Lights twinkle and reflect off the snow outside the windows of Lakeside Lodge at Maine’s Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center. Camp staff are cleaning up after the family-style dinner downstairs while 38 women form a circle in the lodge’s upstairs meeting room. It’s the beginning of another Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) Winter Skills Weekend.

Jane Erickson reels in her bait fish after a morning of ice fishing on North Pond. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Yvette McDonnell, from Brownfield, introduces herself and tells why she’s made the trip to Bryant Pond.

“My daughter was born to hunt and I’m here to support her,” she says. As early as 3, McDonnell says her daughter was playing with sticks in the house and making stabbing motions in the air with a primal grunt. She told McDonnell “I die a dear mommy.”

“Every animal she saw there was a culinary masterpiece to be had by her young precious mind. As my husband and I never hunted, and didn’t talk of it, it became clear that my daughter, who will be 11 in March, was born to hunt. I tell people she was a huntress in her past life.”

With no hunting experiences of her own, McDonnell wanted to support her daughter’s interests. This is how she found BOW. She attended her first BOW about three years ago and this weekend was her second. “I had the opportunity to deepen my own research with hands-on skills . . . clay shooting, a deer intensive workshop, wild game cooking and firearm safety. We are connected with the 4-H shooting club as well as Bryant Pond Hunter Safety Camp. I hope my support along with people we meet along the way, will provide my daughter with the tools she needs to be the huntress that she is.”

It’s not as unusual as one would think. According to statistics from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the number of women hunters has increased from 1.8 million in 2001 to 3.3 million in 2013 — an 85% increase of women in the woods.

Cheryl Miller, of Hampton, Virginia, enjoys some ice fishing during her first BOW experience. Julie-Ann Baumer photo

At breakfast the next morning, Jessica Falconer, a licensed clinical social workers from Belfast, tells a similar story. Falconer grew up in Houston, Texas, but developed a deep affinity for Maine when she ended up here through Americorp’s Vista program. “I was supposed to be born here but no one told my parents,” she laughs.

“I always wanted to go to summer camp as a kid . . . be outside. Now that I have my own kids, I want to learn how to do these things so we can do them together.”

Through the BOW program, she’s learned to drive a snowmobile, operate an auger and ice fish. She’s already signed up for the May mini-session “Intro to Hunting.” She said she’d like to be able to replace her red meat consumption with venison she shoots herself.

The BOW program was developed by Professor Christine Thomas, currently the dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. In 1991, Thomas and a group of friends and colleagues offered to mentor and teach women outdoor skills over a weekend. The goal of BOW was to create a supportive environment for women to learn outdoor skills, make friends and have fun.

Ashley Jardim, of Augusta, looks for animal tracks during a snowshoe hike. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

What began as an experiment grew into a nonprofit, educational program now operating in 38 states and six Canadian provinces. There is also “Beyond BOW,” an intensive opportunity to learn a single skill like kayaking or archery, and even “BOW Destinations.” The latter program is offered in partnership with Green Adventures and takes the BOW experience to remote locations like Costa Rica and Tanzania.

In Maine, BOW is co-sponsored by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center. Three different sessions are offered during the year.

— The fall BOW session, offered in October, includes canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and wild edible foraging, as well as a full roster of shooting and archery training.

— Winter Skills Weekend is similar to the fall session, but with water activities replaced with ice fishing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, winter camping and wildlife tracking, to name a few.  Both sessions cost $230 and include lodging and meals.

Snowmobilers make their way up a hill on a trail during the BOW weekend. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

— Finally, there is a “Spring Mini,” a one-day event that squeezes three complete workshops into a day with lunch and snacks included for $85.

Ron Fournier, Bryant Pond 4-H Camp director, likes to describe the variety of BOW programs offered as an opportunity to “choose your own adventure.” With a small staff and a small group of volunteers, Maine’s BOW program has been wildly successful, with programs filling up as rapidly as they are posted.

Winter Skills Weekend starts on Friday evening with dinner and an evening presentation. Fournier and his staff go over logistics for the weekend and then it’s “lights out.”  Saturday includes a morning and an afternoon session, dinner, and then an opportunity to ice fish for cusk during the evening. Sunday’s single session runs in the morning and the day closes with lunch and fond farewells to new and old BOW friends.

Natalie Marceau, of Searsmont, takes aim with a shotgun as staff member Becky Fabian, right, mans the trap thrower under the watchful eye of another staff member, Alex Nichols, left, giving pointers. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The variety of skills offered, the knowledge of the instructors, and the quality of the lodgings has created a program that women choose to attend more than once. In fact, most of the 20 women attending the 2020 Winter Skills Weekend were frequent flyers to the program. Like Mount Desert Island’s Donna Reis.

Reis first attended Maine BOW in 2013 when she was living in Westchester County, New York. “My all-time favorite is the BOW Winter Skills. . . . I have attended seven times, each time, diving deeper in to the activities that I choose to engage in. I also try new activities. My favorites are ice fishing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and outdoor open fire/Dutch oven cooking. BOW taught me the techniques and introduced me to the equipment needed for ice fishing and snowmobiling. All of the skills that I have learned over the years at BOW I use regularly at home.”

Although Reis attended her first BOW alone, she said she was “immediately enthralled because there I met enthusiastic and talented instructors and like-minded peers. Peers that I was unlikely to find in Westchester County, N.Y. Since then I have moved to Maine and am now a full-time resident. Each year I return to BOW and bring friends who, like me, would like to develop the skills to more fully engage in the outdoors. One year I brought eight friends and filled an entire bunk room. What a blast.”

Writer Julie-Ann Baumer works with a compass during the introduction to map and compass workshop at BOW. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

This year, Reis brought Mount Desert Island friends Liz Williams, Barbara Amstutz and Lynne Raimondo along for the adventure. All three women considered themselves “outdoorsy,” but Amstutz said it was a great opportunity for her to “gain more confidence and comfort particularly in the cold weather.” And the “opportunity to enjoy the fellowship of friends” made it a great experience of “real winter in the western part of Maine away from the coast. All we get is rain and ice on MDI!”

And participants may discover there are some outdoor activities that aren’t as enjoyable as others. Liz Williams said it “turns out ice fishing and snowmobiling are not for me,” but it was “a great way to find out!”

So maybe you’re not planning to be the next Annie Oakley. Or even the next Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, Maine’s first registered guide. No matter! BOW has something for every woman interested in stepping out into the wild. The next session, the Spring Mini, will be held on May 16, 2020. But don’t delay; these sessions fill up fast.

Carolyn Layzer, right and Judy Sharkey, middle, from Newburyport, Ma., look for animal tracks with others women during a recent Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program sponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife and hosted at The University of Maine 4-H Camp & Learning Center at Bryant Pond. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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