Shoot to thrill 

Georgia Pellegrini takes aim at antiquated stereotypes with her Girl Hunter Weekend. But does she hit the target?

It's early afternoon at the Ranches at Belt Creek and a group of women in plaid shirts and cowboy boots stand on a gravel path squinting into the bright blue sky. One of them, a petite brunette with pursed lips and smoky eyeliner, hoists a shotgun into position. As a clay pigeon passes through the air in front of her, she points the barrel toward it, flinching slightly as she pulls the trigger.

Miss.

Behind her, Georgia Pellegrini, a striking blonde wearing red plaid, helps the woman reload the gun and guide it back into place, pressing the butt of it to her shoulder and the body near her cheek. Georgia whispers something encouraging to the woman. This time when the clay pigeon appears across the blue sky, the woman follows it with the tip of the gun, eases the trigger and blows the hunter-orange disc into a shower of shards.

The woman yells "Woo hoo!" and the crowd of onlookers cheer. Georgia smiles. With the surrounding hills vibrant in green brush and pine set against a backdrop of golden bluffs, the scene of stylish women looks straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog.

This is Girl Hunter Weekend, a three-day, $2,000-plus adventure for women looking to learn about living off the land. This weekend's attendees have come from Texas, Colorado, New York and California to shoot guns, ride horses, cook wild game, tool around on ATVs and fly fish, plus indulge in the luxury of high-end accommodations, champagne toasts and gourmet meals. Georgia Pellegrini plays the role of teacher and central attraction for the gathering. The New York chef-turned-hunter/author/budding celebrity hosts weekends like this one all over the country, hocking her book, Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing How We Eat One Hunt at a Time, and spreading a message of female empowerment. A New York Times book review and Georgia's own marketing materials describe her as a cross between Annie Oakley and Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex in the City."

click to enlarge News_News1-1.jpg

As a true Montana "girl hunter," all of this leaves me skeptical and conflicted. A New York celebrity teaching women how to hunt in a state full of women hunters? At worst, it sounds like the National Rifle Association's take on glamping (aka glamour camping), some glossy imitation of the dirt-under-the-fingernails traditions my father passed down to me during my youth. At best, it promotes a better understanding of how we get our food and introduces hunting to a whole new demographic. The weekend has the potential to be infuriating or invigorating, an example of interlopers squeezing the state of every last bit of its authenticity or a potential paradigm shift in a historically male-dominated act. It could go either way.

"We're going to lunch now," Georgia announces at the sporting clay course.

Everyone grabs their plastic water bottles and other belongings and jumps in the ATVs. There isn't room for all of us, so another woman and I hitch a ride with a kindly ranch hand named Dean. Driving through the hilly prairie back to the lodge we pass a handful of small deer grazing in the distant grass. Deer are a dime a dozen in Montana, but I still perk up at the sight of wildlife in such a beautiful setting. Something doesn't look right, though. Just as I'm about to comment on it, Dean says, "There's the deer for our 3D archery course."

•••

The sporting lodge at the Ranches at Belt Creek is a stunning space with a bar, a long dining table, a fireplace and a wall full of sliding glass doors that open onto a deck. Outside, there's another stone fireplace and a view overlooking the coulee, bordered by buttes to the west and the Little Belt Mountains to the south.

The dining room table is set for the 11 "girl hunters" here for the weekend. Deidre, the ranch's concierge, brings out plates of mixed greens and goat cheese, and a chicken, grape and walnut salad in a bread bowl. The guests slowly filter in, many sporting cowboy hats, glitzy belt buckles and diamond rings. There are designer jeans and a few hints of Botox, expensive leather and the kind of confident chatter I imagine goes on in a Manhattan loft brimming with socialites.

click to enlarge CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters

Georgia sits at the head of the table, quietly texting on her phone and taking bites of food, looking up to nod or answer when one of the women asks her a question. I take it all in and try not to focus on the superficial, try to hear what they're saying. But all I can think about is my post-pregnant belly, non-manicured nails and un-whitened teeth. It's not a typical Montana crowd in any way.

After we eat lunch, a man named Mark Hawn escorts me to my log cabin, which features a rustic-chic décor with gorgeous wood finishes, a loft, a mini fridge and a flat-screen television. Mark owns the ranch with his father, Mark Sr., and tells me the family story. His father bought up commercial land in Jackson Hole only to be outdone by billionaires who had deeper pockets and could therefore entice the tourist population. "The billionaires came in and pushed out the millionaires," he says. "And so [my father] looked north and found Belt."

The 800-acre Ranches at Belt Creek is similar to the Stock Farm Club in Hamilton. Invitation-only guests pay to stay at the cabins, eat at the sporting club lodge and take part in recreational activities like hunting and horseback riding. There are also residents who have bought land on the ranch. In addition to their five-acre plots, residents have access to 200 additional acres, plus big-game hunting passage to the adjacent Hawn family ranch, which is a whopping 6,500 acres.

Girl Hunter Weekend is another way the sporting club makes money. Mark came across Georgia's book last year and told Deidre, who had just been hired as the full-time concierge.

"He said, 'I would love to get this celebrity out here,'" Deidre says. "So he wanted me to figure out a way to connect with her on social media."

Georgia's book had already pushed her into the spotlight. She showed up on "Jimmy Kimmel" to make boar meatballs and was a judge for "Iron Chef." Publications ranging from The New Yorker to American Hunter to Bitch magazine reviewed her book. The original Girl Hunter Weekend took place in Texas at Joshua Creek, but was mainly intended to generate interest in the book.

After Deidre contacted her, Georgia agreed to revive the Girl Hunter Weekend. Before the first gathering at Belt Creek, the Wall Street Journal published a preview in its weekend travel edition and Deidre says the September weekend filled with 20 reservations and a waiting list almost immediately. A second weekend was added a month later and attracted 15 more guests.

"It was interesting to have women from 18 years old to early 20s to 60s," Mark says. "And they found a common ground, which was kind of this adventure, playing in a man's world, so to speak, without men, many of them learning these things for the first time. They bonded and connected and it transcended age and socioeconomics—everything."

click to enlarge Holly, a San Diego lawyer, shoots at a clay pigeon while ranch owner Mark Hawn Jr. looks on. Clay shooting at the Ranches at Belt Creek is one event that attracts guests to the three-day, $2,000-plus Girl Hunter Weekend. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Holly, a San Diego lawyer, shoots at a clay pigeon while ranch owner Mark Hawn Jr. looks on. Clay shooting at the Ranches at Belt Creek is one event that attracts guests to the three-day, $2,000-plus Girl Hunter Weekend.

After dropping my bags in the cabin, I return to the lodge hoping to talk with Georgia and watch her in action. But the women have been split into two groups and mine does not include Georgia. I see her only briefly, notice that she's changed into a new set of clothes, and then I am whisked away with my group to the great outdoors.

•••

Georgia has an origin story about her hunting experience that she retells in every interview she gives. She grew up fishing for trout on her great grandfather's land in upstate New York. After attending a Manhattan private school alongside the likes of Ivanka Trump, she went into finance and ended up on Wall Street. But she was unfulfilled in the sense that money can't buy happiness and since the one thing she loved to do was cook, she applied to the French Culinary Institute in New York.

Georgia's culinary education took her to ritzy farm-to-table restaurants in New York, like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and to France. And that might have been the end of the story, except for the turkey incident. At Stone Barns she and the other chefs were told they'd be killing five turkeys for the evening's meal. In Girl Hunter she writes:

In that moment, for the first time in my life, I considered becoming a vegetarian. And just as quickly I thought, "If I'm going to be a chef, then I'm going to eat meat." And if I was going to eat meat, I needed to be able to kill it myself.

That first turkey kill was emotional and intense; it awakened a dormant part of me—something primal, perhaps that original human instinct. It made a kind of sense I could feel deep within me, the kind that makes me want to be a true omnivore.

On her blog and in her book, Georgia calls hunting "paying the full karmic price for the meal," which reveals a philosophy that several foodie writers before her—like Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma—have explored. But Georgia also displays a dramatic flair that attracts the attention of television hosts and producers. In a trailer for her book you can see Georgia strutting toward the camera with her aviators on, gun slung over her shoulder, rock music blaring. In her narration she gives a snappy summation of how she worked at Lehman Brothers but "traded in her laptop for a set of knives" and that she's left the grocery aisles to go "into the wild."

"Sometimes I'm a lady, sometimes I run with the boys," she says.

The trailer ends with another catchphrase: "I'm an omnivore who has solved her dilemma."

I have my own stories about hunting, but they lack any catchphrases. My favorite occurred five years ago when my dad broke the news to me that I would be inheriting his .30-06, a rifle he inherited from his dad. Being the oldest child of the family, he explained, this inheritance was my birthright. He had a look of pride and gruff finality in his voice when he told me this over a cup of coffee one evening. I almost choked. I let the news sink in, nodded grimly to confirm my acceptance and took a long, pensive sip from my drink.

click to enlarge A group of Girl Hunter guests rides horses across the ranch club’s 200 recreational acres. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • A group of Girl Hunter guests rides horses across the ranch club’s 200 recreational acres.

The thing is, I never saw myself as a dedicated hunter. I remember walking through the woods once with my father on a bird hunting expedition, watching my now-deceased dog bounding through orange leaves. I breathed in the cool autumn air and studied how my dad hit a grouse as it sprang from the bushes. I always wanted to hunt in a far-off, romanticized way. I enjoyed the wild game processed into breakfast sausage or sautéed in stir fry. I just didn't feel at ease with a gun, not trusting myself to hold one without it going off and causing permanent damage.

But my first time at a shooting range was anything but horrible. I took a deep breath and concentrated, the gun in my arms smooth and heavy. I calmed myself, steadied the rifle and aimed, the butt tight against the top of my armpit. I cleared my head of all but my dad's simple instruction: squeeze the trigger gently. I felt like the last best sniper and then felt my disembodied finger pull. The boom was deafening, and the bruising from the recoil left me exhilarated.

In the following years I didn't go bird hunting but I did find luck with big game. My first antelope required two shots. I dropped my second antelope on the first shot; it happened so quickly I didn't even notice that I got it. A half-hour later I found her dead in the field with the bullet hole clean through her upper neck. I remember the sensation that so many hunters talk about—a pang of sorrow for the antelope's death, a pride in my shot, a sense of belonging to a larger food chain and that feeling that I've taken responsibility for what I'm eating.

At Girl Hunter Weekend, I feel less certain. I haven't handled a shotgun in a long time, but I can't imagine it's too different from my 7mm.08. I might even be the sharp-shooter of the group if I can just remember to stay steady.

It's during downtime at the shooting range that I finally get to talk with some of the guests. One woman who looks like a rodeo queen with black glossy hair and long, thick eyelashes holds a pair of orange earplugs in her hands and pretends to swallow them with a bottle of water.

"You know, like in Christmas Vacation," she says.

We all laugh. Before long, the group is listing other scenes from the Vacation movies, talking about Caddyshack and quoting lines.

As it turns out, the rodeo queen isn't a rodeo queen but rather a Texas roper. Her perfectly crafted beauty is made more than skin-deep with her magnetic personality. She has a husky laugh and a propensity for delivering witty one liners. Her badass tom-boy attitude and sense of humor have her using terms like "douche-nozzle." I find out that she didn't come to the weekend on her own dime"I couldn't afford this, could you?" she asks me—but as an employee of Stetson. She's mainly here to fit all the women with new hats.

Several of the other women in my group have shooting experience. There's Anthe, an easy-going Greek-American preschool teacher from Austin, Texas, who grew up around hunting. She talks of de-feathering pheasants with her uncle and, more recently, accompanying her husband to hunt doves. She saved up her Christmas bonus and received a gift certificate from her brother in order to afford this retreat. There's Cara, who lives and works southwest of Toronto. She trains hunting dogs and goes for upland birds every year. And there's Noel, a spunky NRA Republican who is from a small town, enjoys good whiskey and advocates for strong women and local food. She's 45 now, but she learned to hunt from her dad when she was 30 after finally asking if he'd teach her. She's been hooked ever since.

"For me, the killing part is the tiniest part," Noel says. "It's going to hunting camp and cooking out and hanging out and sitting around the campfire and telling stories. It's that whole camaraderie. Even if you don't want to shoot something you can enjoy the outdoors aspect of hunting."

This is the second Girl Hunter Weekend for Noel and Cara.

"I came last year and met a bunch of amazing ladies and Cara was one of them," Noel says. "And so when I heard they were coming back I was like, 'I'm going to come back.' Not so much because I need to come back and see Georgia, to be honest. I love Georgia, but I really love Montana. ... There's something that draws me out here."

I miss every shot, but some of the women break the clays easily. Holly, a San Diego lawyer, has perhaps the least experience of everyone. Earlier in the day, while riding horses, she turned a shade of pale when her ride seemed spooked. But behind the shotgun she has suddenly found a Zen-like confidence that makes her look right at home.

click to enlarge Kaci, a roper from Texas, practices casting her line on the river. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Kaci, a roper from Texas, practices casting her line on the river.

Georgia is still with the other group, and has been for the duration of the day. But there's plenty to learn from the other women, and we start to trade hunting tricks that we've picked up.

"Do you know how to find your dominant eye?" Cara asks the other women. She shows them how to cover one eye and focus on a tall piece of grass and then uncover the eye. If you're still looking at the same spot, then your uncovered eye is the dominant one and the side you want to shoot from. "With shotguns you want to keep both eyes open," she says. "But it's good to know your dominant eye."

Cara then tells a story of watching a woman who was wearing glasses pull out a tube of lipstick and color the lens of her non-dominant eye so that she could shoot better.

"She used lipstick?" I ask.

"Yeah," she says matter-of-factly. "That's what women do. They're resourceful."

•••

Georgia has been noticeably absent from my group and difficult to pin down for an interview, and I learn it's at least partly because she's distracted. Turns out, I'm not the only journalist at this Girl Hunter Weekend. The New York Times has sent a food writer, Jeff Gordinier, to profile Georgia for an upcoming feature. Gordinier populates the Times' "Diner's Journal" blog with stories such as "Ladies Who Power Lunch." The blog appears to be about—and for—upper-class New Yorkers.

I find it a little strange that a man has been sent to cover an all-ladies weekend, but think little of it. Gordinier, for his part, finds it unconscionable that a local reporter, woman or otherwise, dares infringe on his story.

"Well, this isn't good," he says when meeting me.

"What's not good?" I ask.

"I'm not trying to be gruff," he says condescendingly, "but I thought we had an exclusive."

"I thought we did," I say, half joking, trying to get him to lighten up. "You know, we're an alt-weekly in Montana. You're The New York Times. I don't think we're in competition here."

"We'll figure something out," he says before walking away.

"We'll figure something out" turns out to mean threatening Georgia's publicist with pulling his article if he doesn't at least get an exclusive on two of the weekend's events: pheasant hunting and falconry. The publicist apologizes profusely to me and says her hands are tied. I tell her this doesn't come off well.

"So you're telling me that you're going to let a man from New York come into a hunting weekend for women and push out a local woman reporter and a local woman photographer, both of whom are actual girl hunters?" I ask.

click to enlarge Girl Hunter author Georgia Pellegrini, right, shows a guest how to clean her freshly shot pheasant. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Girl Hunter author Georgia Pellegrini, right, shows a guest how to clean her freshly shot pheasant.

It's no use. There's no way to change the situation. Georgia's allegiances don't lie with the locals, and there's little time for the underdog when you're successfully climbing the celebrity ladder. Her future clientele is on the East Coast or in the suburbs, not western Montana. There's no convincing Georgia or her publicist otherwise.

But women are resourceful and I use the situation to my advantage as best as possible. I want an exclusive, too. So on the second day, while my group goes pheasant hunting with The New York Times guy, I get to go fly fishing with Georgia.

•••

First thing in the morning, Georgia leads me and the other group into a van to head up to the Hawn family home where we'll take ATVs to the river. The mood is upbeat and there's a familiarity among them. They're also rowdier.

"These pants are so tight you couldn't fart in them," says a woman from Brooklyn.

The ATVs are a good place to lounge in the sun as we wait for the fishing poles to arrive. Two women and Georgia pass the time taking selfies from their camera phones.They hang their arms over the ATV handlebars, pull their button-down shirts over their shoulders and look over the top of their sunglasses, posing and cocking their heads like Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball.

Darren, one of the ranch employees, finally arrives with the poles and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Half the group piles into Darren's ATV, while the other half join me in Georgia's. We take off with a chorus of cheers as Georgia revs the engine. Someone yells, "Let's go get some fish!"

The backroads are rough with a few looming widowmakers and, at one turn, a tree across the road. Georgia fearlessly punches the gas and takes us through the brush and back on the road again. When we're not dodging debris, the women spend the 15-minute drive talking about how it's impossible to not believe in a higher power when you see scenery like this. We also talk about the freeing feeling of peeing in the woods.

At the river, Darren pulls out a box of waders and three bear skins, which he lays on the ground. "Grab a rod," he says. Someone quips, "That's what he said." A few of the women pose with the bear skins wrapped around them. Darren mentions that there has been several sightings of bears in the area and a few women look visibly nervous.

Down at the river, we find plenty of deep pools and promising eddies for fishing. Each woman gets her own spot along the bank, and with a little instruction from Darren and Georgia, they cast, mend their lines and search for signs of a bite.

Georgia and I finally get a chance to talk and she admits that she's "obviously really distracted" because of the amount of guests and journalists. "There are so many middle men," she says, "and it obviously creates a shit storm, as you unfortunately had to learn."

click to enlarge Girl Hunter Weekend includes luxuries such as a personalized fitting for a new Stetson cowboy hat. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Girl Hunter Weekend includes luxuries such as a personalized fitting for a new Stetson cowboy hat.

I point out that for someone with her profile, she's been surprisingly soft-spoken so far during the weekend.

"I am inherently an introvert, so it's interesting that my work has catapulted me into the public eye," she says.

She speaks about the stresses of her newfound celebrity, but also why Girl Hunter Weekend is so important to her.

"I wanted to really show women that this is an acceptable thing," she says. "They don't have to act like a guy, look like a guy, dress like a guy. They can still be feminine and participate in these sorts of adventures. Self-sufficiency is the ultimate girl power."

This particular adventure isn't panning out. After our brief conversation, Georgia and Darren note that the fish aren't biting and decide we should head back in the ATVs. Again I ride with Georgia and again she drives fast, taking corners with increased speed. The vehicle leans and some of the women yell out. I'm certain we're all going to die at the hands of Georgia Pellegrini.

When we get to the ranch there is a celebration in progress. The bird hunters have returned with one victor, Holly, the San Diego lawyer with no hunting experience. Holly's kill gives Georgia a chance to finally show off her skills for the group.

Outside the lodge, Georgia demonstrates how to clean the bird. For the first time all weekend, she looks comfortable and in her element. She helps Holly paint pheasant blood on her face like a warrior and everyone takes pictures. She pulls out each organ, explaining that pheasants eat pebbles to digest their food.

"What do you do with the intestines?" one woman asks.

"I leave them for the coyotes," Georgia says, "so they have something to eat, too."

In the lodge's kitchen, Georgia sets out several pheasant breasts on cutting boards to teach the women how to make Devil Pheasants on Horseback—pheasant breast stuffed with goat cheese, thyme and dates, wrapped in thin bacon. You can pound the breast with anything, she tells them. The room then fills with the the musical clang of the women softening the meat with rolling pins, metal pots and the bottoms of Perrier bottles.

•••

In the evening, before dinner is served, the women gather again in the lodge for champagne and s'mores. The Brooklyn woman yells over the murmur, "Georgia has something to say!" and the room goes quiet as Georgia appears in front of the fireplace smiling her impenetrable smile.

"I wanted to thank everyone for an amazing weekend," she says. "It's been amazing to meet everyone."

She pours champagne and toasts. In front of her is a table full of plastic gift bags with s'mores ingredients, each wrapped neatly in more plastic. A couple women unwrap the bags and make the s'mores around the outdoor fire. Another bag contains a present from Georgia: earrings made of bullet casings.

After the gift giving, Georgia and I get a chance to talk again. We sit side-by-side in an ATV under the light of the moon and I'm curious about her feelings on the weekend.

click to enlarge Georgia and two other guests pose for photos. “It’s been amazing to see how many women want to have this experience, rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to empower themselves in small ways,” says Georgia. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Georgia and two other guests pose for photos. “It’s been amazing to see how many women want to have this experience, rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to empower themselves in small ways,” says Georgia.

"It's been amazing to see how many women want to have this experience, rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to empower themselves in small ways," she says. "This event attracts that type of woman who is a bit more fearless and a little more eager to experience life."

Georgia says that in order to make the experience accessible to a broad range of women she didn't want the weekend to be too intense. Activities were planned for novices. "They weren't going to be willing to go out into the woods and pitch a tent and not shower for five days," she says.

I ask if she likes to go out into the woods and pitch a tent.

"I've done it but I don't do it regularly," she says. "I like to shower. I can rough it but I'm a woman, too, and I'm feminine. And I want to be comfortable.

"I've been in a duck blind with insane winds and the tide coming in," she adds. "And all of a sudden we're stranded and then snow comes in. You're soaking wet and you feel like you're going into hypothermic shock. That is not what I like to do regularly. I want a warm bubble bath to be welcoming me with open arms. And women are just different from men. They experience the outdoors totally differently and that's something we need to embrace."

I'm not sure I agree, but I don't fight her on it. I know plenty of women who experience the outdoors exactly the same as men do. I also know plenty who, while equally skilled and hardy in the face of a harsh Montana hunt, choose different types of wild adventures.

In fact, the group I spent most of my Girl Hunter Weekend with made their own plans by our last day. The morning after hitting the bars for a night of drinking Fireball whiskey, a few guests have decided to extend their stay. Noel, Cara and newly minted hunter Holly plan to take an extra day to go bird hunting. They say all the media attention has gotten in the way of their weekend, and they need more time to hunt.

This story was updated Thursday Oct. 10.

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