If you’d asked me five years ago if I’d ever go hunting, I would have scoffed and presented any number of validations why I was above hunting: “It’s cruel and barbaric; it’s an excuse for trigger-happy rednecks to drink beer and shoot things; guns give people too much power; etc.” In short, I would NEVER be caught dead hunting.
Well, in the wise words of Justin Bieber — never say never.
When ZPZ picked up The Wild Within, I rolled my eyes and thought, really? Hunting? On a scale between the caliber of TV we made and, say, The Hills or Celebrity Apprentice, a hunting show was about 5 Kardashians and 1 Joe Millionaire below what we were accustomed to producing. But — it had the element of travel. And travel translated to open-mindedness, which was not a quality I associated with hunters. (The irony of that statement does not escape me.)
Fast forward six months later to the premiere party of The Wild Within. ZPZ rented out a restaurant run by Matthew Weingarten, a chef-friend of Steve’s, who cooked up a whole heap of appetizers and finger foods from Steve’s bounty from the first season’s hunts.
One bite and Steve’s entire philosophy of venison diplomacy scooped me up in a handful of bear meat tacos. I shamelessly flirted with the line of what is considered appropriate work/party eating. I went back for seconds, thirds, maybe even fourths. I spent more time talking up the meat carver than I did my plus one. All of this, I should mention, occurred before the show even started.
Full plate in hand, I plopped myself down into a chair just as the show began. What happened over the following hour, I’ll never forget. Despite my full belly, I was at the edge of my seat — transfixed by the the history, the drama, the charm, and particularly the intelligence of the show and, more importantly, of Steve.
By the end of the party I was practically a fangirl. I waltzed up to Steve and bragged about how I, too, was originally from Michigan and how my dad was a bowhunter (a fact I was embarrassed about up until that very point).
My life hasn’t been the same since. Having worked on the show in various roles over the past four years, I’ve grown to know Steve and the MeatEater crew and have become somewhat of an armchair expert on all things hunting. But up until recently, when it came to questions about experience? I had zip.
No one can quite pin down when the idea to have Helen and me go on our first ever hunt on MeatEater first came about. It probably started as some offhand statement: “Man, we should go hunting sometime.” But the more we found ourselves repeating those words, the more we felt the ache to get out in the woods and actually do it. Long story short, after tactfully poking and prodding Steve and MeatEater director Dan Doty long enough for them to hear no more of it, we made it a reality. Steve wasn’t quite tough enough to tackle both Helen and I as first-timers alone, so he brought on the fearless, mustachioed Ryan Callaghan of First Lite and “Smell Us Now Lady” fame. Plans were made and tags were purchased. At that point, it’s all over but the gutting, right?
Wrong. Helen and I were starting from square one. We needed to take hunter’s safety, learn how to shoot a rifle (Helen had never shot a gun before and I’d only taken a couple cracks at a .22 the year before), and get as fit as we possibly could if we wanted to tackle the terrain of the Montana wilds. We had our work cut out for us.
Eleven months later, decked out in full camo, Helen and I sat in the backseat of our production vehicle driving up to the base of the Sweetgrass Hills near the Montana-Canadian border just looking at each other and thinking, “What the hell did we get ourselves into? How did they let us get away with this?”
In total honesty, our experience was nothing at all like what we’d imagined it would be. For four days, those seemingly-innocent-from-a-distance “hills” were our home, and what an unwelcoming home it was. Below-freezing temperatures, howling forty mile-per-hour winds, steep slopes and treacherous, rocky scree slides imparted to me that this was a place where I did not belong.
Over those four days, I pushed myself to limits I never thought I’d reach. I was sick, cold and both physically and emotionally exhausted. And it was all captured on camera for a national audience. It’s hard not to feel like a diva when you’re experiencing those intense emotions with a camera trained directly at your face. As a producer or a camera operator, you zoom in closer and whisper to yourself, “More, more, MORE!” But sitting there on the other side of the lens, you find yourself wanting to shove that sucker right up the camera op’s butt and shout that tired reality show line, “Get those ****ing cameras out of my face!”
In the end, though, I’m happy I went on the hunt and I’m happy that I did it for the MeatEater audience. From the very beginning, I’ve wanted to do this show for two main reasons: one was to prove that real women hunters deserve some spotlight instead of all the sex-pot huntresses you see plaguing most outdoor shows today; and the other brings it back to the food. Since working on the show, I’ve had this nagging refrain playing in the back of my head:
If I’m going to eat meat, I need to take responsibility for acquiring it myself at least once in my life. And by doing it on MeatEater, hopefully I can encourage other non-hunters to feel the same desire to get out there and give it a shot themselves.
So my challenge to all of you experienced hunters out there is to do two things: every year, take out one new hunter with you and feed wild game to someone who has never tried it before. The power of venison diplomacy is real and presents a strong case (among many) for getting out in the field and hunting for your own food.
I’m sincerely grateful to Steve, the MeatEater Crew and ZPZ for opening my mind to a whole new way of life and for granting me the opportunity to learn from some of the best teachers in the field.
And I can promise you that you will see me on the mountain next fall.