“The stories from these seventeen women who hunt evoke inspiration, challenge, and courage for my own next step into the field. Christine Cunningham skillfully and faithfully presents stories that open my eyes and mind to possibility.” -Pegge Erkeneff, Author
“. . . I have been delighted, intrigued, sympathetic toward, and able to personally relate to the hardships, emotions, triumphs, failures, and determination each woman has expressed in her particular hunting experience. Cunningham has done a masterful job of translating each woman’s particular experience into words which let me experience the hunt as though I were there . . .” -Howard Delo, Outdoor Writer, Alaska Fisheries Biologist (retired)
“The heartfelt family connections of these adventurous women, demonstrate the close ties we have all experienced with family members helping to shape who we are later in life. These vivid stories of exciting hunts take each of us right into the field on their adventures.” -Jerry Soukup, Hunter Information & Training Program, Alaska Department of Fish & Game
“I always enjoy hearing and reading about people getting in touch with Creation, whether it’s enjoying a walk in the woods, which often hunting is….. to the thrill of the chase, engaging all the senses, and harvesting Alaskan resources. This is a great adventure story made even more interesting personally because of knowing several of the women who shared their stories.” -Sherry Wright
Click here to read the Women’s Outdoor News inteview with author Christine Cunningham.
Click here to read the WomenHunters.com press release about the book. Christine is a board member and staff writer for this organization.
Click here to read Merrill Sikorski’s interview with Christine in the Peninsula Clarion.
Women Hunting Alaska
Table of Contents
Location of the Stories
Author’s Note to Reader
Chapter 1 Sue Entsminger: Sheep 101
Chapter 2 Jehnifer Ehmann: Hunting from the Heart
Chapter 3 Charity Green: Bringing Home the Groceries
Chapter 4 Julia Heinz: A Hunt Begins with a Hike
Chapter 5 Kristy Berington: Welcoming the Rain
Chapter 6 Rebecca “Becky” Shwanke: Into the Fold
Chapter 7 Liz Schmitt: The Shoot, Shoot, Don’t Shoot Moose
Chapter 8 Jodee Kuden: Bear Country Blacktail
Chapter 9 Corey Cogdell: Tough Choice
Chapter 10 Heather Wilson: Above and Beyond
Chapter 11 Anna Norris Vorisek: Her Own Piece of Country
Chapter 12 Molly Copple: The Sportsman’s Daughter
Chapter 13 Sam Oslund: In the Shadow of Greatness
Chapter 14 Mary Lefebvre: Hunting the Icons
Chapter 15 Billie Hardy: Sunshine Girls
Chapter 16 Joyce Norman: The Fanged Squirrel
Chapter 17 Ethel Leedy: Every Animal is a Trophy
Appendix: Eternal Links
CHAPTER 1 – Sue Entsminger
Sue Entsminger was born in 1951 in Newport, Pennsylvania, where her love of nature and the outdoors began as a child on her family’s dairy farm. It was through farming and hunting that Sue’s love for the outdoors grew.
At age ten, Sue learned to hunt small game, waterfowl, and deer from her father. Even though her mother was not a hunter, she supported Sue’s love of the outdoors. Both of her parents taught her respect for wildlife and utilization of game to its fullest.
In 1973, Sue moved to Alaska for its vast wilderness and hunting potential. During the 1970’s, Sue worked as a camp cook for registered guides in the Brooks Range, and as a form-maker for Northland Taxidermy in Fairbanks, where she met her husband, Frank Entsminger.
In 1976, Frank and Sue moved south of Black Rapids Glacier, where they lost their home to fire. Frank’s hands were severely burned. He needed two months of care, and they regrouped in Fairbanks. The following spring, they settled on the Tok Cutoff where they now live. They started a trapline, catching fur, which later led to Sue’s fur business. Frank began creating wildlife bronze sculptures as a way to exercise his hands after the fire.
Sue’s creativity inspired “fur fashions” and she was quickly recognized for her self-taught talent in creating hats, mittens, parkas, mukluks, ruffs, and ear muffs. Sue and Frank travelled to shows throughout Alaska, including the Anchorage Fur Rondy, to sell their “wilderness creations,” which were inspired by their deep love of Alaska’s vast wilderness and wildlife. Later, they traveled to hunting shows in the “Lower 48.”
Since her first Dall sheep hunt with Frank in 1975, Sue has worked alongside Frank and makes from two to five backpack sheep hunts a year. Sue possesses the hard-working capabilities required of sheep hunting. Her interest in the land and the wildlife has led her to share her experiences with anyone who will follow her into the Nutzoten, Mentastas, Alaska, Brooks, and Wrangell mountains.
Sue began guiding sheep hunters as a professional guide in 1990, actively guiding youth, friends, family, and clients in hunting Dall sheep. Many will remember the image of Sue waiting patiently at the crest of a ridge as they discover for themselves the experiences that she has mastered.
Over the years, Sue served on numerous boards and committees, including the Alaska Outdoor Council (1987-1991), the Alaska State Big Game Commercial Services Board (1991-1993), the Alaska State Board of Game (1993-1996), the Federal Eastern Interior Regional Advisory Council (2001–present), and the Alaska Professional Hunters Association (2005- present), to name a few.
Beyond her tireless service on boards, Sue has served as a Hunter Education Instructor, counted and classified sheep for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, taught skin and leather sewing, and always taken the opportunity to lead others into the mountains, often for their first time.
Sue has lived without electricity since 1976, utilizing game for food and living away from people in the Mentasta Mountains south of Tok. Although she has traveled extensively throughout the State, both hunting and working—as a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, Prince William Sound, a Seiner in Norton Sound and the Cook Inlet, and as a fur dealer—Sue enjoys a self-sufficient lifestyle, living close to the land.
After taking an animal, Sue utilities every edible part including head meat, innards, and bones for soup broth. Her family eats grizzly and black bears, and Sue renders the fat for cooking. They grow a large garden and preserve their vegetables and run traplines in the winter. She spends two to three months a year afield and is a neighbor and friend to the people in Mentasta village, helping with potlatches, making dozens of leather dresses for native dancers, and sharing game meat.
Sue has spent her life exploring, learning, and sharing her love of the wilderness with others. She is a fearless and driven leader who creates an outdoor experience for those willing to follow her into the field. She is someone who has seen Alaska from its most rugged landscapes and, when she leads someone into the territory she knows by heart, it is not with a map, but with the first-hand experience that has defined her way of life. When Sue picked up the phone at her home in Tok she recognized a familiar voice on the other end of the line. It was that of a long-time registered guide in Alaska who had recently retired.
“My daughter drew a Tok sheep permit,” he told Sue.
He had spent most of his life guiding hunters in the Alaska game fields, spending time away from his family flying over the ice pack to windswept regions so remote they were said to be the place where all bad weather was manufactured. He earned his international reputation taking clients to the most dangerous and spectacular places on the face of the earth; he was a legend in his own time. Now, retired and with a grown daughter who had never hunted sheep, he wanted to be able to relax and revel in his daughter’s quest for, at least in the eyes of many, the most magnificent and difficult of all of Alaska’s trophies. He thought his daughter and Sue would get along just fine. He chose Sue to take his daughter, accompanied by himself, on a Dall sheep hunt in the coveted Tok Management Area.
They made the arrangements and he had his daughter outfitted for the hunt before flying his Cessna 206 to meet Sue in Tok. His daughter was born and raised in Alaska and, although she left the State to pursue her Masters degree in music, she had always wanted to hunt. Her father was always with clients during Alaska’s short hunting season. As a music scholar, she was a keen student, always observing, researching, and evaluating. Hunting Dall sheep would be unlike anything she had ever studied before. Her father put his faith in Sue and only wanted to be there the moment his daughter took her first ram.
Sue knew well that the Super Cub flights out to the glacier country were spectacular; she never tired of seeing this beautiful high country. Once they landed, they spotted rams right away; a group of fourteen sheep with two rams in the distance. One of the rams was pushing the “magic 40″—that 40-inch curl dedicated sheep hunters dream about someday putting on the wall. Taking a ram in the 36-inch class versus a 40-inch ram is somewhat like the difference between taking a 45-inch bull moose as opposed to a 60-incher. Both are respectable animals in anyone’s book. But a 40-inch ram or a 60-inch moose are both animals that have lived their lives to the fullest; they have fought the fights, survived the predators and the harsh winters, and their time left on earth is short. The “magic 40” is the number that separates the run-of-the-mill animal from its ideal representation in the wild.
They decided to go after the ram. Sue’s mind focused on the stalk—how to reach the rams in the distance without being seen. It was raining and there was a dense fog. Rain and fog were typical of sheep hunting, and Sue had been on many hunts in the fog. Once, she and her husband had waited two days for the fog to lift so she could see the sheep. They didn’t dare move because the sheep would see them.
“If they see you they’re gone,” Sue explained to the young woman, who had asked why they were moving so intently when the sheep were so far away. The old-hand with them knew the habits of sheep well and enjoyed standing back, watching the two women, and listening to his daughter’s questions and Sue’s answers.
Sue enjoyed the girl’s curiosity. It reminded her of herself when she first learned about the ways of sheep hunting many years ago. She had learned by asking questions as well. “The sheep can really see movement, even far away,” she explained as they climbed off the glacier, skirted around its side, then dropped off the moraines to a grassy area where they could set up their tents. “Especially if they’re bedded,” Sue added.
Once, in a year with a lot of early snow, Sue hunted sheep with her son and husband, Frank. They saw a line across the mountain where the snow and fog ended and there were sheep right at the line. By the time they spotted the sheep, they’d been seen and the sheep quickly disappeared. It was an example of “they see you, they’re gone.” Sue had other experiences where she had been sitting with no way to get to the sheep, but she could walk with the fog and the sheep never knew she was there. Fog, rain, or snow during a stalk could be a detriment or an asset. Each situation was different, and Sue relied on her instincts; no two scenarios were the same and the seemingly easy answer was often times wrong.
The young woman with her was full of questions and stayed close to Sue. Once they were across the glacier ice from the rams, they hid behind large rocks. “We’ll try to get across and beneath,” Sue said. But, with her first step on the ice, she knew the ram located them just from the sound of the crunching ice, even half a mile away. It was too risky to close the gap. She saw no way to get on the ram and aborted the stalk.
The next day, they did the whole thing over. Sue decided to try the opposite side of the glacier. There was a tremendous amount of water in the glacier’s crevasses. Sue used and recommended “plastic” boots—boots made from an industrial strength rubberized plastic material on the outside, with an inside liner. The plastics required no break-in and were very comfortable. They had the stiffness required for sheep hunting boots and the ability to put in a “glacier sock” made them serve the dual purpose of a hiking boot and a hip boot. There was always a walk through water in sheep country. In the old days, Sue and Frank walked their hard leather boots until dry. They had made many changes over the years from when they used to wear blue jeans and leather boots while sheep hunting.
When they came out of a ravine the three of them heard the whistle of a marmot. When they got up on the soft moss of the alpine country, the sheep were gone. Sue led them onward; ¬ five miles into the mountains and back. It was a long day by anyone’s measure, and especially long for the 70-year old father who had long since had his thrill of seeing the high country. “I just want to see my daughter get a ram,” he said.
For the next few days, they hunted the group of 14 sheep they had seen the first day. On the fourth day, they hiked across a glacier spur up into a drainage with glacier ice in it. Sue thought the sheep had crossed the ice and described her plan to go to where she thought they were. The young scholar listened to Sue intently with the appreciation one master has for another.
As they went down into the glacial moraines and waded through pools of water, Sue recognized it had been a long day of hiking in the 80-degree mountain sun. She also recognized that the two following her might be getting tired, but she had a job to do. She knew the sheep were on that mountain, and she would find them. She just had to find them.
“You guys can take a rest and I’ll go have a look around the corner here,” she said.
The young woman wanted to stay with Sue while she looked for the sheep. Her father put his pack down and situated himself for a short nap while the two women looked for the sheep.
Sue believed the sheep had moved.
“Why?” the girl asked.
Sue was not used to being asked so many questions. She acted on a lifetime of pursuing these magnificent animals in their mountain homes, and experience told her the sheep would find a place to get out of the hot sun. She just had to find the place the sheep had chosen that day.
The sheep had been on the mountain for four days and then they disappeared. Once the two women had crossed the glacier and gone down into the glacial valley where the sheep had once been, Sue took her time. When they walked around a giant canyon, Sue stopped.
“Why are we stopping?” the girl asked.
Sue had been looking, carefully calculating every spot where the sheep might have gone. She had glassed the glacier’s jagged edges and found a giant overhang creating a cave and shading an area from the sun. Glassing was difficult given the sunlight—the glare could cause her to miss seeing the sheep. Something had caught her eye. Sue didn’t really consider the why’s of where she looked or what she thought; as with any master of a skill, her methods were those of an artist. Her time in the mountains had refined her instincts, and she no longer had to think about the next step. It came to her as naturally as a sheep coming to a salt lick.
When she looked for sheep, she looked for the size of the animal, their color, their movement and habits, how they were placed on the field, and those golden horns of theirs. Many times they were bedded in greenery on the alpine mountainside and showed up easily, while other times they were in a snowy area where they were nearly impossible to see. Often when she was out with hunters they would say, “There’s a sheep,” and it was just the snow, having no real point of reference. They did not have an idea what the size of the sheep would be at the distance they were looking. They also didn’t know the distance or how a sheep would appear.
After so many years, Sue knew what size at what distance. She knew the size of the sheep’s neck or, if it were lying down, what it would look like in that position. They usually bedded down in the heat of the day. Looking for them, knowing they were there, and seeing their movement all happened automatically. When she stopped, she had found the sheep, and she enjoyed answering the girl’s question. It allowed Sue to become conscious of her many reasons for doing things, which were always in her mind but not often spoken.
“Why are we waiting?” the girl whispered.
“If a sheep spots you and you’re moving, they will spook and run off and take the whole group with them,” Sue said. “When you see the animal and continue hiking in front of him you risk spooking everything out of the valley.”
The two women sat still and let the sheep settle down. Once the sheep knew you were there, they would never forget about you. If they were eating, you could move a little. Sue recalled having once been within 50 yards of a full curl ram that was eating. She and her husband had watched as the ram lifted his head and looked at them, stared them down for five minutes, then went back to eating. Then, he would suddenly pick up his head again to give them that glare again. He did this five or six times. It was one of Sue’s first hunts with her husband. They had waited for each of the four rams they watched to get up—the fourth ram was the one they wanted. Sue had sat like a statue, knowing one move and they’d all be gone.
One of the rams the two women had been watching got up and stared at them. For an hour, they had watched this small ram who would disappear out of sight and then pop up again, causing them to wait. When they returned to the girl’s father, he was still napping. He joined them as they returned to where the sheep were and, for the rest of the day, wherever they went, the sheep’s eyes were on them.
When another sheep popped out in front of them, causing them to freeze again, they were growing as tired of the anxious waiting as they had of the hiking. “I just want to see my daughter get a ram,” the father said.
That night, they climbed into their tents with the sheep above them. When Sue awoke in the morning, she saw them feeding 300 yards away. There were three full curl rams in the group, but none of them were record book rams. “I don’t care about the size,” the father said. He had one reason for going on the trip, and if it wasn’t clear to Sue already, he repeated it again, “I just want to see my daughter get a ram!”
The girl climbed out of her tent, and looked at the sheep through Sue’s spotting scope. The sheep did not seem to care about the presence of the hunters so they had time to put their clothes on and get ready. The girl was steady with her rifle and took the ram with a single shot. Her father was excited and relieved. The girl had seen hundreds of photos of successful sheep hunters from her father’s guided trips over the years, and held up one finger for her first of the four North American trophy sheep.
The three hugged each other and, as they re-lived their hunt together, it occurred to Sue that in all her years hunting, if she were to count the number of successful sheep hunts she had helped hunt and pack out, this particular hunt was number one-hundred-and-one. They all laughed together as they realized something else about that particular hunt. Because of the way the girl had wanted to know so much about sheep hunting and Sue had answered so many questions, it was also “Sheep 101