Heading outdoors to do a little shooting? Fly fishing? Hunting? Archery? Rappelling? Just need to survive Alaska's wilderness?
You need skills, and a state program run with support of the Outdoors Heritage Foundation aims to teach them in a friendly, supportive environment. The Becoming an Outdoors Woman program, or BOW for short, aims to teach the skills women (men can enroll, too) need to thrive in the outdoors and embrace new challenges.
"When I first got here I was nervous," said Haley Heniff of Fairbanks, who enrolled in her second immersion weekend Aug. 7-9 at the Lost Lake Scout Camp in the Interior. "There's so many people and we all come from different backgrounds, we're all different ages."
"We all don't know each other but within 10 minutes you feel so comfortable, and everyone is open and accepting. We have … someone who's a pro at something to a complete novice, and we're all completely comfortable with each other."
Cathie Harms, one of the four program coordinators for the Alaska Interior BOW program, did her training in 1994 and brought the program to Alaska a year later. Since then, some 4,000 Alaska women have enrolled.
BOW originated in Wisconsin in the late 1980s, the brainchild of Christine Thompson, a professor in natural resource management at University of Wisconsin. Thompson recognized that some women need more skills to thrive in outdoor activities.
A symposium was set up to pinpoint what barriers stopped women from participating in the outdoors lifestyle. The upshot: Many women didn't know what to do there. BOW was created to build skills in shooting and hunting, fishing and other outdoors endeavors in a non-competitive, supportive setting. The program is now offered in 39 states and six Canadian provinces.
Immersion weekends are held every year in different parts of Alaska, with individual classes on specific skills conducted throughout the year.
"Many times, women didn't get the chance to go outdoors as much as a child," Harms said. "Maybe didn't go fishing with dad, didn't go hunting, didn't go canoeing because maybe brother went instead. And then, when they become an adult, maybe their life partner isn't the best instructor. Sometimes there's a little tension there."
With that in mind, expert volunteer instructors encourage hands-on learning in a supportive environment where no question is too simple. Alaska BOW uses volunteer instructors to teach an array of skills from tracking wild animals, hunting, trapping, hunting, field dressing, fly fishing, and rappelling. Even Dutch oven cooking.
Enrollee Megan Stewart of Fairbanks says her husband, an avid hunter, isn't always the best instructor.
"He teaches me a lot but there are some things he forgets to say, or tell me," Stewart said. "He just kind of assumes that I would know."
21 years of BOW workshops
Kirk Lingofelt, one of two BOW coordinators for Southcentral Alaska, last year described how a similar dynamic takes place during the three-day BOW workshops: On Friday, things are quiet because most of the students don't know anybody else. "By Saturday evening it's at a dull roar. Sunday, you have to ask them to quiet down so you can talk through the PA," he said.
"There's nothing greater than to see a woman come into a firearms class nervous, afraid of guns, then leave and say 'This was great!' …to (see her) become empowered, to know that rifle is just a machine and it takes a person to operate it," said Melba Cooke, a BOW alumna who when on to teach hunter-education classes.
Alaska has been hosting BOW workshops for 21 years (they just had their 43rd statewide) and every workshop in the last five years in all regions of the state have sold out and maintained a waitlist. Most participants have indicated on workshop evaluation forms that they intend to buy a hunting and/or fishing license and it appears that they do, according to Laurie Boeck, one of the program coordinators for the Alaska Interior BOW program.
BOW isn't just for women. Any adult who wants to learn in a supportive, non-competitive atmosphere can enroll. This year's workshop at Lost Lake Boy Scout Camp included one male participant, but on average up to five males attend any given workshop. Since BOW is run by the state, the program cannot discriminate against participants based on their sex (regardless of the name of the program).
Jennifer Julian of Anchorage attended this year's workshop with her 21-year-old son Jasper. "I was surprised that men could actually be in these classes and they said they were open to everyone," says Julian. The mother-son team attended shotgun and hunting know-how classes together and then pursued their own interests. "We've had a little bit of together time and a little bit of doing our own thing," she said. "It's been great."
There are three unbreakable rules for the session:
• Safety first. No one should be put in a dangerous situation;
• Have fun; and
• No politics.
"The beauty of the no politics rules is that it allows a life member of the National Rifle Association to sit down next to a life member from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and they can have a pleasant lunch," Harms said. "And by getting to know people instead of arguing, it gives people a really great weekend."
Fostering love of outdoors
Part of BOW's mission is conservation. The program hopes to not only get women outdoors but entire families. By empowering moms to bring their kids outdoors, a new generation with an appreciation of wildlife and nature will be created.
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"In Alaska, decisions about fish and wildlife are made by citizens of the state," Harms said. "And if we have an entire generation or two that don't go outdoors, those decisions are going to be made by people who don't know and don't care."
BOW is present in other parts of the country but it's a natural fit for Alaska, Harms said. "Per capita, we probably have more outdoors than most states, if not all states. You don't live here without spending some time outdoors, and if you enjoy it because you know what you're doing, it makes life so much more pleasant."
More information about the BOW program, including a list of open classes and dates for the multi-day workshops, under the "Camps & Skills Clinics" tab at huntereducation.alaska.gov.
Alaska Dispatch News reporter and editor Mike Campbell contributed to this report.