(WOMENSENEWS)-Across the nation, deer hunters are breaking out their bows and rifles for the fall hunting season starting this month in many states. Only a few of those wearing hunter orange will be women–but one national outdoors program aims to increase the numbers and teach women to hunt, fish and confront nature.
About 14 million people went hunting in 1996-only 10 percent of them women, up from 6 percent in 1950, according to a study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency.
Becoming an Outdoor Woman, a national program based in Wisconsin, organizes women-only weekend sessions in an effort to create a comfortable, non-competitive atmosphere in which women can learn outdoor skills without fear of being intimidated or dismissed by men.
Denita Vanwyk, 40, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, signed up four years ago for her first Becoming an Outdoor Woman program and now makes it an annual trip. She recalls horror stories from other women who tried to learn hunting skills on trips with men.
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“They say when they go with their brothers or husbands, they’ve got to be the dog,” she said. “You know, they go in the front through the bushes to shoo out the birds and the men wait behind to shoot them.” (The birds, that is.)
About 20,000 women took part in sessions throughout the country last year, said Diane Humphrey Lueck, director of Becoming an Outdoor Woman. The program started in 1990, after a conference on why fewer women were hunting and fishing. One of the reasons was the lack of a supportive learning environment.
“Instead of seeing who can catch the biggest fish, or who can shoot the most clay targets, it’s a cooperative effort to get everyone up to speed,” Lueck said.
Most of the weekends offer several outdoor classes, such as canoeing, learning the basics of hunting and reading a compass. Participants sign up for four classes over the three-day period and stay in cabins.
Some states offer specialized series. Missouri, for example, has a session specifically on deer hunting and another on canoeing and kayaking. Others, like Minnesota, have special winter programs with classes on wolf ecology, cross-country skiing and winter camping.
Participants must be 18 or older, but most are over 35, said Lueck. The cost is usually about $125-$200, depending on the workshop. Some states have scholarships.
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“The program is basically for beginners–you don’t have to be super fit, not by a long shot,” said Mariah Hughes, Missouri coordinator of the outdoors program.
Those who are hesitant to test their outdoor skills can take a lesson from Florence Datig’s page. At age 72, she’s headed to her fourth Becoming an Outdoor Woman session next week in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Datig said she heard about the program through her hiking group and has tried activities she once never imagined, like off-road cycling and kayaking. This time she is taking introduction to shooting sports, handgun shooting, archery and bow hunting skills and the primitive chef–learning to cook gourmet meals outdoors.
“It’s a little bit of a slower program for me this time because I hurt my knee last time kayaking,” she said.
Vanwyk, of Iowa, said she prefers the hunting classes and is proud she can now hunt on her own–with both a single-shot muzzleloader and a bow–and gut her own deer. But she also has tried bird watching and tracking classes and is now involving a new generation of girls in the outdoors. She volunteers every summer for Iowa’s “Outdoor Journey for Girls” in which girls ages 12 to15 learn basic skills such as canoeing and hunter safety.
“I think it’s really good for them to see that women are outdoors in the roles that are usually taken by men,” she said.
Anthropologists and archaeologists have uncovered evidence that early humans lived in groups in which women and men were fairly equal, both active in providing food for the tribe. Women hunted with nets and weapons and hunting was also their bastion. When nomads settled into an agricultural way of life, the division of labor became sharper and men did more of the hunting.
Program Seeks To Involve More Women of Color, Low-Income Women
The next aim of the national Becoming an Outdoor Woman program is to involve more minority and low-income women, said Lueck, the director.
“One of the problems was that we didn’t have many ethnic teachers, and there need to be more role models for the community,” she said. “We’re making sure our publicity is diverse and that we’re targeting a range of neighborhoods.”
Local coordinators say one of the barriers to getting minority women involved is that hunting and fishing are not considered recreational activities by their communities.
“One factor is that they haven’t felt welcomed,” said Hughes, of Missouri. “When they see something about an outdoor program, they think, ‘Oh, they don’t mean me.'”
Datig said the same perception might hold true for age but she said she has never had a problem keeping up with the younger crowd.
“These are mature women and it’s nice to see that you’re not the only one in the world who would like to try these things,” she said. “In fact, I have my two paper plates with the targets hit in the middle hung right on my wall.”
For more information:Becoming An Outdoors-Woman:
Dawn Fallik is a full-time reporter in St. Louis.