BIG BAY, Mich. — By late in the week, close to 80 women from around the country will have gathered at a camp here in order to be informally introduced to the outdoors. What better place to be baptized into that congregation than in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where winter makes everything more challenging.
They will have the opportunity to learn about and experience cross country skiing, dog sledding, ice fishing, back country cooking, basic snowshoeing, winter camping and building winter shelters, snowmobiling, fish identification, fly tying, using GPS and wilderness first aid. The Becoming an Outdoors Woman program, which is also used in Ohio and most of the other states, is open to women 18 and older and it offers a three-day adventure in a casual, no pressure atmosphere.
The classes are taught by experts — mostly women — and include both instruction and practical experience. The dog sledding session covers the selection of dog breeds and the basics of starting a kennel operation, along with the types of sleds and equipment that are used, the daily care and feeding of the dogs, training regimens for racing, and the psychology of sled dogs. The camp participants get the opportunity to harness a team and take it for a short mush along a wilderness trail.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has offered both winter and summer sessions of BOW for a number of years, while Ohio has its next BOW session planned for the first weekend in October, and it is expected to attract 80-120 participants.
Bernadette Harkness is an associate professor in the chemistry department at Delta College, which is located near Bay City. She said that when she moved to Michigan with her husband and children 15 years ago, she wanted to be able to enjoy the parks and lakes in the area, but lacked familiarity with the fishing, camping, and hunting that are part of the outdoors tradition in The Great Lakes State.
A local program gave her an introduction to fishing, but it was Michigan’s BOW opportunities that made Harkness first a convert, and than an aficionado, of the outdoors wonders of Michigan, a placed the Ojibwa called mishigamaa, meaning “large water.”
“It was the winter BOW programs at Higgins Lake that really started me on my way,” Harkness said about her earlier experiences. She lauded the efforts of the instructors and volunteers involved in the courses.
“It’s totally amazing to me that I could ice fish, snowshoe and dog sled — all in one weekend,” Harkness recalled. “They welcomed all women no matter how inexperienced we were and they just were so great about being patient and encouraging us to experience the outdoors. My friends and I never laughed so hard, but we always left empowered to do more in the outdoors with our families.”
Debbie Munson Badini is the deputy public information officer working out of the MDNR office in Marquette, which is about 30 miles south of the Bay Cliff Health Camp, the current host of the BOW program. She said the U.P. has been staging the BOW weekends since 1998, and in that time more than 2,600 women have taken part in the busy and adventurous weekend sessions. The winter program is usually held in February and the summer program normally runs in June.
“We get ladies from all over the states and a few from other countries,” Munson Badini said. “Most of the ladies that come for the events are from either Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota, but we have had ladies from Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia, California, Japan, and New England.”
The MDNR also offers an advanced version of the BOW programs in one or two-day sessions that require the participants to have some experience in the subject matter. These more intense programs have been offered in salmon fishing on Lake Michigan, river salmon fishing near St. Ignace, pheasant hunting near Rapid River, camping and hiking at Pictured Rocks and in the Porcupine Mountains, rock climbing in the Marquette/Negaunee area, a firearms shoot in Skandia, kayaking and hiking at Harlow Lake and Hogsback Mountain north of Marquette, cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the Porcupine Mountains, and a mother-daughter kayak trip and hike at a park in Marquette.
Harkness said the experience she gained in the BOW program gave her the confidence to take her 11-year-old daughter ice fishing on Higgins Lake, to hand-auger a hole in the ice, and then catch a rainbow trout on the trip. She now owns an ice fishing shanty, and has ventured out onto Saginaw Bay with all “the regular fishermen” and caught walleye.
“My daughter was so excited, and she kept saying how we did it ourselves too,” Harkness said. “That was the best part —-- to have her feel that she could go out there and do this herself, too.”
Harkness will be back in the U.P. this week, anxious to take part in another session of BOW and further expand her outdoors skills. She plans to bring her new ice auger along and share it with this year’s group of campers.
“It is the organizers and instructors that make the program truly wonderful,” she said. “There’s such a great variety of really fun and different activities, like ice fishing, cross and back country skiing, winter camping, dog sledding, and many more that are not that accessible to people who have little experience in the outdoors. For me, fishing is it — I love it, especially ice fishing. I love the Michigan DNR — they have taught me how to fish and I can say that I have become an outdoors woman because of them.”
The Michigan winter BOW program cost $180. Registration for the summer BOW session in the U.P. is expected to open sometime in April, with information available at the www.michigan.gov/bow website.
Ohio’s 2013 BOW session was held at Recreation Unlimited in Ashley and cost around $200. It offered instruction in firearms and safety, frog gigging, fishing from a kayak, tracking, muzzle loading, handgun basics, canoeing, soap making, the use of tree stands for hunting, fly fishing, backpacking, how to handle and prepare venison, tree identification, outdoors photography, bird watching basics, dutch oven cooking and geocaching.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.