Two giant totem poles stood watch over a narrow wooden bridge. Beyond, towering pines blocked out the moonlight. I entered the black forest uncertain. Voices — hoots and hollers, cheers and chants — echoed in the night. A glow in the distance emerged and ushered me onward, to the campfire and the many friendly faces I’d met that day.
More than 100 women traveled to Camp Caribou in Winslow to attend the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman Introductory Skills Weekend, Sept. 14-16, and nearly all of them decided to attend the campfire gathering at the end of the first day of workshops.
“[The 2012 group] was the largest number of participants we have ever had,” said Emily MacCabe, Maine BOW Coordinator for the past eight years.
At the campfire, I settled into an empty seat and became one of the crowd of women eager to learn new outdoor activities and acquire wilderness skills and knowledge.
My experience of the weekend was different than that of the women sitting to either side of me at the campfire — more than 30 workshops were offered for the 2012 BOW Introductory Skills Weekend in Maine, but each participant only has time to attend four of the 3½-hour workshops.
Earlier that day, I took my first BOW course, “Wild Edibles” taught by Maine naturalist Tom Seymour. I ate goldenrod (which tastes a bit piney), a “trail nibble” that can soothe a sore throat, and learned to identify edible puffball mushrooms. And if I ever wander into a patch of poison ivy, I’ll search for some jewelweed; its juice will combat the rash, as well as any bug bites I might have.
“Now that’s a medicinal plant you can’t beat,” said Seymour, author of several books on New England foraging.
From the beginning of the workshop, it was apparent that few of the women knew each other, yet we all had something in common. We had all signed up for “edible plants,” and under Seymour’s guidance, learned the tasty and nutritious parts of cattails, dandelions, service berries, stinging nettle, groundnut, peppergrass and wintercress.
After class, two women in the group invited us all to meet by the shore of Pattee Pond to share jellies and wine that they concocted from blackberries, elderberries and chokeberries that they foraged in Fredericton, New Brunswick, their hometown.
The two women — Marion McIntyre and Kathy Power — are veteran BOW workshop attendees. In fact, they became friends in 1998 at a BOW weekend in New Brunswick, and have since developed a shared interest in foraging. Most veterans of the Maine BOW workshops have come to know them as “The Canadians” or “The Friendly Foragers.” At their social, which has been a tradition for a number of years, they share humorous stories from past BOW workshops, along with their homemade snacks.
The BOW program was first offered through the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1991 after a study determined that women preferred to learn outdoor skills in a noncompetitive atmosphere along with other like-minded women. Today, more than 80 weekend-long BOW workshops are held across the country each year. In Maine, the program is co-sponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries Wildlife and the Friends of Maine BOW.
The chime of the dinner bell broke up the social and beckoned the small group to Camp Caribou’s dining hall, where we supped with all BOW participants, volunteer staff and instructors.
We then attended minisessions, 20-minute tastes of various outdoor topics.
At the “Furs and Pelts” session led by Lisa Kane, MDIFW natural science educator, I learned that mountain lions can scarf down 30 pounds of meat in one sitting. Beavers’ teeth are yellow due to the extra layer of enamel they require to gnaw down an average of 200 trees a year. And the ferocious fisher is one of the only animals that can eat a porcupine without a problem.
It was only after learning a bit about fly tying from registered guide Nancy Taylor that I wandered to the campfire, then back to cabin 10, or the “Ritz Carlton,” according to the carved sign above the door.
We weren’t exactly roughing it. Each cabin offered hot showers and toilets, but the tiny beds were certainly selected for limber young campers. (After all, Camp Caribou has long been a summer camp for boys.)
My roommates, best friends Sarah Ellis of Bangor and Megan Dysart of Hampden, were friendly BOW first-timers that I like to refer to as “The Wilderness Princesses” for their impressive ability to become outdoor women while retaining their “girliness,” pink jackets and all. My third roommate, Susan Rowland of Gorham, was also a first-timer. But that’s no surprise. Nearly 70 percent of the participants, including myself, were attending the program for their first time.
We did have a BOW veteran in the cabin. Karen Guiou of Richmond was attending for the fourth year in a row. Nevertheless, the weekend offered her new experiences.
“I’d never done [ATVing] before,” said Guiou. “It was stepping out of my comfort zone. I have one at home, but my husband always uses it — the man of the house — but now I can go home and do it.”
For me, Saturday began at the target range, where I rediscovered my love for the recurve bow and the meditative and empowering sport of archery.
The hands-on workshop was taught by Mary Szwec, president of Friends of Maine BOW, and Carole Dyer, who taught Szwec archery eight years ago at a BOW workshop. And A.J. Gilbert, archery instructor at Camp Caribou, also lent a hand and assisted in setting up fun archery games that included zombie targets and balloons filled with glitter.
“Archery, I’d done as a kid and I reconnected with it,” said Rowland, who had also signed up for the course. “When I get home, I’m thinking about buying a bow and at least shooting at hay bales … Every single [workshop] I took, I can’t wait to get home and show everyone. Like knot tying. Oh my gosh. I can now tie a canoe to my car and not be looking out the rear view mirror and feel like it’s going to fall off.”
The next workshop I attended, “Primitive Skills” with Lou Falank, instructor at the Maine Primitive Skills School, was all about creating the necessities of life — water, shelter, food and fire — from your surroundings.
I can now create durable string out of cedar bark and a makeshift container out of birch bark. But more importantly, I started looking at the trees and curves of the terrain in a new way. Leaf litter can save me from hypothermia. Pine trees can provide me with nutrition. Walking downhill will lead me to water.
And the final course, “Woods Wisdom,” expanded on these lessons and touched on ways people can learn about the environment through birdsong.
“This weekend, as far as I can tell, was a great success,” said MacCabe. “That is thanks to our wonderful and dedicated volunteer staff and instructors. Their knowledge and passion is what makes the program special and what inspires the women who attend.”
McCabe has already started planning for the 2013 BOW Introductory Skills Weekend. Registration will begin in late spring 2013.
My experience of the weekend would have been far different if I’d spent it learning about muzzleloading, turkey calls, freshwater fishing and kayaking — also available workshops — but I think all participants did share one experience: the camaraderie and support of enthusiastic instructors and fellow novices.
I befriended “The Wilderness Princesses” on Facebook and swapped emails with two fellow hikers. Becoming an outdoor woman is an ongoing endeavor, and I’m starting to realize it doesn’t need to be a path I walk alone.
For information on the BOW Introductory Skills Weekend and Beyond BOW workshops on specific outdoor activities, visit www.mainebow.com.