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Shoot to thrill

Georgia Pellegrini takes aim at antiquated stereotypes with her Girl Hunter Weekend. But does she hit the target?

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It's early afternoon at the Ranches at Belt Creek and a group of women in plaid shirts and cowboy boots stand on a gravel path squinting into the bright blue sky. One of them, a petite brunette with pursed lips and smoky eyeliner, hoists a shotgun into position. As a clay pigeon passes through the air in front of her, she points the barrel toward it, flinching slightly as she pulls the trigger.

Miss.

Behind her, Georgia Pellegrini, a striking blonde wearing red plaid, helps the woman reload the gun and guide it back into place, pressing the butt of it to her shoulder and the body near her cheek. Georgia whispers something encouraging to the woman. This time when the clay pigeon appears across the blue sky, the woman follows it with the tip of the gun, eases the trigger and blows the hunter-orange disc into a shower of shards.

The woman yells "Woo hoo!" and the crowd of onlookers cheer. Georgia smiles. With the surrounding hills vibrant in green brush and pine set against a backdrop of golden bluffs, the scene of stylish women looks straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog.

This is Girl Hunter Weekend, a three-day, $2,000-plus adventure for women looking to learn about living off the land. This weekend's attendees have come from Texas, Colorado, New York and California to shoot guns, ride horses, cook wild game, tool around on ATVs and fly fish, plus indulge in the luxury of high-end accommodations, champagne toasts and gourmet meals. Georgia Pellegrini plays the role of teacher and central attraction for the gathering. The New York chef-turned-hunter/author/budding celebrity hosts weekends like this one all over the country, hocking her book, Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing How We Eat One Hunt at a Time, and spreading a message of female empowerment. A New York Times book review and Georgia's own marketing materials describe her as a cross between Annie Oakley and Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex in the City."

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As a true Montana "girl hunter," all of this leaves me skeptical and conflicted. A New York celebrity teaching women how to hunt in a state full of women hunters? At worst, it sounds like the National Rifle Association's take on glamping (aka glamour camping), some glossy imitation of the dirt-under-the-fingernails traditions my father passed down to me during my youth. At best, it promotes a better understanding of how we get our food and introduces hunting to a whole new demographic. The weekend has the potential to be infuriating or invigorating, an example of interlopers squeezing the state of every last bit of its authenticity or a potential paradigm shift in a historically male-dominated act. It could go either way.

"We're going to lunch now," Georgia announces at the sporting clay course.

Everyone grabs their plastic water bottles and other belongings and jumps in the ATVs. There isn't room for all of us, so another woman and I hitch a ride with a kindly ranch hand named Dean. Driving through the hilly prairie back to the lodge we pass a handful of small deer grazing in the distant grass. Deer are a dime a dozen in Montana, but I still perk up at the sight of wildlife in such a beautiful setting. Something doesn't look right, though. Just as I'm about to comment on it, Dean says, "There's the deer for our 3D archery course."

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The sporting lodge at the Ranches at Belt Creek is a stunning space with a bar, a long dining table, a fireplace and a wall full of sliding glass doors that open onto a deck. Outside, there's another stone fireplace and a view overlooking the coulee, bordered by buttes to the west and the Little Belt Mountains to the south.

The dining room table is set for the 11 "girl hunters" here for the weekend. Deidre, the ranch's concierge, brings out plates of mixed greens and goat cheese, and a chicken, grape and walnut salad in a bread bowl. The guests slowly filter in, many sporting cowboy hats, glitzy belt buckles and diamond rings. There are designer jeans and a few hints of Botox, expensive leather and the kind of confident chatter I imagine goes on in a Manhattan loft brimming with socialites.

CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters

Georgia sits at the head of the table, quietly texting on her phone and taking bites of food, looking up to nod or answer when one of the women asks her a question. I take it all in and try not to focus on the superficial, try to hear what they're saying. But all I can think about is my post-pregnant belly, non-manicured nails and un-whitened teeth. It's not a typical Montana crowd in any way.

After we eat lunch, a man named Mark Hawn escorts me to my log cabin, which features a rustic-chic décor with gorgeous wood finishes, a loft, a mini fridge and a flat-screen television. Mark owns the ranch with his father, Mark Sr., and tells me the family story. His father bought up commercial land in Jackson Hole only to be outdone by billionaires who had deeper pockets and could therefore entice the tourist population. "The billionaires came in and pushed out the millionaires," he says. "And so [my father] looked north and found Belt."

The 800-acre Ranches at Belt Creek is similar to the Stock Farm Club in Hamilton. Invitation-only guests pay to stay at the cabins, eat at the sporting club lodge and take part in recreational activities like hunting and horseback riding. There are also residents who have bought land on the ranch. In addition to their five-acre plots, residents have access to 200 additional acres, plus big-game hunting passage to the adjacent Hawn family ranch, which is a whopping 6,500 acres.

Girl Hunter Weekend is another way the sporting club makes money. Mark came across Georgia's book last year and told Deidre, who had just been hired as the full-time concierge.

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