By Kimberly Wilmot Voss
Thursday, July 4, 2002
A Wisconsin program, quickly spreading across the nation and to Canada, teaches and inspires women to hunt, fish, canoe, camp and otherwise fall in love with and become stewards of the great outdoors.
MINNEAPOLIS (WOMENSENEWS)--If you need to reach Betty Wilkens, she asks that you call between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. The rest of the day she can be found outdoors. A regular hunter, angler and canoeist, Wilkens spends her days with the wildlife found on her Minnesota farm about 75 miles north of the Twin Cities.
"It comes naturally to me," said Wilkens, who grew up on an orchard in Wisconsin. "I like to be outside every day, all year long."
Wilkens says she knows of many women who like to hunt and fish, yet she also knows that many people consider these to be male activities.
"People still seemed surprised," says Wilkens. "They say, you hunt? You fish? As if they can't believe it. It seems amazing to some folks."
It is the goal of the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program that the amazement turns into acceptance. The nationwide program--run by different state agencies--encourages women to shatter these gender stereotypes and equips them for a lifetime of outdoor activities.
While women have made inroads in various educational and career fields, program organizers realized that activities such as hunting and fishing remained dominated by men. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study found that of the 14 million people who hunt each year, only 10 percent are women.
The outdoors programs grew out of a 1990 workshop at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Christine Thomas, a natural resources professor at the school, questioned why few women were involved in outdoor recreation like hunting and fishing. She learned that the main barrier was a lack of formal and informal opportunities to learn about many outdoor sports. Surveys found that women wanted to learn from other women in a non-competitive environment.
Thomas organized a seminar in Wisconsin to gauge women's interest. The response was overwhelming: More than double the number accepted wanted to attend. Two more states expressed interest in 1991 and each year more states got involved. By 2001, 46 states and two Canadian provinces were hosting workshops. The workshops reach 15,000 women each year. State agencies, such the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin, run the programs. The states agencies were eager to participate because officials predicted that the increased number of hunters and anglers would mean more licenses sold and camping spots reserved. Also, Thomas has found that the outdoors women have become more concerned about conservation.
"We never expected this to grow like it has," said Thomas, who is now Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. "It just snowballed."
The activities vary by state, but the approach is the same. The women learn in a hands-on, non-threatening environment. Most instructors are women.
"We learn differently," said Jean Bergerson, Minnesota's coordinator for Becoming an Outdoors Woman. "Our approach is very question-friendly. It's women teaching women; women acting as mentors."
Minnesota participants learn about archery, hiking, snow shoeing, nature appreciation, canoeing, fly fishing and basic camping skills. A mother-child fishing workshop and a guided grouse hunt are also offered.
In 2002, the Minnesota programs have filled up regularly. Like programs in other states, there is diversity among the women who sign up for the sessions. There are mother-daughter teams, as well as grandmothers. Some are novices and others know their technical terms. Social class and occupations also vary.
In an introductory workshop held at the end of June, 20 women traveled to the Horse and Hunt Club in Prior Lake in Minnesota to learn about shooting sporting clays (a game designed to simulate field shooting), fly fishing, outdoor cooking and navigation. Participants took part in four classes on June 23, a sweltering Sunday. There were murmurs of, "Am I doing this right?" and an equal number of encouraging replies.
In small groups, the women learned about how to hold equipment and what clues can guide a hunter through a forest. A little awkward at first, the women seemed confident by the afternoon.
During one of the sessions, Terri Jaskowick, 33, learned about navigating the outdoors. While she has been a hunter for eight years, she often went with her husband. Last year was the first time she waited by herself for deer in the woods and she recalled the fear of not knowing exactly where she was.
"I'm not one for directions," said Jaskowick, who lives a mile south of Minneapolis. "I needed the orientation lessons. I do feel more comfortable now."
She also strengthened her tracking skills. It's a skill she plans to hone on her next bear hunt. She has already shot three bears--the rug made from the skin of one covers the floor of her living room.
"I learn about what to look for," she said. "You need to know about how the animals live, what they eat in order to find them. The more you know, the better hunter you can be."
Wilkens also has been involved in several Minnesota workshops. Although she was already comfortable outdoors, workshop leaders improved her hunting and canoeing techniques.
Just beginning her sixth decade, Wilkens has been the outdoors type since childhood. She fishes regularly and hunts on her lands with a rifle and a bow and arrow.
"Hunting isn't about killing," said Wilkens. "It's about being part of the environment. It's about watching the animals, letting them get used to you--being a part of their environment. Ninety-nine percent of the shots I could take, I don't."
While Wilkens is quick to share her love of hunting, she is aware that many women don't have the same opportunities. After her initial workshop, she offered her farm as a place for future activities.
"It's a chance for women to try new things or hone the skills they have," said Wilkens. "Becoming an Outdoors Woman needs to exist for women who wouldn't have these opportunities otherwise."
Program organizers want all women to have access. Local businesses act as sponsors, offering scholarships to low-income women and about 15 percent of participants are women who qualify.
In 1997, after experiencing growing enrollment nationwide, program organizers decided to increase their efforts to reach out to women of color and women with disabilities.
Recently in Wisconsin, Becoming an Outdoors Woman held workshops for Milwaukee-area residents from a primarily African American workplace. The program offered transportation and included African American instructors.
"Many of the barriers that women have to getting involved are not difficult to fix," said Thomas.
Enough barriers have been removed that Becoming an Outdoors Woman is now offering advanced workshops, "Beyond BOW." Regular surveys have found that women continue to take part in outdoor activities after their sessions and return for more training along with their family and friends.
"There have been some great success stories," said Bergerson. "The looks on women's faces when they catch their first fish is wonderful. I see the self confidence growing in many women. It's empowering."
Kimberly Wilmot Voss has been a journalist for the past decade. She is a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
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