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Program aims to prepare women for great outdoors

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2004

In the area of Louisiana where Pam Godair lives, it hasn't snowed in more than 20 years. In Soldotna, where Godair spent last weekend, there was about four feet of snow on the ground with more falling as she was introduced to the winter weather activities of snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and dog mushing.

Though the prospect of spending extended periods of time in 20-degree and colder temperatures was daunting at first, the Louisiana grandmother tackled that challenge with the same enthusiasm she put into learning the snow sports, which is exactly what the weekend program she was involved in was all about proving that the outdoors, even in the middle of an Alaska winter, isn't as scary and inaccessible as it is sometimes made out to be.

Godair was one of about 120 people who participated in a Becoming an Outdoors Woman conference at Solid Rock Bible Camp and Conference Center in Soldotna on Feb. 6, 7 and 8.

The conference is part of an international program designed to teach women outdoors skills in a nonthreatening and hands-on environment.

"It's wonderful. It really is," Godair said. "It probably was not as hard as I thought it would be. (The instructors) made it very comfortable.

"I only fell once, and it was in soft snow."

 

Sheila Westfall, in red gloves, teaches basic snowmachine maintenance to her class.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Godair's daughter, Amanda Godair of Fairbanks, talked her mother into coming to the conference. Amanda took a summer BOW conference and had such a blast that she wanted to try a winter one, and decided her mother would enjoy the experience, as well.

"She thought I was joking at first, then I started listing all the classes and she got real interested," Amanda said. "I told her, 'Look, all you have to do is dress right and the rest is real easy.'"

Amanda sweetened the deal with promises of northern lights viewing opportunities and a homemade, eight-layer gourmet French chocolate cake Amanda is a chef and Godair was on a plane Feb. 2 for a 10-day stay in Alaska.

"She's pretty much surprised everyone here," Amanda said. "They've been real interested in her and I'm real proud of her because she's definitely never been in cold temperatures like this. ... It just goes to show that just because you're getting older doesn't mean you can't learn new skills. She never thought she'd be mushing a dog team, that's for sure."

Family and friends back in Louisiana found the idea of Godair mushing dogs and conquering ski slopes surprising, as well. Godair, her husband, son and son's family all are outdoors enthusiasts in Louisiana, but fishing and hunting in 80-degree and warmer temperatures is a world away from snowshoeing across a frozen lake.

"I told my bridge club and they had a questioning look on their faces when I said 'dog mushing,'" Godair said. "They said they want pictures."

 

Kathy Huerta of Eagle River keeps warm while listening to Westfall.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

BOW is set up to offer something to outdoor newcomers who have never so much as seen a tent pole before as well as to seasoned veterans of grizzly bear hunts, and all experience levels in between. Workshops start with the basics and progress on to more complicated information, no matter what the topic may be.

"I think it's good to learn all those outdoors skills," said Dona Boylan of Fairbanks, who took field dressing where participants butchered and cleaned goats to learn how to deal with game in the wilderness after it's been killed. She also took skinning and hide preparation and dog mushing during the weekend. "A lot of people want to get into this and don't have anybody to teach them things."

In the winter, BOW class subjects ranged from safety-oriented, including winter survival, avalanche safety and bear safety and defense; to recreational, like fly fishing, snowboarding and skijoring; to more subsistence-oriented, including trapping and tracking, chainsaw operation and skin sewing.

"Those skills that my dad and brother always used to do; It wasn't like they ever intended to leave you out, but we were just brought up that guys do this and the women do that," Amanda Godair said. "And that's what the BOW has stepped up there to change."

Though developed for women, the program also is open to men. Kevin Ayres of Fairbanks took the winter BOW program.

 

Beth Foglesong of Eagle River practices her form at the conclusion of a snowboarding session.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I've been looking for a place to learn about outdoors stuff and there just aren't any," he said. "There isn't any heritage of it in my family, but as a guy I'm expected to know it. ... It's a safe place. Any questions are valid. Any feelings are valid. If you get frustrated, nobody's going to call you down for it."

Instructors in the program are experts in the subjects they taught and came from all over the state. Not all are women, but they all conducted their classes in a supportive and noncompetitive atmosphere.

"Women are much better learners," said J.J. Pilgreen of Anchorage, who taught fishing workshops throughout the weekend. "They're much easier to teach."

Though the four participants of Pilgreen's Fishing 101 class Feb. 6 had little or no prior experience with sport fishing gear, by the end of the session they were tying surgeon's loops and attaching lures like pros, all the while laughing about husbands, harassing Pilgreen about his single status and poking fun at the workshop taking place in an adjacent room.

"What's so fun about looking for your buddy in an avalanche? That's depressing," Pilgreen said.

Jane Fuerstenau of the Kenai Peninsula Sled Dog Racing Association was one of the dog mushing workshop instructors. Her philosophy was that the more hands-on experience the women get, the better.

 

A mounted bear keeps watch as Amy Kohlhase of Anchorage tries on a pair of snowboarding boots. Class instructor Tracy Smith joked with students that she had a saying: "Go big or don't go at all."

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"They don't really believe they can do it unless they physically put their hands on the dogs and do it themselves," Fuerstenau said.

The workshop started with instructors talking about the dogs, the sled and other necessary components to mushing. Then the women were put to work. A necessary step was getting comfortable with the dogs. To do so, the women handled the animals, fed them, walked them and put them in and took them out of their boxes on the dog trucks a task some were more comfortable with than others.

"I don't like dogs," whispered Laura Bruck of Palmer, although it wasn't clear whether she was lowering her voice so the instructors wouldn't hear her or so the dogs wouldn't.

Participants spent the rest of the workshop dealing with the sled. They started by getting on a sled and kicking it down a plowed road that stretched out behind the camp's barn.

The women progressed on to taking turns pulling each other on a sled, trying to hang on while a sled was pulled by a snowmachine and finally hooking up a four- to six-dog team and going for a spin.

"We haven't lost any teams yet," Fuerstenau said. "We had some mushers take dives on the turns. Generally, I've got to say these ladies are doing great. They all come around (the corner) with great big smiles on their faces."

Even as an instructor, Fuerstenau said she was amazed at all the useful information that was presented throughout the weekend.

"I think it's great," she said of BOW. "I'd like to go through the whole program, myself. There's a lot of skills I could use."

Most of the information taught in the conference would be useful for anyone interested in the outdoors to know, whether they are male or female. But there were a few instances where women instructors took the opportunity to pass on some useful tips that their audience would not typically get from fathers, husbands, boyfriends or brothers.

 

Kirk Lingofelt of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game waves signs directing students to their classes during last weekend's "Becoming an Outdoors Woman" workshop.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

In the afternoon hunting class Feb. 7, the women instructors spoke from experience when it came to advising how to dress for winter hunting, backpacking or snowmachining trips:

Carhartt overalls, for example, were praised for being warm, but generally not recommended for women.

"The thing about those are when you have to take those off to pee, it's a big problem," said Valerie Baxter, an instructor from Fairbanks.

Baxter also cautioned against wearing cotton bras and underwear when spending time outdoors.

"If I sweat, I'm going to get really cold wherever that cotton underwear is," she said.

The hunting class was one of the more lecture and question-answer-oriented workshops offered. At the other end of the hand-on or feet-on, in this case spectrum was snowboarding.

Instructor Tracy Smith gave the participants a rundown of gear and technique in the Feb. 7 afternoon class, then it was every boarder for themselves once the class hit the camp's ski hill.

"Giddyup gunslinger and ride!" Smith called after one woman as she tried a run down the hill.

 

Participants in a dog mushing session get a canine's perspective before hitching up their animals.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Tumbling down and trudging back up a steep snowy incline for three and a half hours is bound to take a toll. Toward the end of class the trips down the hill became much more infrequent and sitting in the snow became the preferred activity.

Snowboarding was the most physically demanding class she had taken at the conference, but it was still fun, said Amy Kohlhase of Anchorage. She decided to take snowboarding in an attempt to find a winter sport she could get into.

"I suck at skiing," she said. "They say if you're a really bad skier, you'll be better at snowboarding."

Asking how she was doing caused Kohlhase to wince.

"Not so good," she said.

 

Diane Foster of Homer heads down a hill with a pulk sled she built in one of the workshop's sessions.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Even if snowboarding didn't turn out to be a huge success for her, Kohlhase said she'd taken other workshops that were immensely useful, including winter survival and winter camping. As a pilot of small airplanes, she thought winter survival skills would be especially useful for her to know.

Beyond the knowledge she acquired, the experience of BOW was worth the price of admission in itself.

"I spend a lot of time outdoors with guys, so it's kind of neat to hang out with ladies," she said.

For Tina Anliker of Chugiak, the BOW weekend was like reliving Girl Scout camps of her youth.

"You don't have to deal with kids or husbands. It's a girls' weekend out," she said.

Some BOW conference-goers stayed in hotels or other accommodations but most chose to take advantage of Sold Rock's facilities.

The women stayed in on-site cabins situated around the camp's main gathering and dining halls. The cabins had 12 bunks each. Though there wasn't much room to maneuver, the cabins did come complete with electricity, heat and mattresses.

Shower and bathroom facilities were located in the camp's main hall, a short though steep and sometimes slippery walk away from most of the cabins.

"We have a shower and a bathroom we're so excited," said Danita Stumo of Sterling. She went to a BOW conference in the summer where tents offered the most glamorous accommodations.

She and Dawn Lesterson of Sterling signed up for the conference to add to their repertoire of outdoor activities mainly to learn about hunting. They took classes like field dressing, skinning and hide preparation and on Feb. 7, they spent the afternoon in a "bootie party" a skin sewing class where participants made baby booties out of various animal hides.

"It's great," Stumo said. "There's a lot of information that I think everybody can use if they want to be out in the outdoors even if they don't want to be outdoors."



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