Primal Progress

A true outdoor adventurist and an expert in primitive camping, Jeannine Marchesseau embraces a simpler way of enjoying nature and its bounties. She can also claim the title of award-winning muzzleloader, knife thrower and archer. At 78, she still enjoys climbing into deer stands with her traditional equipment to hunt wild game with ethical and historical accuracy.

by Kari Apted

When I turned off the curving country road onto Jeannine Marchesseau’s driveway, a huge brown owl swooped down over my windshield and glided silently into the woods. He was an unexpected preview of the home before me, one owned by a diminutive, kind woman with a life devoted to the outdoors. An award-winning hunter, Marchesseau’s trophies fill her home. At least half a dozen deer heads line the living room walls. A mounted coyote sits where an end table would go, frozen in time across from a small mountain lion posed mid-stride.

Marchesseau’s warm and welcoming persona was rooted in Louisiana, where she was the youngest of three children who played on the banks of the Tangipahoa River. Always trying to outdo her older brothers, Cary and Lonnie, Marchesseau learned to hunt and water ski at a young age. “My brothers would tell me I couldn’t do this or that, but I said, ‘Watch me prove you wrong,’” Marchesseau said. Later, during her teenage years, she became a competitive swimmer and taught others how to swim and water ski. 

“For my graduation gifts, I got a rifle scope and a sewing machine,” she said with a laugh. “Daddy kept asking me what I was going to do after school, and I didn’t know. He said, ‘I’ve watched you teach people how to swim and water ski. Why don’t you become a P.E. teacher?’ So that’s what I did. I taught physical education for over 30 years.” 

Marchesseau remains physically fit, moving with the apparent ease of someone half her age, and maintains her determined spirit. She credits her father for getting her into muzzleloading, a sport that involves firing antique and reproduction guns. Muzzleloader firearms require the user to load the projectile and propellant into the forward end of the gun’s barrel. Because it is a primitive weapon, users need a stronger skill set than people who shoot modern firearms for sport today. Marchesseau’s father offered to teach her all he knew about muzzleloading. “Daddy invited me to go to a shooting match where we shot at a double-bladed axe stood up in wood, to split the ball on the axe,” she said. “Daddy couldn’t do it. I tried it, and I did it.” He bought her a 45-caliber Hawken rifle, and they competed together throughout Louisiana and Mississippi for years.

“I keep saying, ‘Maybe one more year.’ I take it one year at a time.”

Jeannine Marchesseau

Marchesseau’s face lights up when she talks about her late husband, Larry. Their interests in historic firearms led them to meet at the National Muzzle Rifle Championship in Friendship, Indiana. Their connection was immediate, and for a while, they managed a long-distance relationship between Louisiana and Georgia, where he lived. “We would meet up in Florida to date,” Marchesseau said. “We were soulmates. He asked when I was going to finally move up here and marry him, so I moved to Georgia in 1985, and we married in 1986.” Larry offered his new bride a choice. “He said, ‘I can give you a diamond ring or a custom-built muzzleloader.’ Since my first marriage ended in divorce, I said, ‘I was married before with a diamond and it didn’t work, so let’s try the muzzleloader.’” The Marchesseaus enjoyed over 20 adventure-filled years together. 

“He got me into whitewater kayaking through the Georgia State ‘Touch the Earth’ program,” Jeannine said. “We were both advanced scuba divers. We went on one trip to the Baja Peninsula, where we paddled in the Sea of Cortez and lived out of our kayaks for two weeks. We baked bread on the beach.” The couple spent a lot of time primitive camping, an activity in which Marchesseau still partakes today. “Now I do pre-1840 camping,” she said. “Everything you bring with you has to be dated back to pre-1840. The only exception is a cooler, but it has to be covered up. We compete in skills during our rendezvous, like knife throwing, tomahawk throwing and fire starting with flint and steel.” 

When indoors, Marchesseau has always enjoyed sewing. She made nearly all of her primitive clothing, including a white leather dress embellished with tiny seashells. She showed me her handcrafted wool capote, or long jacket, which she designed with a collar and cuffs made from thick fox fur.

There have been trials along the way, none more significant than the sad summer day in 2009 when Larry was killed instantly in a car accident near their Newton County home. He was 67. “I tried to hunt,” she said, “but I just cried up there in the deer stand.” Eventually, Marchesseau found her groove again and met her goal of dropping a buck with a flint arrow. She became the first woman to have her picture in Traditional Bowhunters of Georgia Magazine.

Marchesseau’s brothers claim their sister is “going backwards” in her hunting quests, as she sets goals for herself using ever more primitive weaponry. She disagrees. After her successful flint arrow hunt, she is now trying out a primitive bow with a cane arrow and obsidian stone tip. She showed me these arrows, each a beautiful work of art. I lifted one to the light and marveled at the obsidian’s clear and smoky swirls and how the light sparkled on its razor-sharp edges. Its hollow cane shaft was remarkably light, bound to the gemlike tip with tiny strips of deer sinew. I wondered which of my ancestors had kept their family fed with arrows like these.

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When we talked, Marchesseau had just returned from a rendezvous in North Carolina and will attend another one early next year. She describes her love of outdoor adventures as an addiction. 

“I keep saying, ‘Maybe one more year,’” she said. “I take it one year at a time.”

I stepped out of Marchesseau’s house feeling full, like I had spent a couple of hours with an old friend instead of a new acquaintance. The golden afternoon sunlight dappled through the forest canopy above, and the only sound in the world was my feet crunching through the autumn leaves, exactly as it must have been on this very land hundreds of years ago. 

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted. 

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