By Christine Cunningham, Woman’s Outdoor News
My home town in Alaska was first discovered by the Kenaitze people, a branch of the nomadic hunters of Alaska’s boreal forest. Their migrations intersected the harvest cycles of fish and caribou, and respect for all life forms informed their belief system. To the Kenaitze, a successful hunt depends not just on the skill of the hunter but on the “will” of the bird, fish or animal harvested. The Kenaitze word for the hunting-partner relationship is selden. The hunting partner not only assists with the hunt, but also is considered family. We don’t celebrate the anniversary of the modern hunting-partner relationship, or categorize it in a census, but it is an important partnership in the life of any hunter for many of the same reasons the Kenaitze value is important.
The list of practical reasons for having a hunting partner is long. A partner can help pack in or pack out a variety of things. He or she brings an extra set of eyes, ears and skills. If a hunting partner is at a different level of physical ability, however, it can limit options for both parties. If one hunter is in sheep-shape and wants to run a marathon for game, it can frustrate a hunter who has a shorter stride or lacks the same physical conditioning.
For me, hunting has pushed my physical capabilities to a new level. Hunting with someone who is more physically capable than me has improved my ability as a shooter, hiker and packer. While two people may appear to be at different physical levels, their shared intensity an important consideration in a partnership. Some hunters prefer a slower, more methodical approach. My hunting partner is always the one to insist we go a bit farther or stay a bit longer. It’s in this extra time I wouldn’t have spent afield that everything happens.
Janet Pasternak started hunting 3 years ago after joining the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman Alaskaprogram. During her 3rd hunting season, she joined with a novice female hunter and a more experienced friend for a caribou hunt. While Janet was the better shooter, her 2 companions were more physically fit, and the party separated in the field. Janet spent the day searching for them. The next morning, Janet took a caribou with the skills she’d learned. She was surprised when one of her partners told her, “That was my caribou you shot! I never want to go hunting with you again!” No matter what she did, Janet was unable to smooth things over and ended up leaving the hunt early. “It was the worst experience of my life,” Janet says. She now chooses her hunting partners more wisely.
“There needs to be a fair understanding of who is going to shoot first, especially for big game,” advises Alaska big-game guide Emily Schock, of Silvertip Aviation. Emily advocates for a fair system of deciding the “first right of refusal” on hunts. Hunting partners who have spent a lot of time in the field together may have a mutual understanding based on their shared experiences. A particular shot opportunity may be better suited to one partner than another, for instance. In duck hunting, a party may designate someone as the “shot caller,” and discuss lanes of fire in advance. Communication is key.
Alaska hunter Kaasan Braendel ,of Nin Ridge Guides, is proud of the hard work that goes into sheep hunting. She looks for mental toughness and good conditioning in a partner. She also looks for someone with a healthy sense of adventure. “I do prefer people who have a passion for the outdoors. Not so much the killing part as the overall experience,” said Kaasan.
If one person took a month off work and is committed to the hunt of a lifetime and the other person is glad to go along but is also looking to find edible mushrooms, there might be a problem. Passion is not just about commitment and engagement; some of us are exploring and some of us are blazing trails. The level of passion can be the same, but the purpose of the passion can include motivations as diverse as learning, teaching, limiting out, finding a trophy or enjoying time afield. There’s nothing better than a shared passion with purpose.
As much as personal compatibility can be gauged in a matrix of answers to psychological questions, what works or doesn’t work in a hunting partner is more a matter of fit than form. Anyone who has spent a hunt looking down the barrel of another person’s gun or watching her fellow hunter violate a personal code of conduct knows what it means to say, “He’s a great guy, but I’d never hunt with him.”
A biologist friend once shared a good piece of advice when I asked him about shooting drakes only, or shooting the first or last duck in a flock. “There are no value judgments in nature,” he said. He described the various types of restraint he’d heard bird hunters put on themselves —only shooting birds on the wing, shooting drakes only, avoiding shooting certain species or mated pairs. These restraints are not game laws, but come from personal value judgments. A hunting partner often shares these views, but even if they are not shared, they must be respected.
The relationship between hunting partners is an intimate one to the Kenaitze. It’s a relationship that includes inheritance and other rights normally reserved for wives. Physical and mental qualities are important, but to truly share the experience of mountaintops and river deltas, a hunting partner must possess a unique quality to find those same places.
One of the qualities I look for in a hunting partner is a sense of humor; in many ways, they’re the same things I look for in a best friend. In the terms of regular relationships, this list of criteria encompasses physical, mental and spiritual qualities, but a true hunting partner can’t be found on a list. It just happens. Alone in a duck blind at last light, you turn to your left or your right, and the person on the bench next to you is your favorite person in the world.