Cunningham shows off a northern pintail bagged last hunting season.
Photo courtesy of Christine Cunn
Hunting means different things to different people. To some it is a way to save on food bills by filling the freezer with wild game. For others it is an excuse to fraternize with friends. And, sadly, for a select few it is merely a way to legally kill another living creature.
But for one young women from Soldotna, hunting is mostly about one thing: escape.
"It's a nice trade after sitting in the office all day," said Christine Cunningham, a self-professed "duck-a-holic."
At first glance, one might never guess this sharply dressed 29-year-old with tanned skin, frizzy blond hair and perfect makeup would enjoy firing a shotgun at fleeing fowl during the first light of the day.
However, after pushing papers all day as a judicial assistant at the Kenai Courthouse, Cunningham said there is not better way to enjoy life than crawling through marsh muck on her hand and knees in inclement weather.
"It's about the experience, but the experience is miserable. It's cold, swampy, smelly and rainy, but you feel so alive," she said.
Cunningham's addiction to duck hunting began, by chance, two years ago. She said a friend was going hunting and so she went along to keep him company, but with one squeeze of the trigger a whole new world opened up for her.
"Once I shot at a duck, I was hooked," she said.
Cunningham began going hunting at every opportunity. It didn't matter if she was floating in a boat for blue-bills or sitting still in a man-made blind waiting for mallards. She hit the Kenai River, the Kenai Flats, the Kasilof Flats, the Moose River and numerous lakes in search of feathered flyers. She even bought her own gun, a 20-gauge over/under CZ Redhead with auto ejectors.
Before long she bagged her first birds, taking two with one shot in an isolated area near Watson Lake in Sterling. After that, her fever for fowl became a full-blown addiction that has showed no signs of letting up this waterfowl season.
"I've been out 25 out of 28 days this year," she said late last month. "I go after work every day, and mornings and nights on weekends."
Compared to the 25 ducks she harvested last season, Cunningham hasn't too much to show yet this year for so much time she's spent in the field, but she said success isn't what drives her to hunt.
"It's not like moose hunting where there is a big pay off after so many unsuccessful hunts. It's not about going on the war path, just to kill something. That's not what duck hunting is to me. To me its the quality of what you're doing, not the end result. If I were just doing it for the hunting, I would loose heart fast," she said.
As an example, she cited her time on the Kenai Flats, an area that despite not being successful spot this year, she continues to hunt at because of everything else the location has to offer.
"You have such an appreciation for nature when you're out there because you see and hear everything. And the things you see are unreal, better than TV, and you wouldn't see them if you weren't out hunting," she said.
Christine Cunningham, of Soldotna, shows off the first two ducks she ever shot. Cunningham is a judicial assistant at the Kenai Courthouse by day, and a self-professed "duck-a-holic" on the weekends.
Photo courtesy of Christine Cunn
Cunningham said she has seen tracks in the mud left by brown bears, caribou mothers and their calves, and on one occasion she saw the tell-tale prints from where an eagle had come down and grabbed an otter. She has been able to photograph dragon flies close up as the insects sat still, their wings too heavy from the morning fog to fly off. She has also observed huge flocks of swans and seen sandhill cranes dancing together from a range so close that a wildlife cinematographer would be envious.
Even as recent as a week ago, during the huge high tides that resulted from the harvest moon, Cunningham said she communed with nature in a way that was precious to her, while sitting on a stump in the flats waiting out a flood tide.
"A tiny shrew came swimming through the water. The little guy had no where to go. He was wet, shivering and trying to cling to a blade of grass," she said.
In any other situation she said she might not give a second thought to the life and death struggle of a rodent, but caught up in the moment, more like a part of nature than an visitor in it, she said she was moved to assist the small creature.
"I gave him a grass raft and he took it. I don't know if he lived or died, but he was frightened and took help," she said.
Cunningham said it's incidents such as this keep her coming back for more.
"There's a lot going on there and I'm transfixed by it. You can drive by that area every day and see nothing, but go out there and you'll see all this. I wish more people would see the world from that side of the road, instead of from the road," she said.
Cunningham added that even when there isn't much wildlife to see, she still finds the experience enjoyable.
"I like the atmosphere of sitting in the blind, eating sandwiches, drinking coffee with a shot of blackberry brandy," she said.
Cunningham said she wished more people, women in particular, would give the duck hunting experience a shot, but she advised those that do to be careful they might become addicted too.
"I'd love to see more women give it a try. My advice is them is to not be put off by the stereotypes. They might find out they like it and become a duck-a-holic too," she said.
For more information about Cunningham's perspective on duck hunting, check out her article "No sympathy: A novice learns about the hardships of duck hunting" in the October issue of Alaska magazine.
Joseph Robertia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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