Valerie Powell gallops across a field at Camas Meadow Rendezvous near Yakima several years ago.
by Andrew Walgamott
Valerie Powell, "Val" to her friends, is 32. A native Washingtonian, she works four jobs, delivering mail for the Woodinville Post Office and the Valley View newspaper in Monroe. She is a volunteer fireman and EMT for the Sultan Fire District. She also works part-time at Paradise Lake Nursery and Simon and Sons in Duvall.
But Val lives to hunt and get outside. She first came across rifles as a kid, learning marksmanship at the Seattle Police Athletics Association Rifle Club. Ten years ago, her ex-husband introduced her to black powder hunting and mountain man rendezvous.
Black powder rifles, reminiscent of muzzleloaders from the 1700s and 1800s, make for a challenging hunt, because the hunter only has one shot at an animal before they must reload. Muzzleloading is strongly associated with the fur trapping days and the mountain man rendezvous' in the Rockies during the early 1800s.
On Val's first hunt near Brewster, she successfully tagged a doe. Since then, she's been chasing game every autumn.
Over the years, Val has honed her woodsmanship. On a special island hunt several years ago, she stalked "close enough to a doe to hear it chew its cud." She has sneaked up on deer sleeping in sagebrush country, as well. She eschews hunting in buckskins, or Gore-Tex ("they're too noisy") and wears wool pants and polar fleece jackets instead. She notes that when hunting deer and elk west of the Cascades, "You gotta get wet."
She is as comfortable hunting from horseback as she is mountain biking far into the hills. Recently, she took her steed, Dreamer, on a bull elk hunt on the Coweeman River. Val uses a custom-made .45 caliber rifle for deer and a big .54 caliber muzzleloader for elk.
She also relates that once, when she stopped quickly on her bike, the brakes squeaked. Much to her surprise, an elk called back, thinking the brakes were another elk.
Val usually hunts alone,which nearly got her in trouble last year on the Champion Tree Farm near Kapowsin. One of ten people drawn for a special cow elk hunt, she pushed her mountain bike four miles beyond a locked gate and high up a mountain. It had rained for several days, and the ground was slick.
Stepping off a logging road, she skidded down a steep slope, entangling herself in boulders and branches. Her left leg was buried up to her knee. She wasn't carrying her cell phone and there was nobody else on the mountain to help her. But she could wiggle her toes, so she knew her leg wasn't broken. Setting the muzzleloader down, she carefully pried the debris away, promising herself, "I'll never hunt alone again." She freed herself and walked out with only a severe bruise to her ankle.
But she still enjoys hunting alone, saying, "I can go anywhere I want when I'm by myself."
Last year, some hunters were quite surprised to see her. Watching her cautiously walk down a logging road, they shouted out, "My God, it's a girl!" She hushed them up quickly, afraid the elk she'd just shot might bolt further into the woods. Still curious, the guys asked, "Got a deer?" She turned to them and said quietly, "No, an elk."
Val isn't a trophy hunter. Meat is more important to her than antlers. "No matter how much you boil the horns, you can't eat them," she says. She collects antlers and hides and decorates her home with them. While she butchers her own meat, she takes the hides to a tanner where she is well known. "You know you're a redneck when the tannery knows your first name!" she jokes.
Black powder hunting can be dangerous. Unlike modern rifles, muzzleloaders only fire once before having to be reloaded. Loading is a process of measuring powder and pouring it down the barrel, dropping in a patch and a ball (the bullet) and tamping it tight with a ramrod. A cap is placed over the nipple and when the hammer comes down, a spark shoots through the nipple and ignites the powder.
It isn't always so easy. Powder can get wet. And the shot needs to be true. Once, Val sighted on a huge cinnamon-colored black bear about seventy yards from her. And though she is a deadeye, she had to ask herself, "If I shoot him [and don't knock him down], how fast can I reload?" It takes her 25 seconds with a speed reloader. She decided against taking the shot.
Val has participated in mountain man revivals. At a Green River rendezvous several years ago, she competed in a skills contest and placed third among the women. Events included rifle shooting, knife and tomahawk throwing, spear tossing, and slingshot marksmanship. At rendezvous, she wears her buckskins, braids her hair, and wraps it with ermine and trade beads.
Successfully merging the wireless age with the age of trappers, Val Powell has succeeded where many have never tried.