Rachel Ahtila, 25, was born and raised in British Columbia, Canada, where she began her guiding career. She has worked with Shockey Enterprises as a guide and camerawoman, touring with the show “Jim Shockey’s The Professionals.” She currently guides for several Canadian and New Zealand-based outfitters, is a columnist for Wild Deer & Hunting Adventures (Australia) and contributes to other hunting publications. Rachel made her U.S. debut in 2013 hosting various hunting-themed seminars. She is now working closely with the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia. AmericanHunter.org's Sarah Smith Barnum recently chatted with Rachel about being a female guide, what's different about guiding in Canada than the United States, and about her future hunting aspirations.
American Hunter: How and why did you start hunting?
Rachel Ahtila: I didn’t truly start shooting until I was 11 years old, and traveled to northern British Columbia to visit close family friends at their hunting lodge. It was a young girl’s mecca for horseback riding and target shooting. Hunting was a chance to be outdoors with family and friends; it was a social, outdoor activity.
AH: What captivates you about hunting and what keeps you going back for more?
Ahtila: Hunting is an experience. In today’s world, so many of us forget that life didn’t always revolve around iPhones and modern comforts. It’s the camaraderie; it’s the horses, the pack trips, scouting and summers riding the ranges of the northern mountains, making lifelong friends over a campfire meal. One of the best parts of my career is helping people get back to that rustic life, hunting an animal that they have invested their time and efforts into. Overall, it is giving them an experience that so many people don’t get to live in this day and age. It is so much more than just pulling the trigger. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
AH: How long have you been a guide, why did you become a guide, and what does it take to become one?
Ahtila: In British Columbia, you can get your guide license at 18 years old under a registered outfitter. I started co-guiding with an experienced guide when I was 19 years old. At that point I had been coming north for eight years, and had been working at a variety of different jobs on the outfit. Like any kind of education, so much of guiding is spending time learning the ropes: the country, the animals and most importantly, how to not only take care of yourself, but your client and horses in remote wilderness. Learning where to make camp so that you have horse pasture, running water, learning the game and where they would be at different parts of the season. I just turned 25 and will be gearing up to head into my seventh season as a guide.
AH: What kind of game are you licensed for, and for which parts of Canada?
Ahtila: In Canada a guide license for big game is completely inclusive to all of the available species to guide a ‘non-resident’ or ‘client’ to during their respective and allocated seasons, also depending on which province or territory you hold a license in. As a guide you are responsible for proper animal identification, assessing trophy quality, and having knowledge of what makes a game animal ‘legal’ to pursue. (A Rocky Mountain Bull Elk must have six tines on one antler in some areas, where as it can change depending on the region). This season I am a licensed guide for the Northwest Territories and British Columbia. My career has taken me from British Columbia, to the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. In their respective regions, I have been blessed to guide clients for Stone’s sheep, Canadian moose, Rocky Mountain elk, mountain goats, black bear, wolf, and free-range plains bison in British Columbia. Between the Yukon and Northwest Territory, that list includes Dall sheep, mountain caribou, Alaskan Yukon moose, wolf and wolverine.
AH: Is there a game animal that is on your “dream hunt” list, and if so, where and when will you achieve that goal?
Ahtila: I would love to hunt the Bezoars’ (Capra Aegagrus Aegagrus) Ibex in the Eastern Anatolian Mountains of Turkey. Their range stretches from the high alpine zones of the Taurus Ranges to the low altitudes along the Mediterranean coast. One of my very best friends and I think we are going to take a girls trip over there in the next few years. Combining a bit of worldly travel with hunting should make for an amazing time!
AH: Is a Canadian guided hunt different from a U.S. hunt?
Ahtila: A guided hunt in Canada can be as different or similar to a guided hunt in the states as we share many of the same species. It just all depends on what you are going after, how you are going to get there and where you are geographically. I think the biggest thing with a remote hunt in Canada would be the sheer distances that you can travel up here and the amount of untouched landscape that we have. We might say “eh?” a lot more, and dress a little bit differently than everyone down south, but you did come to the ‘Land of the Great White North, eh? ’
AH: Was there one motivating factor that propelled you to where you are now?
Ahtila: I grew up with very supportive parents, who always told me that some opportunities only come once and if you ever find something you love, go after it with all your heart. After studying at university, working abroad and chasing a few childhood dreams overseas, I came home knowing exactly where I wanted to be at 22—in the mountains, hunting game, riding horses and sharing it with people. What I didn’t realize was how weird and wonderful and unchartered that road would be. After a two-year stint in the public eye working for Shockey Enterprises, I found my second greatest passion- sharing this lifestyle and opportunity on a broader spectrum. There isn’t a day that goes by where I can’t find something to smile about when I get up. I am living the dream despite a lot of skepticism for my stereotype. I get to help other women, men and children realize that they can be apart of this industry as well. Looking back, I am humbled to be where I am now. Everything I’ve done in my life has brought me to this point.
AH: You are considered young to be a guide, so what kind of experience do you rely on in order to satisfy your older and perhaps more-experienced clients?
Ahtila: There is that old saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” If you can’t deliver, no amount of verbal backpedaling will ever bail you out of a situation. I am comfortable in the remote areas, and I know I will give my best on each hunt. If a client is going to be belligerent with a young guide, no matter the gender, the outfitter usually teams them up with someone that the client might be more comfortable with.
AH: Please share what you considered to be “intimidating” moments in your career as a guide, whether it involved a client or your game.
Ahtila: Working in an industry that is almost 90 percent male-dominated can certainly have its moments. Whenever I feel intimidated by peers, clients or game situations, remembering to remain calm and not get too hot tempered is my greatest ally. It is not always easy, and sometimes when other people are openly judging you based on your gender your natural response is to get defensive. Remember that it is not your problem, it is theirs.
Last fall, I guided Cameron Hanes, a very accomplished hunter and Under Armour athlete to a bison. Initially I was a wee bit intimidated because of how accomplished he was as a hunter, compared to my few years as a guide. After I sat there and thought about it, it was just like any other hunt. I knew the bison and the territory. He was no different than any other client. We had a great time hunting together, and a successful hunt to boot. Having that moment of personal intimidation centered me to give nothing but my best, to work hard, and stay true to the task.
AH: What is it like to guide men? Are they skeptical, supportive or indifferent?
Ahtila: In life we naturally build up expectations on stereotypical appearances for a guide, so when they get a young woman, I wouldn’t doubt there is some skepticism. Most of the male clients I have guided have been right around my dad’s age, or older. Usually they have been very supportive, and at the end of the day, if a girl can work just as hard as the guys and be successful, most of them are indifferent to gender.
AH: What is your most rewarding experience as a guide so far?
Ahtila: I have been blessed to have a job where you get to help someone achieve his or her goal; be it harvest success and/or outdoor experience. One hunt that sits at the top of my books happened last spring during black bear season. I was filming with Fred Lackie on Vancouver Island for Jim Shockey’s Hunting Adventures, and on that particular hunt, 11-year-old Kaylen shot her first black bear with a crossbow at 23 yards. She stalked with the skill of any seasoned hunter, and bore more excitement than any I have seen. The way she and her stepdad interacted was one of the most heartwarming experiences to witness. Hearing her questions, and engaging in her excitement on this new experience was rejuvenating. Getting to share in that moment was humbling; it is a memory I will always cherish.
AH: Any advice for women who plan to hunt with men for the first time?
Ahtila: Go with someone who is patient and pick someone who is knowledgeable that you feel comfortable with. So often I get emails from women that truly want to get outdoors and go hunting, but become jaded because their spouse or male companion sometimes get impatient with beginner’s questions. If it is a big game hunt, where there is travel and small hunting parties involved, do your research and talk to your outfitter to see what the environment will be like. If it is your first big-game hunt and you are going to be backpacking, something as simple as bringing your own tent, or requesting a veteran guide might make all the difference to your experience.
AH: What significant mistake(s) did you make when you began to hunt/shoot?
Ahtila: Being totally frank, I was scared of guns before I started up at the hunting lodge. I realized my fear was largely due to not understanding how they worked. Getting the right instructor to expand your knowledge of them and practicing safe handling will boost your confidence, and abolish any fear. Remember to not ever be shy about asking to get a demonstration on an unfamiliar firearm. Even today, when I am handed a firearm, I watch the handler deem it safe, and then ask a million questions, while getting acquainted with it.
AH: If you could blink your eyes to make one significant change for women hunters, what would it be?
Ahtila: I would change the way women are viewed in the industry. I was told I would never be taken seriously as a product representative, nor have my experience matter to that of a male counterpart. I would hate to think that some women would not pursue their dreams in the field because they think their gender might hold them back, or intimidate others. Trust me, I have been there. I have found that you don’t want those people around anyway; find the right support team, and they will be there cheering you on as you practice at the shooting range, or take your first animal. Don’t ever downplay who you are, or what you are capable of.
AH: What do you think of the trend toward fashionable women’s hunting gear and colored firearms?
Ahtila: If it is helping to bridge the gap and entice more females to get out and hunt, I am all for it. At the end of the day, they are tools to help us enjoy the outdoors. Color doesn’t matter; it is how well you know your weapon, and how comfortable you are using it. Women should not have to sacrifice their femininity just to enjoy the outdoors. The problem I run into is that sometimes the fashionable looking gear isn’t always the toughest. When it comes to the extreme hunts where you are out on the trail for months on end, I need gear that can keep up with me, and keep me alive. I believe the women’s gear will get there, and I hope to be a driving force in making it happen.
AH: What is your favorite hunting firearm?
Ahtila: I recently acquired a Tikka T3 7 mm Remington Mag with Huskemaw Optics Blue Diamond 5-20 Rifle Scope with custom turrets. I absolutely love the system. For the type of hunting we have up north, it is an all around caliber that will get the job done and I feel confident using.