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Becoming an Outdoors-Woman

Outdoors woman Michelle Anderson

Sitting in the lot of a derelict gas station with the Indiana Gazetteer on my lap, I confirmed my suspicion. Crap. I had missed the last turn. Looks like that Orient Yourself Outdoors class I signed up for this weekend was a good choice. After backtracking 20 miles, I finally drove into Ross Camp in West Lafayette, IN.

With a mixture of excitement and apprehension, I lined up to check in for the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) weekend workshop. Women – younger, older, taller, shorter – all smiling and chatting, waited patiently. I admit, I was a little nervous about coming alone but then I recalled what Theresa Mack, registration coordinator for the Indiana BOW program, told me the previous week. “Even women who aren’t sure about this – they think it sounds interesting but are worried about coming alone – always have a really good experience. You know women, we like to travel in packs, and it’s easy to find a pack once you get here.” Within minutes, other participants were welcoming me; introducing themselves and helping me find my way to the building I would be staying in.

BOW is an international program designed to introduce women to outdoor sports and recreational activities in a non-threatening, non-intimidating environment. With programs in Canada, New Zealand, and 42 out of 50 states in the U.S., BOW workshops have beginner-level classes that range from basic riflery to dog sledding to outdoor cooking. Over the course of a weekend, participants take four classes of their choosing. In between classes there are meals, a BOW Olympics, and a campfire complete with s’mores and ghost stories on Saturday night.

Life is like … tying flies?
Knowledge is power. And, for me, increasing my knowledge increases my confidence. So, I signed up for several classes on topics in which my knowledge wouldn’t even fill the tiny light bulb on my Black Diamond headlamp. First up on Friday night: fly-tying. At this point, I only knew that the flies are supposed to look like bugs, which attracts the fish. I would discover that the world of fly tying involves beautifully textured materials, attention to detail, and good eyesight.

Instructor Patti Beasely, who founded Reel Women of Indianapolis – a fly-fishing club for men and women, and her assistant Brenda Hawkins patiently helped our class of six intrepid women as we struggled with the tiny hooks, new tools of the trade, and unfamiliar terminology. Before long, I was finishing my first fly, a #12 yellow rubber spider, using my newly acquired skills of tying a jam knot and a half-hitch. While we tied, Patti explained one of the basic tenets of fly tying, the importance of maintaining the proper tension on the thread while tying. “Too little tension and the fly falls apart, too much and the thread snaps.” Fly tying, it turns out, is a lot like life. You can be crafty, colorful, and intense but you have to remember to maintain a good balance between work and play.

After approving all of our spiders, Patti moved on to a more complex design. The McGinty, which looks like a bumblebee, calls for five materials. The pressure was on now – both figuratively and literally. With encouragement from Patti and support from my classmates, I crafted my McGinty. Now, I don’t like to brag, but my McGinty was beautiful. A true work of art. But, would my craftswomanship stand the true test? Would my flies unravel due to shoddy knot tying and poor head cement coverage? And would they actually attract fish? I would have to wait a little longer to find out.

As we worked, Patti shared her story with us, explaining that she started her club to have some companionship while fly fishing and to expose women to the sport. Patti wanted to “show women that not only can you fish, but that you can be taught by a woman, because so many times (women) think men are going to be better at all of this because it is a man’s world and it truly is not. It (fly fishing) is a sport for everyone.” Like many of the other instructors at BOW, 60 percent of which are women, Patti volunteers her time for the weekend.

Saturday afternoon brought me one step closer to testing out my flies. With the sun warming us, Mike, another of Patti’s assistants, showed me the basics of casting with a fly rod. After practicing the 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock positioning of my arm, my rubber spider was impaled on the hook. Supposedly, blue gills love rubber spiders. Now, I wish I could enthrall you with a fantastic fishing tale here, but … I didn’t catch anything. Others in the class were successful, catching and releasing their first fish with whoops of delight and toothy smiles of accomplishment. I was happy for them. Although I didn’t catch a fish, I’m still hooked on fly fishing. Patti’s description of what fly fishing has meant to her helped draw me in, “Fly fishing has taken me to the most pristine, beautiful, peaceful places that I’ve ever, ever seen, and I think I enjoy that just as much as I do the actually fishing. So if you like nature and quiet … that’s a draw for people to take up fly fishing. They do it for the tranquility of the whole experience.”

The experience of a BOW workshop is many layered. You acquire new knowledge and skills, but you also get to meet a variety of interesting women and increase your confidence – a quality so elusive to many women it can be as hard to grab and hold on to as a wriggling blue gill at the end of a line. “It’s 150 women of all ethnic backgrounds, ages, shapes, sizes, and skill levels and everyone is just having a wonderful time,” says Mary Ann Pontius, a floral designer from Lafayette, IN, who has been to the workshop three times. Toni Caggiano, a mom from Wheatfield, IN, a repeat attendee, said that at the end of last year’s workshop, “I was amazed that it wasn’t so hard to become an outdoor woman. I had never done anything like this before. I was totally a city chick. Now I see that I’d rather be outside more than shopping at Walmart.”

Finding my way
On some outdoor adventures, I trail behind my husband asking myself, “If he somehow became incapacitated, could I find my own way back to the car from here?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes it is no. Definitely not a best practice. So, in an attempt to boost my own confidence I, along with about 30 others, settled in to Orient Yourself Outdoors on Sunday morning, a class that covers using a compass and reading maps.

Sisters Linda Byer and Laura Van Meter began class by reviewing how a compass works and sent us out on a short course to test our skills. Taking a long line of sight when needed, my partner and I successfully navigated from one spot to the next. Reading a topographic map and taking a bearing using a map and a compass was a bit more challenging. Linda explained, “You want to get the red in the shed.” Hmmm. Is that when you put your sunburned husband in the tent while you cook dinner? No. After you ditch your sunburned spouse, you want to take this critical step in finding your bearings – match the red portion of the compass needle with the red portion of the north-south arrow underneath the needle. Armed with our new knowledge, we set out on another orienteering course. Although we started out a little slowly, just getting our bearings (pun intended), we finished strong, navigating our way around the camp. The irony: my husband wants me to review everything I learned in the class with him.

Leigh Fleszewski, a registered nurse, and her mother, Carolyn Geiser, a chemist, both from Crown Point, IN, have been to the BOW workshop four times. Leigh says that at the end of the weekend she and her mother can’t wait to come back. “We’re already making plans for next year while driving home.” As the weekend wound to a close, I, too, was already thinking about the BOW in my own state, Ohio, that was coming up in September. Maybe they offer fly fishing. And I could brush up on my canoeing skills. Maybe I’ll learn more about firearms safety. Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll be the one showing off my McGinty!

Michelle Anderson is looking forward to bagging a brookie on her next canoe camping trip.

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