Sharon Pitz remembers how she used to borrow her husband’s camouflage clothing and his fishing vest and waders to hunt or fish in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: Oversized hunting boots and coats were the norm for women in the early 1990s, because most weren’t available in their sizes.
No longer, affirms Pitz, the 52-year-old Marquette-based coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s Becoming an Outdoor Woman Program (BOW).
Through this extension of the national agenda founded in 1991 at the University of Wisconsin, approximately 3,500 Michigan women have learned an array of skills, from building fires or snow shelters and surviving outdoors to shooting, skiing, kayaking and fishing.
While downsized due to budget cuts in 2012, Michigan’s BOW program — once offered statewide — continues to attract participants from every region to the U.P., where all classes are now held.
“We’ll get 60 to 100 women coming for a weekend,” notes Pitz, a hunter and angler who recently took up kayaking. “The oldest is a 94-year-old woman from Minnesota. She still skis cross country and ice skates and has a blast.
“I’ll hear from a city girl, ‘We don’t do that in Detroit,’ but that’s what this program does — gets them out of their comfort zone to try something different.”
Today, she adds, being equipped with made-to-fit clothing and gear makes that easier.
Other former obstacles have disappeared, as well, agree women who are active outdoors, although finding time remains an issue. In male-dominated pursuits like hunting and fishing, social barriers are coming down. Connecting with other outdoor women and finding female mentors has become easier, too, with the advent of the Internet.
“Our students often can’t be taught by their significant others,” Pitz explains. “They aren’t as patient (as female course instructors). Or, (a participant) may be a single mom with children or have a husband who doesn’t know anything.”
According to a 2013 report funded by The Outdoor Foundation — a non-profit established by the Outdoor Industries Association, a trade group for manufacturers — approximately 6.3 million American women enjoy outdoor recreation. From backpackers, joggers and adventure racers to hunters, cyclists, anglers and paddlers, women as a market share began catching the industry’s attention during the mid-1990s. Companies including L.L. Bean, Outdoor Research, Under Amour, Mathews, Osprey and Orvis began producing bows, backpacks, fishing vests and other specially-designed gear and clothing. Outfitters began tailoring women’s excursions, workshops and classes.
And private groups began forming as women found other women with similar interests.
Sisters in support
“We founded the Flygirls in my living room,” shares Ann Miller, president of Flygirls of Michigan Inc., a Federation of Fly Fishers club founded in 1996. “We felt there was a lot of interest by women who didn’t know how to fly fish, women who needed some avenue to learn it. Five or six of us met and got organized. We held an all-day free workshop and had over 100 people sign up.”
The popularity of the Flygirls stems from veteran embrace of members who are new. They, in turn, feel like part of a family, says Miller, who resides in Stevensville. Club outings offer the opportunity to learn casting or fly tying, but also provide time to commune with one another on the water, at a meal or by a fire at the lodge.
“We provide a degree of camaraderie and friendship that’s missing elsewhere,” Miller expresses. “With other sorts of fishing clubs (often male-oriented), it’s harder to meet people and get plugged in or accepted. It can take years instead of a couple of minutes.”
Women generally speak the same language, she notes, which makes teaching one another simpler.
“When men talk about loading the rod while making a cast,” Miller illustrates, “they say, ‘Act like you’re throwing a hatchet.’ You think, ‘OK, OK — what does that mean?’ Women have never thrown hatchets. There are just those differences.”
Miller began fly fishing more than 25 years ago in graduate school where she was trained as an aquatic biologist. Her love of science, fishing and bugs culminated in authoring “Hatch Guide for Upper Midwest Streams” (2012, Frank Amato Publications), a field guide to stream insects for trout and steelhead anglers. Along with her husband, Ken Ankli, Miller sought coaching early on at the L.L. Bean Fly Fishing School in Maine.
Only she caught the bug; he prefers golf, but is comfortable with her chasing her passion.
“Thirty years ago it was a lot more difficult,” Miller observes. “Women would go into fly shops and not get waited on. That has definitely changed. And I couldn’t have done all the things I have if I didn’t have an incredible husband. I don’t know many men who would be fine with their wife going off with a group of men fly fishing — and leaving them home with the kids and dinners in the freezer.”
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson enjoys the thrill of hiking in exotic places. Once, she and her husband, Don Nanney, hiked up an ancient African volcano to watch mountain gorillas. The couple also visited Borneo and spent two days in the rainforest looking for rare birds before paddling down an untamed river to observe orangutans. She’s hiked off Ecuador’s coast on the Galapagos Islands and backpacked in Indonesia to see Komodo Dragons, the planet’s largest living lizards.
But the Waterford Township native is also content just to get out and kayak on the small Oakland County lake where she and her husband live and raised their daughter.
“It’s a great stress reliever,” advocates 57-year-old Johnson, who kayak-sailed in 2013 from Mackinac Island to Mackinac City as part of a state promotion. “It’s good for the heart and good for the soul. Our little lake is a wonderful getaway. We see bald eagles and ospreys in their migratory pattern.”
Michigan, she adds, offers great getaways of all sorts.
“With our beautiful natural resources and outstanding state park system, there’s always an opportunity for someone to enjoy the Pure Michigan outdoor experience, no matter where they live or travel,” Johnson says. “For just $11, the state’s Recreation Passport offers access to more than 1,000 state parks, boat launches and trails. There’s so much to see and do, right in our own backyard.”
Johnson was introduced to the outdoors by her parents, who used to fish and hunt together. Her father, who worked for Chrysler when she was growing up, taught her how to fish when she was young. Though Johnson never developed his fondness for ice fishing, she’s always enjoyed their summer outings on Crescent Lake in Oakland County. Today that joy remains intact; she may troll for fish while out for a paddle after work.
But discovering how to enjoy the outdoors without such earlier exposure requires a woman to test those waters, first-hand — and that’s something she must choose to do for herself.
“One reason women don’t get out to enjoy (the outdoors) more is that we tend to be multi-taskers; we’re working and are primary caretakers,” Johnson says. “It’s difficult to find the time. The other thing is that women, statistically, are not as big of risk takers as men.
“But once you do it — and see you can do almost everything so safely with all the gear, and along with someone else who likes to do it — there’s no reason not to.”
That awakening led Liz Foley down the path from hunting with her late husband while in her early 20s to camping with her children, hiking, backpacking and eventually mountain climbing. Foley, a Schwartz Creek resident, signed up for several American Hiking Society and Sierra Club volunteer vacations where participants help national forest or national park staff with trail and other construction projects.
Doing so meant camping in wilderness for days and working with a trail crew, sometimes wielding an axe clearing trails in Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains, Washington’s Cascade Range and even the Cairngorm Mountain Range in the Scottish Highlands.
“I didn’t have a ready group of friends to do these things with,” elaborates 59-year-old Foley, a former environmental, health and outdoor reporter for the Flint Journal, now working with the Michigan Municipal League. “So, I latched onto the idea of volunteer vacations and signed up to do trail work. That became a real passion.
“What I’ve seen in the last 10 years is more female camaraderie in the hunting world, too. Women are bonding in groups like (Flint-area outdoor women’s club) Camo and Lace and are forming their own sisterhood, emulating the whole macho thing, the woman’s version of it. There are still a few things that are more of a concern to women than men, like being out in the woods alone, but that’s the nature of the beast. I don’t think anyone should backpack alone.”
Foley, the co-author of “The Lone Wolverine — Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal” (2012, University of Michigan Press) — challenged herself in 2010 when she traveled to Ecuador for a guided climbing expedition on Iliniza Norte and Cotopaxi, two volcanoes popular with tourist climbers. Her climbing team successfully ascended to the 17,000-foot summit of Iliniza Norte, but treacherous weather cut the Cotopaxi quest short.
Foley was comfortable letting the chips fall where they may.
“So I’d climbed one summit, lost another to a storm. In the end, it really didn’t matter,” she concluded in the Flint Journal that year. “I’ve learned I’m never going to be the strongest, fastest, bravest anything — and for sure I’ll never be a ‘real’ mountaineer. I can live with that.
“To tell the truth, I’m mostly just glad to be home.”
The mountain, she says, was one of the bigger challenges.
“I came to realize I had bitten off more than I could chew,” Foley shares. “Most of what I do — the hiking, paddling and backpacking — is in Michigan. It’s one of the most beautiful states for it and that’s why I live here. I’ve enjoyed winter backpacking in the Pigeon River Country State Forest and backpacking in the Porkies.
This fall I’m planning to backpack on Isle Royale. It’s a wonderful national park. And it’s right in my own backyard.” ≈
Award-winning journalist Howard Meyerson resides in Grand Rapids.
PROFILE: Frida Waara
Frida Waara claims to be “certifiably bi-polar,” having spent 27 days skiing more than 150 miles from Russia to the North Pole in 2001 and making snowy tracks at the South Pole in 2010. A 58-year-old Marquette real estate agent born in Wixom, Waara takes pride in her late father’s “Native Finlander” heritage (read: love of cold). She helped organize the 2001 Women Quest North Pole Expedition led by Josee AuClair, a veteran polar explorer from Quebec, Canada. Their 12-women party carried packs and hauled loaded sleds across the arctic sea ice, braving sub-zero temperatures to become the first unsupported women’s team to reach the North Pole.
“In a woman’s life, you have to take care of everyone else first,” Waara says. “Then there comes a time when you say, what am I going to do? I wasn’t bred to stay inside and decorate a house. I was 45 years old when I went to the North Pole. There is something about all-white landscapes that captivate me.”
PROFILE: Lydia Bevier
Lydia Bevier Lohrer loved to fish as a young woman, but never knew girls who liked to hunt. So, she confides, she dated young men who hunted to “pick their brains.” Her love of fishing and hunting eventually branched into a starring role in the 1999 Outdoor Channel debut of “The Huntress,” the first nationally televised outdoor show featuring a female host. A resident of Royal Oak, Lohrer today writes outdoor columns for the Detroit Free Press. The 45-year-old conservation educator also operates American Family Outdoors, a program that teaches youth about nature.
“My most memorable experience was bear hunting in Saskatchewan while being pregnant with my third child,” Lohrer recalls. “We were shooting a segment of American Family Outdoors. I had climbed down from my treestand for a potty break. All of a sudden a black bear crossed in front of me. The cameraman saw it and I had a judgment call to make. I did take the bear at 30 yards (with a muzzleloader) — but I was holding my pants up the entire time.”
PROFILE: Jessie Hadley
Professional kayaking guide Jessie Hadley grew up in Ann Arbor, but has “Yooper” in her heart. Her Hessel-based outfitting business, Woods and Waters EcoTours, offers guided kayaking trips and paddling lessons on northern Lake Huron’s pristine waters. The 43-year-old outdoor entrepreneur also designs custom outings and classes just for women. Attracted throughout her life to the outdoors, Hadley pursued a degree in fisheries and wildlife management at Michigan State University. She worked with conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy before going into business for herself. Hadley fell in love with tent living in 1988 while in Yellowstone National Park, working on a student conservation project after wildfires destroyed 792,000 acres.
“In a month out there we found just one little patch of green,” Hadley reflects. “We were always covered with soot while clearing trails. But when we went to pack up, I started to cry. I had become used to living in a tent — and really liked it.”