Becoming an Outdoors-Woman

A look at the vital program that is empowering women to embrace their wild side and get outdoors

By Emily Robinson
Photos by Shannon Persell and Emily Robinson

Hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits have traditionally been dominated by men. While women were the hub of their home—cooking, cleaning, parenting, creating, and keeping the household running smoothly—men were often out in the world providing. But times have changed. Women crave a strong connection to the land, the water, the trees, and the animals that call these wild places home, for they are a woman's home too. As much as a woman has traditionally been the heart of her physical home, she is the heart of nature as well.

How can a woman bridge this gap and gain confidence in the outdoors? How can she learn to navigate the woods alone, build a shelter, and hunt, fish, and trap her own food? It was with these questions in mind that Dr. Christine Thomas, DU advisory senior vice president and dean of the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point College of Natural Resources, organized a workshop in 1991 for women looking to get outdoors. This workshop was the humble beginning of what is now the highly successful Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) program, which has changed the lives of thousands of women across North America over the past three decades.

It started as an experiment. Thomas, then a brand-new professor, gathered a handful of friends and colleagues to mentor 106 women in the Wisconsin woods. They borrowed equipment, patched together resources, and taught the women everything they could about the outdoors in a single weekend.

"I set out to teach women outdoor skills and how to shoot shotguns," Thomas says. "What I didn't understand was that we were going to change their lives along the way—and that our lives would change as well."

The fuel for the first BOW workshop came from a small conference held by Thomas and others in 1990, called "Breaking Down Barriers." The event examined why more women weren't participating in hunting and angling.

"We had a group of about 60 attendees who identified 21 unique barriers for women who wanted to participate in hunting and fishing," Thomas recalls. "But if you really looked at the list, 14 of those related to women simply not knowing how to do it. We thought we could offer the opportunity for them to learn. The first BOW workshop a year later was a shot at seeing if anyone was interested."

The answer was a resounding yes. From that first workshop, BOW has grown exponentially, with events held regularly in 40 states and five Canadian provinces. Typically, states host an annual weekend-long workshop, which covers a wide array of topics relevant to outdoorswomen. Whether you are interested in attracting hummingbirds to your backyard, learning how to properly handle and shoot a shotgun, identifying edible plants, casting a fly rod, or cleaning and cooking game—or one of dozens of topics in between—BOW has a course for you.

In 2018, I had the opportunity to attend BOW workshops in Wisconsin and Arkansas. Ducks Unlimited Art Director Shannon Persell accompanied me to Wisconsin in August to experience BOW's flagship program, launched by Thomas nearly 30 years ago. We were welcomed with open arms to Wisconsin BOW's home at Treehaven Field Station, near Tomahawk, by more than 60 attendees, BOW Director Peggy Farrell, and over a dozen instructors and coordinators who were passionate about helping women grow their skills and confidence. In October, I was generously invited by one of DU's partners in conservation, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), to attend the Arkansas BOW workshop at the Vines Center, just outside Little Rock. The AGFC hosts this highly successful event, which sells out every year.

"Women are looking for new challenges, and this program allows them to explore different opportunities," says Lea White, BOW coordinator for Arkansas. "Women are becoming more self-sufficient and want to be comfortable in their environment, whether it is in the city or in the woods. I believe that's why our workshop consistently sells out."

In addition to these annual workshops, many states offer Beyond BOW experiences, which are supplemental events hosted throughout the year that focus on a single skill. "We are in the process of developing more Beyond BOW opportunities in our state," White says. "We recently held a trapping workshop for 25 ladies at Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Conservation Education Center. This was a three-day workshop and turned out to be very successful, but most Beyond BOW events last just one day."

One of the highlights of my BOW experience in Wisconsin came in my very first session—a kayaking course led by Tim Pflieger. Just four women paddled out into the marsh that rainy day—me, one novice paddler, one experienced paddler, and one woman who told us she could not swim.

"This was my first time in a kayak, and it was the class I was most looking forward to," says Susan Baer, a vice president with WHN Investor Services in Brookfield, Wisconsin. "I was very nervous about tipping over, but wearing a life jacket and having Tim and his assistant there helped put me at ease. The other women in the class helped as well."

Baer watched as the other paddlers and I practiced wet exits, which involved rolling our kayaks, swimming out, and bobbing to the surface, where Pflieger assisted us in returning to our boats and bailing them out. Then it was Baer's turn.

"As soon as the first woman completed her wet exit, I instantly thought, I want to do that, just to see if I could," Baer recalls. "It was scary when I was underwater, and it felt like I was under longer than Tim said I was, but it was exhilarating after I got back in the boat and knew I'd done it. I was soaked to the bone. The whole experience was an awesome way to start the weekend—I was on cloud nine the whole time, and I got to share that experience with my two daughters, Marissa and Sabrina, when I got home. I can't wait to attend another BOW event."

Baer's wet exit was just one of many firsts that weekend. I learned that I was a left-handed shooter with both shotguns and bows, breaking six clay pigeons in a row for the first time and hitting several targets with my arrows. At the Arkansas workshop, I learned how to drive and trailer a boat. I caught my first catfish and cleaned it. I plucked, skinned, and butchered my first mallard. All around me, other women were experiencing firsts as well, building on skills that will last them a lifetime, and making great friends along the way who share their interest in the outdoors.

"BOW aims to provide a learning environment that is noncompetitive, supportive, and fun," Thomas says. "Everyone involved finds gratification in the experience in different ways. As an instructor you find moments where you changed the trajectory of someone's life. You know the minute it happens. As a participant, you gain friends, self-confidence, and self-esteem. As a workshop coordinator, there is satisfaction in pulling off a wonderful event and sending women home happy and able to do something new. BOW has helped build careers, enhance family activities, and foster individual growth for so many women across the country."

BOW is also working to uphold the outdoor traditions that Americans hold dear. While the total number of hunters and anglers in the United States is on the decline, the number of female hunters is on the rise—and fast. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the number of female hunters grew from 2.7 million (13 percent of all hunters) in 2007 to 3.9 million (21 percent) in 2017. Programs like BOW are at the heart of this impressive growth.

"Right now, there is a big focus on R3 programs among state and federal wildlife agencies," Thomas says. "That stands for Retention, Recruitment, and Reactivation. BOW has proven itself to be a successful program to promote that. Early research shows that women who attend BOW are more likely to buy hunting and fishing licenses and participate in outdoor activities. I think the principles that BOW is built on provide a recipe for achieving all three of the Rs these agencies are exploring."

Ducks Unlimited has long supported BOW's efforts across North America. "Becoming an Outdoors-Woman is an important program to demystify conservation and bring new hunters and anglers into the fold, but the impact doesn't stop there," says DU CEO Adam Putnam. "BOW participants are bringing these experiences home to their families, passing on outdoor traditions to the next generation. Ducks Unlimited is proud to stand behind BOW and grow the ranks of conservationists across the continent."

Whether you're new to the outdoors or just want to learn new skills to enhance your camping, hiking, hunting, and fishing experiences, BOW is a great place to start. Find a BOW workshop or other event near you at uwsp.edu/bow. There's no better time than now to get outdoors. 


A Look Inside a BOW Workshop

Following is a sample list of classes available at Becoming an Outdoors-Woman workshops. To find a workshop near you, visit uwsp.edu/bow.

  • Firearm Safety and Handling
  • Fly Fishing
  • Kayaking
  • Naturalist Skills
  • Birding
  • Outdoor Self-Reliance
  • Archery and Bowhunting
  • Canoeing
  • From Field to Freezer
  • Backpacking
  • Hammock Camping
  • SCUBA Diving
  • All about Hummingbirds
  • Dutch Oven Cooking
  • Orienteering

BOW Scholarships Provide Opportunities for All Women

While each state and province works to ensure that all women are welcome to attend Becoming an Outdoors-Woman events in their area, there are times when financial hardship can stand in the way of these opportunities. Fortunately, many states have launched BOW scholarship programs to address this need. In Arkansas, the generosity of one former BOW participant is helping to ensure that cost does not prevent women from enjoying these vital outdoor experiences. "Dalena Haynes of Leola, Arkansas, had no children when she passed away in February 2015 at the age of 47, but current and future generations of outdoor enthusiasts will no doubt benefit from her passion for wildlife and the natural world," says Arkansas BOW coordinator Lea White. "Dalena, who was a former participant in the Arkansas BOW program, left a quarter of her estate to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to be used for BOW and the Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program, two of the state's most well-established efforts to get new people excited about the outdoors. In 2018, we had five women receive scholarships to attend BOW through the Dalena Gail Haynes Scholarship Fund."


BOW Destinations Takes Outdoors-women Worldwide

While most Becoming an Outdoors-Woman workshops take place close to home, Wisconsin BOW has partnered with Tara Short and her company, Green Edventures Tours, to take women on new adventures far from their backyard as part of the BOW Destinations program. Short, who studied under BOW founder Dr. Christine Thomas and current BOW Director Peggy Farrell at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, launched Green Edventures to help teachers take their students on educational adventures. When Short received a call to create a trip for BOW participants, it was a natural fit. "The first BOW trip was in April 2010 to La Paz, Baja Sur, Mexico," Short says. "Green Edventures now offers 10 trips per year just for women, and five of them are in partnership with BOW Destinations."

BOW Destinations offers women extraordinary outdoor experiences in unique destinations around the world, accompanied by likeminded travelers and caring and supportive guides. From snorkeling with 400 wild sea lions in Baja Mexico to hiking through Costa Rican rainforests, to rappelling off a 72-foot waterfall in Trinidad, there is truly something for every outdoorswoman.

"We provide women with the education, tools, and expert local guides to help them safely participate in outdoors adventures that most people only dream of," Short says.

To learn more about BOW Destinations, visit uwsp.edu/bow.