BOZEMAN — The second year Judy Cornell's husband and son went hunting without her, she loaded her Subaru with her black lab and her Remington and headed out to hunt alone.
The Chouteau family had gone through hunter safety courses together. But Cornell's husband explained some trips were important father-son time.
"Something he had done with his dad," Cornell, 61, said. "I got it. But staying home, that's not what I was envisioning."
It was 1995. Her basecamp was an inn with a kitchenette so she could avoid restaurants packed with hunting fellas. Soon after arriving, she went knocking on doors to get the OK to hunt on private lands.
"They were amused by the fact that I was out hunting — women didn't really do this, go knocking on doors and go hunting by themselves," Cornell said.
A few years after Cornell discovered those hunting spots alone, they became the first grounds for an all ladies hunt, though the gals were outnumbered by their dogs.
They go by The Belles. And they've been hunting together at least once a year for nearly two decades.
"Belle means a charming, beautiful woman, and we thought, 'Well, that's us,'" said Kathy Hansen Crawford of Bozeman.
Aside from its summarization of the ladies, the name came from the Bella Vista Motel, the spot Cornell found that acted as the first Belle Hunt home base in 1998.
Hansen Crawford, now 66, said most of the gals learned hunting through men, "but it's not rocket science."
She said the Belles found each other at a time when they were used to being "the woman or one of the women" in a group of hunters.
They didn't mind being the anomaly.
"But the conversations, everything, it's just different when a bunch of women are lying on the ground, talking, tired and with their dogs," she said.
Women filter in and out of the group each season. But there are three regulars: Cornell, Hansen Crawford and Stacy Upton of Whitefish.
The trio rotates turns picking hunting spots across Montana and going through the hoops to access the land. Depending on the location, they've slept in cabins, tents, truck beds and campers.
"In 19 years of doing this, we've had horrible blowing snow storms, muddy muddy roads, lovely sunshiney days," Hansen Crawford said. "We've had rattlesnakes, dogs in porcupines, eclipses and a baby shower."
Upton said there are a few exceptions when men can enter a Belle campsite, like when she was nursing and her husband tagged along with the baby.
If they're hunting near one of the Belles' homes, a gent is allowed to come into camp if he bears refreshments — like the year Hansen Crawford's husband had wine and hor d'oeurves set up on the open door of a truck bed after a day's hunt.
Cornell said it's hard to describe what feels different when they go into the woods as a group of women.
"In most ways it's not different. The men in my life have been 100 percent encouraging of my interest in hunting. That is true for all of the Belles," she said. "But you're spending time with gals. We don't have to turn on the radio to catch the World Series playoff. You're talking about things that women talk about."
Hansen Crawford said it's also not all about hunting, "though we're good at that part."
"We once left our hunting site near the Canadian border to drive an hour to the closest town with a bar to watch (Barack) Obama's first presidential debate," she said. "We weren't all in the same political camp, but we had to see it."
For another thing, Upton added, the dinners are luxurious.
Each Belle likes to cook. They plan their meals around the game they intend to catch. If it's deer season, they may plan white-tailed deer medallion glazed in a huckleberry sauce.
"We make the table look nice with candles, wine glasses of course, a full set of silver," Upton said.
Breakfast is the same setup while lunch is a picnic in a field.
Upton said they only have a few days out of each year together. But those are rare days outdoors and away from the routines around work and family. All that matters is the hunt and each other.
She said while sharing a meal they shot and prepared, they've counseled each other through career changes, newborns, retirements and a cancer diagnosis.
"We went even the year I was pregnant," Upton said, who joined the crew at 34. "We don't stop for anything."
Her son is now 15. He's named Colter, after John Colter, a hunter known for his work during the Lewis and Clark expedition. His first days at hunting camp sites, he was surrounded by his mother and her friends.
When people talk about the Belles as an anomaly, Upton said her son — who Cornell described as an "over the top" duck hunter — gets annoyed and a bit confused.
"He's like, 'but you guys only hunt once a year together,'" Upton said with a laugh. "Isn't it nice that in his world, it's not unusual for us to hunt? His view of the world is, that's just what we do."