Several years ago, while conducting interviews for firearms instructors to work for my training company Silvercore Inc. I found myself face to face with a well dressed petite woman who on appearances alone one would not associate the words “Firearms Instructor” with.
I have a few rules when hiring, one of which is “don’t worry about trying to find the candidate with the perfect skill set, rather find the candidate with the perfect core values as the skill set can be taught”. If we hire a candidate who knows the subject matter inside out but doesn’t have the core values their mother should have taught them, they won’t last long in our organization. Bearing that in mind, I still had concerns about how this woman would be able to relate to a burly outdoorsman or have the voice and physical presence to control a firing line. That was of course until we spoke and I had the opportunity to learn once again that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Her name is Helen Rohrs and not only did she possess all of the important core values we require, but she also had a lot more to offer.
Here is her story:
“You’re not what I pictured.”
By: Helen Rohrs.
“You’re not what I pictured…” is the expression I usually get on the face of 20 or so students as I step in front of them for the first time. “You’re not what we pictured as a firearms instructor… actually you’re not what we pictured as someone who would be into guns at all…”
I’ve become immune to the skeptical looks I get when I tell people I like guns or that I teach gun courses…or that I spent five years traipsing around the South African wilderness, as an armed, professional safari guide.
I guess it makes sense. When people think about firearms, especially big guns, they don’t usually associate them with a female, 5’5,’’ 120lb, art school graduate.
I didn’t become passionate about firearms out of the fun of it, but rather out of circumstance and necessity.
I’ve been around guns, in one way or another most of my life. I was born and spent my childhood in South Africa, and have fond memories of shooting pistols with my grandfather, hunting guinea fowl with shotguns on my grandmother’s farm, and participating in the ever-fun tin can shooting championships with my brother and cousins. (I was the youngest out of the bunch, and as a hopeless tomboy…could never be left out of the fun the boys in the family were having.) Guns were never a mystery to me, or a forbidden-fruit type enigma, only seen on TV and movies. I really didn’t think anything of them at all.
My family immigrated to Canada when I turned ten. After graduating high school, I immediately entered art school, where my weapon of choice became a swift paintbrush.
After getting my degree I felt the African wilderness of my childhood beckoning me back. Without hesitation, I enrolled in a South African game ranger course. The training involved tenting it for a month, next to a dry riverbed in a South African game reserve. While sharing camp with lions, leopard, elephants, rhino, buffalo, and their kin; I learned the basic skills of animal tracking, bush craft and field guiding.
As African safari guiding requires one to carry a rifle for protection against the potential of an animal attack, the day came when I found myself on a dusty patch of ground, the hot African sun, high in the sky above beating down on me, squinting at a makeshift cardboard target. An instructor handed me the rifle.. a hefty .458 bolt action. I pressed the butt against my shoulder and lowered my cheek to the wooden stock. My arms trembled with anticipation as I looked through the open sites and readied my finger on the trigger. As I slowly depressed the trigger the loud, jolting CRACK took me by surprise. I’m not even sure if I hit that target on that first shot, as the adrenaline surged through me. But, I knew at that moment, my life would never be the same.
Upon completion of the course, I went on to spend some time at a private safari lodge, in the Sabi Sands (Greater Kruger) Game Reserve. There, while volunteering my services to the lodge and the surrounding rural communities outside the reserve, I really began to integrate myself into the environment. In return for my work, I received further training and gained experience from the local guides and trackers, many of whom had spent a lifetime living and working in the remote, surrounding area. It wasn’t long before I found myself in tune with the wildlife and the surroundings.
As time passed, I was given the opportunity to work as an animal tracker. (Tracking game for tourists visiting the reserve to partake in photographic safaris.) Who would have thought? A young woman, taking on the job, traditionally afforded to the local tribal men from the region. I was given a great chance, and took to it like a “ravenous lioness on a fresh zebra kill”.
When tracking wildlife, in a dangerous game area, one has to carry a high caliber rifle. Often we would find ourselves face to face with the “Big 5.” (Lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard.) Sometimes these encounters, on foot, would be hair-raising, and having a rifle close at hand, was a big comfort.
It wasn’t long before my rifle, became an extension of myself. It never left my side as I spent my days, following spoor through acacia thickets and riverbeds, watching and listening for animal signs.
After some time and a serious case of “Khaki Fever” (Khaki fever is the affectionate name given to the spell young women fall under as they fall in love with African game rangers, who wear Khaki uniforms… this is a whole story unto itself!), my soon to be Game Ranger husband and myself, moved on to a safari lodge in the Manyeleti Game Reserve.
Here, I’d been hired to work as a full time safari guide. Interestingly, I was the first female guide that this lodge had ever taken on. Once again, I immersed myself into my work and the new reserve… which to me was a true, wild Eden. Within months I was promoted to Head Ranger, and was placed in charge of their Safari Department.
Typical duties were to host and guide travelers, by 4X4 vehicle, or on foot, to seek out creatures both great and small. It was not only my responsibility to protect myself against the potential hazards Mother Nature had to offer in this unforgiving place, but also to also protect these people who trusted me to lead them through the wilds. It was now more than ever, that my .375 Holland and Holland Magnum rifle became my faithful tool.
However, soon enough, I realized that not only was I to protect myself and the travelers against the wildlife, I had to also protect the wildlife and it’s environment from those wishing to do harm. It became customary to find myself chasing illegal poachers, during the darkness of night, through the dangerous bush. As soon as the radio calls would come through, asking for help with anti-poaching, I’d have to jump to action and once again my rifle was always in hand as I ran out the door… not knowing what I was going to encounter out there.
Eventually, the time came when I was to return to Canada. I had to leave behind the African wilderness, the creatures, and the need to never be without my rifle at my side. The next couple of years were spent establishing a new life in the city.
One day, an opportunity presented itself to me in an online ad, seeking instructors to teach firearms courses in and around Vancouver. Silvercore Training hired me to instruct firearm safety, hunting, handgun, and bear defense courses.
Once again, I was in my element! My passion for firearms, along with my passion to share my knowledge and experience with people, melded together, as I embarked on this new journey, as a firearms instructor.
As I stand before a classroom of students, quizzical looks on their faces, wondering what I am doing before them. I smile to myself, thinking of the journey that has brought me here, to this point and I can’t wait to see where this adventure of mine will take me next.