Editor’s note: The following story is now available in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
Photos courtesy of Hillarie Putnam and the History Channel
By Chris Cocoles
Sometimes, you’re just preordained to have an adventurous disposition.
You’re named for one of the men on the first team to reach the summit of mighty Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak; your dad was so in love with the outdoors he moved his family from the Midwest to the Last Frontier when you were a year old; you have no qualms hunting giant brown bears by yourself on one of the most dangerous, killer-bruin-infested stretches of land on Kodiak Island.
You are hunter/actress/adrenaline-seeking and proud Alaskan Hillarie Putnam, and it seems like you can take on anything, from the high jump to high mountains to the highest levels of Hollywood’s A-list.
Putnam, 25, recently was one of the participants – along with her dad, David – on the successful History Channel debut series, The Hunt, which follows bear hunters throughout Alaska.
She’s also an up-and-coming actor (we’ll have more about her powerful turn with Nicolas Cage and more in part two of this interview). So needless to say, Putnam is keeping busy; she’s in negotiations to host her own hunting show from a woman’s perspective.
She and longtime boyfriend, Dylan, have talked about getting married someday, and whenever she does tie the knot, this full-throttle outdoors junkie wants to channel her inner namesake, Sir Edmund Hillary, and exchange vows high atop a peak in the Himalayas.
Putnam, who splits her time between Alaska and Seattle, sat down with us recently to talk about a wide variety of subjects.
Chris Cocoles So tell me about how your passion for the outdoors began.
Hillarie Putnam We moved from Michigan to Alaska, because Dad always wanted to climb the mountains of Alaska; he’s a big mountaineer. I have two deaf siblings, so I don’t know what the heck my parents were doing moving us to Alaska, but we drove everything up there to Wasilla; my mom’s a special education teacher specializing in child development for (the hearing impaired). And my brother and sister kind of moved to all-deaf schools. So I was pretty much raised as an only child. And I grew up hunting and fishing. I think I shot my first gun at 4 and started going out hunting with my dad at 8. I also had my first swill of whiskey at 8 [laughs]. My dad wanted me to be the youngest girl in Alaska to get all five large game – it didn’t work out. He wanted me to be the youngest girl to climb Denali – that didn’t work out. I was balancing outdoors with the sports I played and the acting I did. But he taught me to have high goals; even if you don’t achieve them, it’s good to put that carrot out in front of you.
CC I would imagine as a little kid in Alaska, you are bound to get naturally attracted to the outdoors. So he didn’t have to drag you out?
HP Not at all; I’m so similar to my dad as I’m now older, it’s getting scary [laughs]. My brother – not interested in it at all. He has kids of his own now and is into insects and bugs and bringing them into the outdoors. But he’s not much of a hunter, and if you asked him for his perspective, he would just assume people not hunt. My brother supports me to the end of time, but we were talking about me doing some projects with traveling and hunting, and he told me, “Just to let you know, if you go to Africa, I’m not going to be in favor of it.”
CC While we’re on that subject, so many women who hunt have been ripped for it on social media. Has that happened to you like the Texas Tech cheerleader, Kendall Jones?
HP TMZ did a thing about her, and just because I’m in the entertainment industry, next thing you know my (Twitter feed) was getting this and that from people about hunting. It’s interesting how much technology we have at our fingertips these days. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. People don’t go out and witness stuff for themselves anymore. They just click a button, and you don’t always get the appropriate information; or don’t have the experience of being out there of taking an animal’s life. There’s a whole lot that goes into that. Nobody understands the gravity of that except for the person who pulls the trigger and the creature that passes away. It’s interesting seeing so much input on that split second.
CC Did you get a lot of negative backlash after The Hunt premiered?
HP The show got great feedback, partly because of how they shot everything. I did have one woman who commented because we didn’t do anything with the bear meat. Honestly, if anyone can hunt bear above the Arctic Circle, the bear up there tastes like pork. They are better than any moose, goat or sheep – anything I’ve ever had. But the bears on Kodiak Island are so large because they feed on a lot of decaying salmon. So you can’t really do much with them; it’s more of a game management and trophy hunt. But it was interesting how many people said, “You’re an Alaskan who appreciates the Alaskan way of life, but you don’t eat the bear meat.” Any Alaskan Native will tell you’re an idiot if you’re going to eat that (Kodiak) bear meat. There are certain things you eat, certain things you don’t eat in the state of Alaska. It’s wild, and you’re not going to somebody’s farm or ranch. There are no fences everywhere, and you’re very much stepping into that circle of life that happens.
CC On the show, you and your dad were hunting and he said goodbye to you and had you continue your hunt alone – of course, with a cameraman filming you – but I could sense that was a genuine release of emotions by your dad.
HP He was moved, and it’s happened before. We do a month-long float trip – I can’t say where exactly – above the Arctic Circle and you can hunt all of Alaska’s big-game animals. He had some of his buddies from Michigan with him. So we were on the river and I said I wanted to hang back on my raft, and the guys can push forward. I had my tags, but I mostly just went as an outfitter and to help out. And the guys were like, “You know where we’re at, right?” And sure enough, I ended up meeting back up with them, with a 58-inch bull (moose) with extremely heavy brow tines. It’s probably one of the nicest racks I’ve ever seen. So that was one step of him seeing, “She doesn’t really need me anymore.” And I think he thinks, “I don’t have to tell her how to set the tent, tell her how to do this. All these things she can do without me having to tell her.”
So I think hunting on Kodiak was something he always wanted to take me to do because very few people get to go do it. As soon as he found out my bear went down (on the show), he called my sat phone and asked how many shots did it take? He said, “I think if I would have been there, I might have been able to get you in a better position.” So there’s always critique and feedback.
The footage they got in the show, it was amazing how close it hit home. They didn’t talk about it on the show, but I had a dear friend [Lorri Egge] who passed away two days before we filmed that. She was my female role model growing up. So I think that played into (the emotion) too when he left. My dad is this super tough shell and everyone kind of thinks he’s a bit of an (ass****) and he’s this mountain man who does it his way. But he’s the most kind and caring person, and I was glad you were able to see that side of him.
CC So how did you handle all that? You seemed to have your game face on.
HP It was emotional. I had one day, and when you watch the show it kind of skips ahead a day, where I didn’t leave the tent very much.
CC What was your overall experience on the show?
HP It was reality, though I shouldn’t say “reality” as it was more documentary-series television. But being a focal point was very strange. I’ve done tons of theater, films, television shows and commercials. And with film and television it’s an escape; you get to be somebody else for a few days. With this it was not so much shooting it, but afterwards, it was a little scary that it was just me. How was I going to be perceived by the public?
CC Did you get a chance to see the show before it aired?
HP Nope. I’m working on coming up with my own stuff. Then you have a bit more of an idea of how you want it. There was no feedback and you don’t know how they’re going paint you. A lot of things happen out in the field, so it’s really trusting to build a strong relationship with your shooter/producer. Because they are the ones reporting the story back to the network. Chad, my shooter/producer, was phenomenal. He and I bonded really well, and I think he took the time to get to know us as people and not just as gun-totin’ Alaskans. I think History did a great job.
CC Tell me about the moment you got your bear on the show.
HP As soon as the bear goes down and takes off into the woods, I said “Alright, we gotta go.” We went down the hill – and we’re talking steep. We were all over the place running down the hill and I could hear Chad laughing. I’m like, “What are you doing?” He said, “This is insane! It’s like Indiana Jones. I’ve never been on a show that’s this real.” He was elated to be doing this, but he realized we were going into an extremely dangerous situation; the brush on Kodiak is insanely thick. He’s worked on tons and tons of shows, and he just couldn’t believe how raw and real hunting in Alaska is. People ask what’s real and what’s not real on that show, and I just tell them to spend a night on Kodiak.
CC How do you feel women are perceived as hunters compared to men?
HP I’m not the only woman who hunts. And there’s always going to be criticism, because we’re kind of stepping out as the first women who are doing this. And I think everyone believes all women should have this immense amount of compassion and not want to kill things. But you go out into the field with women and men and ask the men, “Who does better in the field?” It’s usually women. It’s a really strange element. We’re very patient in the field. The Hunt got really great feedback. They showed the camaraderie of the people.
CC Would you like to be back on The Hunt for season two?
HP We’re waiting to see if they renew it [by the time this issue comes out, that may be decided]. If it does and I come back, that would be awesome. I’m in a holding pattern, so if The Hunt does well, the direction they want to take is that I’ve had a rare opportunity to work as an outfitter for one of the guides on Kodiak. I’m hoping the show gets picked back up so people can see what that process is.
CC So what kind of hunting show do you hope to develop yourself?
HP There isn’t a series out there with a strong female lead, as far as docu-series television that puts a woman in a man’s element and shows how she can succeed. And I think that’s a reason why The Hunt did so well. And the network wasn’t quite expecting that. Because we still have to put things in these boxes. What stories sell? Fish-out-of-water stories sell. I think that originally what they were thinking [with Putnam’s part of the overall storyline]: Here’s a girl and a coming-of-age story. But once I got out there in the field it was more of, “Wow, she actually knows as much as the guys who were out there.”
CC So about this wedding someday on the top of a mountain …
HP My parents have been together since they were 11 and got married at 18. And they are now, 59, 60? So they’ve been together for a long time. My boyfriend and I have been together for seven years. So what we’ve said is if we do decide to get married, it’s going to be by a Sherpa and somewhere in the Himalayas because I want it to be somewhere Sir Edmund Hillary’s climbed. And anyone can come, but you’ll have to climb the mountain to get there. ASJ
Editor’s note: Look for part two of our interview with Hillarie Putnam in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal.