The Becoming an Outdoor Woman program began near Tomahawk 29 years ago. Today BOW is happening in nearly 40 states and six Canadian provinces
Ellen Rice took her 11-year-old granddaughter, Sophie, turkey hunting for the first time last weekend in Michigan. For Rice, 64 from Indianapolis, it’s an experience she couldn’t have imagined only a few years ago. Women in her generation didn’t hunt, generally speaking. No one ever told her she couldn’t, exactly, it just wasn’t a thing women did.
How does a woman from Indianapolis taking her granddaughter hunting in Michigan pertain to anything around central Wisconsin? It turns out that Rice got her start in hunting through a Becoming an Outdoor Woman (BOW) workshop, a nationwide program that was born three decades ago at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point campus. You could call it “international,” since it’s also running in six provinces in Canada.
BOW’s very first workshop was held 29 years ago at Treehaven, a sprawling UWSP-held natural area and conference center near Tomahawk. It was a bold idea at the time. Take a bunch of women, put them in an outdoor setting, and teach them skills like flyfishing, shooting a gun, hiking, and building a fire. A core group of UWSP people recognized that few women were engaged in wildernessy outdoor recreation at that time. Sure, it was 1991 and well past the Leave It To Beaver era, but do the math: Women who were around 40-years-old at that time had grown up in the 1950s and 60s.
The BOW experiment couldn’t have gone any better.
More than 100 women signed up for that very first workshop at Treehaven in September 1991, filling every available slot. The same happened in the next two years, says BOW’s director at UWSP since 1995, Peggy Farrell. Women flocked to the programs. Then other state agencies started calling, wanting to know how they could do something similar.
Today, BOW workshops, which teach women a wide range of skills and can take them on days-long adventures on the water and in the woods, are available in 38 states and six Canadian provinces. Often the organizers of BOW across the continent are trained here, at UWSP. This year, Hawaii will open its first BOW workshop, after its director attended a BOW workshop last year at Treehaven.
Cause and effect is hard to say with certainty, but BOW seems to be accomplishing its mission: According to Wisconsin DNR data and other researchers, overall participation in activities such as hunting and fishing are declining, but it’s on the rise among women.
It started with a conference
Ellen Rice was introduced to BOW several years ago in her home state of Indiana, and since then has traveled to Treehaven, near Tomahawk, for the BOW workshops held there.
In 1990, a conference was held to figure out why women weren’t participating in outdoor recreation. What were the actual reasons they weren’t hunting, camping or fishing? The conference included UWSP faculty and staff, state resource management professionals, conservation organizations representatives, and hunters and anglers.
These people identified several more obvious barriers, such as lack of appropriate equipment and clothing, lack of time, hunting being viewed as a man’s realm, etc. But the conference unearthed the biggest barrier: a lack of role models. Women weren’t shown from a young age how to hunt and fish like their male counterparts were. And learning as an adult from someone who has known something their whole life can be intimidating, Ferrell says. “Women might have a husband or uncle or father who hunts, but they might not be the best person to learn from,” Farrell says. “There is this emotional closeness with someone that might be a barrier to learning.”
It was with that in mind that Dr. Christine Thomas, now Dean of the College of Natural Resources at UWSP, started the first Becoming an Outdoor Woman workshop at Treehaven in 1991. The idea was that women would spend a weekend with other women, in an environment where everyone is for the most part a beginner. UWSP would find the mentors—top-notch instructors who specialize in patience and teaching beginners.
“We look for people who really love to do things in the outdoors, and love to share it,” Farrell says. “Building a safe and supportive atmosphere where women can learn, paired with right instruction in a non-competitive environment is the key to the program’s success.”
Wisconsin’s BOW program holds several workshops and events each year, but its main weekend at Treehaven still closely resembles that first one in 1991: Participants choose from a variety of focuses during the weekend, from about 20 different activities, which means women could come back for a different year and take a totally different course. That happens a lot, Farrell says. Women who might think they never wanted to shoot a gun start talking with another woman at the shared meal time, and after seeing her excitement decide they want to try it next time. There are about 50 instructors, and sometimes instructor to student ratio can be as low as 2 to 1, or even one on one instruction.
It was only a few years after that inaugural BOW weekend when calls started coming in from other states, wanting to find out how to start their own programs. BOW now runs in 38 states and six Canadian provinces and will debut in Hawaii later this year. Roughly 15,000 women per year go through programs, and about 400 in Wisconsin each year.
What’s changed since those early days? Honestly not much, Farrell says. The program worked well pretty much from day one. The only thing that changes over time are the topics women are interested in. For example, after the Hunger Games movies came out, archery became very popular. Flyfishing has always been popular but for some reason exploded in the past few years to the point they’ve had to turn away eager participants.
Rising women in outdoor recreation
What has getting all these women interested in the outdoors meant for participation in outdoor recreation? Are these workshops having its intended effect?
There’s no way to know for sure if it’s the BOW effect, but women’s participation in fishing has increased and is expected to do so into the future, even while the overall numbers of anglers have been declining, according to a study of Wisconsin fishing participation by Michigan Tech University. By 2030, 32% of all anglers will be women, compared to 29% now.
More women are getting into hunting than ever before. According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 83,929 women bought Wisconsin deer hunting licenses in 2018 (bow, gun and other), down a bit from 86,887 women in 2017. That’s more than 10% of the total deer hunting licenses in those years. Compare that to 2006, there were only around 49,000 women deer hunters.
Another interesting trend is a rise of women in their 20s and 30s participating in BOW. Farrell says younger attendees approach hunting and fishing as a way to sustainably harvest food. And, in a world dominated by technology, they’re looking to disconnect from gadgets and reconnect with nature.
Ellen Rice didn’t know what to think when she signed up for her first BOW workshop a few years ago. “I thought, ‘Oh boy, is it even possible for me to do this?’” Rice says. “Can I figure this out? Can I shoot a gun? I left knowing I could.”
That was in Indiana. After that first experience, Rice started coming to the Wisconsin BOW events, even completing the winter BOW workshops. The winter version feature things such as snowshoeing and winter camping. Participants will even sleep in a snow cave they build, Farrell says.
Like many BOW attendees, Rice was astounded by the quality of the Treehaven location. “Oh my gosh, most of the time I’m there, I’m wandering around so grateful to be on that property,” Rice says. “If there weren’t any classes, meals and all the other wonderful things in the workshop, it would still be such an opportunity just to be on that land.”
Laura Holmes, of Richfield, agrees. A personal trainer by profession, she learned about BOW through her daughter, Shauna, who at the time was a student in the College of Natural Resources at UWSP and had started working with Farrell in the BOW program. She showed Rice the advertising for the program and talked her into going.
“She would tell me all these stories of women who had never held a firearm before, thought they were afraid of them, and how these women felt empowered and proud of themselves for doing things they didn’t think they would have an interest in,” Holmes says. “She would come back with all these cool stories.”
So last August Holmes decided to take her daughter’s advice and give it a try. The weekend had quite the impact on her, especially the flyfishing session. Although she didn’t continue flyfishing as a regular activity, she thoroughly enjoyed being in the water with waders on, feeling the pressure of the rushing stream against her. “That was really cool,” Holmes says.
Another section on hammock camping did stick. Holmes immediately bought a hammock and takes it everywhere now, setting up for an impromptu nap or just sitting and enjoying nature. Her next step is to try camping with it. She also enjoyed the survival classes, where she learned how to collect water and which plants are edible.
Both Holmes and Rice say there’s something about being with a group of all women, where everyone is in kind of the same boat, that makes the experience more comfortable.
And both have made friends who they now share these activities with. Rice has a group of other women she regularly hunts with. And Holmes has been involved in some of the international travel excursions BOW offers. She recently traveled to Costa Rica and will help co-lead the next BOW trip there.
Holmes took it even a step further, and will be one of the instructors at the next BOW workshop. She will employ her personal training skills to teach a class called Fit for the Outdoors. The class will cover things such as basic anatomy, the cardiovascular and muscle systems, the basics of core, and then tailor some training ideas to the group depending on what their outdoor interests are.
Not much has changed to the core BOW program, Farrell says. They hit on a winning formula pretty much right away, and it’s stuck ever since. The sections change, but the core idea remains the same. The data — a big increase in women participating in outdoor activities in Wisconsin — as well as anecdotal evidence seems to support the idea that BOW is fulfilling its mission. The enthusiastic women themselves are the program’s biggest cheerleaders and the means of spreading the word about all things BOW and how much they love it.
Holmes says she shares just about every BOW post she sees on social media, and tells others in person as well. “I want to expose as many women to this in my circle of the world as I can,” Holmes says.
Upcoming BOW events in Wisconsin
• June 7 Great Lakes Charter Fishing Adventure, Sheboygan
• July 19-25 Isle Royale National Park Camping and Kayaking Adventure
• Aug. 23-25 “Original” BOW Workshop at Treehaven, near Tomahawk
• Sept. 6-8 Apostle Island Sea Kayak Adventure, Lake Superior
• Sept. 8-15 Advanced Sea Kayaking Adventure, Lake Superior