BRYANT POND, Maine — Flashlight beams cut through the fog as a band of women trudged through the snow and descended a hill to reach the frozen surface of Bryant Pond. It was the first night of the Maine Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW, for short) Winter Skills Weekend, and many of the participants were determined to go cusk fishing.
Most of the women didn’t know each other. And in the woods of western Maine, many were far from their homes and their comfort zones. But on that warm, foggy night on Feb. 24, these women laughed as they stumbled around on the uneven ice, waiting for a fish to bite.
“Cusk is a great fish for chowder,” said Gary Proulx, an educator at the University of Maine Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center, as he knelt by a hole in the ice.
The women gathered around him in a semi-circle as he demonstrated how to set the fishing line on the trap so the bait sat just above the bottom of the lake, where cusk — an eel-like bottom-feeding fish — can be found.
“How safe is the ice?” asked Laura Goomishian, who recently moved to Maine from Long Island, New York.
Proulx shined a flashlight down the fishing hole, illuminating the layers of ice beneath their feet, demonstrating that while slush had formed on the top of the ice, they were standing on well over a foot of solid ice. Goomishian and several other women leaned in to get a good view.
Goomishian had moved to Maine in the fall to be closer to her three children, who had migrated to the state to work as whitewater rafting guides. She was more outdoorsy than the typical city slicker, she explained, but there was a lot she wanted to learn.
“I want to be more involved,” Goomishian explained, “and I need some friends.”
She picked the right program.
The Maine BOW Winter Skills Weekend had a full roster, with 40 women of all ages and backgrounds signed up for courses in snowmobiling, wildlife tracking, maple sugaring, clay shooting, muzzleloading, fire cooking and more. Participants had traveled from throughout Maine, as well as New Hampshire and Massachusetts, to attend the winter program ($225 with on-site lodging or a commuter rate of $175), even though the weather forecast called for rain for much of the weekend. In Maine, the program is only held one winter weekend each year, and there is no rain date. Organizers forge ahead regardless of the weather conditions.
“It just sounded like a lot of fun,” said Karyn Wheeler of Augusta, who heard about BOW through a friend of a friend and, like Groomishian, had decided to attend the winter skills weekend solo. “I was born and raised in Maine, so, you know, with six months of winter you’ve got to find some stuff to do to keep you occupied. I just thought this would be a really fun way to learn some skills and meet some likeminded people.”
A nationwide program, BOW was first offered through the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1991. Its creation was the result of a study conducted by Professor Christine Thomas, which determined that women preferred to learn hunting, fishing and other outdoor skills in a non-competitive atmosphere along with other women.
Now offered in many states, the BOW program has a history that spans more than 20 years in Maine, where BOW workshops are sponsored in the spring, fall and winter by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and hosted by the University of Maine Bryant Pond 4-H Camp and Learning Center.
“It’s really, truly a great fit because they have all that we’re looking for,” said Brittany Humphrey, IF&W Outreach Coordinator and one of several people who help coordinate BOW programs in Maine. “[Bryant Pond] has a rifle range, shotgun range, they have the water so we can do ice fishing and open-water fishing, they have the mountains so we [can do] snowshoe hikes and whatnot … We can do it all here.”
Another key organizer of the weekend program was Bryant Pond 4-H Camp Director Ron Fournier, who welcomed the women to the camp’s cozy main lodge on on Friday evening.
“This is winter camp for big girls,” Fournier said as he stood in front of the group in the lodge’s event room, surrounded by women and taxidermied animals.
“We’re not big girls,” called out Nancy Taylor, a longtime BOW supporter in Maine who was there to teach fly tying. “We’re just more mature.”
Her correction was greeted with bouts of laughter, a trend that would continue all weekend. As new friendships formed and participants founds success in various outdoor skills, the enthusiasm in the group became palpable. There were few places you could go on the Bryant Pond campus where you wouldn’t hear chatter and laughter.
“You’ll meet ladies here you’ll have in your life forever,” said Auburn resident Tonya Fons, who first attended a BOW program in 2014 and has since become what’s known as a “BOW groupie.”
“My husband signed me up behind my back,” Fons recalled. “I wasn’t an outdoor person. I only came because I was going to be able to shoot [guns] that weekend.”
When Fons arrived to check-in at the BOW program three years ago, she instantly became confused when she saw the name of the program on the sign. She wanted to shoot guns, she told the organizers, not bows. After a bit of a laugh, the organizers explained to Fons that BOW was an acronym that stood for “Becoming an Outdoors-Woman.” Over the course of three days, she would have an opportunity to shoot guns, and bows, and try a lot of other outdoor skills, they informed her.
“I was a Marriot girl,” Fons said, then started laughing. “And now, I wear camo,” she added, motioning to her camouflage snow pants.
Fons now attends BOW programs at least twice a year, and in that time, she’s taken a lot of different courses. She would now consider herself much more outdoorsy, but what really keeps her coming back to BOW are the friendships she’s developed through the program. She’s now part of a group of five women who return every year, and who stay in touch online in the months between BOW programs.
“We met these women and they became lifelong friends,” Fons said. “You’re apart for six months, and it feels like a few weeks.”
The small group started when, in her first year, Fons hit it off with Teresa Glick of Paris, Maine, during an ATV course, then ended up in a campfire cooking course together, as well.
“We bonded over making frittata,” said Glick. “This is where it all started.”
They were at it again, making frittata in a campfire cooking course on Sunday, Feb. 26, the last day of the weekend program. Glick stirred onions in the cast iron pan as as Fons sprinkled in diced tomatoes. Their recipe was one of many being tested out on the fire that morning. There was coffee cake rising in a Dutch oven, marinated venison being sauteed over the open flame and beets and apples wrapped in tin foil, slowly baking in a bed of hot coals.
“The food was terrific. The whole program was just very well run.” said Claire Ganter of Biddeford, who attended BOW with her daughter, Heather Bisson of Hartland. Bisson’s husband had signed her up for the weekend as a Christmas present.
“He thought I needed some time away and to find myself again,” said Bisson, who has been busy raising their 18-month-old daughter.
“It’s been a great weekend for us to have time, just the two of us,” said Ganter.
Together, the mother-daughter duo took courses in wild game cooking, clay pigeon shooting and pistol shooting, then split up to learn about campfire cooking and maple sugaring.
The rain scheduled for that weekend came mostly during the nighttime, with a drizzle throughout Saturday that failed to dampen the spirits of participants. Then Sunday dawned, sunny and cold.
“I hadn’t thought about it until now, I had just a great time,” said Bisson, she and her mother both tearing up a bit as they reflected on their activity-packed weekend.
“We really did have a good time,” her mother agreed, giving her a hug.