Head Over Heels for Hunting

Christine Cunningham
Christine Cunningham
photo by Steve Meyer

"The marsh was full of damp cobwebs and smelled of swamp water and rotting salmon left from the tide. I remember mascara dripping into my eyes as the sky opened up with rain." –Christine Cunningham, on her first hunt in 2006

A person who has been wrapped in a marketed image is almost never what they’re purported to be. Every seasoned journalist knows this. When interviewing someone with a crafted image some journalists look to deflate the person’s public image for political or other reasons; others write puff pieces to feed the myth because its suits their audience and publication. I think it’s more interesting, and human, to find the person beneath the image.

So though Alaskan Christine Cunningham's resume implies she grew up hunting and shooting, I didn't assume any such thing. Yes, she is the author of Women Hunting Alaska: True Stories of Alaska's Women Hunters and she is the recent winner of the 2014 Prois Hunting & Field Apparel. She's also a native of Alaska and lives on the Kenai Peninsula. She works in municipal government and can be found in her free time hunting or fishing Alaska. When I asked when she got into hunting, she told me that he had actually only been hunting and shooting for eight years. This was intriguing, as she has come so far so fast.

She says she eats meat so, to understand this, she had to try to earn her own meat. Doing this, she said, allowed her to combine her love of the shooting sports and hunting with her yoga and “green” lifestyle. Now, as a hunter, I don’t see any of this as being out of step. Game meat is as natural (green) as you can get (there aren’t any hormones added to deer meat), but a reporter with a big urban newspaper might wrongly sniff a contradiction. The bias would be the reporter’s, but it would nevertheless taint the interview. Instead of burdening the interview with all that I asked her to please explain. “I first discovered duck hunting in 2006," she said. "I’d borrowed a friend’s 12-gauge shotgun and, after a day at the range, carried it with me for the first time on the tidal flats. The decision to go was made on a lark, but, since I am a meat eater, I also felt an intellectual responsibility to explore hunting.”

Cunningham said she remembers that day as being miserable.

“The marsh was full of damp cobwebs and smelled of swamp water and rotting salmon left from the tide,” she said. “I remember mascara dripping into my eyes as the sky opened up with rain. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, since I was a fair-weather outdoors person.”

During that first hunt, she and her companion snuck up on two wigeon that were in a pond. “I had to crawl in that stinking marsh and use the shotgun to clear the grass in front of me. Each push of the shotgun ahead of me was a decision to not stand up and leave. When I reached the edge of the pond two ducks glanced at me and then took flight.”

Her friend told her to shoot and she pulled the trigger without mounting the gun. She missed. Her friend picked up a spent shell and said, “This is what fall smells like to me.”

Cunningham said her love of wing shooting started that day. “I lacked every skill imaginable—shotgunning being the biggest. I’d never owned a firearm, but that was about to change. Today I have a 50-gun safe without room to spare,” she said.

Cunningham earned the name “Case-A-Duck Cunningham” during her first season of duck hunting. She joined a local trap and skeet club. “We have a great local gun club that is a hub for the shooting community. I bought my first shotgun for the field and shot trap and skeet at a practice. Eventually, trap won me over as a game in itself, and I bought a proper vest and my first trap gun, a BT-99, along with a skeet set.”

She began participating in other shooting events, like rimfire steel challenge. “It’s maybe unusual to start in the shooting sports as an adult who is taking up hunting, but that’s how it happened for me. Gaining proficiency as a shooter grew from my initial interest in hunting, which was about taking full responsibility for my food,” said Cunningham.

Last year, she broadened her shooting experience and built an AR-15 in a clinic for women, hosted by The Alaska Defenders of Freedom. Scott Hamann, founder of Alaska Defenders of Freedom, wanted to hold an event that not only taught women how to build ARs, but also, taught them how to shoot and maintain these popular rifles.

“We built ARs with the belief that the future of our shooting sports, hunting heritage and our very right to own firearms depends on women. The AR-15 was the perfect platform to learn on, as the AR-15 can be configured in so many different ways and can be put together economically. We had a blast and none of us lost a single spring or detent, unlike the builds with all male participants, just saying,” said Cunningham.

As much as Cunningham enjoys the shooting sports and her new AR-15, she still prefers hunting with her shotgun, especially when accompanied by a new batch of puppies—an up-and-coming brace of beautiful English setters. “I’m currently raising and training five English setter puppies with my hunting partner. We hunt upland game in the Kenai Mountains near my home. There’s a book in the works that started with the decision to keep an entire litter of puppies. It’s pretty wild, but I’m loving the adventure,” said Cunningham.

SYREN recently added Cunningham to its pro staff. The company, affiliated with Caesar Guerini, launched a line of shotguns designed for women. “Seeing a high-quality gun made for women and getting to carry it in the field is a joy. I love what they’re doing and being a part of its success,” said Cunningham.

While she knows that hunting will be in her future, Cunningham also sees other opportunities because of her newfound lifestyle. “Mostly I think in vague terms of ‘this, only better.’ I’m assembling the three guns I will potentially use to compete in 3-gun competitions. I’ll continue to support opportunities for female hunters and shooters in my home state. I see myself working harder, shooting better, giving more and living bigger. I’ll be older and hope to have really great smile lines.” (Follow Christine Cunningham on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ccunningham1978)