Becoming an Outdoors Woman celebrates 20 years

A dogsled team works near the corral at the Bay Cliff Health Camp in Marquette County.

On an early summer day, in front of a white gazebo overlooking Lake Independence, spirited women who had taken on the challenge of improving their outdoor skills assembled on the lawn for a group photograph.

These pink-shirted ladies, some who were here for the first time, and others who had returned on several occasions, gathered for the picture to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program in the Upper Peninsula.

Each year, women from across the Upper Great Lakes region and elsewhere gather at the Bay Cliff Health Camp in Marquette County for a summer weekend BOW program in June and a winter program in February.

The program is coordinated through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

During these weekends, volunteer instructors offer classes on a wide range of activities ranging from shooting firearms, fishing and cross-country skiing to paddle boarding, winter camping, kayaking and archery.

The classes are provided in a supportive environment where students are encouraged, inspired and applauded for their efforts to try new activities.

“It’s been amazing to see the growth in the women who have attended our program,” said Sandy Kivela, an instructor and member of the program’s organizing committee. “Some have started as participants and have become instructors. Some have made life-long friendships.”

Frida Waara, a BOW participant and instructor since 1997, said that in life, everything gets better when you get outside.

“BOW is the chance to share that philosophy with women of all ages, backgrounds and experiences,” she said. “When we first gather on Friday for a BOW weekend, I tell newcomers, ‘Your life will change in ways you never thought possible.’ On Sunday, when we say good-byes, those newcomers confess that learning to shoot a gun, paddle a kayak or even back up a trailer was more than just the skill, it was the confidence to tackle the next new challenge.”

The BOW concept originated with Christine Thomas at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point in 1991.

“That state’s DNR was experiencing a notable decline in the number of women buying hunting and fishing licenses, so the agency commissioned the university system to explore methods to get more women involved in outdoor activities,” said Ann (Wilson) Feldhauser, a former Michigan DNR spokeswoman instrumental in establishing the BOW program in the Upper Peninsula.

Then Michigan DNR Director Rollie Harmes attended a series of meetings in Wisconsin and took part in the initial presentation of the BOW program as designed at Stevens Point.

“He came back to Michigan committed to getting the program going here as well, and selected two women in the DNR Law Enforcement Division – Mary Schurser and Lynn Marla – to begin the process,” Feldhauser said. “Initially, some smaller programs aimed at specific sports, such as hunting and shooting events, were held at various locations in Lower Michigan.”

Feldhauser said that within a year, a larger, more broadly scoped BOW event was held at the DNR’s Ralph A. MacMullen Conference Center near Roscommon, drawing about 40 participants. Classes were offered in many areas, including fishing, canoeing, shooting, hiking and others.

“I had attended a training at Michigan State University run by the original designers of the program from Wisconsin. I then helped with the RAM Center program to gain firsthand experience,” Feldhauser said. “When I returned to Marquette, Lynn Marla, who was the BOW coordinator at that time, suggested that a program be held in the Upper Peninsula. Our first sponsor 20 years ago was the Sagola Sportsman’s Club, where we hosted about 50 women for a weekend of activities.”

After some review and revision, it was decided to hold a bigger program at the Clear Lake Education Center in Schoolcraft County.

“To pull off a large-scale program, I developed a BOW committee comprised of Upper Peninsula women who all were active in the outdoors and had confident leadership skills,” Feldhauser said. “Ten women served on the initial committee, and together, we hosted the program at Clear Lake in 1998, which involved 63 participants, the largest program ever in Michigan.”

Like the instructors, committee members are volunteers. The BOW program has always been financially self-sustaining, a key ingredient in its success and longevity.

Feldhauser said some smaller programs continued to be held in the Lower Peninsula, but the strength gained from the committee structure in the U.P. allowed that program to grow and thrive.

“Eventually, the programs ceased being held in the Lower Peninsula, and the coordinator position for the program, based in Lansing, was terminated,” Feldhauser said. “However, the U.P. program carried on, soon adding a winter BOW program.”

That winter program was first offered in 2002 in Iron County at the Fortune Lake Lutheran Camp, located outside of Crystal Falls.

“We quickly outgrew that facility and moved to Bay Cliff Health Camp,” said Sharon Pitz, one of Feldhauser’s original BOW committee members, who has served as the BOW coordinator since Feldhauser’s retirement from the DNR in 2008.

“We now also offer numerous specialized Beyond BOW events, such as kayaking for moms and daughters, hiking in the Pictured Rocks and the Porcupine Mountains, and steelhead fishing on the Two-Hearted River, among others,” Pitz said. “We also had a couple Beyond BOW events held downstate in the last year.

“These successful events have been taken on by our own DNR Wildlife Division employees, who have gained an interest in our program and want to help women learn skills in the outdoors.”

The Marquette County chapter of U.P. Whitetails is one example of groups that contributed start-up money for the program or funded some scholarships for BOW over the past two decades.

Monica Weis, who helps teach dog sledding, called the BOW program “magical.”

“Magical in watching the women gain confidence in what they are learning,” Weis said. “The smiles, laughter and friendship that we develop as the weekend moves along is amazing.”

Sue Petschke, a committee member who teaches snowshoeing, said she loves it when participants tell her they are going to go back home and snowshoe.

More than 3,000 women have taken part in the U.P. BOW programs, with the summer program typically drawing about 100 people, with roughly 75 enrolling in the winter session.

“It has been a lot of work, but what an honor and privilege to have headed up such an important part of the DNR’s legacy,” said Feldhauser, who still works closely with the Michigan BOW program. “BOW continues to be as popular, if not more so, than ever, and the reputation of the U.P. program is stellar.”

Past participants have also praised the program.

“Going to BOW was a most wonderful introduction to both winter and summer pastimes when I moved to the U.P. nine years ago,” said Barbara Stewart-Greene of Bruce Crossing. “Over the years, I learned snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dogsledding, snowmobiling, fishing, cooking, survival skills, first aid and much more, along with several fun craft projects.

“I got to deepen existing friendships and meet new people, all in the beautiful and encouraging atmosphere of Bay Cliff Camp.”

Jessica Francis of Hillsdale said she and her mom look forward to the two BOW weekends every year.

“We love being able to spend time together, meet up with old friends, and of course meet new friends too,” she said. “The instructors are easy to love and super fun. They make sure everyone has the best experience that they possibly can. It’s all about support.

“The amount of support that you can receive from a tight-knit group of women is amazing. You learn things that you have never even dreamed that you would ever do in your life, and the best part about that is being able to teach those things to your family when you get back home. Bay Cliff is a home away from home. You go to this program with all of your troubles from life and you leave feeling refreshed and ready to succeed in all that you do.”

Bernadette Harkness of Midland said she didn’t grow up doing outdoor things and never imagined she would be able to ice fish, drive a boat, ride a snowmobile, skijor, dogsled, shoot a rifle, paddle board or do so many other things she has experienced for the first time with the BOW program.

“What’s more is that with the patient and kind guidance of the awesome instructors, I have learned and become comfortable enough to own my own boat, ice shanty, auger, rifle and kayak to name a few,” she said.

The BOW program is now offered in several states beyond Michigan, including Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Margaret Mary Gerhard of Fence, Wis., has attended Michigan BOW events. She said BOW weekends are highlights on her annual calendar.

“I am always impressed with the women’s enthusiasm, courage and diligence in the various classes. I learn so much from them,” she said. “Every woman has a story, and the stories are amazing. BOW enriches my life. It is a gift to me. I treasure the friendships I have made there. I am so very grateful.”

Pitz said the Michigan program could not continue without the passion of the volunteer BOW instructors and committee members.

“Many of them have helped with the BOW program for the entire 20 years it has been in the Upper Peninsula,” Pitz said. “Some are our own DNR employees, and others are just as passionate in their field of skill and want to pass along that knowledge.”

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