You Go (Out), Girl
Think it's a man's world out there? Spend a weekend with some wild women.
By Martha Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 1, 2002; Page C02
On my first night at the weekend session on Becoming an Outdoor Woman, I slept fitfully, waking again and again to the noises in the night. A field mouse scrambled across a beam above my bed, tiny toenails scraping the wood. It was stormy, and any change in the rain's tempo would wake me up, too. So did the sounds of my six cabin mates, waking and making their way with flashlights out of the dark cabin and down the path to the bathroom.
I signed up for this course on a whim. To tell the truth, I already considered myself an outdoor woman. I spend as much time as I can outdoors and always have. I garden, hike, canoe and hunt for wild mushrooms. I know my birds and trees and flowers. But here was a chance to improve my skills in a comfortable way.
Many women who have been fishing, hiking, sailing, canoeing or camping with men will tell you that men often assume the outdoors as their turf and see women as hapless interlopers.
BOW is a nationwide program designed to put women at ease in activities dominated by men. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, of the 14 million people who went hunting in 1996, only 10 percent were women. For women, especially those less confident of their skills, that male dominance can make the outdoors an uncomfortable place to be.
BOW -- based in Wisconsin but offered here by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources -- aims to change that. It organizes women-only weekend sessions designed to create a noncompetitive atmosphere in which women can learn introductory outdoor skills away from the sometimes critical eye of male colleagues. The program was established in 1990 after a conference on why so few women were hunting and fishing. One reason: the absence of a supportive learning environment. One response: BOW's female-friendly approach to teaching.
On a warm Friday morning, I drove north to Cumberland, Md., and then deeper into the mountains of Western Maryland. My destination was a 4-H camp in Swanton, and a weekend in the woods.
I signed in, found the cabin where I would sleep and stowed my gear, choosing a bed in the corner. I was seeking a little privacy, but within minutes another camper walked in and invited me to join her and a friend for lunch. I needn't have worried that I would not fit in with the others. I expected that it would be mostly women much younger than my 55 years, and I wasn't the only one.
"Women think the people here are going to be in the 18-to-25-year-old age range and don't think they are going to fit in," says program coordinator Karina Blizzard of the Maryland DNR.
But most of the participants were 35 to 50 years old, and several were older than I was. There were mother-daughter pairs and aunts and nieces. The group included stockbrokers, computer programmers, an art gallery owner, teachers, retailers and secretaries. And we were urban, suburban and rural. Some were veterans of BOW. Many had had a sampling of outdoor activities and wanted to learn more. Others were novices. Still others were mothers hoping to participate in their children's Scout troops.
The weekend schedule allows you to participate in at least four different activities. I chose hiking, tracks and trails, basic fishing, canoeing and water safety. I learned something in each session and enjoyed all of them.
• I got better at rigging a fishing line, and my casting has improved. We even pulled in some tiny bass and bluegills. Now I know to include a pair of forceps in my tackle box, thanks to instructor Jen Cline's demonstration of how to remove a hook sucked deep into the gullet of a nonkeeper bluegill.
"We're really picky" about the instructors, says Blizzard. "They have to be very women-friendly. They have to be patient. They have to explain information in a way that is helpful. We screen very carefully." Although most instructors were women, the group also included male instructors with the same traits.
• Even though I've done a fair amount of hiking, I learned some things from instructor Carolyn Mathews of Maryland's Forest and Park Services. She had excellent advice on what to wear and carry on hikes and provided plant identification as we worked our way to the top of a nearby ridge.
• On the lake, I learned how to get back into a canoe if you are dumped. (I also corrected a hitch in my J-stroke.)
© 2002 The Washington Post Company