National program celebrates 25 years in Montana this summer

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BIG SKY – What is the value of competency and independence in the outdoors? For many women, it’s worth its weight in gold.

“I think it can be intimidating to go [into the outdoors] by yourself,” said Sara Smith of Helena. “Maybe you aren’t big enough to lift your kayak all the way up and down from your car, or maybe you didn’t have anyone to show you how to hunt. … I think it’s really important for women to feel like they can do it.”

With this sentiment in mind, Smith leads Montana’s Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program, an initiative aimed at teaching adult women a variety of outdoor skills.

From fly fishing and archery, to Dutch oven cooking and plant identification, skijoring, using GoPros or how to handle a gun, the BOW program offers entry-level classes and experiences, with gear provided. This allows women to try any number of skillsets in a non-competitive environment.

“They’re very popular and there’s a definite need for these hands-on skills classes,” said Smith, who grew up hunting, fishing, camping and backpacking in Sheridan, Montana.

“I thought I was already an outdoors woman, but I’d never kayaked or cooked on a Dutch oven,” she added. “You can always expand your skills. Even I’m still learning new skills, all the time.”

BOW is a program made available through Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, with workshops scheduled year-round throughout the state.

The original BOW program started at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1991, when a group of women got together and wanted to know why there weren’t more females involved in outside activities. These pioneers, according to Smith, determined to change the face of the outdoors community by engaging more women in organized activities.

Since then, 38 states and six Canadian provinces have adopted the program, with Montana coming on board early, in 1994.

Twana Bourke of Billings and her sister, Connie Carson in Helena, have been involved with BOW for nearly 15 years, first as participants and now as instructors.

“I feel more confident setting up a tent, starting a fire. My daughters and I go camping. … Bringing the younger generation up in anything is more fun doing it together,” Bourke said, adding that she volunteer instructs BOW workshops on gun handling and vehicle preparedness.

Carson, who works as a BOW staff member, also has reaped rewards from the program. “All and all, it’s one heck of a good time,” she said. “It’s valuable because a lot of women that don’t get outdoors don’t know what there is out there. [The program] is great for them because they can try something for a couple hours and see if they enjoy it. And they aren’t being taught by their spouses or significant others. It’s great women teaching great women.”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Montana initiative, and to celebrate, program leaders will hold three weekend workshops this summer in June, July and August.

While the three-day event in Boulder Hot Springs on June 8-10 is full, there are still opportunities for women to participate later this summer. The workshops will be held July 13-15 at Lone Pine State Park near Kalispell, and Aug. 3-5 at Birch Creek Civilian Conservation Corps Camp near Dillon.

These workshops are held in a camp setting where meals and lodging, or tent and camper space, is provided. There will also be a selection of day classes available throughout the summer.

For more information about Montana’s Becoming an Outdoors Women program or to view an upcoming schedule, visit fwp.mt.gov/education/bow.