It was 4 a.m. and the morning was coming in wet. Twenty-one women in various combinations of camouflage and hunter orange emerged from the cabins with their rifles and moved quickly through the deluge. They converged on a large, well-lit building dominating the center of the University Forest Camp near Poplar Bluff and made squishy entrances into the hall.
Rifles set carefully aside, they tossed raincoats, jackets and hats into a soggy pile. The deer hunters made a beeline for the coffee pot before getting in line for breakfast. An air of nervous expectancy filled the room as the hunters met with their guides over plates of pancakes, asking last minute questions before heading to their deer stands. By the end of the day, 10 of them would be taking home venison for their families.
This wasn't an ordinary deer camp. Not only were all of the hunters women, most of them were hunting deer for the first time. They were participating in a Beyond Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (Beyond BOW) deer hunting clinic. Sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the clinic provides soon-to-be hunters with an opportunity to learn about deer ecology, tracking, hunting safety and field dressing. This particular event was co-sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation's Women in the Outdoors program.
I was surprised that not a single woman slogging through the pouring rain at 4 a.m. even asked if we would still be going out to hunt. After all, I'm the coordinator of the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program, and I felt like asking that question.
As I've gotten to know the women who participate in our Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) and Beyond BOW events, I've come to expect their "no limits" attitudes. Whether they are 18 or 80, wealthy or struggling, married or single, their one common denominator is a belief in the value of trying something new. They simply won't let a little - or even a lot - of rain stop them.
The first BOW workshop in Missouri took place in September 1994 at the YMCA of the Ozarks in Potosi. The Conservation Department offers these weekend workshops twice each year. Other agencies conduct similar workshops in 44 states and nine Canadian provinces. Sponsors design the programs for women, but they are open to anyone 18 years of age and older.
A typical BOW weekend starts at noon on Friday and ends with lunch on Sunday. During the workshop, participants attend four courses chosen from about 28 different classes. A third of the courses offered are related to hunting or shooting sports. Another third relate to fishing. The remaining courses focus on activities like canoeing, birdwatching, backpacking and outdoor cooking.
As the number of women attending the introductory level BOW workshops grew, they started to ask for opportunities to take their newly acquired skills to the next level. In response to these requests, in 1997 the Conservation Department began offering Beyond BOW workshops. These programs focus on one skill or a small group of skills, such as birdwatching, sporting clays, fly fishing, backpacking, cave ecology or hunting. Designed for smaller groups, the hands-on instruction is more intense than what participants received at the introductory-level BOW workshop. BOW is an appetizer; Beyond BOW is the main course.
BOW alumni are given preference when applying for the Beyond BOW workshops, but others can attend as space allows. Some of the workshops require previous experience, but others are open to anyone interested.
For example, you can attend the sporting clays workshops if you have taken a firearms safety and shotgun course at a BOW workshop. You can also attend if you are certified in Missouri Hunter Education and have some experience shooting a shotgun, even if you haven't attended a BOW workshop.
If you'd like to join in the fun of an introductory fly fishing weekend, no prior experience is necessary. Just put on your waders, grab your fly rod (or one of ours) and come on out!
While our hunting and fishing programs are the most popular Beyond BOW workshops, we offer opportunities to get out and enjoy the outdoors in other ways, too. On an Ozark Trail backpacking trip, a group of trail-weary women enjoyed a pesto pasta dish under a full moon. Camped at the edge of a glade, they gazed at the beautiful scenery and talked about why they came on the trip. Several women said they came to learn about backpacking and camping so they could teach their husbands. Others said they wanted to learn so they could take their kids. Still others want to acquire skills so they could feel comfortable joining others already "in the know."
The Beyond BOW canoeing course on the Niangua River was also great fun. The paddling was enjoyable, but the highlight of the trip for me was the food. When I lifted the lid on a couple of dutch ovens, I came face-to-face with white wine chicken and pineapple upside-down cake. That's when I knew I wasn't on a standard canoe trip with my brothers, where I felt lucky to get a hotdog.
One thing all the women on the canoe trip had in common, besides an implicitly understood need for something chocolate every day, was that none of them had ever paddled in the stern of a canoe. Not one of them knew how to steer a canoe safely downriver.
Linh Dye, a senior analyst for nursing systems at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, said she came to the workshop because of a scare during a canoe trip she took with her husband in the Minnesota boundary waters. Dye's husband is a skilled canoeist, but Linh had no paddling experience at all.
"When an injury to my husband made me realize I might have to go for help by myself in the canoe, I was really scared," Dye says. "We were days away from help, and I didn't think I could safely make the trip alone. Fortunately, the way things turned out, I didn't have to go without him, but we made a decision on that trip not to put ourselves in that kind of situation again. I'm here to learn some skills so if I ever have to handle a canoe by myself, I'll be able to do it."
During the Beyond BOW canoeing workshop, Dye sat in the stern and steered a canoe for the first time in her life. She did pretty well, too. Surprising herself with her new ability, Dye says, "My husband said it would take years to learn how to do this! But I'm already steering the canoe!" From a nearby canoe came a decidedly inappropriate reply, "Well, maybe it does take a man that long . . ."
In defense of Dye's husband, it does take years to develop solid canoeing skills, and the Beyond BOW workshop is just one step in the right direction. During a Beyond BOW course, our goal is to send participants away with the confidence to pursue an outdoor activity on their own. We don't claim to turn them into experts, but we do move them a little closer to the time when they can hunt, fish, camp or canoe on their own.
Diane Rice was one of 10 participants in a Beyond BOW quail hunt at Prairie Forks and Whetstone Creek conservation areas. Before the quail hunt, Rice had never had the opportunity to hunt quail or watch bird dogs in action.
"The staff took 10 women with little or no experience and filled us with information about quail, their habitat, their habits, the dogs that hunt them and hunting safety," Rice says. "I don't believe we could have learned more in the same amount of time. We put theory right into practice by hunting Saturday. The staff even improvised a quail barbecue Saturday night!
"Personally, I went from being uncomfortable with my shotgun to being enthused about quail hunting. In fact, the week after the Beyond BOW quail hunt, I contacted Bill Bergh, Conservation Department wildlife management biologist, asking him to visit our farm to see how we can promote quail reproduction."
Rice is a great example of how a small program like Beyond BOW can have a big impact. Just like that old proverb says (gender modified), If you give a woman a fish, she'll eat for a day. If you teach her to fish, she'll feed herself for the rest of her life.
I'd like to expand that proverb. That same woman will not only feed herself, she'll feed her family and the neighbor kids, and she'll probably teach all of them to fish. Then she'll contact the fisheries biologist to talk about improving fish populations in her farm pond. Next she'll tell her friend about this great fishing hole and ask her to come along on the next trip. She'll tell anyone who'll listen about the great things she's learning.
I'd like to tell that woman thanks. Now she's a teacher, too.
If you'd like more information about the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman or Beyond BOW programs, e-mail Mariah Hughes at <Mariah.Hughes@mdc.mo.govs> or write her at Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180.
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