GAP MILLS, W.Va. -- The Dianas are a small sorority, but strong strings tie them together.
Bowstrings and heartstrings.
Bowstrings because the Dianas are bowhunters. Accomplished ones. Important ones. And every year, they travel as a group to some place where game is abundant and they hunt for deer or antelope or elk.
Heartstrings because they've been hunting together for 13 years now, and over the years they've developed bonds of friendship that bridge the miles they live apart from one another.
''We all love to hunt, but we enjoy the camaraderie even more,'' says Ann Clark, one of the group's founding members. ''Every evening, after we're finished hunting, we share stories about what we saw and what we experienced. Those times are every bit as precious to us as the time we spend hunting.''
This year, they gathered their memories at West Virginia's Stoney Brook Plantation, a 5,000-acre private hunting preserve in Monroe County. They hunted for deer, and they got three, but mostly they enjoyed each other's company.
Theirs is a tight-knit sorority, as one might expect of a group that numbers just nine.
They came together in 1988 after a casual dinner conversation evolved into an invitation to hunt an exclusive private game preserve.
''Several of us were at an archery-industry show in Las Vegas,'' Clark recalls. ''We were chatting with Bob Eastman of Game Tracker (Inc.), who had a hunting camp in Michigan where he hosted customers and field representatives.
''Marilyn Nicholas suggested that the company host an all-ladies bowhunt. Bob kind of snickered at the idea, but then another friend, George Gardner, said, Hey, let's talk. This has potential.'''
Fourteen women were invited to that first hunt. Kay Richey, currently the organization's president, says they immediately hit it off.
''We had such a bonding,'' she says. ''It could have ended after that first hunt, but we decided that we wanted to keep it going.''
The next year they went to Colorado. They've since crisscrossed the country, sampling the hunting in Ohio, New York, Wyoming, Texas, Alabama, Nebraska, Wisconsin and, now, West Virginia.
At first they called themselves ''the All-Lady Bowhunters.''
''But when we said it, people thought we were saying Old Lady Bowhunters,''' Clark recalls, laughing. ''So we needed a name change.''
At their inaugural hunt, Gardner had given each of the participants a medallion embossed with the image of Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt.
Two years after the hunts began, the group adopted the goddess' name as their own.
Wherever they go now, they find themselves on the receiving end of an inordinate share of attention. Small wonder. Their roster reads like a ''Who's Who'' within the archery industry.
Ann Clark and Ann Hoyt are National Archery Hall of Fame members. The others have distinguished archery or bowhunting resumes, as well.
Individually and collectively, they've had sizable impacts on society's view of women as hunters.
''The publicity we've received has helped identify women more strongly with bowhunting,'' says Cathy Beutler. ''Also, a lot of people think you have to be young in order to be a bowhunter. We prove you don't have to be, because we range in age from the early 40s to 80.''
Kay Richey, the Dianas' president, says the group ''has helped make it very clear that we can be ladies and still be good, ethical hunters.''
Their impact on the archery industry has been equally profound.
''When we began hunting together, we couldn't get clothes and equipment that fit us, because everything was made for men,'' Clark recalls. ''We started bringing it to the manufacturers' attention, and they started listening.''
''All the big manufacturers are now carrying entire lines of women-specific clothing and gear,'' Richey adds. ''Our clothes fit, and we don't have to have boots custom-made any more.''
Now, when they visit a spot on their annual pilgrimages, the Dianas' members focus their attention on the game roaming near their tree stands.
They don't need to worry about the thousand little distracting details that always seem to pop up, because they have a self-described ''lackey'' to attend to their needs.
Since the Dianas' initial outing, Gardner has tagged along with a single-minded goal: to make the women's adventure more pleasurable. A renowned hunter in his own right, he particularly enjoyed the pampering he received at African safari camps, and pledged to extend the same courtesies to the Dianas.
At Stoney Brook, as he has at previous venues, Gardner handled any repairs to the women's equipment, and he greeted them each morning with wake-up coffee and orange juice.
''Really, he's one of us. Always has been,'' Richey says.
Every one of the Dianas says she'd like to return to West Virginia.
''We couldn't have had a better time,'' Richey says. ''Between the hospitality, and seeing all the animals, the whole experience has been so good it's almost unreal.''
''I don't think we've been anywhere that had this much game,'' adds Ann Hoyt, whose Stoney Brook adventure included a face-to-face encounter with a black bear.
It was the first bear Hoyt had ever seen in the wild, and it fled when she gasped.
''That alone made the whole trip worthwhile,'' she says.
The trip turned out to be particularly memorable for Jeanne Richman, a Clendenin native who now lives in California. Not only did she bowhunt with her friends, she revisited her Appalachian roots by going squirrel hunting and, later, chowing down on a meal of fried squirrels and squirrel gravy.
Richman ended up extending her stay four days to see relatives and visit her old home place.
''That's why we do these trips,'' says Clark. ''The memories.''
Those memories, in turn, form the knots that tie the Dianas' heartstrings together.
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