Ashley Peters did not hunt or fish as a child or college student.
Yet the bug bit in adulthood, and the affliction has taken a mighty hold.
Today, the Audubon Minnesota communications manager in St. Paul fly fishes for trout, hunts pheasants, advocates for public lands, promotes the benefits of wild table fare, and organizes monthly birds-and-beers events at a trendy metro saloon.
Because of this transformation, Peters, 32, only half-jokes that she is in the cross hairs of a national movement.
“The conservation community is very concerned with recruitment right now,” she said, referencing a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that forecasts a dire outlook for habitat funding if hunter and angler numbers continue to decline. “As a woman who didn’t grow up hunting or fishing, I understand what it takes to get young women interested and involved. It wasn’t exactly easy for me. I point this out because pushing through the awkward initial stages of hunting and fishing has been absolutely worth it.”
Here are edited remarks from Peters on her path to becoming a conservationist.
On developing a passion for the outdoors
I grew up in rural Iowa. I wasn’t a farm kid but farming was everywhere, including corn tight to the fence of our high school football field. I went to college, got a communications degree and then realized I wanted a career that really pushed my limits. So, I went to work for AmeriCorps and did conservation work in Alaska and the Boundary Waters. In Alaska, I led a 10-person trail-building crew. It was seven men, three women, and a lot of chainsawing on multiweek tenting trips into bear country around Skagway, Ketchikan and Juneau. That’s where I realized true land conservation is incredibly hard work. It’s also where I became passionate about conservation and developed a more realistic sense of what it means to manage recreational destinations, wildlife habitats and people’s expectations.
On learning to fish
Fly fishing is my favorite outdoor activity but developing the skills to do it required a lot of time outside my comfort zone. The first fish I ever landed on a fly rod was in Alaska, and it was not the stunning salmon I imagined but a warty, quivering sculpin known to locals as “double ugly.” I must have spent 20 minutes just trying to unhook it. Yet the more I fished the more I learned. One day, for example, my line got all snarled while I was wading a trout stream. I was frustrated but determined to untangle the birds nest without cutting the line. I was so focused that I hardly moved for 15 minutes. When I finally did cast again I caught a trout immediately. It was an unexpected lesson in stealth and patience. One of the reasons I love stream trout fishing is that it is hiking in beautiful places where few people go.
On learning to hunt
I shoot trap, sporting clays and hunt with female friends, but this too involved a lot of time outside my comfort zone. The reality of hunting is that you have to pass through multiple awkward stages that make even competent outdoors people feel incompetent. I have never been ashamed of this, but it is unsettling. My biggest hurdle was grappling with the idea of harvesting my own meat. I misunderstood hunting for a long time. Now I think of it as an experience — an almost art-like experience — in which I can see and understand the nuances of habitat, learn ethics from masters, and appreciate nature on new and different levels.
On birds as a unifying species
I work for a bird conservation organization so birds are big part of my professional life. What I find fascinating about birds is their ability to bring people together. The people who feed and watch birds so often care about habitat and the environment as near as their backyard and as far away as distant continents.
Inspirational and universal, I see birds as a great gateway for youth and young adults to discover the outdoors. During the past decade I have witnessed a divide between those who live in urban areas and those with strong rural roots, and I truly believe bird conservation can help bridge that gap. The monthly beers-and-birds events I organize on my own time are, in a small way, an effort to create that bridge by moving online conversations into actual face-to-face gatherings.
On youth conservation careers
Perhaps this is universal, but young people want to do work that matters. In this way, I can’t say enough about Conservation Corps Minnesota and organizations like it. They engage young people, provide funding for education, and in the process, teach what real conservation looks like. Corps workers understand why clean water and healthy lands matter. That’s a valuable perspective no matter the career path they eventually take.
If you are willing to pay attention you’ll never be bored in the out-of-doors.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Baxter, Minn.