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Chuck Oxley
Associated Press
Sept. 27, 2004 08:10 AM

BOISE, Idaho - It happens every year, starting about now.

Thousands of wives and girlfriends are left behind while their menfolk head for the hills, chasing a wilder kind of game through the early mountain mists.

Women are increasingly joining men in the hunting fields. But according to license sales figures, hunting remains an overwhelmingly male-dominated activity.

For some men, hunting is a deeply felt urge that compels them into the wild country for weeks, even months - sometimes at the peril of their marriages.

The women left behind in these situations are called "hunting widows," often with equal parts affection and pity. Tina Bruce is one of them.

In early September this year, Tina's husband, Darin, tramped the hills of southeastern Idaho for 11 days in search of elk. After stopping back at their Meridian home for three days of work and retooling, he headed back out, deep into the deserts of Owyhee County, for a six-day antelope hunt with a friend.

All told, the couple figures he spends about six weeks away from home between September and January, not to mention the thousands of dollars poured into the boat and camper, archery equipment, hunting clothes, shotguns, decoys and everything else that goes into the ultimate sportsman's garage.

"We've been married 20 years, and it took a long time to come to an understanding," says Tina, who runs a busy home day-care for six preschool children, as well as looking after their 15-year-old daughter and two Vizsla hunting dogs.

Tina makes no bones about not being the outdoorsy type.

"I went with him on a hunting trip once, when we were first married 20 years ago. I was pregnant with our first child - and it was the worst experience of my life," Tina says.

Nor does she appreciate the acquired taste of venison or elkburgers. Ducks and upland game are not allowed in the house unless they have been thoroughly stuffed and are ready to mount on the wall - along with the other ducks, pheasant, deer head and elk antlers.

"He makes jerky out of the birds. They're not too bad," she says, optimistically.

But the main objection to a hunting season is the time it takes from Tina and the family. Kidding aside, she says, it can become a serious, even fatal issue for the marriage if its not kept in check.

"We've had some difficult discussions," she says, her smile vanishing.

Darin says there is no way to describe the pull that hunting and the outdoors has on him.

When he was 8, he inherited much of his father's hunting equipment. That's part of the draw the bowhunter feels, but it's more than that, it's more than letting the arrow fly into a 1,000-pound wild animal standing 20 yards in front of you.

"It's being one with nature, whether you harvest an animal or not," Darin says. "It's the solitude. You're in the animals' living room, on their terms. It's a feeling and an emotion."

That's exactly right, said Nick Sanyal, assistant professor of conservation social sciences at the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources.

"When you talk to a hunter, you get a whole litany of responses," he said.

"They're replacing Mother Nature by controlling the herd. Or it's tradition - a connection to the past. Killing an animal is kind of secondary, even incidental. It's the connection to the land. To lose yourself," Sanyal said.

There is also a deeply male, tribal-like attraction for male group-hunts, he said. Most hunting parties for big game, such as deer or elk, are all male.

"You never see single women or parties of only women hunting big game," Sanyal said.

After 20 years of negotiating hunting seasons, Tina and Darin have worked out a system of sorts that helps keep the home fires burning.

Darin does not hunt as many days as he once did, Tina said. There were years where it was simply too much, especially when their two daughters were younger.

Now, Darin is limited to one or two long trips a season, and Tina gets to keep him at home at least one weekend a month.

They have some advice for other couple, particularly younger ones, who might be in the same situation.

"Accept it, even learn to help him in it," says Darin. "Understand that it's not just what I do, it's who I am."

Tina's advice to hunters is more cautionary:

"Watch your step. Don't overdo it - don't kill it. If you do, it will turn off your wife and cause a lot of frustration and tension."

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