I am on my hands in the mud, a steady September rain pelting my back and dripping from the brim of my hat. Under a small canopy of folded tinfoil, we have managed to assemble what we hope will be a flammable nest of sodden pine needles, dead leaves, birch bark, and dryer lint. In my numb fingers, the waterproof matches refuse to light. Someone calls out for a lighter and, suddenly, another pair of hands are working beside mine. The lighter goes at my match, which explodes and ignites a bit of bark.A votive candle is placed into the center and is lit. As a ragged fringe of red starts to eat its way into the leaves and bark, another person drops to the mud and starts gently blowing on the nascent flame. The wind whips up, and the canopy-holders hunker closer. The rest of us crouch together, creating a human shield. Someone hands me a bundle of sticks, barely big enough for a Barbie campfire. One by one, I place them on the smoldering mass, forming a teepee above the votive. Our human bellows continues her work. And then we hear it. The faintest crackle. One of the twigs has caught. And there — the tiny leap of a flame. Hands move swiftly as twigs, and then sticks, are cautiously fed to the feeble blaze. A resounding pop rings out. And then another. I feel a tinge of heat. Fire. We have made fire. We will live.
Okay, so maybe this wasn't a real life-and-death situation, but we are treating it as though it were. The "we" in question are my fellow participants in an outdoor survival class at the annual Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) course, which is locally sponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. This nationwide program was started back in 1991 at the University of Wisconsin as a way to encourage women to feel more comfortable in the outdoors, to learn how to handle themselves and their gear, and to gain self-confidence. Since the success of that first sold-out weekend, the program has expanded to include forty-four U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces and has become equally popular in Maine. This weekend's workshop is at or near the 100-person limit. Seems there's no shortage of women who want to be woods-wise.
Not so long ago, I would have been the camp clown, the know-nothing with branches sticking out of my hair and stupid questions toppling from my lips. But since my return to Maine in 1990, I have been slowly reintroducing myself into the wild — at first tagging along and letting someone else do all the planning and preparation. But the more time I spent in the woods, the more I wanted to take charge. I had been an outdoorswoman since girlhood and right up into college, and I was gradually reclaiming my former self. And while I certainly wasn't any expert, it occurred to me that perhaps for the first time since YMCA day camp, I wasn't going to be the camp weenie.
That isn't to say there wasn't going to be plenty to learn. For starters, there is nothing quite like sleep-away camp to make a professional, grown-up woman feel ten years old. When I arrive at Camp Bishopswood on Megunticook Lake, in Hope, and pull into the rutted driveway, easing my aged Honda down the hill to the parking field, my heart flutters. What are my cabin mates going to be like? Is the food going to be any good? Will the instructors be helpful? Am I going to get lost/do something stupid/hurt myself? Is my gear up to snuff? Will a fellow camper short-sheet my bunk? As someone who has been to a number of sleep-away camps — mainly as a child but also as an adult — I know these are important considerations. Fortunately, I am one of the first to arrive, which gives me a chance to case the joint and mark some turf.
We're instructed to load our gear into the camp van and head in on foot — an easy walk through a dense spruce lane. One of the few male BOW volunteers on site for this very female weekend (the support staff and instructors are all volunteer) rattles up behind me in a pickup truck, hauling a trailer stacked with canoes. "What, no shuttle service?" he shouts from the window and then is off before I can think of a snappy comeback. I can see him slowing ahead, leaning out his window and shouting something to two older women in front of me. If this nice-looking gentleman is the camp flirt, he might want to consider rationing his charm a bit this early on. He has a whole wall of women yet to encounter. (And, indeed, when I have him as an instructor the following day, he seems, by that point, a bit overwhelmed by all the enthusiasm and estrogen.)
Registration is a swift affair. Here's your nametag, your orientation packet, and your cabin name. I look down. Theodore. Theodore? What kind of name for a camp cabin is that? I am almost assured of the short-sheeting now.
Bishopswood is a classic Maine summer camp. It's nestled deep in the woods, has a small carved-out swimming and dock area, a large piney main lodge with great hall, fieldstone fireplace, and dining room, a few activities buildings and, because this is a church camp, a chapel. The cabins are clustered on a small hill near a centrally located bathhouse, which has a row of outdoor stainless-steel sinks lining the front and back porch areas. The showers (hot, thank goodness) are located in a concrete slab room and are partitioned off with curtains. There is one common changing area at the entrance. The toilets (flush, thank goodness) have flimsy curtains for doors. This is not a place for people with modesty issues — or any other kinds of issues, for that matter. Each time I brush my teeth, there are always at least a couple of good-sized and robust spiders lounging in each sink. They seem unfazed by the blobs of toothpaste landing around them, so in time I learned to be unfazed by them, too.
I collect my gear and find Theodore. (The name is painted on a canoe paddle nailed to the side of the building.) Even though check-in began at 10 a.m. and I got there at 9:59, there are already two women fully ensconced in the cabin, who confess they arrived early to get the best beds. They have the only two non-bunk beds in the room, but I happily choose the highest corner bunk with screened windows at its head and running its length. Wooden cubicles are provided to stow gear, but since there are still eleven bunks yet to be claimed, I take a conservative two. (When it turns out there are only six of us in our cabin, my stuff sprawls over the lower bunk and hangs from every crevice and corner.)
Even with all this settling in, there is still an hour until lunch. I wander in and out of the main lodge, back to my car to retrieve my water bottle, up around the other cabins and finally down by the lake, where other campers who don't quite know what to do with themselves have gathered. It's a sultry day, and a swim might feel good — even though it's late September — but campers are not allowed to swim until swimtime, which comes after our first workshop in the afternoon.
As I make my way around and mingle, I find some of the participants are seasoned outdoorswomen and, like my two cabin mates, are here for gun-safety certification. Some are novices, never once having held a fly rod, tent stake, or compass. There are college women, or those freshly out of college, and retirees — although the median age appears to be mid-forties or so, with lots of occupational fields represented: real estate, computers, teaching, business, sports. They come from all over Maine, with a smattering from across New England. One attendee has flown in from Maryland to spend the weekend with her daughter who is a student at the University of Maine at Orono. But there is one common thread — aside from the dearth of lipstick and the abundance of sensible shoes — and that is a love and respect for the outdoors and a desire to be capable in it without relying on someone else, namely a man.
The camp bell sounds for lunch, but a line has already started to snake through the lobby. I grab a plate and move down a massive buffet. The food is wholesome — eggs and cereal and baked goods at breakfast, sandwich stuff and soup at lunch, sliced ham or lasagna for dinner — and there's plenty of it. We're asked to take only what we'll eat, to bus our own plates, and to clean our tables. This is a room of a hundred women (with just a few male instructors) who are probably used to cleaning up after other people. All orders are followed to a military T.
Including the "quiet" order. Announcements are made at mealtimes; the speaker raises a hand, and the rest of us are expected to raise a hand and cease conversation until the room is still. I'm not good at group activities — clapping hands or sing-alongs — but I poke my hand up into the air. I don't want to stand out.
BOW Director Dorcas Miller — an elfin, restless woman with an athletic build and cropped hair and someone who wears shorts the entire weekend, while the rest of us pile on the outdoorswear when the weather turns — is the chief announcement maker. She moves with clumsy grace and almost seems to forget what she's about to say, but delivers each talk with purpose and vigor. She is a good cheerleader for BOW, the camp, the volunteers, and, most of all, the participants. She incites us to go out there and have fun, and we feel we owe it to her to do just that.
Not that it's a difficult charge. The BOW program gives participants a wide range of workshops from which to choose, ranging from "harvest" activities: firearms, bow hunting, bird hunting, trapping, tracking, fly tying and casting, and cooking fish and game; to non-harvest ones: canoeing, hiking, kayaking, biking, leave-no-trace camping, photography, and landscaping for wildlife. Each of us will participate in four workshops over the weekend, and we wear our choices printed on the nametags slung around our necks. Judging from the tags (and the fact that program sponsors include the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine and the Durham Rod and Gun Club, among others), there's a clear harvesting slant to all this. Many of the women I talk to are hunters and anglers, although a number of them are just trying to get a take on their husband's or boyfriend's outdoor hobbies. I, on the other hand, am more NPR than NRA and have chosen "softer" workshops — Backcountry Botany, Outdoor Survival, Map and Compass, and Finishing School — which somehow makes me feel I have to apologize when someone reads my nametag. "I'm doing the girly ones," I say. As a lifelong tomboy, feeling like a wuss in a group of a hundred women is a first for me.
For my BOW adventure, I have selected workshops I feel I can use in my own outdoor pursuits and have chosen wisely. Botany with plant ecologist Sue Gawler is both entertaining and informative. While I've been instructed how to key out plant life in the past, under Gawler's gentle encouragement, the process starts to make sense. In "Map and Compass," I learn how to read a topographic map (little green dots signify an orchard), interpret contour lines, and orient with a compass. In the survival workshop, all my years of pyromania finally pay off. During the cleverly named "Finishing School," we are given a kitchen-sink approach to operating in the outdoors, covering such useful skills as: vehicle issues like flats and dead batteries; the use of tools, chainsaws, and propane; and how to properly secure bungee cords and ratchet straps and deal with small engines. Two solo cross-country driving trips in my twenties, years of tagging after my dad around the yard as a kid, and a stint at chainsaw school earlier in the year render most of this information redundant to me. But there is a miracle moment in this workshop: I get to help. I offer tire-changing advice and demonstrate a ground start for the chainsaw. Over the past two days I have identified my own whorled wood aster, found a friend's family homestead in Limerick on a topographic map, started a fire in the driving rain, and later counseled my fellow survivalists on the benefits of Gore-Tex and polypropylene. (I was one of the few who remained warm and dry after our morning out.) Me! The woods weenie!
As my final workshop concludes and I gather up my gear, a thought flashes across my mind. I wonder if there still might be time to short-sheet a bunk before I go? If You Go
This year's Becoming an Outdoors-Woman Introductory Skills Weekend will be held from September 16 to 18 at Camp Caribou in Winslow. The cost to attend the weekend is $200. The registration deadline is August 29. For more information, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife at 207-287-8069 or visit its Web site at www.state.me.us/ifw/education/bow/introskills.htm