By Jason Abraham
On a cool day late last fall, Regina Harris capped a yearlong journey into the world of wing shooting. While hunting the Anne Lake Wildlife Management Area, Harris watched as her mixed Labrador retriever flushed a grouse. Launching from its cover, the bird plopped back down a few paces from Harris. Then Harris flushed it a second time, simultaneously mounted her shotgun and dispatched the bird in a puff of feathers.
That grouse—the first for the 51-year-old hunter—offered quiet confirmation of skills she had acquired and honed since picking up a shotgun in a firearms safety class offered by a program called Becoming an Outdoors Woman.
BOW workshops teach women outdoor skills such as hunting and fishing. It was developed in 1991 by Christine Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Her research in the late 1980s found that the biggest barrier keeping women from enjoying outdoor recreation was a lack of supportive learning opportunities. Since BOW began, roughly 150,000 women have participated in weekend workshops in 40 states and three Canadian provinces.
Minnesota's BOW program, run by the Department of Natural Resources, began in 1994 and has reached more than 6,700 women, putting it among the top BOW programs in the nation.
And BOW aims to keep growing. "Women have a lot of influence on family recreation, and we're reaching out at gatherings and events to let them know about our program," says Linda Bylander, Minnesota BOW coordinator. "BOW provides support for women to learn and become comfortable outdoors. If they're comfortable hunting, fishing, camping, or boating, then there's a greater likelihood they'll expose their children to those activities."
The firearms safety class was a positive first BOW experience, Harris says. Unlike typical firearms safety classes, often filled with 11- and 12-year-olds eager to fulfill a requirement for purchasing a deer license, the BOW class was tailored for women.
"We didn't spend a lot of time talking about how to field dress deer," Harris said. "The instructors knew their audience and provided an environment that was supportive and comfortable for asking lots of questions."
After firearms safety, Harris took a skeet/trap-shooting class, attended a weekend BOW workshop, and joined a Beyond BOW pheasant hunt, which was held at a game preserve and sponsored by the Ruffed Grouse Society. Today, Harris counts the women she met through BOW among her friends and regularly gets together with them to shoot, hunt, and swap hunting stories.
For most participants, the BOW experience starts at a weekend workshop, offered each fall in southern Minnesota and each winter in the north. Women can get a taste of the outdoors through mock hunts and sessions on archery and firearms shooting, fly-fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and more.
Weekend workshops typically start late Friday afternoon. With nervous laughter revealing a little trepidation, participants arrive and begin to meet one another. Their ages range from mid-20s to early 70s. Some bring friends; many come on their own.
The women's apprehensions never last. After an ice-breaking activity, the first evening includes dinner, socializing around a fire, and a talk on how to dress for comfort in the outdoors. Saturday, the participants begin learning skills in small groups led by an instructor, who is often a longtime BOW volunteer with extensive experience teaching the activity. On Sunday, participants practice those skills; or as hunting or fishing seasons allow, they actually test them in field activities.
"By the final afternoon, they'll be hugging each other goodbye," Bylander says. "There's a unique bond that's formed as they share new experiences and learn in a supportive environment."
Currently, about half the workshop participants are returning to BOW to learn new skills. But the program's goal for coming years is to get more new participants. To that end, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has given $6,000 for a new outreach effort to attract more college-age women, an age group typically underrepresented at BOW workshops. Bylander has been advertising the fall BOW workshop to female students in the University of Minnesota's natural resource programs. Student scholarships will be available to defray the cost of the workshops, which can be $150 to $250 depending on which activities are offered.
"One of the most important things BOW does is create a network for women who enjoy the outdoors. That's one reason we are constantly trying to attract new participants," Bylander says. "Many women are just looking for other women who want to fish, hunt, or be outdoors. They meet through BOW and continue their sport outside the program, developing groups that get together for hunting or fishing."
The BOW Fall Workshop, Sept. 15-17 at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center near Lanesboro, will feature a mock archery deer hunt, a ropes course, fly-fishing, and classes on archery, firearms safety, biking, canoeing, kayaking, and more. For a brochure contact the DNR Information Center.
Jason Abraham is a DNR staff writer.