A League of Their Own

Meet five of the best guides in North America. And they're all women.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

They're tough, talented, capable guides-complete pros to the core. Whether you need them to row through boulder-strewn white water, guide you up a cliff to chase mountain goats or face down a charging grizzly, they've done it all. Meet five of the most impressive hunters and anglers working in North America today. And, yes, they're all women.

A World of Adventure
Animated and engaging beneath a crown of reddish locks, 45-year-old Niki Atcheson(above right) doesn't really look deadly... until she starts talking about dangerous game. Last June 13, she aimed her custom .458 at a patch of black hide deep in the brush of Zimbabwe's high veldt and squeezed the trigger on her 13th buffalo. Perhaps those inauspicious numbers should have told her something, but nothing occurred to her until she woke up in a Johannesburg hospital-in Room 13.

The long road to her encounter with the buffalo reads like an improbable Hollywood script. Niki grew up in what was then Rwanda-Urundi, the daughter of an American physician who took her along when he hunted buffalo to supply his mission clinic with meat. Her collection of faded childhood photographs looks right out of the pages of Ruark or Hemingway. After her return to the United States, memories of her unique African upbringing eventually prompted her to take up hunting again.

She readily acknowledges the support she received from several mentors along the way. Her odyssey began at a local gun club in Washington state, where an Alaska bush pilot introduced her to the fine points of marksmanship. Shortly thereafter, she returned to Africa, where she met Zimbabwean PH Gavin Rourke and began to develop an interest in hunting professionally. When she traveled to Hawaii to hunt with renowned guide Eugene Yap, he was so impressed with her ability that he offered her a job, which she accepted. By then, she'd met Montana guide Keith Atcheson through Rourke. She married Atcheson in 2000 and has been guiding with him ever since.

Despite the encouragement she received from mentors and clients alike, Niki also encountered her share of bias. While guiding in Hawaii, she had to deal with an irate client who was indignant that Yap had assigned him a female guide. "I just walked his butt off," Niki recalls fondly. By the end of the hunt-and after he had taken an exceptional mouflon ram-the two had made their peace.

For Niki, Africa still exerts a powerful influence, and she returns to hunt and rekindle her childhood passion for the bush at every opportunity. She realizes that her enthusiasm for buffalo hunting stems from memories of an Africa most of "Sometimes when my father went out to shoot buffalo to supply the hospital with meat, our old tracker would carry me along on his shoulders. The days I couldn't go, I'd listen for the sound of the drums announcing their return. I still remember helping with the skinning, and cleaning rifles by the light of a kerosene lamp. Those were the memories that ultimately made me return to Africa." Which leads us back to the ordeal with her last buffalo...

As they took up the wounded bull's track, Niki began to suspect that she'd made a mental error in her shot placement. A long day's effort on the trail confirmed her fears. When they returned the following morning, they eventually encountered the buffalo...in full charge at eight paces. Before she could shoot, the bull knocked the rifle from her hands and began to gore her as Keith and their PH fired from point-blank range. The dead animal eventually collapsed on top of her, but the damage was done: fractures of her forearm, collarbone and ribs, a concussion, and two nasty horn wounds in the back of her legs that required multiple surgeries to repair.

Which sounds like an excellent reason to forget about buffalo number 14, but not for Niki Atcheson. She's already eager to return to Africa and introduce her dghters to dangerous game.

Contact: **Niki Atcheson, 406-782-2382; Hunters Montana, 3210 Ottawa St., Butte, MT 59701. [pagebreak] **Reading the Water
Fueled by glacial runoff, the mighty Kenai River rises every summer and invites salmon staging in Cook Inlet to begin their upstream run. The upper Kenai's turquoise waters look stunning to travelers along the Sterling Highway, but anglers quickly learn to temper their appreciation of the river's beauty with healthy respect. Frigid water and powerful currents might dissuade most people from tackling the tricky upper Kenai in a drift boat. But not Dusty Byrd, a 26-year-old woman with dark hair and an enthusiastic smile who earns her living there June through October, guiding visitors eager to face the challenge of salmon, Dolly Varden and some of the most beautiful rainbows in the world.

When she was growing up in Talkeetna a hundred miles to the north, Dusty shared her family's enthusiasm for the outdoors. As a youngster, she worked for Mahay's Riverboat Service on the Talkeetna River. Five years ago, she headed to the Kenai and wound up guiding for Curt Trout's Troutfitters in Cooper Landing.

Laughing at the gender-ambiguity of her first name, Dusty says that some clients show up at the boat launch and ask her where they can find "Dusty." And she still remembers the time a disgruntled angler marched back into headquarters and announced that he "wouldn't fish with a girl." Persuasive rather than confrontational, she's chosen to turn the other cheek to such slights and demonstrate her skills where it counts: on the water. "I don't feel like I'm trying to prove anything; guiding has always come very naturally to me," she says. "But sometimes in the back of my mind, when I first started, I would hope my clients were thinking 'What a great guide' rather than 'For a girl she does pretty good.' But I've gotten over that."

For years, the Kenai fishery focused on its famous king salmon. Over the last decade, however, anglers have discovered what used to be one of Alaska's best-kept secrets: fantastic fishing for trout and char in the scenic upper river. It is a different kind of fishing: light tackle and flies rather than heavy hardware, drift boats rather than power craft. And that's where Dusty Byrd found her home on the water.

Operating a 20-foot drift boat in heavy current with four anglers aboard may sound like a job for an Olympic rowing champion, but Dusty doesn't consider her trim 5-foot 3-inch frame a disadvantage at the oars. Technique and knowledge of the water trump brawn every time, she says. "The rowing has gotten easier over time. I've learned how to use the current to my advantage. Once you have a feel for it, it isn't strenuous."

Dusty offers simple advice for other women interested in following the path she's chosen: "Just do it! Forget all the reasons not to and prove yourself where it counts." No doubt her many repeat clients are glad she did.

**Contact: **Dusty Byrd, 907-595-1212; Troutfitters, P.O. Box 570, Cooper Landing, AK 99572.

[pagebreak] Born to the Wild
Nature-versus-nurture arguments can run all day, but whichever side prevails, there's no doubt that** Alisha Rosenbruch-Decker** came by her outdoor ability from the very start.

Both of her parents are registered Alaska guides and her father has probably accounted for more southeastern Alaska brown bears than anyone. Within weeks of her birth, she was introduced to hunting camp, and she has never been far removed from that world. By the time she was five her parents were letting her use a knife to help clean the meat off the bear skulls taken by their clients. Alisha's first opportunity to take a game animal came during a trip with her family to Africa when she was seven years old. "We were in spike camps in Tanzania for 30 days and we were after Thomson's gazelle," Alisha recalls. "I was shooting my dad's .300 and [BRACKET "legendary African guide"] Paul Huggins was our PH. We were watching this herd of gazelles and my dad was on one side of me telling me when I should shoot and which ram to go for and Paul was on the other side doing the same thing.

Finally, I turned to them and said, 'I know which animal I want and when I'm ready to shoot, I'll shoot. Just chill out!'" The men, with several decades of guiding experience between them, fell silent and Alisha took her ram. At an age when most teens are eagerly awaiting their first driver's license, Alisha had something more ambitious in mind. In Alaska you have to be 18 to obtain an assistant guide's license, which she did as soon as the calendar allowed. After the mandatory two-year period as an assistant, she met the state's stringent standards as a registered guide herself. When she married three years ago, she and her husband reversed the traditional order of entry many married guide teams follow. He had no prior experience as a professional outdoorsman, but now he works as an assistant guide aboard the family's 85-foot vessel, Alaska Grandeur.

Growing up along Alaska's coast provided Alisha with an exceptional introduction to the skills needed in this challenging environment. In addition to her qualifications as a guide, she's licensed to operate 100-ton vessels. When she decided she wasn't satisfied with the taxidermy on some of her personal trophies, she mastered that skill as well.

Based out of Gustavus, Alaska, Glacier Guides remains a family affair. At any given time Alisha's mother, father, husband or brothers might be aboard the Alaska Grandeur with her. Her busy season begins in late April, with bear hunts scheduled through May. In August, she sometimes leaves the area to guide a sheep hunt in the mountains west of Anchorage at the request of a repeat client. September and October mean fall bear hunts. And once snow begins to push game out of the high country, she guides hunters along the coast for mountain goats and blacktail deer. How she finds time to do any taxidermy remains a mystery.

While she's hunted just about everything in Alaska, she admits a long-standing fascination with brown bears. She uses the adjective "magnificent" repeatedly as she describes a lifetime of experience hunting the fearsome animals. A successful client-who happened to be a woman-once asked Alisha to photograph her posed with a foot on top of the fallen bear's back. Alisha flatly refused: The request conveyed insufficient respect for the animal.

Her own quest for an exceptional brown bear turned into an epic. "I had been hunting bears for nine years and had turned down close to two hundred of them," she says. "I had one day to hunt this spring and went out and saw three bears. Two were ore after Thomson's gazelle," Alisha recalls. "I was shooting my dad's .300 and [BRACKET "legendary African guide"] Paul Huggins was our PH. We were watching this herd of gazelles and my dad was on one side of me telling me when I should shoot and which ram to go for and Paul was on the other side doing the same thing.

Finally, I turned to them and said, 'I know which animal I want and when I'm ready to shoot, I'll shoot. Just chill out!'" The men, with several decades of guiding experience between them, fell silent and Alisha took her ram. At an age when most teens are eagerly awaiting their first driver's license, Alisha had something more ambitious in mind. In Alaska you have to be 18 to obtain an assistant guide's license, which she did as soon as the calendar allowed. After the mandatory two-year period as an assistant, she met the state's stringent standards as a registered guide herself. When she married three years ago, she and her husband reversed the traditional order of entry many married guide teams follow. He had no prior experience as a professional outdoorsman, but now he works as an assistant guide aboard the family's 85-foot vessel, Alaska Grandeur.

Growing up along Alaska's coast provided Alisha with an exceptional introduction to the skills needed in this challenging environment. In addition to her qualifications as a guide, she's licensed to operate 100-ton vessels. When she decided she wasn't satisfied with the taxidermy on some of her personal trophies, she mastered that skill as well.

Based out of Gustavus, Alaska, Glacier Guides remains a family affair. At any given time Alisha's mother, father, husband or brothers might be aboard the Alaska Grandeur with her. Her busy season begins in late April, with bear hunts scheduled through May. In August, she sometimes leaves the area to guide a sheep hunt in the mountains west of Anchorage at the request of a repeat client. September and October mean fall bear hunts. And once snow begins to push game out of the high country, she guides hunters along the coast for mountain goats and blacktail deer. How she finds time to do any taxidermy remains a mystery.

While she's hunted just about everything in Alaska, she admits a long-standing fascination with brown bears. She uses the adjective "magnificent" repeatedly as she describes a lifetime of experience hunting the fearsome animals. A successful client-who happened to be a woman-once asked Alisha to photograph her posed with a foot on top of the fallen bear's back. Alisha flatly refused: The request conveyed insufficient respect for the animal.

Her own quest for an exceptional brown bear turned into an epic. "I had been hunting bears for nine years and had turned down close to two hundred of them," she says. "I had one day to hunt this spring and went out and saw three bears. Two were o