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Teaching women to be at home in the wilderness

Outdoor training programs tailored to women are available across North America. (Photo Credit: Becoming an Outdoors Woman Program)

Outdoor training programs tailored to women are available across North America. (Photo Credit: Becoming an Outdoors Woman Program)

When it comes to outdoor pursuits, Canada has it all. From dog sledding to fly-fishing to ice climbing and everything in between, Canadians are spoiled for choice when it comes to having fun in the wild.

But there may be trouble in paradise. Studies show that women are far less likely to participate in outdoor activities like fishing, hunting and trapping, which are considered traditionally ‘male’ domains. One reason is that many women feel intimidated, believing they lack the necessary skills and strength to keep up in the wild. Another is societal expectations.

“Some people still think that a woman who hunts or fishes is an anomaly. Until women see other women who are fun and smart and not different at all, they are sometimes hesitant to participate,” says Peggy Farrell, the director of the Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) program, which is offered in more than 40 U.S. states and several Canadian provinces.

Farrell, who lives on a small farm outside Amherst, Wisconsin, has been working with BOW for 18 years. In that time, she has taught thousands of women to love the outdoors by helping them master skills to better enjoy nature and feel more confident.

The program originally started in the United States in 1991, and Nova Scotia began offering it to women in 1997. The main aim is to assist women to overcome barriers, whether social or financial, to learning outdoor skills.

Training options range from bowhunting and kayaking in fall to ice fishing and snowshoeing in winter.  (Photo Credit: Etta Parker via BOW Nova Scotia)

Training options range from bowhunting and kayaking in fall to ice fishing and snowshoeing in winter.
(Photo Credit: Etta Parker via BOW Nova Scotia)

“The reason it started in the first place was because there weren’t enough women fishing and hunting and the impression was that women weren’t interested,” says Pam Grace, who manages Nova Scotia’s BOW program. ”What was found was that women were interested, they just didn’t know where to go to get those skills.”

Adult women tend to learn best in a supportive environment with other like-minded individuals, Grace says. “Women tend to want to learn in a non-competitive environment – it’s not about who’s the best at something. Everyone learns at their own pace and walks away with what they want to learn or what is meaningful to them.”

BOW offers three-day programs every fall and winter in Nova Scotia, with this year’s winter session taking place at the Gaelic College in St. Anns, Cape Breton from February 21 to 23. Grace says fall and winter sessions quickly fill to capacity, attracting around 60 women each. Registrants can choose from a wide variety of half-day classes – with options ranging from bowhunting and kayaking in fall to ice fishing and snowshoeing in winter.

Similar programs to BOW are available throughout North America. Pond’s Resort in Miramichi, New Brunswick, offers fly fishing training irreverently called ‘Broads with Rods’. Marsha Pond, chief instructor, says that in her experience women have a very different approach to learning outdoor skills than men do.

Women are increasingly interested in learning how to fish. (Photo Credit: Becoming an Outdoors Woman)

Women are increasingly interested in learning how to fish. (Photo Credit: Becoming an Outdoors Woman)

“Women listen,” she says. “Our guides will tell you that they would much rather guide and teach women than they would men because when it comes to fishing and outdoor things, men presume they have to know it all, so they’re always debating. A woman will listen and, I believe, learn far faster because of that.”

Although the aim of ‘Broads’ is to learn as much as possible in one weekend, Pond says the program is really about women getting together to have a good time. “Everybody stays on the property, we all eat together, and there’s lots of fun. It takes the maintenance guys a fews days after fishing school to scrape the candle wax off the deck of the lodge… We smoke some cigars, drink some wine and have a bunch of laughs.”

Many women come away from such programs with a renewed sense of self and increased self-assurance.

“The building of confidence that comes from strapping on a backpack, pushing your barriers, sleeping in the outdoors is something that translates to our daily lives,” says Vesna Plakanis, the founder of a program inside Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park called Women in the Wilderness. “There is nothing like successfully building a fire in the pouring rain, conquering our fears of the dark or understanding that we can walk just one more mile because we have no choice.”

Plakanis, who has been guiding visitors in the National Park with husband Erik since 1998, says that outdoors activities are also an important way to recharge the proverbial batteries.

“As women we have taken on so much that often we allow our own spiritual needs to wither. Study after study shows the restorative magic of a wilderness setting,” she says.

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