Last Shot

After more than a half-century of chasing big game, 81-year-old Mavis Lorenz loads her rifle for one final hunting season


“Are you a hunter?”

The question serves as something of a gatekeeper for Mavis Lorenz. When a visitor asks the 81-year-old Missoula resident if she’d be willing to talk about her life as a record-setting hunter and pioneer of women’s athletics for a possible story, she’s skeptical. In fact, she asks the reporter to wait outside while she thinks about it. But before her front door closes, she spins back around and asks the singular, prescient question: “Are you a hunter?”

Yes, very much so, the reporter answers.

It’s the right answer. Lorenz pushes the door open and invites her guest inside.

It’s immediately clear why she asked. Although hunting season is still nearly a month off, her floor and couch are hidden beneath an array of topographic and U.S. Forest Service travel maps. State game regulations, hunting journals and catalogs are scattered on the coffee table. Framed pictures from multiple decades, each showing Lorenz and a recently killed animal, line the walls. Then there are the four sheep heads—two impressive mounts on the wall, a Dall and a stone sheep, and two additional skulls resting on her carpet, right next to the bear skull.

She watches the reporter’s eyes as they come to rest on a particularly massive rack on the carpet.

“That’s just a plaster cast,” she says dismissively. “The real one’s a record, on the wall at Bob Wards in a full body mount. I got him up Rock Creek.”

Despite her age and small stature—she stands 5-foot-2—Lorenz remains tougher than elk hide and sharp as a gut hook. In the last six years, she’s broken her back, had her knee replaced and been diagnosed with a debilitating auto-immune disease, but she’s still planning to rove Montana’s wilds in search of one last adventure.

While skiing, mountaineering, paddling and other kinds of outdoor play have occupied Lorenz over the years, nothing has defined her life like hunting. She’s successfully hunted Dall sheep in the Northwest Territories, black bear on Vancouver Island and moose here in Montana. She moved to Missoula in 1954 to teach physical education at the University of Montana, and has since harvested—and, without exception, consumed—every big game animal the state has to offer, other than bison.

“I don’t think I’ve missed any,” she says, listing the animals. “I’ve been pretty lucky.”

Lorenz exhibits more than luck. Raised during the Great Depression—“I haven’t grown up yet,” she insists—Lorenz had a hardscrabble childhood in Wisconsin. Gender inequality prevented her from playing competitive sports through college, and while she’s still peeved at the lack of opportunity, she more than made up for it in the ensuing years. She supervised the University of Montana ski instructors in the 1960s, kayaked the Lochsa, participated nationally in masters class track and field in the 1990s, and regularly competed in cross-country ski races.

“Mavis was really out ahead of her time when it comes to women’s sports,” says Dr. Sharon Dinkel-Uhlig, associate dean of UM’s School of Education and Lorenz’s former colleague. “She would have absolutely relished the opportunities that girls and women have now. They just weren’t available back then.”

Lorenz couldn’t agree more.

“There were no opportunities for girls in competition in that era,” she says. “It really ticked me off because guys had opportunities with the swim team, and the gymnastics team, in addition to tennis and golf and that whole schmeer. It just wasn’t fair.”

In order to play competitive sports in rural Wisconsin, a young Lorenz worked out with male gymnasts and would travel with her girlfriends to compete covertly against nearby colleges.

“But we just didn’t dare tell our teachers,” she says. “The men’s coach was there, but none of the women from the women’s department knew about it, or at least they kept their mouths shut.”

While any number of sports have kept Lorenz inspired—not to mention young at heart—nothing has motivated her like hunting. She picked it up early in life, but more as a necessity than a hobby.

“My mother was a crack shot with a .22, and she taught me to hunt,” Lorenz says. “There wasn’t a rabbit that lasted 24 hours in our garden.”

Squirrels made up a significant part of her family’s diet growing up.

“Oh, they’re good! The red squirrels back there are big, and they’re good eating,” she says.

But with Lorenz’s move to Missoula in 1954, her passion for pursuing animals shifted toward bigger game. Fifteen years ago, she scored a coveted bighorn sheep tag for Rock Creek, a hunting district known to contain a healthy population of trophy rams. To prepare for the hunt, she pored over books in the library, consulted local bighorn experts and did whatever she could to learn about the animal’s daily patterns. A few weeks into the season, she shot the seventh largest sheep ever taken in Montana, and the largest ever taken by a woman.

“That sheep got me sheep fever, and it has cost me dearly,” she says. “Once I got that one, I just wanted to go sheep hunting some more, because sheep are hard to find and a real challenge.”

And that, say those who know her, is something Lorenz thrives on.

“Mavis has always really challenged herself, not only to improve her self, but to beat males a lot of the time,” says Tom Whidden, a UM education professor who also taught with Lorenz earlier in his career. “Hunting is a good example of that. I went hunting with her once, and she shot an old, old bull. Nobody else got anything, but she got her elk. She just thrived on hunting, and the challenges it possessed.”

Sometimes her motivations moved beyond hunting. In the 1970s, Lorenz performed exploratory work in Glacier National Park, assisting the late, great Gordon Edwards “fill in some gaps” for a “Continental Divide Route.” Unlike the Continental Divide Trail, which parallels the divide, the route straddles the divide and is accessible only to technical climbers.

More recently, she’s worked to pass along her experience to the next generation, and give back to a community that helped her achieve her own goals. In particular, she worked (until retiring last year) for a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) program called Becoming an Outdoor Woman (BOW), which is specifically designed to help remove barriers that prevent women from participating in outdoor activities.

“Mavis called me out of the blue and offered to teach the program,” says BOW coordinator Liz Lodman.

For years, Lorenz taught multiple classes, including backpacking, crosscountry skiing, cooking and preparing for elk hunting.

“Mavis is really thorough when she teaches a class,” says Lodman. “She has such practical info for the students, because she’s been doing so many activities for all her life.”

Lorenz also volunteered with Meals on Wheels, a grizzly bear DNA study (the same one John McCain has routinely criticized as “pork” spending), other FWP programs like “Hooked on Fishing,” and has personally mentored novice hunters to introduce them, safely, to the game of game.

As Lorenz introduces others to hunting, she’s resigned to the fact that this will be her own last season. She acknowledges her deteriorating vision won’t be good enough next year.

As for this season, she’s ready. In her typically meticulous preparation for opening day on Oct. 26, she’s secured a cow tag for the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area, scouted the area, split up a stack of firewood for her little wood stove, dug a latrine and set up a tarp to keep her soon-to-be-pitched tent pad dry. To be sure her camp wouldn’t be removed, she left a sign with her name, number and address, with a note asking that nothing be disturbed.

But even Lorenz’s best laid plans don’t always work. Heading in to check on camp exactly one week before opening day, she found her tarps and chair stolen. Unburied human waste littered the site nearby.

No longer comfortable with her spot, she rearranged her plans for the hunt. Other things, however, will remain the same. For instance, she’ll continue to hunt alone. To assure worried neighbors, she purchased “an el cheapo” cellular phone so she can check in every night at 6.

“Speaking of 6 o’clock,” she says to her visitor, “you’ll have to come back another time. Cocktail hour is about to start. Yes, I have a cocktail every day—Canadian rye whiskey and water. I was introduced to rye whiskey on my Dall sheep hunt back at base camp, and we toasted my success.”

In her own words
Mavis Lorenz discusses hunting, gender equality, and what it’s like to go over the handlebars at 79.

by Chad Harder

Indy: You have successfully hunted every one of Montana’s big game animals, except bison. What got you started?
Lorenz: I started when I was 12 years old. I could take the gun and go hunting, but not with anyone else because two 12-year-old kids together with guns isn’t a good combination. So I hunted alone, squirrels mostly. But my dad was irate when he was eating squirrel and ran into [shotgun] shot, so I had to shoot them in the head. He had false teeth, and if he chomped down on a shot he could split a tooth, so he was quite adamant about not having any shot in the meat.

Indy: How in the world can you shoot a squirrel solely in the head using as blunt a tool as a shotgun?
Lorenz: Oh, it works! I still use the technique. When a squirrel’s up a tree, lying on a branch like that, you just position yourself so that the trunk of the tree blocks his body. You shoot for the trunk of the tree and hopefully a shot or two will hit [the squirrel] in the head. I still use the same technique for grouse. I think my mother taught me how to do that and I’ve used it ever since.

Indy: Squirrels are one thing, but hunting elk is another altogether. How did you get into that?
Lorenz: Do you know where Boyd Mountain is, near Clearwater Junction? That’s where I got my first elk, in 1955, the year after I moved to Missoula and my first legal year. Of course, back then you didn’t need permits or anything. Now I’ve got a cow permit for the game range just on the other side of that mountain. But this is my last hunt. Now this, my last hunt, is going to be a nice ending to my hunting years.

Indy: Hunting’s been so important to you. Why stop now?
Lorenz: I’ve got macular degeneration—my eyesight’s going. I was worried about whether or not I could see well enough to hunt, because I don’t want to wound an animal. I went out to the game range last Sunday to sight in my rifle. I only took one shot. It was one inch high and a half-inch left. I didn’t have any trouble seeing the bulls-eye—[the scope] was a little bit warped, but I was on it. I decided that I wasn’t going to shoot at a running animal this time. But if I get a standing shot I’ll take it.

Indy: I understand you borrowed a friend’s gun to hunt Dall sheep in Canada?
Lorenz: Oh yes, I’ve got some very good friends. You don’t offer someone your gun any more than you offer someone your toothbrush! Isn’t that true? But the 25.06 is a very flat shooting gun, and most shots on sheep are over 300 yards. Problem was it only had a four-power scope, and at 400 yards that animal looked about the size of a—a cocker spaniel! But I had a wonderful rest, lying on a bed of juniper, with a pack for a rifle rest. I had all the time in the world, was very comfortable and not nervous. I dropped it in one shot. The guide hit me so hard on the back and said, “Mavis! That was a fuckin’ good shot!” When the outfitter, the wrangler and the rest of the guides back at camp heard about [the guide’s reaction], well they couldn’t believe it, because Dave hardly said “Darn!”

That ram scored 169-something, and it had to get 170 to get into Boone and Crockett. But I already had my trophy.

Indy: Yes you did. The bighorn sheep you refer to, the 200 1/8 ram that you shot up Rock Creek in 1993, registers seventh in Montana’s record books. At what point of that hunt did you realize you had a very big ram on your hands?
Lorenz: I knew it was a good sheep because the criteria you use to judge is the size of the hole in the center of the horn—it should be close to a volleyball size. Also, as the horn comes around, the end of the horn should come up to the eye. And do the horns carry their mass all the way to the end? And do the horns come down to the chin? I saw three sheep, all looking at me. When the middle one turned, it just clicked: I could see all four criteria and at the same time I squeezed the trigger.

Indy: Now that you’ve got that trophy bighorn sheep mounted on the wall at Bob Ward & Sons, sheep hunters call you looking for advice on how to get the big one. What do you tell them?
Lorenz: The most important thing I pass along to anyone who calls for advice on sheep is to not shoot the first one you see, because they look huge. They look all horns.

Indy: How about advice for young hunters looking to get into the game?
Lorenz: You need to have a mentor. You need to go out with somebody, and the younger you can start the better. I guess you should say “newcomer,” since years ago I took out my landlady for the first time and she was 50.

Indy: You’ve traveled in Mongolia, Yugoslavia, New Zealand, Poland and beyond. You’ve received your pilot’s license and got into motorcycle touring. As you turn 82, what are your plans for the future?
Lorenz: At my age you don’t even buy more than four rolls of toilet paper at a time. I’m done traveling, because it’s pretty stressful and pretty physical. And I don’t go on cruises, or guided things like train trips through Switzerland. Yes, I did a 30-day canoe trip through the Northwest Territories that was guided, but the first hundred miles was very busy, very technical. You just don’t go up there by yourself.

Indy: After speaking with you I’m having a hard time believing you. So, really: Is this truly your last hunting season?
Lorenz: My eyes are going and I’m weak. I don’t have any strength. And hell, next hunting season I’ll be 82! I don’t want to wound something and not be able to track it, and have to leave it to die in the woods. I may still go out deer hunting with the disability permit, but we’ll see. I’ll play it by ear, but I’m not selling the gun.

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