Become an Outdoors Woman!

Grab your sense of adventure for a hands-on lesson

Has the thought of learning to kayak down some of Montana's raging waterways given you a thrill? What about learning how to fly-fish on some of the state's most pristine rivers? Have you longed to be able to pick up a bow and develop or fine-tune your archery skills in the wild open spaces of Big Sky Country? If you answered "yes" to any one of those questions then Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' program Becoming an Outdoors Woman or BOW might be the lesson you need.

Last August, I packed my bags and headed off to Boulder Hot Springs for one of BOW's three-day summer workshops. I came away realizing any woman can enjoy the outdoors if she has a little instruction and encouragement. While I had heard about the workshops and considered going, I was afraid other attendees would be total wilderness women that I couldn’t keep up with.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Even though I didn't know a single soul and was nervous about what to expect, I shuffled up to the registration table and was immediately welcomed by warm, friendly and helpful ladies handing out packets and t-shirts. Later while schlepping my gear to the tent area, I met Jamie Burkhalter of Helena. This was Jamie’s first time at a BOW event as well.  We got acquainted as we helped set up each other’s tent. Jamie was excited about the weekend since she hadn’t tried any of the activities she was signed up for. We both came alone, but now had a familiar face to anchor us in the crowd.

The idea of BOW originated at University of Wisconsin, Steven’s Point more than 24 years ago, and is designed to “encourage a supportive environment conducive to learning, making friends, and having fun. No experience is necessary and BOW is for women of all ages and fitness levels.” That mission statement is certainly true of Montana BOW. At this workshop, women ranged in age from early 20’s to late 70’s, and were of all fitness levels as well. I relaxed once I realized I was comfortably ensconced in the middle of both categories.

My first class was archery. After a general safety talk and learning the stance and arm action, we trekked outside and chose a bow and a flu-flu. Yes, a flu-flu. It’s a type of arrow with large, feathery vanes that keep it from flying very far, very fast. In groups of four, we nocked our flu-flus, took a stance worthy of William Tell and aimed our bows high into the sky. The flu-flus arced gracefully up and then down. Except mine. It went spitting off the bow and landed in a heap about two feet in front of my shoes. My second attempt was much more thrilling. I watched my flu-flu leap toward the clouds and end up a respectable distance down the field behind a sagebrush.  Immediately thoughts of castles and longbows and medieval England flooded my imagination and I fell in love with the sport.

Kayaking was the next class. The boats were lined up like colorful fish on the green grass and again, after a safety talk and some time spent properly fitting our life vests, we were set. We chose a boat, dragged it to the water and attempted to get in. It’s no easy matter trying to hold onto a bobbing object while maintaining balance and oozing yourself into a rather small space while trying to find room for your knees, all while not dropping the oar. Again, love with the first stroke into the water.

My other classes were fly fishing and nature journaling. These classes were equally amazing, but my heart had already been given to archery and kayaking. Nature journaling was a beautiful, quiet, reflective time and a most welcome respite after the activity of the weekend. The wise words offered by our teacher, Linda Musick, keep floating back to me. “Be where your hands are.”

Most of the BOW instructors were women, with a few incredibly patient and enjoyable men thrown in. These folks are impressive teachers. They’ve participated in their fields for years and their love and knowledge was contagious. They stressed safety, yet were encouraging, fun, supportive and patient. They made us feel successful and capable in spite of our newbie status. And newbies we were – ladies were nocking arrows backwards, falling into or out of kayaks (while still mostly onshore) and launching fishing rods while attempting to cast. We had a blast, learned from our mistakes and felt almost competent by the end of each three-hour session.

According to Liz Lodman, BOW coordinator with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the state’s program has been running for 21 years. Montana FWP supports the program and feels it’s a great way to get women out into nature and buy into taking care of and properly using our resources. She says, “It’s a good way to have an effect on future generations.”

This year’s BOW class hailed from across Montana, as well as California, Wyoming and Idaho. There was a group of four sisters from Montana who, spur of the moment, decided to register. They had so much fun, they plan to get their fifth sister in Portland to BOW next summer. Paulette Boutin, Colette Fry, Janette Kahler and Lynette Lake appreciated everything about BOW saying, “There were so many activities that you might not have the courage to try on your own. It gives you a taste of the sport in a non-threatening environment.” These gals had done some car camping over the years but didn’t really think of themselves as “outdoorsy.” When asked what their favorite workshop was, they all responded, “Shooting rifles and black powder!” They said they’d always been intimated around guns, but now they felt much more comfortable.

Another interesting pair was Cynthia and Sara Walker, a mother and daughter pair from Great Falls and Helena. These ladies also didn’t consider themselves as “outdoorsy,” and had never been to a BOW workshop. When asked if they would come back, both very enthusiastically replied, “In a heartbeat.” Because they registered late, they were wait-listed and didn’t get their original choice of classes, but they weren’t disappointed at all with the classes they did get. Both said they were nervous about coming since they didn’t know anyone else attending but felt that everyone was friendly and helpful. They also thought the instructors were great.

Chris Dover is one of those instructors. She’s been with BOW for many years teaching Wilderness Survival. Chris is a Physical Education teacher in Bozeman and also volunteers with Absaroka Search Dogs. She enjoys teaching BOW classes because, “It empowers women and gives them confidence. These women are willing to step up and try and probably fail at first, but that’s how they learn.” This year during the field exercise of building an outdoor shelter, the class contended with hard rain and lightning. Although the ladies didn’t appreciate the weather, Chris says it was perfect. Rain and wind are great tests to see how good a shelter can be constructed. It's experiential learning at its finest.

Jim Vashro has taught fly fishing at BOW for 20 years and his enthusiasm for a fish and a fly is contagious. Although speaking about fly fishing, he pretty well summed up the entire weekend when he said, “We’ll teach you enough today to be successful. You can start with a simple outfit and still be successful. You don’t have to spend a lot of money for gear. You’ll know enough to get out there and be on your own.”  Why does he return to BOW each year? “I love working with the ladies. They’re enthusiastic and are here to have fun.”

That’s exactly what BOW is — a lot of fun. Sunday afternoon rolled around and it was finally time to head home. Instead of sadness, I noticed smiles, laughter, enthusiasm and confidence. Each lady came for a different reason, and each left stronger in spirit. Colette Fry’s final comment was, “There are so many opportunities for men to learn things. This is great because it’s just for women.” 

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