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Wilderness of their own

When 60 women head to the Sierra Nevada, it's high-fives and howls -- and three days of shooting and fishing.

November 22, 2005|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

AT a small pond in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a woman casts her fly with a gentle flick. The line sails delicately over the water and settles on the surface. On the opposite bank, other women cook over a campfire. Rainbow-colored kayaks cut across the water, and nearby horses neigh at nothing in particular.

Suddenly, a cheerful expletive explodes across the water, followed by: "I got a fish!"

Janice Mahaffey hops around as if at a snake dance and pulls a 4-inch blue gill out of the water. Her instructor, Sally Stoner, hurries over.

"How do you hold it?" Mahaffey asks, fish wiggling on the line.

Stoner shows her, then unhooks and releases the fish back into the pond. Mahaffey's fishing pal rushes over and the two high-five each other, then slap each other's fishing vests Three Stooges-like.

From the opposite bank, half a dozen women let out a mighty wolf howl in an assortment of pitches. The howl barrels up the nearby hills and into the canyons beyond.

Ow, Ow, Ow, Owwww, OOOOooooo.

*

Strength in numbers

MEN are welcome, but only a few intrepid male instructors have ventured into this howling den of womanpower -- aka the Becoming an Outdoors Woman multicourse workshop. Held in late October at Wonder Valley Ranch Resort, east of Fresno, BOW -- as it is known -- teaches outdoors skills for women only.

The notion that women would rather learn outdoors skills in the company of other women might seem archaic, even patronizing. But 60 women -- twentysomethings to septuagenarians, engineers, doctors, college professors, bookkeepers, lawyers and administrators -- have signed on, and none of them seem like the snuffling, hand-wringing type.

For $350, they spend two nights sharing a dormitory-like room and choosing among shooting, fishing, kayaking, archery and orienteering classes.

At a buffet lunch in a packed banquet room on opening day, BOW California president Susan Herrgesell, a diminutive duck-hunting dynamo, kicks off the event. Utensils clatter, then the room grows quiet as Herrgesell riffs on BOW's 15-year history (begun in Wisconsin; administrated for a time through the California Department of Fish and Game; now a nonprofit on its own), the membership roster (up to 5,000 women have taken its classes) and the growing participation of women in outdoor sports.

"Ten years ago I went to Cabela's to buy waders," she says, "and the only thing they offered for women were little sweaters with bunnies or kittens on them."

The audience howls in appreciation.

"Now they have an entire catalog for women and sponsor women's sporting events."

The howling, participants soon learn, evolved from a popular contemporary book that suggests women and wolves have a lot in common. "Women Who Run With the Wolves" is a mix of anthropology, new-age spirituality and self-help, but this crowd isn't interested in big books. It just likes to howl.

As participants rush out to the first of their classes, they get a final word of advice from one of the instructors: "Remember -- what happens in Wonder Valley, stays in Wonder Valley."

Ow, Ow, Ow, Owwww, OOOOooooo.

*

Guns and philosophy

INTRODUCTION to Firearms & Safety is held in a cabin-like room with a stone fireplace, big wooden beams and stained glass windows. It could feel warm and fuzzy here except for the assortment of shotguns and rifles laid out on a long table at the front of the room. Introductions are brief.

"I'm married to a hunter, and I sure don't want to be taught by him," says one student.

"My dad was a hunter -- a really bad hunter. He'd pick up his shotgun and it would go off. We had holes in the roof," says another.

"I want to kill a bear that's harassing my pets," announces one grandmotherly attorney wrapped in a parka with fur-trimmed hood.

Using an overhead projector, three instructors demonstrate how to lock and load, and pass around various types of ammo. They open the class to questions, which come slowly at first, then:

"What's the best gun to scare away an intruder?"

A pump-action shotgun, the instructor recommends, picking up one and demonstrating a sound familiar to action-movie fans everywhere.

"What about night scopes?"

Illegal.

"Even for bears?"

If there's an armchair philosopher for women in the outdoors, it's Sally Stoner. For three decades, Stoner has taken scores of men and women deep into the wilds of California and Montana and taught them to fish. She believes that women and men approach the outdoors differently and prefers not to teach mixed groups. She believes that women have experienced a culturally driven disconnect from the outdoors.

"Centuries ago," she says, "we lived outdoors and being in nature was an important part of the rhythm of our existence. In the last 50 years we have gone to live in the concrete jungle and drive the freeways. We have garage door openers, and we don't even have to interact with our yard."

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