By guest blogger, Stephanie Vu

The first time I heard an elk bugle I thought I was going to die. I was solo overnight-ing the Pawnee-Buchanan Pass Loop in Colorado with my two dogs and had settled down for camp about 11 miles in when I heard that ubiquitous noise.  

 

Was it dying? My mind quickly raced on: What if a bear is eating it? And then, What if the bear comes after me next?

I stored my bear can far away and poked my dogs, making sure they were alive enough to at least warn me when I was about to die.

Then two elk started making the same noise, to each other. I reasoned to myself, So, two elk are dying and they’re talking while they’re dying and that means there are two bears…  

Needless to say I didn’t sleep well that night. The bugling ended around 9:00 pm and picked right back up at 3:00 am. I was wide awake and thought I should start hiking because I was awake, but then I thought, What if I run into the elk while it’s dying and a bear is eating it. So, I waited for the sunlight to peek out.

And that was my introduction to elk. I had seen them before on family vacations from the road, but had never been immersed in their conversations. I was an avid hiker, sometimes backpacker (I love my bed, but will make #sacrifices), and was terrified of guns and anything resembling a projectile weapon.  

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From top left to right: Ice climbing in Patagonia, Climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador, skiing from 13,500′ on Mt. Bierstadt, and summit of Mt. Massive in April (technically not winter, but still dang snowy 🙂 )

Fast forward to the winter season and my penchant for signing up for things that sound cool, but actually might be a little scary (see: Ice Climbing, see: Any Climbing, see: Mountaineering, see: Doing 14ers in Winter, see: Backcountry Skiing – but on a 14er) landed me in a biathlon rifle safety class. I (1) didn’t realize biathlon rifles were real guns and (2) assumed that, even if they were real guns, we would be shooting air rifles. Half way through the class I thought, Why do they keep talking about this like it’s a real gun? and then it dawned on me that during the afternoon range portion I would actually be shooting my first gun.

It’s too late to chicken out now, I told myself, and if I can down climb on a sketchy rope thing to the bottom of a gorge to ice climb while simultaneously being terrified of heights, I can do this.  The eager beavers of my group shot first, and eventually my turn came around. I shyly shuffled to the mat and the coach helped me into the prone position, then handed me his (now I know) beautiful Anshutz biathlon rifle. “I’m going to hand-load the cartridges for you,” he told me. I mentally chanted to myself, circle circle circle in reference to the sight picture I was supposed to see as I gazed ahead.

I squeezed the trigger, and it felt like nothing had happened. I was surprised at how delicate the rifle felt. “Here’s another cartridge” he said, and with that I took my second shot.  

“Huh,” the coach checked his binoculars. “I think you’re shooting on the paper, scoot the rifle over to the right.” So again, I mentally chanted circle circle circle, and squeezed the trigger.

Plink. I had hit my first target and a wave of adrenaline and excitement washed over me. “You got it!” I heard a couple of people shout to me. I continued shooting and hitting more targets. After the clinic, several people told me to stick with it and that they hoped to see me at future races.  

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Biathlon involves shooting and skiing. Biathletes alternate skiing a lap and shooting 5 targets in a round.

From there, I went on to face other fears.  Within a year I had shot a hunting rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun. Eventually, my fiancee, Alex, casually mentioned to me that he wanted to hunt elk. By then I had tried elk and found it to be delicious, and with my newfound sense of ‘Yes, I can shoot a rifle and possibly hunt’, I said, “Me, too.”

I have always had an interest in where my food came from. For two and a half years I was a vegetarian. I was frustrated that I couldn’t trace the path that the beef I was eating had taken to arrive on my plate, and eventually decided that if I couldn’t kill my own meat that I shouldn’t eat it. I had wanted to hunt, but I was terrified of guns. Shooting the .22cal rifle that day opened more than just the biathlon world to me – it also led me to a world of hunting.

I knew we had a long road ahead of us and I dove in. I originally planned to rifle hunt. Even though I was no longer afraid of guns, I was afraid of bows, and so I began researching two hunting trips – rifle for me, and bow for Alex. Theoretically, I knew bows were less dangerous than guns (still dangerous, nonetheless), but the deep rooted fear of anything “not safe” with a potential to maim or kill had me frightened. I had also never tried to shoot a bow, and a fear of the unknown kept me away for months. However, the more I researched and read about bow hunting, the more intrigued I became. Not only would I be in the woods with elk, I would be immersed in elk. Finally, one day in April I asked Alex if he would take me bow shooting.

Alex took me to his home range, Rocky Mountain Specialty, where a salesperson, Mike, handed me my first compound bow and coached me through my first shot. Much like shooting a biathlon rifle, I was nervous and shaking, but listened closely and carefully to what Mike was telling me. Feet shoulder width apart, nock my arrow, clip my release, push and pull the bow, then when I was ready, release. And just like biathlon, I realized it wasn’t so bad, and found myself bringing home my weapon of choice.  

Up to 43 lb draw weight! I'm about 10lbs away from my goal.

A post shared by Stephanie Vu (@colobreeze) on

At 29 years old, this was my first year hunting. Learning how to hunt and shoot can be overwhelming. As a new shooter, a million things race through my mind each time – am I being safe, am I nocking (setting) my arrow correctly, am I drawing the bow correctly? Physically, I started off at a very low draw weight, far below the 20 lb legal draw weight to hunt – the draw weight being the force required to pull the bow back, and, thus, the energy stored within the bow before release. I knew I had a long road ahead of me if I wanted to reach a high 40’s/low 50’s draw weight. As a new hunter, I also had many logistical questions about elk hunting – where do I start, how do I read the maps, where do elk go, where do other hunters go? Then on top of learning how to hunt and shoot, I needed to learn how to call elk, how to electronically scout via satellite images and google earth, how to scout in real life, how pack my day pack, how to put together a kill pack, and how to quarter an elk. Sometimes it seemed like there was not enough information, and other times there was too much information for me to process. This season taught me a lot about elk, but even more about myself, and has forced me to reflect on how I react to difficult situations.

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When I couldn’t make it to the range (which was often), I would shoot in my carport right after work.

I tend to live in the extremes of my emotions, and often feel defeated when I encounter setbacks tend. In training, I started off strong, practicing my bow every day, and dedicating a few hours to developing all of the other skills that I needed, such as navigating property boundaries and the woods. I quickly realized that I needed to adapt to a different style of hunting than what I had originally envisioned. No backpack hunting this year – rather, the most difficult part would be finding a parking spot that wasn’t already occupied by another hunter. I also set and reset several rules for myself: Don’t shoot past 20 yards, Only shoot broadside, Take any legal elk.

With a newfound sense of direction, Alex and I set off for our first scouting trip. We saw no animals. I knew this was to be expected as we were so new to everything, but it still disheartened me. Then I came home and, having not shot my bow for a few days, I found that I needed to lower my draw weight. I sobbed, overcome by the pressure of the rapidly-approaching hunting season and feeling like the months I had spent building my strength were a waste. Over the past few months I had spent almost every day for an hour or two shooting dozens and dozens of arrows. I would set up my target at five yards in my carport, turn on some music, and get to work until shooting arrows at the current draw weight until it felt easy. At the rate I was going, I increased my draw weight by 2-3 lbs every two weeks. Having to lower my draw weight after that first scouting trip crushed me and made me question whether I was capable of hunting at all.  

That moment made me realize that I have felt this way about many things in my life. From working as an engineer to then practicing as a patent attorney, I found myself doubting my abilities over and over. Fellow engineering students or engineers would never hesitate to volunteer in the mechanical engineering lab or to take a new project assignment at work. When a patent attorney would offer me a new project, I would hesitate, even if just for a second, to contemplate my abilities. I realized the problem was not unique to me – in my biathlon rifle safety class, the men would jump ahead to shoot, while the woman next to me and I discussed whether we would be good at it. The phenomenon has been widely studied, and I found it very well applied to me.

In an internal report, Hewlett Packard found that, “men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them”. While this often-cited statistic needs to be considered within the specific context of HP, it does highlight a key difference in the ways that men and women may perceive their respective abilities – a gap that has significant, tangible ramifications for women in terms of career advancement and financial success. Describing her research ing The Atlantic, Katty Kay writes, that “compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.” Kay goes on to note that, “success… correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence.  No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels.” Kay suggests that one possible cause of this gender gap in confidence is the way that girls are taught to value perfection and to abhor failure, whereas boys learn resilience and to take failures in stride. Kay outlines how this socialization can occur during childhood:

“‘Girls seem to be more easily socialized,’ Dweck says. ‘They get a lot of praise for being perfect.’ In turn, they begin to crave the approval they get for being good… the result is that many girls learn to avoid taking risks and making mistakes. This is to their detriment: many psychologists now believe that risk taking, failure, and perseverance are essential to confidence-building. Boys, meanwhile, tend to absorb more scolding and punishment, and in the process, they learn to take failure in stride. “When we observed in grade school classrooms, we saw that boys got eight times more criticism than girls for their conduct,” Dweck writes in Mindset. Complicating matters, she told us, girls and boys get different patterns of feedback. ‘Boys’ mistakes are attributed to a lack of effort,’ she says, while “girls come to see mistakes as a reflection of their deeper qualities.'”

Similarly, I never thought I could do something unless I had a rule or someone else to support me. I didn’t say to myself, I got this! but rather, Am I allowed to do this? or Am I capable of performing this task? It has taken years of putting myself through challenges, whether it’s hiking to 19,000 feet or crossing a crevasse-laced field as part of a roped team, before I realized that I am capable. I often look back on those times to remind myself that I can face the next challenge ahead of me.

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Scouting success on our second scouting trip.

After I allowed myself to feel the stress and sadness of lowering my draw weight, I moved forward. I adapted and changed strategies for our second weekend of scouting.  Instead of setting up camp and driving in the day before, we would go light and fast and sleep in the car. The second weekend of scouting, we not only saw one elk (which I was super excited to see), but also saw turkeys, a moose and her calf, a bear, and a couple of mule deer. I was doing something right, it seemed, but then I realized that getting to the spots where we were seeing these animals would be a rough pack out that I wasn’t sure I could make – pack out being the process of carrying the pieces of the animal out after it has been quartered. Depending on the animal, the weight of one’s pack can be anywhere from 50 to 150 lbs and can take two to three trips with two people to complete. Thus, I added another new rule – don’t shoot unless the pack out isn’t too difficult. While we were out, we ran into two other hunters that were scouting, who were surprised to see us this far back in the woods, more surprised to hear about the animals we had seen, and even more surprised to hear it was our first year. “You’re in for a world of surprises,” one of them told me.

Going into my first year of hunting felt incredibly overwhelming and I know it will take several seasons to feel comfortable and confident in my abilities, but one of the biggest lessons I’m learning, and will continue to learn over and over is – I can do this.

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One of my first hunts, waiting to see if anything responds to our elk calls.

Sources Cited

Clark, Nancy. “Act Now to Shrink the Confidence Gap.” Forbes. April 28, 2014. Web.

Kay, Katty. “The Confidence Gap.” The Atlantic. May 2014. Web.

Mohr, Tara Sophia. “Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They are 100% Qualified.” Harvard Business Review. August 25, 2014. Web.

Want to read more from Stephanie? Check out her new blog, Colobreeze_Hunts

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