Kari Kephart

Kari Kephart has been bow hunting for five years and has taken two sika deer with a compound bow, which is a great accomplishment. (unknown, Baltimore Sun / February 29, 2012)

Kari Kephart grew up as a competitive runner, good enough to win state championships in the two-mile event and in cross country at North Hagerstown High as well as a conference title while on scholarship at Mount St. Mary's.

The only things Kephart hunted for in those days were medals and trophies.

That changed when she met and married her husband, Jason Kephart, an avid hunter for most of his life who combined his passion with his profession as a taxidermist.

When I met him, it was, 'Oh, really, you hunt?' " Kari Kephart, 30, now a vice principal at an elementary school in Dorchester County, recalled last week.

She would, too, soon enough. She has now been hunting as long as they've been married — five years — and is part of a growing number of Maryland women who have joined their boyfriends, husbands and female friends as part of the state's female hunting constituency.

"She knew it was my life and she took kindly to it," said Jason Kephart, who like his wife prefers using a bow to a gun.

According to Patricia Allen, Wildlife and Heritage information and education program manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the hunting workshops geared toward women "always fill up," most recently a goose hunt on the Eastern Shore in January. The National Rifle Association will be holding one of its Women on Target clinics in Northern Virginia next Saturday.

Allen, who like Kephart has become an avid hunter after not growing up around it, said the DNR's Becoming an Outdoorswoman (BOW) program, which runs during the fall, has become popular since its inception in 1995. A similar program has run nationally since 1991.

Last fall, the DNR had a three-day workshop that included 40 classes.  

"Where I grew up it was very unusual for a woman to do something like that," said Allen, who grew up among dairy farmers in upstate New York. "Once I started, I working for the DNR. I was exposed to it and one of my co-workers mentored me because I had an interest."

Allen said BOW has helped "break down barriers" for women interested in hunting who for a variety of reasons — "intimidation, basic peer pressure, lack of opportunity" — were hesitant to get involved before.

"Some of those barriers were hard to overcome," Allen said.

For Roxanne Fleming, the barrier was plain old sexism. After moving to Essex from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 2004, Fleming was turned away from a few hunting clubs on the Eastern Shore because, she said, she was a woman.

So she joined BOW.

"It gives you the camaraderie," Fleming, 54, said. "I was able to find other women with similar interests."

Allen added that another barrier in the past was equipment, with women forced to use guns and bows designed for men. Several manufacturers have designed bows specifically for women — as evidenced by the fact that they now come in bright pink.  

"It's easier to find than it used to be," Allen said.

While Allen proved to be a natural, taking down a whitetail deer on her second day of a weekend hunt, it took Kephart a lot longer.

Growing up, Kephart thought that deer hunting was akin to "animal cruelty" and didn't under the benefits of controlling the herd or stocking the freezer with venison.

Having never pulled back a compound bow or fired a shotgun — "If somebody had told me I'd be doing it, I would never have believed them," she said — Kephart first joined her husband shortly after they got married.

Initially, it was just to watch.

"I sat in the tree stand getting cold and thought I might as well put a bow in my hands" she said.

It took Kephart into their second season together to take down her first whitetail, using a muzzleloader, and until her fourth to shoot one with a bow.

The feeling she had as an athlete quickly returned.

"It was amazing," she said. "I had been out so many times without seeing anything. I never imagined that it would be that exciting."

Kephart said that hunting brings back memories of when she was a high school and college athlete running cross country.

"When I ran cross country, I preferred being in the woods, being out there in the lead, no one could see me, being alone," she said. "It's the same kind of thing."

Like her husband, Kephart has started to combine her newfound passion with her profession as well. When she was finishing her master's degree in education at Salisbury, one of her prerequisites was to introduce a program into the school where she was student-teaching.

Kephart introduced the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) at Warwick Elementary. Now the vice principal at Maple Elementary, Kephart is in the process of introducing the program there as well. The program is geared for students who are not that interested in sports — or school — to give them an activity, Kephart said.

"A lot of the girls are excited when they find out that I hunt," said Kephart, who now takes her 4-year-old daughter, Brookelyn, and 11-year-old stepson Alex when she and Jason go hunting. "For a lot of the kids, it makes them want to be in school."

Kephart and her husband often videotape their hunts and post the footage on their website, chesapeakepursuits.com.

"It makes it more nerve-racking because if you more miss, it adds another element to it, it's on videotape," Kephart said. "If you're waiting for the perfect shot, you also have to make sure the person who is taking the pictures has the right angle, too."

Jason Kephart said his wife killed a second sika deer last year while being videotaped.

"She's really competitive," he said. "Most hunters who start out take what they can get. She set her standards pretty high."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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