By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Jane Mitchell is the first to admit that her favorite hobby is a bit incongruous with the rest of her life. She just completed a six-year term heading up the local garden club, is a former chamber of commerce director and is 67 years old.
She's also a bear hunter.
"I was born in a generation when there was no such thing as gender neutral -- unless you lived way off in the country and did things out of necessity," she said. "When I was a child, my dad hunted rabbits with my four brothers, but hunting was not something that girls did."
Born and raised in Joplin, Mitchell graduated from Joplin High School in 1963. For 35 years, she has been self-employed as a real estate developer. Seventeen years ago, her husband, Steve, a bowhunter, introduced her to hunting.
"He asked me if I would be interested in learning how to use one. I said yes, and I really liked it. But when bow season came around and he asked me if I wanted to hunt, I didn't know. I just wasn't sure if I would like it," she said.
She began by sitting in a tree stand with him, easing into an environment in which deer fed right under them at the base of the tree. She was armed with a compound bow with a release.
It wasn't long before she had called in her first buck.
"I grunted it in with my grunt call, and it was a 3-point spike," she said. "I was so proud that I actually did it."
She was 50.
"Age doesn't matter," she said. "The skill of the bow has to do with your upper body strength. Once you have developed those muscles that are needed to draw back your bow and hold it, you don't lose it."
Steve, who has won numerous awards for his marksmanship with a bow, coached her on her technique. But when he suggested a bear hunt, Mitchell wasn't sold on the idea.
"I thought, 'What will make them think I'm not bait?'" she said. "I was not anxious to put myself in that situation, but he wanted to go, so I agreed."
They watched numerous videos about bear hunting, talked to others who had been and then arranged a trip through an outfitter in Alberta, Canada -- the only way to hunt there, Mitchell said, as non-Canadians are not eligible for hunting tags.
When they arrived, their accommodations were completely primitive.
"The tent was on a dirt floor, and our bed was built of cedar trees. The outhouse was three pieces of tarp strung around a frame, no ceiling, and we had a flag system where 'up' means occupied and 'down' means you could go in," she said.
A five-gallon bucket of water and a bar of soap served as a sink, and a pond served as the bathtub. But Mitchell said she "absolutely loved it," and on her second night in the tree stand, she bagged a bear.
Although she didn't bring home the meat -- in Canada, it's common practice for hunters to give the meat to Aboriginal Canadians -- she did bring home the bear hide and the desire to go again.
She has since returned to Canada for four more bear hunts, the most recent earlier this month.
"The outfitter let me use a rifle because my broadhead (arrow) was defective, and I bagged a 7-footer -- my biggest one yet," she said. She' s also returned to Canada for a moose. Three years ago, she and Steve both got lucky: They brought home five coolers full of moose meat, which, she said, they love better than beef.
"We have a great friendship because of this. Everyone asks us, is there competition? We're not like that; we're so happy for each other. Anything he gets, I'm thrilled for him, and anything I get, he's thrilled for me," she said.
When they're not hunting, the couple focuses on conservation measures on their 160 acres on Fir Road, where they've developed a healthy wild turkey and deer population.
They also spend time in their front-yard tree stand and on a range they built in their woods to practice their aim.
And with no children of their own, she and Steve are also focused on passing their love of the outdoors and their passion for hunting on to their nephews and great-nephew.
"Most people think hunting is about killing. The killing part of hunting can last for two seconds or three seconds, but the experience of everything involved will last hours," Mitchell said. "I have learned more about animals than I ever did before I started hunting, and I appreciate them and love them more.
"Hunting also teaches you more about yourself than any other way that I know: Self-control, patience, the ability to deal with handling frustration when things don't go the way you think they will -- it's an absolute learning experience."
Mitchell said she is not fond of the idea of retirement, or of giving up her hobby.
"I told my nephews that when I got too old, they'd have to hoist me up to the tree stand," she said. "I don't plan to give up any time soon."