I love the outdoors. Most of it. Especially the beach. Also places that don’t have a lot of bugs or mud or overgrown foliage. OK, I love the outdoors in theory.
I have never used the word “outdoors-woman” to describe myself. I luxuriate in hot showers, delight in ceiling fans and really like having a place to charge my phone at night. Turns out I’ve become fairly set in my comfortable urban ways, very rarely interacting with actual nature.
So news of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshop, held annually at a few locations throughout the state, could not have come at a better time to shake me from my weekend gym-tan-laundry rut.
Learn how to pitch a tent, start a fire, shoot a gun and fish? Sign me up!
And get me some bug spray. And a sleeping bag and last-minute fishing license.
The commission holds these three-day workshops three times a year: one in Panama City, one in Ocala and one in West Palm Beach. I attended the November 2010 session at the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area in Palm Beach County, a 60,000-plus-acre expanse set aside for hunting, camping and exploring.
Giant birds of prey (I didn’t take the bird-watching basics class, so I don’t know which ones) circled overhead as I drove up. In the parking lot, a car wore this bumper sticker: “Guns don’t kill people. People with mustaches kill people.”
Toto, I don’t think we’re in South Beach anymore.
Ahead: Classes on basic camping and backpacking, wilderness survival, shotgun shooting and bass fishing. Also, an introduction to sleeping in a tent, inflating a crumpled air mattress in the middle of the night and overcoming my fears of a dirty communal shower.
The first outdoors woman program was started in Wisconsin by a professor who wanted to see if targeted training would increase the number of women who participated in outdoor activities. Since then, the program has spread nationally and internationally, arriving in Florida in 1995, said Lynne Hawk, Florida’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman coordinator.
Maine is among the states with regular Becoming an Outdoors Woman programming.
Workshops are limited to 100 people, and most draw at least a couple novices like me.
“Most of the time they’re kind of dragged here kicking and screaming because their sister or friend or someone they know wanted to come and wanted them to come,” Hawk said. “I’ve never had one that didn’t come up to me and say, ‘You know what, I loved this. This is something I never would have done. I found out that I love this kind of stuff and I’m going to do it now.’”
Basic camping and backpacking served as a perfect introduction for someone who’s never done either. The instructors were cheerful and realistic, warning about bugs, showing off a book called “How to S—- in the Woods,” demonstrating nearly every piece of equipment imaginable and sharing tips they’ve gathered over decades of camping.
These include, in order of importance: Put your wine in a Platypus wine preserver bag and keep it next to frozen water bottles, set up your tent on high ground, pack something fancy to cook under the stars and don’t forget the cosmetics.
“I always bring lipstick in the woods,” says Vickie Hofmeister, pulling out a coral shade and reapplying.
We newbies joined forces to set up a practice tent, which was useful for me and less so for the other women, who chose to stay in camp-like cabins with bunks.
As I tried to piece my own borrowed tent together a little while later, it became clear that I should have paid more attention in class or opted for the cabins. With a few extra pairs of hands, though, the bright blue and yellow tent finally went up.
Meals were served cafeteria-style in a mess hall, and there I joined a group of other women in their 20s and 30s — fairly young for the workshop, said Hawk, who put the average age at 40-50. There’s a set of sisters from Palm Beach County and Broward and two co-workers from the Orlando area. Other attendees include friends, partners, mother-daughter groups and a few who came solo like me.
After dinner, activities include night hikes, a laughter seminar, astronomy, arts and crafts and campfire (enjoying, not building).
I went for the hike and S’mores and was very happy with the decision, though I didn’t love the station where hunters had posted pictures with their recent kills.
Staying alive, however, sounded great. After a cold night in the tent, interrupted repeatedly by my air mattress deflating, I was ready for breakfast and wilderness survival class.
Also, I missed Starbucks. But that is a problem for indoors-women.
Surviving, we learned, is pretty awesome. And a lot of hard work. We’re reminded for the second time at the workshop of Aron Ralston, the mountain climber whose ordeal was documented in the film “127 Hours.” Ralston made the mistake of not telling anyone where he was going and ended up having to amputate his arm after being trapped in a Utah canyon.
Duly noted. Report your whereabouts at all times. Probably avoid mountain climbing.
We learned how to make fire without matches (Vaseline-coated cotton balls, magnesium fire starter, flint and dryer lint are key, but really people, the answer is to just bring waterproof matches). We searched out branches and created makeshift shelters, navigated with an actual compass and learned this very important, very disgusting survival tip: Always pack something that you would eat only if it would save you from starving to death. That something should be cat food.
I needed to go shoot something after that. But only because my next class was intro to shotgun shooting and hunting. Why shotgun? Because it seemed like the biggest challenge: Loud, big and likely to kick back.
Guns, like hunting, are not my area of interest. I’m the daughter of former hippies, a onetime police reporter who wrote often about gun violence (and once lived in a neighborhood where gunshots were common). The class freaked me out a few times.
That said, the instructors were meticulous about safety and perfectly patient with my lack of shooting skills and frequent cries of pain when the shotgun hit my shoulder.
“I’d rather teach a coliseum full of women than an outhouse full of men,” said instructor John Weatherhold. “Ask any man — what can you teach them? ‘I already know it all.’ Women take this class because they truly want to learn.”
After a few missed tries, I finally hit the moving clay target. Cheers erupted from the crowd, and I was more pleased than I expected. I moved on to a semi-automatic 9 mm and an old-fashioned revolver before giving up for the day.
I’d earlier feared venturing into the fairly dark group showers, but the smell of gunfire, tent, bug spray and sweat made me worry much less about the shower area.
After dinner, a silent auction where I bought a much-needed flashlight, and another night hike and campfire, I was exhausted (despite taking two naps in my car). Wondering if the bass would bite the next day, I quickly fell asleep.
The bass did not bite the next day. Though I learned to tie knots and handle the hook and slimy fake worms that smelled like grape soda, not a single fish wanted to make my day.
I failed as a fisherwoman. But I think the rest of the outdoors training was a success.
Gretchen Dietrich, a Palm Beach County resident who attended with her sister, tells me she didn’t know what to expect when she signed up for the weekend.
“I just thought: Take some classes, sit in a lot of lectures, sleep in weird prison cell bunkers,” she said. “But really what it’s been is fabulous. We’ve learned a lot, I’ve built a lot of confidence.”
For Amanda Arroyo, a New York City native who was terrified of bugs and the outdoors in general, the workshop was a way to ease into a more comfortable relationship with nature.
“The more you’re outdoors and you realize it’s cool, you’re safe, nothing’s happening to me, the less fearsome you are of it,” she said. “That’s where I’m going to be eventually.”
As for me, I feel like I could pitch a tent with less drama, try fishing again and maybe even start a fire. I’ve still got the Vaseline-coated cotton ball, slimy worm bait and fishing license, just in case.