There must have been a couple of big rocks stashed somewhere in my backpack, someone’s idea of a joke. That’s all I could imagine because, seriously, I was struggling. Halfway up Killer Hill, a steep grade above Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, I forced one leaden foot in front of the other as I moved toward the lookout from which I could observe sandhill cranes in the lakebed below. The climb was never easy, but suddenly it seemed impossible, prompting sweat and fatigue and even nausea. I could hardly even feel the crisp spring breeze that normally would have buoyed me up the trail. Finally, I had to stop, rest the spotting scope and its tripod on a stump, and drop the pack from my shoulders to check out its contents. Binoculars, field notebook. No rocks. Planting my hands on my knees, I bent over with a sigh. Morning was waning, and at this rate, there was no way I was going to catch up.
A ringing chorus erupted from the valley floor. Cranes were trumpeting a day-breaking territorial announcement to anybody who’d listen, and I knew they would venture out into plain sight for just a fleeting hour before the heat of the day set in and pushed them back into the cover of trees and brush until dusk. I had to get up to that lookout, above the wall of fir that obscured my view, while the birds were still flaunting their brightly-colored leg bands for me to see through the scope. Those bands were key to revealing all kinds of important information: which individuals had returned from seasons past, who was mating with whom, and where the pairs were establishing nests. I had to get my data; that was the whole reason I was scaling Killer Hill at all.
Just then, I spied a little nutshell between my boots, cupped open to the sky. I sat down in the dirt and picked it up. It was an acorn shell from an Oregon white oak, barely big enough to sit atop my pinkie finger. As I studied it and tried to quell the ache in my gut, some latent voice of instinct spoke up, and a most peculiar thought began to take shape in my brain: I’m pregnant. Pregnant? Even though I could hardly fathom it, I knew right then that it was true, without so much as a plus sign on a plastic test strip as evidence. And the funny thing was that I wasn’t particularly shocked or terrified at the realization in spite of the fact that this event was something, if anything, I’d planned against all my life. Somehow, sitting there in the wilds of southern Washington with Mt. Adams rising up across the valley with her own fiery volcanic seed in her belly, it was almost like I’d just let myself in on a special secret, and since nobody in all the world-not even my husband-knew this secret yet but me, I was free to just simply revel for a moment in the sweet surprise of it. The wee bud inside me might be just about the size to fit in the acorn shell, I thought.
Eventually, I stood up, dusted off my jeans, and shrugged the pack on again. I took a deep breath and tried not let myself consider the impact that all of this would have on my work. I’d spent the better part of six years breaking in my identity as a field biologist. It was just getting comfy-soft and form-fitting like a good pair of boots. This was where I wanted to be, out here in the middle of nowhere with more bears and sharp-shinned hawks in earshot than people by far. Wilderness had seeped in through my pores and found fertile ground where it could spread root and flourish. I wasn’t ready to leave, not now, not ever. But, my concern seemed a bit premature. After all, I hadn’t actually seen a plus sign yet. The day was still young, the cranes were still calling, and I had a job to do. I tucked the tiny nutshell into my pocket and continued on up the hill.
As it turned out, I was pregnant with my first daughter, and it did take some getting used to. But once I’d settled into the course of change, and once I finally got the nerve to spill the news to the guys I worked with, I understood that I didn’t have to spend the next eight months in a housedress with my bare feet propped up; I could still wade wetlands, wield a machete, and hike Killer Hill-just a bit more slowly. And even though I would stay home to raise my baby, I wasn’t sentenced to leave the wild when I delivered her. How could I possibly leave it? Wilderness was my identity, ground in deep like dirt within the rings of my fingerprints. And it wasn’t simply because I’d walked its woody paths or dipped into its sacred water; it was because I’d gritted my teeth, pulled muscles, worn blisters, and exhausted myselfworking in it. My blood, sweat, and tears had grown akin to pinesap, elk musk, and rain. And so it really wasn’t until I became a mother that I learned that wilderness was not just the place where I worked, nor can it be bound by any kind of strict definition like distances to roads or the diversity of creatures within. Wilderness is a state of mind that so many of us enjoy in places, expansive or small, that still harbor elements of nature in its native condition. This mindset is a vital part of who I am, of who my children will be-thanks, in large part, to having spent my formative years immersed in the untamed outdoors. No ordinary job that I know of could offer such a durable sort of sustenance.
In 1980, eminent wildlife ecologist Anne LaBastille published a groundbreaking collection of historical observations and contemporary profiles called Women and Wilderness, which documented the burgeoning phenomenon of women living and working in the wild. “Across our continent, women are entering the traditionally male bastions of wilderness work and life,” LaBastille wrote. “Sometimes alone, sometimes with families, they are proving beyond doubt that women do have wilderness in them.”
And, indeed, they do-now more than ever. Twenty-five years after LaBastille broached the subject, I set out to assemble an unprecedented anthology of writing by modern women who have abandoned the bounds of society to earn a living in a wide spectrum of outdoor professions and who could attest, in their own words, to their proclivity for wild work. I sent out a call for stories to myriad individuals and organizations, a few of which included the Outdoor Writers Association of America, Women in Natural Resources, Women in Fire Service, Women in Fisheries, The National Wild Turkey Federation, and The Wildlife Society. My criteria for submissions were unrestricted, leaving room for interpretation by women in every imaginable wilderness-oriented occupation-the wilder and more remote, the better. I encouraged lively, engaging tales that revealed something about a woman’s relationship to wilderness within the context of her job. The experiences could be funny, tragic, harrowing, enlightening; any subject was fair game. Of particular interest were the influences that led women to wilderness work, the ways nature has affected them, and the ways they feel they have affected nature.
In response to my request, A Mile in Her Boots bloomed, offering the collective expression of thirty women who have ingrained themselves in the natural world as a way of life. Their professions are varied, ranging from smoke jumping to biology, river-running to professional falconry, horse-packing to atmospheric science, and more. Some of the contributors are well-established authors, while others are new to the literary world, but all present compelling tales of their experiences afield.
As you wind your way through the book, you’ll get to know this diverse and intriguing group of women, each of whom extends her hand and welcomes you to explore the rough-hewn details of her trade. Rescue a nest of hatchling sea turtles amid a swarm of nude bathers on a Hawaiian beach with Judy Edwards; fire up a chainsaw and buck fallen trees with Ana Maria Spagna in the Washington rainforest; fish for a little trouble with MaryJane Butters, one of the first female backcountry rangers hired by the U.S. Forest Service; set out spur-of-the moment to a remote Pacific archipelago to study lizards with Maggie McManus; track a pair of fugitive Montana mountain men with Susan Marsh; and keep moving on, as fire lookout Karla Theilen urges in her gripping story of survival. Twenty-seven more adventures await.
Each experience in this collection is unique and each perspective deeply personal, but the creed is the same throughout: we choose to work outdoors because the wild is unshakable in us. We are what we do. It’s not about showing up the guys we work with or even trying to fill their size-12 Danners®; it’s about the pure feat of breaking ground within ourselves. As Deborah McArthur so determinedly writes in the luminous final essay of the book, “We know who we are. We’re wilderness women.”
Come, turn the page, and walk a mile in our boots.
Sample Chapter: Camp Cookie Packs Up and Goes Home
by Nancy Stevens
There’s been no rain, much less snow, since March. Each hoofbeat of each horse and mule kicks up a mini explosion of trail dust that merges into a Pig Pen cloud enveloping the packstring, hunters, and guides. Me, I’m riding drag, the outfit’s new camp cook. This will be the best part of my day. Later, I will actually have to, as the job description implies, cook.
New-job jitters have kept me sleepless for two nights, and if it weren’t for choking on trail dust, I might doze off on top of old Grouchy. Grouchy was a chestnut when we started out from base camp, but now, along with the blacks and bays and grays, he’s gone claybank.
One of the hunters is shooting photos. They will be monochromes, I think, like blank sheets of parchment paper, or maybe they’ll develop all in sepia and we will be captured there in a dusty time warp image: “Packing in to Elk Camp, Turn of Century.”
One of the New Jersey hunters twists around in his saddle to talk to me. I grin, risking grit-filmed teeth.
He has his kerchief tied over his nose and mouth and his eyes are hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. Ray-Ban bandanna bandito. “Hey, Cookie, what’s for supper?” he calls.
My grin dries up. Anyone who knows me knows I can’t cook, and the only reason I do cook is so I can work with the stock. Fortunately, no one here knows me.
It’s a family legend, my fear of frying. I’ve worked five seasons of fishing trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana as a wrangler, cook, and sometimes packer, and I haven’t poisoned anyone yet, but that’s not been enough to convince me I can cook. Most of the food has been prepared back in civilization by real cooks, and I just heat it up.
But here in hunting camp, I will have to cook from scratch and bake apple pies in a little converted propane barbequer. I have never baked an apple pie before and am convinced the propane oven will blow up in my face. I’ve already heard horror stories from the other cook, who works a different camp. She lit a match to a propane leak. Foom! Her face only blistered up a little.
It’s 6 P.M. when we reach camp—three canvas wall tents and an electric horse corral. I’m longing to help unsaddle, unmanly and feed the stock, but I sigh and force- march myself into the cook tent, the boss on my boot heels. My mouth gapes open as I survey my domain.
Trail dust like a volcanic explosion of buckwheat pancake flour coats the Last Supper-sized table, the stoves, the kettles, the buckets, the Coleman lanterns, the canned goods. True grit.
“Oh, Lawdy-do!” I hear myself croaking. I’ve never before used that expression and wonder whence it came. Maybe I’m channeling some long-dead grouchy camp cookie who expired in a fiery foom of propane gas.
“You aren’t going to quit on me, are you?” the boss asks. It hadn’t really occurred to me, but once uttered, it seems an appealing suggestion. I picture myself escaping on foot, dragging my saddle and a fifty-pound duffel bag.
I resign myself to cook-tent captivity, and throw myself into cleaning, unpacking grub, toting water from the creek and frying chicken in a cast-iron skillet. The famished guides and four hunters wander in and out to check on my progress. I’ve built a fire in the woodstove, and each visitor seems to have a different idea of how the stovepipe damper should be set. It dawns on me over the next month of my servitude that there are no TV remote controls in elk camp, thus the men are forced to fiddle with the damper instead.
It’s after 10 P.M. by the time I’ve finished the dishes. One guide takes pity on me and helps make a dozen sandwiches for tomorrow’s lunch. Each person has marked his preferences on a sandwich order form—a little square of paper that lists bread, cheese, condiment and meat choices, peanut butter and jelly. The boss has already instructed me on how to construct the PB&J sandwich. “Lots of peanut butter, on both pieces of bread. Jelly in the middle.” He must have heard I can’t cook.
I let the guide make the meat sandwiches whilst I plaster great gobs of Jif onto bread. I wonder if I should smear peanut butter on both sides of both pieces of bread, but restrain myself. My eyelids are drooping but I keep on slathering. PB&J sandwiches take on rocket science complexity. Back in my summer job in Montana, everyone made his own lunch each morning. I have been spoiled, I guess, but I still think it’s a fine idea and a good general philosophy of life: You make your own sandwich, then you eat it. Or not.
The guide and I retire to our cots by 11 P.M. I reek of Jif and trail dust. “You know,” I venture, now that the boss is not in earshot, “I don’t know what I am doing here. I hate getting up early and I hate to cook.”
Bill—at least three of the guides are named Bill, making sandwich orders an even murkier nightmare—nearly falls out of his cot laughing. I hadn’t intended to be funny, but I have to laugh, too. What am I doing here? I don’t get to so much as saddle a horse. The other cook has warned me off ever “doing the guys’ work for them.” Packing and wrangling are what I love, but this outfit wants nothing but a kitchen witch. Well, maybe I’ll finally learn to cook.
I lie awake all night, anticipating the 3:45 wake up.
That makes three nights without sleep. Then I’m up building fires, lighting lanterns, mixing hot cakes, and frying spuds, bacon, and eggs. I haul water, make coffee, set the table. The hunters stagger in, wolf it all down, stuff ten-pound peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches into their packs and set out into the morning darkness, a two-hour ride from where they will wait for the dawn and the elk.
I wash the dishes, then go back to bed—the greatest privilege of the cook. But I’m restless and up again soon, splitting kindling, baking muffins and a cake (the oven has not blown up yet!), peeling spuds, making more sandwiches (I’m horrified to see an imminent paucity of peanut butter), putting an elk roast in, filling the temperamental white gas lanterns and trying to swab some of the dust off the pots and tablecloth. I dust and damp wipe over and over and still produce rivulets of mud everywhere.
I’m in a critical stage making supper when Piggy the mule busts down the corral gate. I turn off my boiling pots and sprint outside. I head off the rest of the stock and secure the gate, but Piggy is history, a one-mule stampede on her way to base camp. I’m itching to track her down, but I trudge back to tend supper. Some Bill or other will find the Pig eventually. I’m upset over the runaway mule, but still, the brief stint of corralling horses is the highlight of my long day.
The starving hunters return after dark, homing in on the lanterns I’ve lit and hung for them. They troop in, adjust the damper, jabber about the elk they’ve seen. No bulls yet, but everything is rosy anticipation. My elk roast dinner is a ravenous success. After more dishes and breakfast prep, I fall into my cot and announce to the Bill who shares the cook tent with me, “This is probably heresy in the state of Idaho, but I hate spuds. I hate to peel ’em. I hate to cook ’em, and I hate to eat ’em.”
Bill by now is beginning to think I’m the strangest kind of camp cook the boss has ever hired. We swap a couple Montana wrangling stories, I cheer up some and as I’m finally drifting off to sleep, I think of a line from “Camp Granada” (Hello mother, hello father): I’ve been here one whole day!
By day seven, I’ve baked my first apple and peach pies, lost ten pounds and run out of Jif. The boys have bagged one elk and everyone’s pretty happy, even the boss, who orders me never, ever to say again that I can’t cook—those pies were blue ribbon quality But he can’t resist adjusting the damper a tad, and then he says, “I know you’re going to tell me I told you to make ’em that way, but those peanut butter sandwiches of yours have way too much peanut butter on ’em and not enough jam. A person can’t hardly swallow ’em.”
“I told you I can’t cook,” I mutter, but not so he could hear me.
On day eight, I ride out to base camp with Bill. He even lets me lead a packhorse. A light snow has settled the dust, and I’m free of the cook tent, breathing clean snowy air. We hit base camp, and I jump in to help Bill unpack and unsaddle the mules. Whoopee, he doesn’t tell me not to.
“Nancy, you get up here and sort through your coolers and quit doing the guys’ work for them!”—this from the other cook, who is screeching at me from the cook shack.
I sigh. Lucy Ricardo had less trouble getting to sing down at Ricky’s club.
For my second hunt, the boss ships me out with a lanky guide named Bob, two hunters and yet another Bill-guide.
Thus freed of direct boss pressure and peanut butter anxiety, I relax several notches and have a fine time trading packing stories with Bob on the steep climb up an old mining road toward yet another 8,000-foot-high hunting camp. The spudhead packers of Idaho call us Montana wranglers “flatlanders.” When Bob learns I can pack, he perks up and says I can help pack water up to our camp. It’s about a half-mile trip down to the water from the tents to a spring that they’ve rigged with black pipe and a water trough.
The other cook has warned me about this. “It is the guys’ job to pack the water up.” Fortunately, the other cook is far away and can’t spoil my fun.
My second day in camp, I team up with Chief, a pig- eyed Appaloosa. I lead him down to the water, slowly fill four water jugs from the hose, lift them into Chief’s pannier, and pack ’em to camp. I pay Chief off in apples and everyone is happy, especially Bill, who gets out of water duty.
Our two hunters are doctors, which I find comforting until I find out they are an anesthesiologist and a dermatologist. “Swell,” I mutter, “if anyone gets a terminal case of acne and needs to be put to sleep, we’ll be in good shape.”
At supper one night, the two docs and the two guides launch off on a discussion of childbirth, epidurals, and how long their wives were in labor, etc., ad nauseam, followed by an exchange of baby photos. This blessed-without-children tomboy hides behind the dishpans and wishes for a change of subject. Some macho hunt camp this turned out to be.
Despite a corneal infection from an old scratch, the dermatologist downs an elk the third day of the hunt. His eye injury, compounded by the smoke and dust of living in a wall tent, is acting up so much that he and his partner decide they’d better call the hunt off and ride out to town. Bill packs them and the elk out, and Bob rides over to the boss’s camp for instruction. I have one blessed night alone in camp. I don’t have to cook, and for the first time since I arrived I have time to read a book and look at the stars. The trees set in close and to the north so that I can’t see the Big Dipper, and I feel I’m in a foreign land where the constellations are all wrong. Mick is the only horse left in the corral, and he whinnies long and lonesome through the night. I get up every two hours to check on him and slip him a flake of hay.
We are both happy to see Bob and the mule string ride up in the morning. The boss has sent orders to break camp. Yahoo! I get out of four days of cooking and can finally do something I’m good at. In my summer job, we have a progressive camp and have to move most every day. I throw myself into dismantling cots with such energy that tall Bob tells me to slow down. We’ve got two days to get the job done.
We start cutting the hay ropes that hold the guide tent to the poles. I’m hacking away with my dull Leatherman, telling myself to be careful and not cut myself, when from the other side of the tent, Bob hollers and cusses and sends me for the first-aid kit. I fetch it and Bob appears, holding his bleeding arm.
“What did you do?”
“Cut myself,” he understates. He has a hole in his left forearm about two inches across and one inch deep. “Is that a tendon, do you think?” he asks quite calmly as he peers into the wound.
I bend my head over the gash. “Yeah, I think it is,” I say, a lot calmer than I feel. Most of my pathetically inadequate first-aid training goes galloping out of my mind. About all I can remember is kiss it and make it better, but I figure Bob will slug me if I try that one.
“Get the Clorox,” Bob says. It’s bite the bullet time. Bob washes his filthy hands as best as he can, while I pour hot water and Clorox into the washbasin. I dig out a roll of gauze and some antiseptic ointment and offer Bob what might be a sterile cotton ball to swab with.
Bob and I wrap up the wound and make nervous jokes about how his elk-gutting knife probably didn’t have too many germs on it. I inquire about his last tetanus shot. He’s current but says he’d like to get to a doctor that night and so there’s a change in plans. We’ll pack what we can and ride. He puts his arm in a sling to keep himself from using it. I’ll have to help him pack the mules.
I work hard to keep a delirium of glee from spreading across my face. Bob might take it wrong that I’m delighted to be doing something more glamorous than cutting eyes out of spuds.
Bob sits down and gets real quiet. His face looks pale under the beard, and I’m thinking maybe he’s fixing to faint. “Are you O.K.?” I ask.
“I’m thinking,” Bob says. He’s planning his loads—how much gear can we pack out on six mules, what’s going to balance with the guide tent, etc. I grin with relief. I’m glad to be packing, but I don’t much want to have to pack Bob’s six-foot-six carcass out as one of the loads.
We both fly into dismantling cots, tables, and guide tent. I manty a couple loads, reveling in the half hitches and packer knots. It’s like coming home for me, or discovering a common language in a foreign country. Bob gets more done with one arm than most folks could with two, but he leaves much of the rope pulling to me. I grin up at him. “I bet you’re glad I’ve been on a pack trip before.”
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
We carry heavy tent poles and lean them against trees to keep them out of the weather. “Excuse my pits,” Bob drawls as we shoulder into a tree trunk, staggering under the weight of a ridgepole. I don’t know if he’s trying to cheer up himself or me.
I box up the kitchen dishes while Bob packs the food, then we both tackle the leftover cheesecake and pudding pie. “Too bad I can’t use both hands,” Bob complains as he crams dessert down his craw and licks Cool Whip out of his moustache.
Finally we’re ready to load the mules. Bob provides a lot of right-handed muscle, while I do the basket hitches and rope tightening. My elbows get to flying, I’m having so much fun. “Am I in your way?” Bob inquires.
“Not at all,” I assure him. By 4 P.M. we’re loaded and in the saddle, each pulling a string of three mules. I’m glad Bob is out front so I no longer have to keep stifling the big grin that keeps plastering itself to my face. I’m on a horse with a mule’s lead rope in my hand—and I’m home already.
I don’t care if we ever get to base camp.
A warm breeze blows up out of the canyon, like some summer twilight miracle in November. Before darkness descends, Bob points out three different groups of elk and I grin and nod, yes, I see them.
Our loads are well balanced and will go the distance. We dismount to walk the steep parts—and it’s all steep—so we’re walking for miles in the dusk, then in the dark, until all I can see are the sparks from the mule shoes in front of me. And the stars. No moon, no snow. Just blackness, sparks, and galaxies. I could step off a cliff and land in the Big Dipper, which has appeared over the mountains like a skillet to the head.
“There’s the Big Dipper,” Bob calls out, as if he knows I’ve been missing it.
“It’s beautiful!” I call back over the mule ears. I spread my arms, hum and dance down the old mining road like a fiddler on the roof of the world, and I’m damn glad Bob can’t see the lunatic lady packer who is homing in on the hoofbeats and sparks of his mule string.
A five-hour pack out and another hour of unloading, unsaddling, and feeding the stock at base camp, and no one around to squawk at me for “doing the guys’ work.”
As we unsaddle in the lamplight, on opposite sides of the last mule, Bob says, “I know a lot of young men who would have been whining hours ago.”
“Shoot, I’m having a ball,” I say, certifying myself as crazy as a coot.
One-armed Bob hasn’t done any whining either, and now he’s off down the road in his pickup for the seventy-five-mile drive to the Salmon emergency room. I’m all alone at base camp, but too high to sleep. I start hatching a story about how I stabbed Bob for criticizing my home fries. Yessir, I like it. Bring on the next hunt. No one will ever gripe about my peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches again.
Nancy Stevens is a freelance writer and freelance wrangler/packer/cook for various outfitters in Montana and Idaho. She has an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Montana. She lives in Corvallis, Montana with several horses and mules and a cat named Drambuie.