The day culminated with five women, back lit by the setting sun, grinning as they each held up their hands, filled with Dolly varden char.
Their instructor beamed as she stood to the side of the group.
These women had participated in the spin casting class at this year’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshop, hosted by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the Outdoor Heritage Foundation.
They’d missed dinner and instead returned with food in hand.
That moment on a sunny late spring evening at Echo Ranch was nothing short of magical.
Ask the participants; they’ll agree.
Talk to the instructors, and they’ll share that something special happens at these workshops, that by the end of the three-day adventure, these women leave with something more than just skills, they leave with empowerment and confidence, renewed self esteem and spirit.
And something else that many could only describe as mystifying.
Perhaps, it’s the setting — a picturesque plot buffered by Cowee Creek and Echo Cove, on the fringes of Berners Bay. Views from the main beach extend across the ocean to the hulking Chilkat Mountains. Crosses and bible verses remind visitors and residents of a more spiritual side.
Perhaps it’s the subject matter — all things outdoors, including many tasks historically relegated to the men of this world. Or, perhaps it’s the instructors, who keep coming back to share their love of the outdoors, to teach and instruct and foster comfort in our wild land, instead of fear.
“This is my fifth year,” Debbie Douglass said. “I totally believe in this program ... what BOW offers and does ... I’m behind 100 percent.”
Douglass, 64, has taught the kayak class since BOW first came to Southeast Alaska roughly five years ago, with her teaching partner Nancy Peel. This year, Douglass taught packrafting, a first for her and the BOW team, and was assisted by Ashley Mason, 27, who grew up in Juneau.
Both Douglass and Mason are experienced outdoors women. Douglass, who went to school to study outdoor recreation, has made a life out of living life outside, teaching classes, workshops and exploring with friends, like her recent jaunt across Admiralty Island in June 2012. Douglass has overcome disabilities, as well; she’s had surgery on both her back and knee.
Mason’s experience comes from her time at Echo Ranch as a wilderness counselor, a guide and instructor, with Douglass, teaching kayak and canoe rescue techniques to campers.
For the pair, their time together is valuable.
“What we’ve tried to do, as some of us get older, is to mentor younger instructors with the intent that they will eventually take over,” Douglass said. “So we can keep BOW going.”
Nearby, the dutch oven class was beginning to start.
Instructor Deb Rudis, bustled back and forth from cast iron pot, to warming coals, to piles of ready ingredients. For her, this year also marked her sixth time teaching at BOW.
How Rudis came to be part of the instructor team is something of a coincidence. She had taken the class once, when it was hosted at the University of Alaska Southeast. A few years later, when they were looking for instructors to assist with the first Southeast BOW workshop in Haines, Rudis’ name came up. And even though she’d only taken the class once, she had fine tuned her skills as the cook on a number of different river trips with friends.
Her recipes have evolved over the years and Rudis graciously shares them with participants.
Before long, thick scents of camp food wafted on the wind as scones, coconut cake, halibut caddy ganty, nachos, rigattoni and more poured out onto plates and platters.
Not far away, Riley Woodford led his survival class students on a hike to scout for a good shelter, they also talked wind and canopy cover — all things to know if stuck outdoors unexpectedly.
For Woodford, this too was his sixth year teaching at BOW in Southeast, and as an instructor, he said, it’s the ideal classroom.
“It’s teaching at its very best, it’s what every teacher wants — very eager students, very receptive,” he said. “For a lot of folks your breaking the ice, its not just that you’re imparting some knowledge, but you’re also introducing them to something they’ll pursue.”
Over the years, Woodford has played a big part — like so many others — in making BOW a success in the region. For four years he helped organize, and taught courses that, besides survival, included spin casting, wildlife watching, deer hunting and bear safety.
In all, 50 instructors and assistants helped to make the 27 courses — ranging from archery and canning fish, to chainsaw and shotgun available to some 80 participants.
New this year was the hand-off from longtime organizer Nancy Long to co-organizers Kristen Romanoff and Tennie Bentz, who’s positions at ADF&G both hinge on community outreach.
Long, who will be retiring, is responsible for bringing BOW to the Southeast region in the first place.
This year, after many spent behind the scenes organizing (a process that starts in January for the May workshop), Long was able to take a class.
Her choice? Alpacka Packrafts, the same one taught by Douglass.
That sunny afternoon, donning bright umbrellas that glowed like beacons against the rainforest, Long paddled down Cowee Creek, grinning all the while.
It’s seeing how meaningfull these skills are to participants that keeps instructors around.
“That’s why I keep coming back,” Douglass said.
For others it’s also a two-way street when it comes to learning.
“We learn as instructors what to do better next time,” Woodford said. “Opportunities open up to build on what (we’re) teaching.”
Bentz said they’ve rarely had to look for new instructors, but attrition does happen on occasion. They seek out knowledgeable, personable folks with a demeanor that meshes well with how women want and need to learn. She said she thinks the reason instructors keep coming back is largely due to the vast amount of positive feedback they receive through their participation.
But besides the positive feedback, even Bentz couldn’t deny the possibility of a little magic that happens at the workshop each year.
• Contact Abby Lowell at
firstname.lastname@example.org or at 523-2271.