Becoming an Outdoors Woman in Michigan

A story of friendship making and quinzee building was originally published in the February 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Reluctantly lifting an eyelid to the gray dawn, I hear my roommates shuffling through the darkness. The three women mull over their clothing selection for the day. But this particular morning, colors and trends are not in the conversation.

“Oh, it’s going to be that cold?” one whispers. “I better wear the silk layer with the fleece thermals over.”

“I hope these boots are going to be warm enough. I’ll be outside all afternoon,” her friend ponders.

I pull my earplugs out and stretch my limbs, mumbling something about layers and jackets. As I do, I unconsciously give them the signal that it’s okay to flick the overhead light on. Besides, breakfast is in half an hour.

Soon we are bundled up in the perfect combination of layers to face the day’s activities. As we walk across the Bay Cliff Health Camp grounds to the dining hall, the pink of the morning sun bursts through the trees over Lake Superior. The cold bites, but the glow warms our hearts as we take a moment to stare.

Upon entering the dining hall for breakfast, we are greeted by the chatter of women and the smells of coffee and bacon. Yes, bacon. A great way to start the first full day of classes here at the Department of Natural Resources’ Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) annual winter event. But first, coffee.

Rounding the corner to the waiting area, the hundred-year-old bird’s-eye maple floor brims with 73 women ranging in age from 18 to 70. Most of the ladies bare their naked faces, and sans makeup, they radiate their natural beauty when they smile. They are clad in snow pants, boots and thermal tops. Some wear their hair in braids, some spiked, and some gray. But they are all here for the same reason: to step out of their comfort zones and learn some new skills about how to conquer the great outdoors and life itself.

When the breakfast bell rings, the women wander into the dining area. Seated with new and old friends, their conversations begin. “What class are you taking this morning?” “Where do you live?” “Is this your first time here?” “Can you pass the butter, please?”

For half of these women, this is their first time at Bay Cliff in Big Bay, Michigan, making it also their first Michigan BOW event. I was surprised at how many participants have attended BOW several times. But the DNR offers 16 winter classes this weekend, and even more classes during the summer gathering, so some women will return until they take them all. Others come back to take the same classes and reunite with friends.

Breakfast is served family-style. The ladies from the kitchen greet us with smiling eyes in their emerald aprons as they roll out their carts with bowls of hot food. This morning’s feast is French toast, oatmeal, bacon and fruit. Something for everyone. We eat hungrily and gratefully, knowing we’ll soon burn it off.

As the designated person at each table scrapes our plates, Sharon Pitz, coordinator of the BOW event, steps up to the microphone. She sweeps her blonde bangs back from her face and greets us again before relaying directions, introductions and changes in the plan. Every time she takes the mic, she makes it a point to thank all the people who make this event a reality. More than once she wipes an eye, “I’m not crying,” she insists.

All photographs: Aaron Peterson

No time for tears anyway. We are off to our first class. Half the classes are held outside for at least part of a three-hour session. This is where my roommates’ precious layers become necessity.

The women who signed up for ice fishing quickly shuttle a few blocks to Lake Independence, where they spend the next three hours. It’s sunny but cold as the wind whips through this 1,860 acres of frozen lake. A couple of heated shanties are available on site, but most women prefer to stay outside to watch the instructors bore holes in the ice as thick as the auger is long. They learn how to hook a minnow just below the spine, figure the depth of the lake, jig with artificial bait and check their tip-ups when the flag goes up. I ask one young lady what she thinks about piercing a minnow with the hook. “Pssh,” she replies, bending her stop-sign-hand down at the wrist like it ain’t no thang.

“These girls are tough,” I tell myself as I gratefully exit the ice, and head back to campus in a warm van. Time to see what else is happening.

In the camp garage, Laurie VanDamme teaches the snowmobiling course. She’s been teaching this sport for 10 years at the BOW event—volunteering like all the other instructors do. She wants women to feel comfortable and safe on these slightly intimidating, high-powered machines. After her initial instruction, she takes the group out on the trails, traveling at a comfortable speed. “But today,” Laurie states, “I could tell the rider behind me wanted to go faster than I was going, so I picked it up little by little to see how fast she would go,” she laughs. It turns out 50 mph was fast enough.

Hearing the yipping of canines, I direct my attention to the dog sled class. Monica Weis and Teri Grout, who raise and race these Alaskan Huskies, taught the ropes of the sled team. Before hopping on the sled pulled by a pack of revved up pups, the ladies take turns pulling each other down the trail to get comfortable yelling the commands and using the different brakes. As the instructors harness up the dog team, the participants feel this new energy, and their nerves began to show. “I don’t know if I can do this,” pretty much all of the students admit. But when they come back from their trip around the snow-covered trail, their grins are huge. “I want to do that again!”

Traversing campus, I notice the backcountry skiers huffing up the hill from Lake Superior. Behind them the east arm of Big Bay is camouflaged in snow. To the north, I squint to try to see Canada over the white horizon. As the red-cheeked skiers approach, I notice that one of them is my roommate. She stops to show me the big scales on the bottom of her skis. “That’s how we get up the hills,” she nods. Instructor and creator of the Marquette Backcountry Ski, Dave Ollila, proves to these women that they are tough by leading them across the fresh snow, down the hill and back up. This varied course showcases the versatility of the ski and gives the women a great workout.

On the groomed trails, the cross-country skiers try out their newly learned skills on a half-mile loop of the Big Bay Pathway. Most of the women taking this course have either never skied this style or have done it only minimally. Instructors Frida Waara, who has skied all over the globe and Paul Hannuksela, who grooms these ski trails, are the perfect duo for inspiringa love for Nordic skiing. “If you can walk, you can ski,” Frida declares, as she tells them everything they will ever have to know about the sport … and more.

Who was breaking their own trails on campus? The snowshoers. This class of mostly first-timers gathers inside to learn how to find the right snowshoe for their needs, how to layer up and whether to use poles or not. Yes or no on poles is “the million dollar question,” instructor Sandy Kivela states, looking out from her dark oval frames. After a briefing on the sport, she and her charges head out onto a packed path through the hills and pines. When they are comfortable in their gear, they step to the side and take off through untracked snow. To answer that million-dollar question, most of them do not use poles on this trek.

I discover that the class where women get deepest into the snow is Winter Shelters and Camping. For the first hour, these ladies shovel scoop after scoop to build a mound of snow with a diameter two feet wider than the height of the tallest person and about 6 feet high. This is the first step in building a quinzee or snow shelter. The next step is letting the snow sit undisturbed while it settles into a structurally solid, carvable mound. That takes about an hour, so they head inside, where instructors Tara Gluski and David Kalishek offer tips on what to pack for winter camping and what to carry at all times when wandering about the winter woods. As they talk, the realization begins to take hold on their students: “Oh, boy. I’m going to have to stay out here all night!” Once the snow settles, the women head back out to their mound of snow and begin to hollow it out deep and wide enough for two of them to fit comfortably. By their red cheeks and quickness to trade off the shovel, I can tell carving out the inside of what is basically a gigantic snowball is hard work. Yet these women are hardy and plan to spend the night in their shelter.

Hmmm. Sounds kind of cold. I head back inside the lodge to see what’s happening.

Next to the dining room, aromas of gooey chocolate and buttery goodness entice me. The Backcountry Cooking class samples their Seven Layer Bars, just one of the many dishes they practice cooking over a wood fire and outdoor burner. On the heartier side, they prepared and baked a Thanksgiving Dinner with all the fixings. “Protein and carbs are really important when you’re spending time outside,” instructor Gretta Steele insists. With pudgy pies and other desserts in the mix, the carbs were easy to come by.

Two buildings over, I step into the auditorium where women are strangling each other and pushing one another onto a padded mat. Luckily it’s all part of the Self Confidence class taught by the very tough Jane Gordon. “Louder!” she yells at her mild-mannered students. “Make me believe you’re angry! I don’t want you to give up!” That is apparent as she critiques each female on her shouting, hitting, falling and posturing skills. After the women learn key techniques, they go up against the “Red Man,” a participant wearing a fully padded suit whom the students can punch and kick with everything they’ve got. Screaming, shouting and thudding of bodies echo through the rafters. I wouldn’t mess with any of these girls after this class.

Wilderness First Aid is held in this auditorium during a different session. I watch intently as instructor Mike Knack loops a 30-foot-long piece of rope, ties it, splits it into two joined loops and lays it on the floor. “You all saw how I did that, right?” he asks like a magician with nothing up his sleeve. He invites a young lady to step with one foot in each loop. With his back to her back, he puts his arms through each loop and over his shoulders, lifting the woman off the ground. “The human backpack,” he announces as he carries her around the gym floor with ease. Mike shows these women many ways to check on an injured person and evacuate her safely out of the woods. He lists what the women should bring before embarking on a backcountry journey and describes how to use each safety item in the wilderness.

Throughout the weekend, Sharon Pitz makes sure the students and teachers have everything they need at all times. “My phone is in my back pocket,” she assures us, tapping the back of her pants. “Call anytime.” With the lessons these women learn, the wonderful meals they share, the skills they build and the times they laugh together, she doesn’t have to deal with many problems from the ladies.

At our last meal together, a taco bar lunch, Sharon steps up to the mic saying more “thank you’s” and giving awards. Suddenly, the lady next to me stands up and shouts, “And we need to thank Sharon Pitz, who put this great event on for us!” Now everyone is standing up at their table, clapping and cheering. It was the first time Sharon was publicly thanked. She takes a step back, wipes her eyes and admits, “Now I’m crying. You got me.”

Hugging my roommates goodbye, I am almost in tears myself. Before we all leave, we recap our experiences. Cathy, who lives near Drummond Island, nods her dark shoulder-length locks and says, “You know, I think that if I do this again, I’m going to do more outside. Step out of my comfort zone.” I nod myself, proud that she admitted this.

Jill, who lives near Escanaba, pulls her gloves on and looks up at us. “I think I’m hooked,” she says. “I’m going to be one of those people who come back every year.”

I might have to come back myself. I’d love to brush up on my self-defense skills … and see what other creative ways Mike has to carry people out of the woods. And maybe, just maybe sleep out in a quinzee that I built myself.

Amanda Wais captures adventures in the Upper Peninsula through her stories, photos and videos. daharbor.blogspot.com. Stay connected to
 the next BOW event by liking their Facebook Page: Becoming an 
Outdoors-Woman Michigan.

 

BOW’s 2015 
Winter Lineup

Feb. 27–Mar. 1, 2015
This year marks the 15th Annual Becoming an Outdoors-Woman event. Pack layers, dive in. The classes fill quickly, so best hurry. If you check and classes are filled, make a note to sign up early next year.

Outdoor classes
• Backcountry Cooking
• Dog Sledding
• Ice Fishing
• Intro to GPS/Geocach
• Basic Snowshoe
• Advanced Snowshoe
• Skijoring
• Winter Shelters and Winter Camping
• Cross Country Skiing

Indoor classes
• Perennial Gardening
• Fly Tying
• Fish Identification
• Arrow Building
• Wilderness First Aid
• Hand and Power Tools
• Nature Postal Art
• Self Confidence
• Woods, Wildlife and Wood Burning
• Archery

Participants rate their top 5 classes and have good odds of securing their top three choices. No matter if the class itself is held in or outside, the techniques each one provides leads to more confidence, skill and downright enjoyment for the outdoors. The gatherings outside of class are nurturing as well. Socializing, laughing and rooming with like-minded women help boost the spirit.

Learn more, or sign up at michigan.gov/dnr/

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