Wisconsin Trails Feb 2010 : Page 44
Courtesy/Wisconsin Historical Society Courtesy/
Women In The Wild
The workshop choices are unlike any mix that I’ve seen: Gut a pheasant or build a birdhouse. Shoot a rifle or design a wreath.<br /> <br /> Ice fish or dogsled. Camp or cook. I choose one indoor (birdhouse) and one outdoor (dogsledding) activity.<br /> <br /> When instruction begins, no question seems too elementary – and no one who arrives clueless about how to handle a bow and arrow, sewing machine or power drill faces ridicule. The goals are to try, tinker, relax and go your own way.<br /> <br /> Every course has this in common: Some aspect will heighten our interest, awareness or connection to the outdoors. The students have this in common: They are all women. You could call it a girls’ weekend, but these three days together seem far more like a campout or pajama party than a pampered escape with plush surroundings. About 100 of us happily sleep in bunks, share bathrooms and eat cafeteria food when we’re not in one of the 20 classes that are offered.<br /> <br /> Before bedtime one night, most students end up in the same place: standing silent on frozen marshland, hoping to hear an owl hoot. Something beyond the falling temperature makes this feel very cool.<br /> <br /> At a 1991 conference of conservation and state agency leaders, it was suggested that women didn’t hunt, fish or otherwise get involved with the outdoors because they didn’t know how. Would that change if women had a way to learn?<br /> <br /> Those conversations led to the creation of Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW, rhymes with “snow”), a program offered through the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point College of Natural Resources.<br /> <br /> Since the beginning, the courses were a great success, and today BOW has programs in 41 states, six Canadian provinces and New Zealand.<br /> <br /> “Growing up in Michigan, I knew how to fish and shoot because my Father was willing to teach me,” says Christine Thomas, BOW founder, who was the oldest child in her family and had no brothers. Thomas says that women who don’t have that influence from a father, brother or husband are less likely to feel comfortable about outdoor pursuits.<br /> <br /> “From day one, BOW has offered a broad range of activities that appeal to women, without the intimidation of having to live up to a family member’s expectation when getting started,” says Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources since 2005.<br /> <br /> So the mix of “non-harvest activities” – like building a quilt rack or learning to snowshoe – with shooting and fishing instruction has been deliberate. That means BOW attracts a wide mix of women: Some have long been at ease in camouflage attire; others prefer pink parkas.<br /> <br /> Sensibilities vary in other ways, too, but potentially volatile differences are kept in check. “Be safe, have fun – and no politics,” an instructor advises. “That’s a BOW rule.” Thomas says most of the first BOW participants were middle-aged, white and had an income that could support a hobby like hunting or fishing.<br /> <br /> Today, BOW activities attract a wider demographic, including more young women and scholarships help the low-income participate.<br /> <br /> The number of women who hunt has increased 75 percent in five years, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, which attributes the spike to programs such as BOW and expanded lines of hunting clothes and gear for women.<br /> <br /> More than 20,000 women attend at least one of 80 BOW events per year, and for some the experience will be a life-changer.<br /> <br /> Asserts Peggy Farrell, BOW director: “There is something very special about connecting people with nature through nurturing programs like BOW” and subsequent spin-off programs, such as Learn to Hunt and Beyond BOW (intensive instruction and exposure to one topic – deer hunting to fly fishing to sea kayaking). Notes Thomas: “We can teach someone how to paddle a canoe, read a compass, shoot a bow or cook their own meal outdoors – but those things are minor compared to the value of having women come together in a supportive community. We see an increase in self-esteem and confidence as they discover new things about themselves.” Yvonne Esparza, an accountant in Winthrop Harbor, Ill., discovered she had a knack for marksmanship. She shot her first .22-caliber rifle at a BOW event and now is a certified instructor. “Before BOW, I had only shot a pellet or BB gun,” she says.<br /> <br /> For some, BOW becomes a rite of passage. Hunting instructor Tammy Koenig of Fall Creek has harvested more than 70 deer, six wild hogs, five black bears, an alligator and an elk. She wanted to share her passion with her daughter Brittany, who attended her first BOW event with her mom when she turned 18 (the minimum age requirement for registrants).<br /> <br /> Tammy’s interest in hunting may not rub off on Brittany, but mothers who feel at ease with the natural world will teach their children to respect, conserve and understand what they might otherwise ignore or abuse.<br /> <br /> For Linda Dightmon, an Arizona Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator of the Year, traveling to Wisconsin for a winter BOW event was a real eye-opener. In borrowed winter clothing, the avid hunter ice fished for the first time and was thrilled to catch bluegill.<br /> <br /> Dightmon helps organize BOW events in her home state, where sessions include what to do if you’re lost while hiking and how to “stay fresh” while outdoors. “It may sound silly,” Dightmon says, “but not having a toilet nearby when nature calls can be a barrier for some people who would otherwise enjoy the outdoors, so it is important to address the concern.” BOW teachers take pride in being considerate of personal comfort levels and encouraging students to explore at their own pace. The format is relaxed, conversational and there is plenty of “hands-on” time. At a dogsled session, for example, students spend 90 minutes of classroom time learning about their teacher’s equipment, animals and philosophy. Then they each mush solo, several times, with a team of dogs.<br /> <br /> Volunteers are key to the success of the BOW program. Many hunter-mentors help with the Learn to Hunt turkey programs. For a weekend, these volunteers share their expertise and passion with the women. “For me, it’s not just about the camaraderie or learning to hunt, it’s also about good people sharing what they love and inspiring others,” says Farrell.