My folks raised me as a child of the tundra, river, and the woods. Although my mom and dad have very little in common (except for their union which resulted in me), their mutual passion and respect for the ways of the wild will always be strong. As a testament to their belief in the importance of fresh air, feeding ourselves, and hard work, they brought me on my first moose hunt when I was three months old. Bundled in hand-sewn quilts, my folks and I flew up in poppa Jimmy’s red and white Cesssna Super Cub. We joined Granny, Poppa, Jack Robert, Olinka Yako, and Trooper Don Richardson who'd made the days-long hundreds-of-mile journey upriver in the two-story cabined 40-footer fiberglass boat to eventually arrive at Sterling Landing on the upper Kuskokwim, below McGrath. Granny carried me to the tops of the brown tundra hills as Poppa glassed the valleys below. Mom breastfed me on the water, beside hunting rifles, under changing birch trees, and in the cart of a three-wheeler on the way to Takotna. Dad carried me in a pack close to his chest, on the hunt and laid me down in the tall grass when and we smelled moose coming close. These acts of my family were at once ordinary and extraordinary. They simply raised me to be real.
I am the daughter of fish mongers, strong hunters, and mighty fishermen. Tobacco smoke and fresh and smoking salmon smells saturate most of my earliest memories. My father disregarded old cultural taboos and molded me into his (woman) hunting partner. Every August, we flew his Cessna 185 back to the Kilbuck Mountains where we walked miles of open, rolling tundra in search of migrating caribou herds. Each September, we spent a week on the Innoko River where my dad taught me to hunt moose inhabiting the low meadows and willows. I shot my first caribou at age eight. My first moose at thirteen. In learning how to provide for myself and my family I gained self-confidence, humility, patience, and the lessons of hard work.
Beyond learning how to take an animal, many little lessons came: how to stay quiet even when scared. How to swallow giggles in the field. How to butcher an animal. How to keep our tent clean. How to pee and poop outside. How to start fires in the damp, wet, cold. How to tell a good story. When to show urgency. When to go slow. How to listen to the sounds beyond the trees talking to the wind and the water. How to share your catch, to enjoy it with friends and family.
As an adult I continue to hunt. I fell in love with, then married, a man raised to be a child of the woods. He introduced me to archery hunting, elk, and deer. I introduced him to my dad’s talent of fly fishing. In the mountains of Montana we join sunrises waiting for the first bugle, chase elk at twilight, and sit in awe as herds call to each other under the stars. We bundle up and catch salmon through ice in the winter. We wade into shallow rivers to catch whitefish in the spring. We hang meat in our garage and make our own varieties of sausage. When we realized we were pregnant, we knew we would raise our baby to be a child of the woods.
We introduced Moon to the river when she was one week old. As my body healed from her birth we walked the hills, gravel bars, and meadows surrounding our town, exposing her to the sounds and smells of the clean air, water, and to listen to hear wildness around her. At one month old, we took her ground squirrel hunting with the bow and her granny. A few weeks ago, I strapped six-month Moon to my chest and we hiked into the mountains on her first elk hunt (since her birth). She knew she has been here before and was silent for the first hour, entertained by the never-ending tossing tops of tall trees. Then, the fall air energized her and by the end she babbled non-stop, notifying any and all forest creatures of her presence. Needless to say, we didn’t hear or see any elk that day. They will come, when we ask, we all know it.
We will keep taking Moon to the woods. With patience and love we will pass along the gift our families gave us. We will give her space to learn her own lessons wild places have to teach.