With women’s participation in outdoor recreation on the rise, the demand for programs to help them get more involved in Michigan’s abundance of outdoor activities is booming.
The most widely recognized program is called Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW). Since 2017, Michelle Douglas has led BOW, which launched in 1994 and is run by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
“Family dynamics often exclude mothers from participating in hunting and fishing,” says Douglas, who’s passionate about helping women develop an appreciation of the outdoors.
The BOW program features a series of workshops that are offered a minimum of two weekends per year in the summer, fall, or winter. The curriculum includes one-third fishing, one-third hunting or shooting sports, and one-third ancillary and/or non-consumptive, while the physical activity levels range from low to very strenuous. Nearly all of the workshops are hands-on, and all equipment is provided.
In addition to these seasonal workshops, BOW also offers special, targeted activities called Beyond BOW events for turkey hunts, snowshoe hikes, archery deer hunts, backpacking hikes, and more.
Under Douglas’ stewardship, participation in BOW has grown steadily, the number of volunteers has increased, and the volume and geographical coverage has expanded. Ninety percent of participants surveyed rate BOW activities as “excellent.”
Further proof of its popularity is that although several other states have their own BOW programs, women frequently travel across state lines — some come from as far away as California — to participate in the highly successful Michigan BOW workshop.
Looking for an experience that promotes a more reflective, spiritual connection to the outdoors? Try forest bathing. It’s an immersion technique popularized in Japan, and it was recently introduced at select U.S. Forest Service locations. Participants use their senses to connect with nature, and the result is that they improve their physical, mental, emotional, and social health.
Based in northern Michigan with programs across the entire state, Maureen Stine’s Natureology organization is one of the few Michigan-based practitioners of this technique. Guided forest bathing trips typically last two hours and emphasize unplugging, slowing down, and awakening the senses.
Natureology also offers more traditional programs for women, like an annual women-only ice fishing outing in Hessel, east of St. Ignace, in addition to outdoors workshops.
If fishing had an equivalent to forest bathing, it would have to be fly fishing. While still a traditional outdoor recreation activity, fly fishing is definitely more conducive to making spiritual connections with nature than other types of fishing.
According to the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, 31 percent of all fly anglers in 2022 were women, making it the fastest-growing demographic among all fly anglers.
This comes as no surprise to Ann Miller, president and co-founder of Flygirls of Michigan, a group of women fly anglers whose membership totals more than 300. Since its inception in 1996, Miller estimates that Flygirls has introduced more than 1,000 women to the sport of fly fishing. “Our primary goal is to connect women with other women who like to fly fish,” she says.
Miller attributes part of the growth to women setting aside more time for themselves — and, for many, she says, that time is best spent outdoors.
“We’ve seen steady growth in interest in fly fishing over the years,” Miller says, adding that fly fishing equipment manufacturers seem to have taken notice, with marketing campaigns directed specifically at women and equipment designed with women in mind.
Flygirls emphasizes on-the-water activities such as weekend fishing outings, which run from April through October. Pre-outing virtual meetings prepare participants with information about expected hatches, recommended fly patterns, and key locations. During the winter months, Miller and other experts host virtual membership meetings to teach entomology and fly-tying.
For women coping with a cancer diagnosis, fly fishing is more than a way to connect with nature. It’s therapeutic. Perhaps because anglers are often directly immersed in the aquatic environment, fly fishing offers a stronger reminder of humanity’s place in the ecosystem.
Such a connection is harder to replicate from the back seat of a bass boat or on a Great Lakes charter, and it’s why Reeling & Healing Midwest — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to teaching women recovering from cancer to fly fish — chose Michigan’s blue-ribbon trout streams for their programs.
The 2.5-day retreats accommodate women older than 18 who can manage the physical requirements. Attendees arrive in the early afternoon, attend a short fly-fishing seminar, enjoy dinner, and by 8:30 the next morning they’re on the water learning entomology, wading safety, fly casting, and fly fishing in an environment where they can immediately apply their new skills.
Cath Sero is the current director of Reeling & Healing Midwest and has been with the organization since its inception in 1998. She says the retreats emphasize healing and empowerment in a way participants are challenged to learn new skills — which also adds confidence and strength to their cancer journey.
“By embracing the challenge, I see a shift to an ‘anything’s possible’ mindset,” Sero says. On the water, there’s no talk of cancer; only matching the hatch and making the right cast.
Becoming an Outdoors Woman
Reeling & Healing Midwest