorter stride than men and it’s no fun to hunt on the run when you want to be sneaking along. If a watch feels totally lifeless, it might be time to move on. If you feel you should stay one more hour, do it.”

Some of Janice’s best hunting memories have nothing to do with a kill. She’s had a raccoon growl at her from a hollow tree, wanting to steal her baloney and mustard sandwich. She’s seen bear (out of season) and a huge bobcat she first thought was a cougar. She watched a fox nursing. Her favorite: while near a small pond, a young buck ran circles around the water, then jumped in with a big splash, climbed out, and did it four more times. “That’s the kind of thing you won’t see watching Days of Our Lives,” she says. When sitting in the woods, her thoughts always turn to her Creator and the beauty around her. She calls it “storing up soul food for the busy week ahead.”

And since many women hunt alone—either to work it around their schedule or because they desire the peace and quiet away from other peoples’ needs—this is my favorite piece of advice: “At the end of the day,” Janice says, “call another hunter to share the special moments: a gorgeous sunrise, a new wildflower, or that perfect log to sit on with a headrest, a footrest, and a place for your Pepsi. Memories are more valuable than meat.”

Janice describes herself as an old-school, low-tech hunter. This means no food plots, four-wheelers, or trail cams. “Give me a local woodlot with a couple apple or oak trees and I’m happy,” she says. The new gear, neat clothes, and pink camo are not what the women hunters she knows look like. Janice fully supports the young women out there because they love the woods and want to ethically provide healthy meat, no matter what they wear. But she says she wonders if some aren’t really hunting for a man. Then we shrug because we can’t blame them. We happen to believe the best men love the outdoors.

Janice’s daughter-in-law, Tricia, hunts too, usually with Brian. But last year Brian went on the mountain and Tricia stayed home. “I wasn’t even planning on hunting that day,” she says, “but then I thought I’d take my bucket [with a padded seat for a lid] out back and hang out. I was taking pictures with my phone when a deer ran in the distance. A doe was following him and stopped.” She called Janice immediately to share her luck.

“When the call came,” Janice says, “I jumped in my hunting clothes and found her in the woods. She’d dropped a big doe with one shot.” In the past, Brian would always field dress Tricia’s deer. She’d watched him many times but since he was faster it made sense for him to do it. With this doe, Tricia enjoyed taking her time with Janice looking on, giving advice if needed. “I learn better by doing it myself,” Tricia says, giving the impression that this was the highlight of that hunt. “This year I’ll be ready to do it myself.” But she’ll still call Janice. “She gets so excited.”

They tried to drag the deer out but ended up flagging a trail back to the house for Brian to follow when he returned—with a doe of his own. “She canned her deer to make healthful, easy-to-serve meals,” Janice says proudly.

Know Your Place

“I got lost in our own backyard once,” Janice tells me. “It was snowing and then it set in so thick with a fog. Everything looked the same.” I told her how I got lost very near my tree stand in snow and walked down to find the creek and re-orient. But she was on top of a hill. “The problem with being on top of a hill is every direction is down,” she points out. She ended up on the other side and walked the road the long way home.

Now when she’s hunting she stays close to a logging road, ridgeline, or fence line. “You don’t want to be the hunter that’s lost in the dark or fog or whiteout blizzard. You don’t want your companion to get lost either, especially if they have the car keys!”

Janice had her best year of hunting in 2009 when she got a 235-pound bear, hunting alone in her forty-fourth year of bear hunting. It was her first and she field dressed it herself. Gary was near enough to hear the shooting and got help to haul it out.

Janice will go out as usual this year, either on their property or on their neighbors’. She used to range all over the valley when Gary was at work, but, as she notes, “There’s a big difference between forty and seventy-seven. I’m more careful of falling because I don’t want to lay out by the creek all day.”

Why does she still hunt? “I want to stay in good physical/mental condition as long as I’m able,” she explains. “The level of exertion and alertness required leaves hunters prepared for many survival situations.” Another reason is that hunters have a strong connection to what she calls “reality, like God’s natural order. There’s a lot of reality just outside our doors.” She’s always preferred the natural world. She doesn’t need to be entertained, and she doesn’t need to make a fuss about her success when it comes.

“It’s not horseshoes, it’s hunting. I think God tends to bless those out here to see His handiwork. Not those who most want to beat somebody’s record.” So, if you stop to look out your window this hunting season at the gray branches or snow swirling, think of Janice and the other hunters who sit alone in the woods. And if you happen to be one of them, remember when you get home to call another hunter and share the little or big moments of your day.

As for me, I’ll be calling Janice.

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