It’s a special time for Becoming an Outdoors Woman: The organization is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Still, there may not be a lot of fanfare associated with this silver anniversary. Just the usual, and that’s celebration enough for women looking to become more involved in the outdoors.
Women are reportedly the fastest-growing sector of hunting in the United States, and perhaps that’s why BOW programs in the Northland — where BOW originated and still thrives today — are constantly filling to capacity. Women are showing their interest and passion for hunting, fishing and all sorts of outdoor activities as they gather for workshops across the country.
BOW provides women with a non-threatening, unintimidating, hands-on opportunity to try hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. The majority of U.S. states and Canadian provinces have BOW programs, though they often take on different forms.
BOW was founded at the University of Wisconsin-Steven’s Point in 1991 by Christine Thomas, who wanted to give women an opportunity to break into outdoor activities, and the organization continues to have a strong presence in Wisconsin, along with the Dakotas and Minnesota.
According to Linda Bylander, who runs BOW programs in Minnesota, that first gathering in 1991 was filled to capacity, with more than 100 participants. Today, classes cover a wide range of outdoor activities, including fly fishing, archery, wildlife habitat, kayaking, shotgun and rifle shooting and more. Along with one-day classes, Minnesota and Wisconsin offer two BOW weekends per year, while North and South Dakota each have one a year.
Sometimes, as in Minnesota and South Dakota, weekend BOW classes are divided evenly among three categories: fishing, hunting and nonconsumptive, which includes hiking, biking, dog sledding, kayaking and the like.
Bylander, of Baxter, Minn., said that the nonconsumptive classes often serve as a starting point. Some women are intimidated by the fishing or shooting classes and don’t even want to try them. Just getting involved in BOW often changes their minds.
“Women find (BOW) non-intimidating and very supportive, and change their attitude of hunting and fishing,” Bylander said.
Though not all women start with shooting courses, they often go on to sign up for them. Bylander finds that, in Minnesota, archery classes are always the most popular.
In South Dakota, BOW Director Maggie Lindsey sees similar trends, but added that in her state, handgun classes are always the most popular.
Women in the BOW program also demonstrate that they’re willing to get their hands dirty, signing up for classes like trapping and skinning, cleaning wild game and sausage-making. Pheasant- and fish-cleaning also are standard classes taught at South Dakota’s BOW programs.
For the wild-game cleaning workshop, the group recently field dressed a sheep because a deer wasn’t available. Lindsey said that, as she watched, she saw the women begin timidly and become more comfortable the longer they were in class.
“You see women take a few steps closer, leaning in, taking a few steps closer, and all of a sudden, they’re all jumping in. And then every single one of them is getting their hands bloody,” Lindsey said.
She likes to push participants slightly outside their comfort zone, and also wants women to try activities such as archery, shooting or wild-game cooking, rather than just learning about them. BOW programs provide those hands-on opportunities.
Minnesota has the largest BOW program in the nation, and Bylander said workshops nearly always fill. In South Dakota, Lindsey said the annual BOW weekend getaway has 100 slots and often fills within two weeks of registration opening. South Dakota also has a Women’s Try It Day, which draws 3,000 to 4,000 women who come to try their hand at outdoor activities.
Lindsey and Bylander find that the social aspect of BOW plays a large part in the success of the program.
“If they can develop a social network, they will do the sport longer,” Bylander said. “The social connection is just as important as the skill connection.”
Lindsey echoed that sentiment. “Women need social structure. Anyone does, but women more so,” she said.
Julie Thompson was one BOW participant who was thrilled to meet other women with similar interests. She’s now a member of the Minnesota BOW steering committee, serves as an instructor and is chair of the program’s education committee. Thompson, of Blue Earth, Minn., discovered BOW when she was on the Minnesota DNR website applying for a turkey-hunting tag.
“As I read about it, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, there are people out there like me,’” Thompson said.
She grew up with four brothers who got her into the outdoors — she often didn’t have much of a choice — and before BOW, Thompson didn’t have any female friends who shared her interest in the outdoors.
“I was so excited to meet anyone who would go fishing, or go hunting, or just be outdoors,” she said.
With BOW, Thompson found herself in a group of people who shared her interests, learning from instructors who were patient, friendly and wanted her to have fun.
Many BOW participants want to continue learning about the activities they’ve been introduced to, which has led to offshoots of BOW, like the Outdoor Women of South Dakota and Beyond BOW.
Minnesota has a strong Beyond BOW program that allows women to become more acquainted with the activities they were introduced to with BOW. Numerous events are held throughout the year and across the state; sturgeon fishing on the Rainy River on the Minnesota/Canadian border is one of the most popular.
After attending some of the BOW offerings, Thompson and her sister-in-law, Cami Wendt, signed up for the annual sturgeon fishing weekend. Both caught 20- to 30-pound fish, though Thompson admits that her big one got away, as often is the case on fishing excursions (sturgeons in the Rainy River can grow to 100 pounds or more).
Bobbie Danielson is also a big fan of the BOW program, where she learned to deer hunt, a skill she plans to pass on to her son.
“I want hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation activities, as well as the great stories they create, to be interwoven into my family’s traditions,” said Danielson, of Aitkin, Minn.
That driving force led her to sign up for the BOW Learn to Deer Hunt class. Along with four other women, she attended a series of classes culminating in a mentored deer hunt. In classes, Danielson learned how to find hunting land, deer hunting regulations and permitting, ammo and blaze orange requirements, deer habitat and signs, where to place a stand or blind, shot placement and how to follow blood trails.
“It was such an amazing learning opportunity,” Danielson said. “I highly recommend the BOW Learn to Deer Hunt program to all moms and women who have an interest in learning more and who are committed to carrying on the sport in their families.”