BOW: Not The Type You Wear

bowI have a weekend hangover.  Not the kind of hangover from booze that leaves you dehydrated, nauseated, and miserable.  I have the good kind of hangover that leaves you with sore muscles, fatigue, happy memories, new skills, knowledge, and friends, and a great big smile on your face.  I’ve been to a Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshop.

Seven years ago, while looking around online for a campsite at a state park, I ran across information about a workshop called Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW).  The timing in my life could not have been more perfect.  I had just taken an NRA pistol course and was all fired up (pardon the pun) and BOW offered classes in cowboy action shooting, rifle marksmanship, and shotgunning.  I was so excited!

I had been a stay-at-home mom for most of my marriage and I am thankful for that opportunity, but my children were nearly grown and gone. What was I going to do in the next chapter of my life?  What did I like to do?  What did I want to do?  I found myself struggling to define who I was.  It was during this phase of rediscovery that I found the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program.    The workshop was to be held at a 4H camp located about a five hour drive from home.  I was in my forties and I had never driven that far by myself before!  I was too scared to go by myself, so I recruited my mother, who has an adventurous spirit, to go with me.  Together, we hitched up my pop-up camper and drove halfway across the state to attend the workshop.  What ensued was a weekend that, quite literally, changed my life.

The Becoming an Outdoors Woman program began 22 years ago as the brainchild of Dr. Christine Thomas at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.  Their website says it offers “hands-on, outdoor workshops held in a safe, supportive atmosphere with patient, enthusiastic instructors.  No experience or special equipment is necessary.  BOW is for adult women of all ages and fitness levels.”  Their very first workshop filled to capacity and, wonderfully,  the program has now spread to nearly 40 states, 6 Canadian Provinces and New Zealand.

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BOW participants register for 4 courses that they chose from a list of more than 20 classes.  Each year, the selection of classes varies a bit, but the core courses cover a range of basic outdoor skills that include shotgun and rifle shooting, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, hiking, camping, outdoor photography, camp cooking, hunting, bird watching, and many more.  The classes are taught by volunteers who are experienced and knowledgeable.  Every instructor I have encountered has also been patient and encouraging.

The BOW workshop that I attend in Nebraska is held at a 4-H camp each year and follows a 3-day format.  Participants start arriving on Friday morning for check-in, find their cabins, and meet in the dining hall for lunch and the welcome program.  Session I is held Friday afternoon.  Friday evening allows for some free time and then an informational program.  Everyone is up and at ‘em early on Saturday morning for breakfast and Session II, then lunch, and Session III, followed by dinner.  Saturday evening’s program is usually something entertaining, such as skits put on by the instructors.   Sunday morning is the final class session.

Each class is three and a half hours long.  Generally, instructors begin by introducing themselves and telling you a little bit about their experience, followed by a presentation on the class topic.  For instance, the instructor of a gun class would talk about gun safety and range commands before anyone is allowed on the range.  In a class about Dutch oven cooking, participants will first hear about the history of Dutch ovens and talk about equipment before firing up the coals.  After the informational portion of the class comes the best part…the hands-on practical experience.  With equipment provided by the program, each woman has the opportunity to actually experience and practice new skills with an instructor standing at her side to offer instruction and encouragement.  Those in the shotgun class will shoot skeet.  Class members in the Dutch oven class will cook a meal.  Participants in the camping class will learn how to put up tents.  Those in the kayaking class will, indeed, float down the river in a kayak (regardless of weather, dress appropriately!).  The goal is not for each woman to become proficient in a given activity within the allotted class time, but rather to sample the activity and, hopefully, foster an interest and enough confidence that she will seek ways to participate in an activity outside of BOW and, eventually, pass on that knowledge to others.

Several states also offer more focused mentoring opportunities.  “Beyond BOW” workshops are 1-3 day, single topic, mentored experiences.  I like to think of Beyond BOW as “step 2”.  If, for example, you took a BOW class on deer hunting, you would learn a little bit about deer physiology, their habit, and habitat.  You will learn about the hunting laws in your state and the equipment you would need to hunt deer.  Then, you may go out into the woods and look for hoof prints, rubs, and scat.  Sometimes you will even have the opportunity to climb a tree stand or follow a blood trail planted earlier by the instructor.  Beyond BOW takes the experience to the next level with the participant actually hunting deer with a mentor during deer hunting season.  If you are lucky enough to actually harvest a deer, your instruction will include how to “check in” the deer tag and how to field dress your animal.   This kind of experience is absolutely invaluable.

Descriptions of the mechanics of BOW workshops cannot begin to do justice to the amount of fun I’ve experienced at these events.  They also offer door prizes, silent auctions, activities like zip-lines, hikes, and stargazing.  We eat too much good food, sit around the campfire, and share tales of what we learned in class during the day. We show our shotgun bruised shoulders and our forearms bruised by bowstrings.  We laugh.  We are part of a sisterhood.  We learn we are not alone in our desire to learn about outdoor pursuits.

For the past seven years, BOW has been one of the highlights of my year.  Mom, sister, and I often attend together and enjoy our “girl time” and we have made some priceless memories.  But, more than that, BOW has helped me grow as a person.  I am no longer afraid to hitch my camper and head out alone or try new things.  I have made friends all across the state.  I know where to find resources and answers to outdoor questions.  I have confidence.  I now camp, fish, hunt deer and turkey, kayak, geocache, shoot and cook in Dutch ovens and I’ve passed on this enthusiasm for the outdoors to my children.  I even volunteer at outdoor events to help others learn these skills.  So, good job BOW…mission accomplished!

If you are ready for some fun, ready to learn something new, ready to engage in life in the outdoors but just don’t know where or how to begin, I wholeheartedly recommend the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program.  If you open yourself up to new experiences there will be no limit to what you can do! Go to the website and find out about workshops in your area.  Sign up.  Attend.  I am confident that you will be glad you did!


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