It's a cloudy Saturday in August. What's a woman to do?
Yesterday, the answer for 45 women was: Leave the men at home, head for the hills of Loudoun County and learn to shoot.
They came from across the Washington area to gather in the lush woodlands south of Leesburg for a full-day course in skeet shooting, rifle marksmanship, shotgun basics and other outdoor activities. And except for a few instructors, no men were in sight.
"Who doesn't want to shoot guns?" asked Mia Charity, 26, of Leesburg. "It's empowerment."
Charity stood near the rifle range on the sprawling grounds of the Loudoun County chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, where the scent of gunpowder hung heavy in the morning air. As her classmates -- wearing protective goggles and yellow earplugs -- took turns nailing paper targets 20 yards away, Charity showed off the spoils of her first shot ever.
On the target she had just shot, there was one bullet hole right through the bull's-eye.
The women, most of them middle-aged, had come to the center for a workshop called Women in the Outdoors, a program offered across the country by the National Wild Turkey Federation, a conservation group based in South Carolina that advocates hunting for the purpose of wildlife management. The goal, organizers said, is to show women that the outdoors -- and shooting -- is not just for dads, husbands and brothers.
Annually, the federation offers about eight women-only courses in Virginia and several in Maryland. And though crash courses in fly-fishing, compass reading and canoeing also were offered yesterday, the big draws were the shooting lessons. Organizers said many women take the courses to launch a hunting hobby.
"It's something you never think to do, but when you get the opportunity, why not?" said Charity, adding that her brothers and father are hunters but that they never invited her along.
That's a typical story, organizers said. Women, they said, are increasingly interested in shooting sports and hunting, and they prefer to learn without men around. Since the federation began offering memberships to its Women in the Outdoors program in 1998, the number of workshops offered annually has grown from 18 to 480 last year. Nearly 50,000 women are members of the program.
"A lot of husbands will say, 'I just can't teach my wife.' A lot of women say, 'My husband isn't patient,' " said Linda Layser, a board member of the Virginia National Wild Turkey Federation. "Here, it's less intimidating."
As women are embracing hunting, hunting is embracing women. For years, the sport has been on the decline. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, participation in hunting fell 7 percent between 1996 and 2001 -- a drop hunters blame on increasing urbanization, loss of hunting lands to development sprawl and the fast pace of modern life. Hunters have said preserving the sport is essential to the economy and for keeping deer and other animal populations in check.
Against that bleak backdrop, women offer a ray of hope. Although they still represent less than 10 percent of hunters, women are the fastest-growing demographic, and the hunting industry is taking note. Last year, the National Rifle Association launched a magazine for women. Sporting goods lines are offering more hunting apparel and equipment to fit smaller bodies. And workshops are popping up all over.
After moving from Sterling to Leesburg, Jamie Christian, 21, said she wanted to learn to hunt because "it's what people do" in Loudoun. Yesterday's turkey hunting course -- which included lessons in turkey calls and shotgun use, as well as a few practice shots at a "bird" target -- had convinced her to join the ranks of female hunters.
"The girly little animal love is out the door," she said, her adrenaline rushing after she tagged the cartoon turkey right in the neck. "It's all about the turkey hunting."
Other women, such as Leesburg resident Barbara Cline, 46, avoided firearms yesterday. But Cline found during a morning lesson that she had a knack for shooting, too -- with a bow and arrow.
"I came for the canoeing class in the afternoon, but I'm enjoying the archery," she said. "I think I've got a new hobby!"
For more information about Women in the Outdoors, go to www.womenintheoutdoors.org/wito.