Wild Workshops Get Women Outdoors

By Mary Bergin

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, ice fish or dogsled, camp or cook. I choose one indoor (birdhouse building) and one outdoor (dogsledding) activity.

When classes begin, 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.

Every course has this in common: some aspect will heighten your interest, awareness or connection to the outdoors. The students have this in common: we 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 to 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. Before bedtime each evening, most of us will end up standing silent on frozen marshland, hoping to hear an owl hoot. Something beyond the falling temperature makes this feel very cool.

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?

Those conversations led to the creation of Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW), a program offered through the UW-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources. Since its inception, the program has been a great success. Today BOW has programs in 41 states, six Canadian provinces and New Zealand.

“Growing up in Michigan, I knew how to fish and shoot because my father was willing to teach me,” says Christine Thomas, BOW founder. 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. “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,” says Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources since 2005.

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. According to Thomas, most of the first BOW participants were middle-aged, white and had an income that could support a hobby like hunting or fishing. Today, BOW activities attract a wider demographic, including more young women, while scholarships help the low-income participate.

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.

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). Tammy’s interest in hunting may not rub off on Brittany, but mothers who feel at ease in the natural world will teach their children to respect, conserve and understand what they might otherwise ignore or abuse.

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.

More than 20,000 women attend at least one of 80 BOW events per year. For some the experience will be a life-changer. “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,” says Thomas.

For more information about the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program, visit  UW-SP College of Natural Resources or phone them at 877/269-6626 or 715/346-4681.

Mary Bergin of Madison got her first taste of mushing and power drilling because of BOW, but she didn’t have the guts to clean a pheasant. Content produced in cooperation with Wisconsin Trails, www.Wisconsintrails.com. For a complimentary copy of Wisconsin Trails magazine please e-mail info@wistrails.com.

This entry was posted in Things to Do, Outdoor Fun and tagged Features and Profiles