- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

HOLDERNESS, N.H. — It was my first time in a canoe, and I couldn’t remember which stroke was which. There I was, paddling along without a clue. My instructor patiently suggested that I do a reverse sweep stroke.

What was that again? I had just learned it. I tried to improvise, but she was on to me.

She was at the back of the boat — or as I had just learned to call it, the stern. I was in the bow — the front — and we had a passenger in between us.

The instructor asked if I wanted to turn around and watch her demonstrate.

Turn around? In this tippy little thing? In the middle of a lake? No way.

Somehow, we made it back to shore — although I’m pretty sure she did most of the work. Was I tired and frustrated after circling around aimlessly for a couple of hours? Yes. Would I do it again? You bet.

I don’t consider myself an outdoors person, but there I was that weekend — canoeing, catching a fish, using a bow and arrow, even shooting a rifle. I was “Becoming an Outdoors-Woman” — just as the program I was attending had promised.

Becoming an Outdoors-Woman was started by Christine Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The first workshop was conducted in Wisconsin in 1991 with 100 women. This year, 20,000 women are attending classes in 43 states and five Canadian provinces.

Some participants have never held a fishing pole nor rowed a boat before taking these workshops. For me, growing up in New York City, I spent a lot of my free time in museums, theaters and stores. Many of my summer vacations were spent in other cities.

Even recalling my Girl Scout days, I don’t remember being exposed to many outdoor pursuits. As workshop coordinator Laura Ryder noted, a lot of Girl Scouts “didn’t get to do all the cool things the Boy Scouts got to do.”

In generations past, Miss Ryder added, boys typically went fishing and hunting with their fathers, while girls often stayed home with their mothers. While some sporting goods companies now publish catalogs just for women, Miss Ryder said that women still sometimes feel ignored by sales staff in stores that sell outdoors equipment.

“They talk to the husband; they don’t talk to you,” Miss Ryder said. “Those kinds of things really exist, and they tend to be discouraging for women.”

There’s also an intimidation factor. If you really want to get into a fish-and-game club, there’s often a heavy emphasis on competition, Miss Ryder said. The Outdoors-Woman workshops focus on learning in a noncompetitive, supportive environment.

The courses are open to women 18 and older, and topics vary by location. Arkansas offers “Pioneer Women Skills,” where you learn how to throw a tomahawk and put up a lodge or teepee to spend the night in. In Colorado, participants learn wilderness and survival skills in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Florida has a course on tracking deer. Nebraska has a course that simulates a morning duck hunt. Wisconsin offers “Sewing With Fur.” Warmer climates have scuba diving, while some states offer winter workshops on snowshoeing and ice fishing.

The workshop I attended in New Hampshire offered outdoor skills and survival, field-dressing big game, nature photography and wilderness backpacking. Talks were offered in the evening on falconry, fly-fishing, bow hunting and on a wildlife biologist’s research trip to Nunavut, the Inuit territory of Canada.

The state’s pristine Squam Lake — where “On Golden Pond” was filmed — and Rockywold/Deephaven Camps with rustic cabins offered a beautiful setting for our adventures. The New Hampshire course has been offered for 11 years and is sponsored by the state Fish and Game Department and the New Hampshire Wildlife Federation. The instructors, most of them Fish and Game Department employees, volunteer their time and experience.

Many women came with a goal. One had recently moved to New Hampshire; she had just retired from running a business in Los Angeles. She had spent her childhood in Massachusetts and wanted to reacclimatize herself to the outdoors.

Another woman wanted to learn how to build a fire. Still others wanted to improve their shooting skills to go hunting with their husbands — or on their own. Many wanted to meet other people.

Some women were repeat visitors, such as Jean Dotzler of New Boston, who came back with four friends. She tried kayaking and now she wants to buy her own kayak.

“It’s easy to do,” she said of the sport. “It’s not hard on your body.”

Pam Coughlin of Mont Vernon first came two years ago with her sister-in-law. She has fished all her life but had little experience with guns. She ended up in my rifle class and enjoyed it.

“I hope to come back in four years when my daughter is 18,” she said.

Speaking of that rifle class, I admit I was a bit jittery. It was the first time I had touched a gun and my hand trembled a little as I loaded each .22-caliber bullet.

I found it difficult to relax, and a number of my shots didn’t make it anywhere near the target (they’re probably in a different range — or maybe somewhere in the White Mountains), but I felt I made some progress in overcoming my nerves.

Another big first for me was catching a fish — it was a rather small, smallmouth bass — but hey, it counted. I didn’t even mind putting the worms on the hook.

Archery was my favorite activity, even though I ended up with a souvenir bruise on my arm (I guess I had that arm guard on too low).

The instructor said she had a Zen-like approach to archery, so I, too, tried to be one with the arrow. I felt this sense of empowerment as I got better toward the end and hit the little balloon placed in the center of the bull’s-eye.

Hmm, this might be a new stress-buster for me. Next time I’ll have to try mountain biking.

• • •

For information on Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, visit www.uwsp.edu/cnr/bow or call 877/269-6626. Courses are offered around the United States and Canada at various times of year, with costs varying from $110 for a workshop in Montana on agricultural conservation to $1,800 for a six-day trip in Alaska. The cost of the New Hampshire workshop was $275.

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