What goes through your mind when you've never fired a gun before and you find yourself at the shooting range with the stock of a 12-gauge shotgun pressed into your cheek and your finger on the trigger?
My mind was almost completely blank, except for vague anxiety that I might blow out my molars or break my collar bone. Just keeping the gun in the proper position, braced against my jaw and tucked in the hollow of my shoulder, burned like crazy. I squinted at the sight. Don't be a wimp. Don't be a wimp. Don't be a wimp.
Dave Kaiser, my coach, stood on my right. He's a white-bearded, retired Alaska State Trooper with a voice as steady as a hostage negotiator. He'd just handed me the gun. Part of the exercise was that I didn't know whether it was loaded. So far it had been mostly aim and click.
This is what a writer has to go through to write about champion shooting team CKA (Chicks Kick Ass), the only all-women's shooting team at Birchwood Recreation and Shooting Park. CKA recently bested every other team at the park after 16 weeks of competition. When I called team member Judy Herrick a couple weeks ago to see if I could write about them, she said I could only come out and interview them if I knew what it felt like to shoot.
Just do it like we practiced, Kaiser said, as I stood there with the gun. When you're ready, holler, "Pull!"
I took a breath and hollered. Out whizzed a black and orange disk the size of a hockey puck. I zeroed in on it just above the tip of my barrel and squeezed the trigger. Bang! The vibration ricocheted in my gut. The target spun lopsided to the ground. I killed it! With my shotgun! The caveman I didn't realize lived inside me was jumping up and down and clapping giant hands.
"That was cool," I yelled at Kaiser. Both of us had earplugs in. He gave me an amused nod.
By the time they are my age, most women around here have at least handled a gun, but women are a rarity in the world of trap and skeet. You don't see too many of them weeknights at the range among the camouflage and pickup trucks. I've asked a lot of people why this is, and most everybody said the same thing: Women just don't get the opportunity. But when they do, people told me, they tend to get hooked and they get good.
CKA is made up of five shooters: Herrick, Lorraine Tallman, Bobbi Jo Erb, Bailie Nieder and Tammi Hackley. Another shooter, Kim Hoback, helped them win their first-place league title. All the women but Nieder, who is 20, got interested in the sport in mid-life. Most have only been shooting for a few years.
I drove out to watch them shoot. It was a cold, clear night, with temperatures in the teens. At the range, you could see Denali off in the distance like a mirage.
The women, guns cracked open and slung over their shoulders, walked over and got into position. They were making jokes and blowing on their cold fingers. As soon as it was time to shoot, they went steely.
The women of CKA come from all over and wouldn't have met if it not for a shared love of shotguns. Herrick works in civil engineering on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Erb is a middle-school math teacher. Hackley is a pharmacist at the Pioneer Home. Tallman runs the office at the range. Nieder is a college student.
At the range, each took a position in a line. Their pockets were heavy with shells. Herrick yelled, "Pull!" A target lofted out. She leaned in, aimed and blasted. Her body absorbed the kick of it. There was a round of fist-bumps. When she missed, it was all quiet empathy.
Herrick, who started four years ago, is kind of a veteran on the team, where women have on average about two years of shotgunning experience. Her introduction to shooting came through her sons, who learned about it in 4-H. After watching them shoot for a while, Herrick decided to get some instruction while they were away on a trip, she said. She didn't want to embarrass them by looking like a novice.
"I always tell my boys not to be spectators in life," she said.
Erb started two years ago after she went to a camp for outdoorswomen.
"I just started realizing I can do all of those things I kind of thought were in the men's realm," she said.
She'd never shot shotguns before, but the curiosity was there. (She did get a Daisy Red Rider BB gun when she was 8). The fact that they were able to find enough serious female shooters to make a team has a little bit to do with the kind of women you find in Alaska, she said. So many women here, married to soldiers or pilots or Slope workers, are used to being independent and trying new things, she said. And hunting is so common.
"There aren't many places left in this country where you can talk about shooting without people assuming you're a violent person," she said.
The women think about shooting as a sport, but all of them said having the skill makes them feel more personally secure. If they needed a firearm in an emergency situation, most would prefer the shotgun.
"One, it's more intimidating, and two, they're not going move after I hit 'em," Tallman said.
Nieder is new to the team. She's a college student who moved here from Tennessee. She started shooting to bond with her dad, she said. He lives in Alaska, and her mom lives in Tennessee. Sometimes she misses a "womanly influence," she said.
"(The women on the team) are kind of like moms to me."
Shotguns aren't what you think of when you think of girls her age. What did she like about it, I asked.
"Every time I step up to that line," she said, "I have the same emotions, I just have this sense of thrill."
Did I know what she meant? In fact I did. I knew just what she was saying.