Having a Blast
Why would a woman attend an outdoor skills workshop? More than anything, just to have a great time.
By Susan Kaneko Binkley
It's a Gloomy Morning in Late March
At the gas station, I want to squeegee the whole car--it's covered with muddy slop from tailing semitrailers in the drizzle on Highway 61 along the North Shore. I am headed for Gunflint Lodge for a weekend Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshop, which will focus on winter outdoor skills.
As I turn onto the Gunflint Trail, spring melt auspiciously reverts to a frozen wonderland. Snow blankets the road and forest. When I arrive at Gunflint Lodge, I find more than a hundred women already assembled in the conference center.
Jean Bergerson, Minnesota BOW coordinator, asks how many of the women present have previously attended a BOW workshop. Almost half raise their hands. I'm one of the repeat participants. In the fall I signed up for one at the Laurentian Environmental Center. I went to learn to use a fly rod: Two weeks later, on my own, I caught my first fly-fooled trout.
Excitement over BOW has grown quickly since the first workshop in 1991. According to founder Christine Thomas, professor of resource management at the University of Wisconsin?Stevens Point, BOW has spread to 44 states and eight Canadian provinces. Because of the large demand, some states, such as Arkansas, now limit participation by giving preference to first-time registrants. Other states, such as California, have resorted to a lottery. Throughout North America more than 10,000 women attended 82 BOW workshops in 1997.
Thomas says the concept for BOW came from a 1990 conference called Breaking Down Barriers to Participation of Women in Angling and Hunting. The 65 participants from state natural resources agencies and conservation groups identified 21 barriers, 14 of which could be classified under "don't know how to do it."
In response to the conference, Thomas organized the first BOW workshop, which was offered in Wisconsin a year later. All 106 slots filled almost immediately. "We could have filled it three times over," Thomas says.
Snow falls steadily on the evergreens as we walk from the conference center for lunch after the opening activities. From the dining-room window, we can see a dozen deer feeding in the yard. I talk with some of the participants I met at the last workshop: Lucy Tyrrell, a botanist from White Bear Lake; Suzette Meakins, a homemaker from Minnetonka; Pam Dosé, a Woodbury elementary school teacher here with her mother, Mary, a special education trainer from St. Paul.
Meakins tells me she plans to go to the snowmobiling workshop this afternoon. Mary Dosé has signed up for orienteering by snowshoe. Pam Dosé will take woodworking for wildlife with DNR nongame wildlife supervisor Carrol Henderson; she sees it as an opportunity to pick up a classroom project for her students.
Here for their first BOW workshop are another mother and daughter, Donna and Anna Bosch. Anna is a 20-year-old college student, the youngest woman here this weekend.
Anna turns up in the predator calling and trapping class. Most of us have registered for this class to learn predator calling from trapper Kevin Walsh, a year-round resident of Gunflint Lodge. Only two women have come to actually learn about trapping. One of them tried bowhunting at an earlier BOW workshop, liked it, and now wants a winter pursuit.
Unfortunately, Walsh and co-instructor Dan Bergerson devote only about 10 minutes to predator calling, telling us a few good stories and mentioning we can buy a call at Holiday stores. Then they move on to their main subject: trapping.
After driving to a site on Walsh's trap line, we head out on snowshoes. Tramping a path through deep snow, we go first to his marten traps in the woods, just to see what they look like; then we stop by a beaver lodge on a small pond. Where the ice ends in patches of open water, Walsh tests his way with a pole to the first of two beaver traps he has set. In a swift movement, he pulls the chain. Sensing its lightness, he announces there's no beaver in this one. He shows us the bait--a piece of aspen--still in place.
The afternoon grows late and more solemn, more suspenseful. Will the second trap yield a beaver? Walsh begins to pull. In a moment we see a dark, wet, plump form emerge. In betrayal of our socialization, we women make no girlish ughs or grimaces--just an emphatic hiss of "yes," some cheers, clapping, and smiles.
With a razor-sharp knife, Walsh flenses the pelt from the white fat of the beaver corpse, being careful not to nick it. While the bloodless task is fascinating, it holds no special gruesomeness, even as Walsh slices out the castor glands for us to smell. It seems no different from cutting up a chicken for dinner. Walsh leaves the skinless body and the curled up paws on the snow as an offering for fox, raven, wolf, and eagle.
The workshop's convivial atmosphere builds toward evening. The camaraderie is a BOW bonus. Christine Thomas says women appreciate the chance to get together and have fun. After one BOW weekend, a woman thanked her and said, "I haven't felt like this since I lived at the dorm in college."
Saturday I spend most of the day learning winter survival skills, then I sample other workshops. Late evening I make the half-mile walk to my cabin, following a moonlit road flanked by white pines. Clouds race across the sky. I think tomorrow will be beautiful. Even without the skillful instruction and good company, the scenery alone would be worth escaping to.
Sunday morning we head to the last sessions of the weekend. I stop by Kate Stenso Miller's class in orienteering on snowshoes. Miller told me earlier that she loves to volunteer as a BOW instructor because she can see the change in women's faces as they overcome anxiety about technical aspects of compass reading and discover the fun and usefulness of the skill--all in the short space of her class.
I leave before the outdoor portion of compass use, because now is my last chance to go to Jean Bergerson's mushing class to learn how to drive a dog team. While I am waiting for my dogs to arrive, I watch a nearby class and admire the courage Mary Dosé and Lucy Tyrrell display in skijoring--cross-country skiing while being pulled by a dog.
Soon I find myself standing on the runners of a sled, which is quaking from the pull of the dogs as they strain to get underway. I am sure if I pull up the snow hook, we'll shoot like a rocket into Canada.
Because we are mushing on a trail loop, the only commands I really need are hup, hup and whoa. This is good, because I'm on information overload already, between memorizing the names of my lead dogs, Shadow and Blackie, figuring out where to stand and how to brake, and learning what to do if I fall off my sled.
When I see the team ahead of mine moving, I pull up the huge hooked claw of the anchor. Afraid of flying too far too fast, I keep my foot poised to slam down my brake, a pedal with rows of formidable 3-inch spikes underneath. Lucky I do, too, because we travel only a few yards, and at the next moment, all sleds ahead of me come to a complete halt. Even with both feet and my full weight mashing the spikes of my brake into the snow, my dogs pull ahead, jump track, and round the sled in front of me. My team snarls and snaps ferociously at the team they overtook. The instructors rush to my dogs, pull them off, practically carrying them by the gangline back into line and onto the track.
Finally underway, we fly across Gunflint Lake. I am exhilarated, almost to the point of shouting at the top of my lungs: "I can't believe I'm on a dog sled!" Instead, I settle for hooting, hollering, and praising my dogs. A vast, glaring whiteness stretches in every direction around me; the sky is an impossible crystalline blue. The cold wind bites at my nose and ears, and I am pierced with a vibrancy to the core of my snowsuit-bundled soul.
Susan Kaneko Binkley is Art Director for The Minnesota Volunteer, an occasional writer, illustrator, and graphic designer, as well as a bona fide outdoors woman.