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Minnesotan's love of the outdoors is put to the extremes [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) :: BC-OTD-EXTREMEHUNTRESS:MS]

MINNEAPOLIS - If you're in northern Minnesota in the coming weeks and see a woman jogging while wearing a down jacket, lugging a 20-pound pack and a carrying a 12-gauge shotgun, wish Meadow Kouffeld good luck.

Kouffeld, 34, is training to compete for the title of "Extreme Huntress" against two women from Europe and one from Washington state. The down jacket Kouffeld wears while exercising is intended to replicate the heat she and the other women will encounter during the weeklong contest near San Antonio, Texas, beginning July 29.

Other than "a lot of running and gunning," Kouffeld is unsure exactly what to expect, though in past years a biathlon was included among skills tests.

"At times in the biathlon, an AK-47 has been used, or a similar rifle, and at other times it's been a hunting rifle or a standard biathlon .22," she said. "So we'll see."

Now in its 10th year, the worldwide Extreme Huntress competition is intended to "create positive role models for women who want to participate in hunting and the outdoor lifestyle," according to organizers. Kouffeld and the other three finalists will be tested for fitness, as well as shooting, tracking and hunting skills.

"I don't really like the words 'extreme' or 'huntress,' but I am serious about this competition," Kouffeld said.

A native Californian, Kouffeld came to Minnesota in 2008 to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Ruffed grouse were the subject of her master's thesis, and after she finished her degree, she worked for the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of natural resources before joining the Ruffed Grouse Society, stationed in Grand Rapids.

"I grew up in Northern California raising and showing chickens," she said. "My dad was a hunter, and when I was a kid, he and I and my sister hunted a lot of quail and turkeys, as well as deer and other big game. We also hunted blue grouse, and I even shot a red-phase ruffed grouse once in California. I guess I've always been attracted to birds. So when I had a chance to come to Minnesota and study ruffed grouse, I took it."

Kouffeld left the grouse group in January, in part to spend more time with her 5-year-old daughter. Now she teaches forest ecology, wildlife ecology and management, and dendrology (the study of trees) at Itasca Community College. She also coordinates that school's annual Wildfire Academy, which draws about 700 firefighters from throughout Minnesota and beyond.

"I've been aware of the 'Extreme Huntress' competition since it started, and I entered it once previously," Kouffeld said. "My sister in California also has entered. Neither of us made the finals on those attempts. But now that I have, I'm working hard to prepare. Promoting women in the outdoors is important to me, and this competition provides a platform to showcase our abilities."

Among the contest's first requirements, Kouffeld and the other women must attach and successfully align scopes to the rifles they'll use daily during the competition. Then, during morning and evening outings on a 10,000-acre Texas ranch, they'll hunt specific exotic big game animals, accompanied into the field by a hunting partner, a judge and a videographer. (The competition will be filmed for later airing.)

Between hunts, various skills tests will pit the women against one another.

"There will be shotgun challenges and rifle challenges, as well as pistol shooting and possibly archery," Kouffeld said. "You don't know what the requirements will be ahead of time. I shoot left-handed, so AKs and rifles, if they're made for right-handed shooters, can be a bit of a challenge for me. For that reason, I'm hoping for more shotgun competitions."

The women likely also will be required to speak extemporaneously about wildlife conservation. Defending hunting's role in wildlife management might also be required, possibly while being heckled by actors or others portraying themselves as anti-hunters.

Kouffeld is highly regarded in Minnesota wildlife management circles as a conservationist and hunter, and people who know her believe she can handle any situation she encounters.

Yet the heat worries her. She ran track in high school. But her knees aren't 100 percent.

"In some past 'Extreme Huntress' contests, the four finalist women were asked to run multiple miles, and in other years, just one mile," she said. "So we'll see."

Kouffeld was hunting in South Africa with her sister, Maggi, a captain with CAL FIRE, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, when she found out she had been named an "Extreme Huntress" semifinalist. Initial scoring was done online by viewers who watched videos of the women explain why they hunted, and why the competition appealed to them. Entrants also submitted essays to a panel of judges explaining the importance of hunting and an outdoors lifestyle.

A dog owner (Deutsch Drahthaars and English setters) who regularly pursues grouse and woodcock in Minnesota's North Woods in the fall, Kouffeld also embraces adventure far from home. Two years ago, she accompanied her sister to Kyrgyzstan, along China's western border, to hunt ibex.

"It was incredible," she said. "At times we were only 100 yards from China. The people were great to us, and in that respect, it was the exact opposite of what I anticipated. But conditions were tough, especially when we were camped between 10,000 feet and 15,000 feet, with a stiff wind and a temperature of 22 below zero."

Kouffeld doesn't worry about being cold while exercising daily in and near Grand Rapids wearing a down jacket and toting a pack and shotgun. Fitness is her only concern. And at 5 feet 6 inches tall and 149 pounds, she said she's about in the condition she wants to be.

Yet unlike the two European women finalists - one from Sweden, the other from Slovakia - Kouffeld has had only minimal corporate support. Vortex Optics has helped. The Grand Rapids shooting community is planning a fun shoot in July to kick in some money. But otherwise she's depended on a gofundme.com effort to help cover her expenses. (To contribute, go to bit.ly/kouff.)

Winner of the competition will be announced at a Dallas Safari Club black tie dinner in January. A trophy is awarded. And the title of "Extreme Huntress." But no money.

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