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Discovering My Inner Cowgirl

How I Learned to Shoot Straight and Whoop It Up at the BOW Program.

By Carol Flake Chapman /
Photography by Earl Nottingham

As far as I could remember, the last time I had even touched a gun was when I was about five years old and addicted to playing Annie Oakley. Predictably, I wore a fringed vest and considered myself lightning-fast on the draw with my double-holstered silver six-guns. Of course, in those days, I never missed my target, usually my cousin Danny in his outlaw duds, even while riding my stick horse at full trot. The pungent smoke from the spent caps was like the sweet smell of success. But here I was, decades later, cozying up, cheek to stock, with a 20-gauge shotgun, learning how hard it can be in late-blooming adulthood to aim a loaded Beretta at a flying clay target, especially when your hands are shaking as though you’ve just spotted the James Brothers and you’ve run out of ammo. What in the world had happened to all that early carefree bravado? And what on earth was I so afraid of?

It was thanks to the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program, sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, that I was standing here in a dewy field at beautiful Camp Buckner, all aquiver on this cool, early spring morning, taking aim at elusive targets and confronting unexpected fears. I had joined some 110 women from around the state who had come to this rustic retreat in the Hill Country to learn new outdoor recreation skills and hone rusty sporting talents — all in a supportive environment, which translates in realistic female terms as not surrounded by ever-so-helpful male companions. The BOW program, now in its 11th year in Texas and 13th year nationwide, is offered by TPWD in four workshop classes each year, in different locations around the state. It’s a kind of souped-up summer camp for grown-up women who relish the thought of getting away from it all for a weekend and going back to it all with some serious outdoor skills that might surprise their husbands, boyfriends or kids.

As we arrived at camp on a misty Friday morning in our pickups, sedans and SUVs, we must have appeared a motley group, some participants wearing their husbands’ roomy hunting camouflage, some looking like they’d just walked out of the L.L. Bean dressing room. Some women were carrying kayak paddles or other evidence of previous experience in the wild, but quite a few looked a little greenhornish, like they’d be more at home in the mall than in the woods. Many of us appeared to be, shall I say, women of a certain stage — that is, on the sunny side of forty. We brought a new meaning, I thought, to the phrase “babes in the woods.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what my self-reliant Grandmother Goodwin and my fearless Aunt Muriel would have thought of us. Like so many Texas women, I come from hardy stock, and I sometimes find it hard to live up to their strong example. Aunt Muriel, for instance, who earned a master’s degree and taught school on an Indian reservation, was also a rancher, barrel racer, crack shot and world class survivalist who once lay out on a lonely, remote pasture for more than a day with a broken leg after her horse stepped in a prairie-dog hole while going at full gallop. At Camp Buckner, I was just hoping to survive three days without making a fool of myself in front of a bunch of other women — and, of course, to have some fun.

Fortunately, the folks at TPWD have figured out some basic principles for ensuring that grownup women make the most of their wild weekend fling. For one thing, the program excludes females under the age of 18, in part because of liability issues, according to BOW program director Ashley Mathews. But more importantly, it means that mothers can focus on their own experience rather than on the doings of their daughters, as mothers are wont to do. If a mother brings along her young daughter, explains Mathews, “she becomes more the Mom than herself as an individual. What we want is for women to be able to be themselves and experience the unique social aspect of the program.” And then, of course, there are, to put it delicately, “body issues.” If you’re a mature woman who hasn’t been communing regularly with nature, you’d probably prefer not to be huffing and puffing self-consciously in your wobbling kayak alongside a slender, highly athletic 13-year-old who can not only skim through the water like a dolphin, but who also can eat a dozen doughnuts without having to worry about moving up to a new dress size.

Anyhow, we were feeling just a little like excited teenagers ourselves as we gathered in Faith Hall, the main meeting room, for a welcome session. Ashley Mathews told us to look around the room because by the end of the weekend, we wouldn’t be quite the same as when we first arrived. We’d probably been told as girls that we should avoid dirt and worms, she said. But this weekend we’d be learning ways to overcome those barriers. A quarter of the participants raised their hands when she asked if there were any women who’d attended a previous BOW program. They smiled knowingly at us newcomers. Later, as we sat down for lunch, I knew I was in the right place when I started chatting with Louisa Spoede of Waco, who is a BOW “repeat offender,” she says. She’s become a program regular, with a particular fondness for fishing. Her approach to angling, however, is a little unusual. When she catches fish, she said, “I kiss ’em and throw ’em back.” Recently, with her birthday coming up, she warned her family about her gift preferences. “I don’t want a knickknack,” she told them. “I want a fishing lure.”

Spoede said that the most challenging thing she’d done so far in the BOW program was the Wild Cave tour, which involves some squiggling and squirming through some very tight places in Longhorn Cavern. “Any fears you might have, it allows you to face them,” she said. She had learned that she had some inner “macho,” though it wasn’t something she planned to flaunt. “There’s also a kind of spiritual side to all of this, too,” she said.

Two other women at the table had signed up for their first Wild Cave tour, and they were eager to give it a try. Dianne Richmond, 71, a retired registered nurse and master naturalist who hails from my hometown of Lake Jackson, said that she likes “outdoor stuff” and decided to go for the wildest item on the program. “I better do it now,” she said, “because I’m not getting any younger.” Also bucking up her courage for the cave was Lynda Terry, who is from Missouri City, near Houston. As the leader of a Girl Scout troop, said Lynda, she wanted to learn some skills for the benefits of her girls. She had planned to bring the scouts for a caving tour later in the year, but thought she should try it herself before she brought them along. “My girls think I can do anything,” she said, “so I don’t want to mess that up.”

There were 44 different courses to choose from, ranging from birdwatching and backpacking to astronomy and woodworking. Much as I would have liked to try the caving, archery or outdoor survival courses, I had decided instead to focus on shotgunning, in honor of my Aunt Muriel. But first, as a novice, I was required to take the general introduction to firearms course taught by a former BOW participant named Nanette Kline. Nanette had enjoyed her BOW classes so much that she had gone on to become a licensed instructor. “The program did so much for me,” said Kline, that “I wanted to have something to do with other ladies having as great a time as I did.” Also helping out with the class was Texas Parks and Wildlife veteran instructor Charlie Wilson, who would be teaching the shotgunning classes as well. With his beard and his wry, good-old-boy humor, Charlie reminded me a little of country music star Charlie Daniels. Declared Wilson, “Elmer Fudd doesn’t hunt with me,” and he imitated the cartoon character’s awkward stalking.

To my surprise, hardly anyone in the class had signed up because they wanted to protect themselves. They were there, they said, either because they were curious about guns, because they were scared of them, or because they wanted to be able to go hunting or target-shooting with their husbands. There were quite a few women in the class who suffered from the gun-in-the-closet syndrome, meaning that their husbands had stored a gun in the closet, and it made them nervous. “I just move stuff around it,” said a woman from San Antonio who had dreaded even touching the gun her husband had secured in the closet. By the end of the class, however, we were handling unloaded pistols, rifles and shotguns less like poisonous snakes and more like firearms. I began to look forward to my shotgunning experience.

That night, after dinner, we sat on our bunk beds and shared our life stories and, yes, home remedies for puffy eyes in the morning. And though I hesitate to reveal this surprising secret about women, I feel obliged to mention it with the hope that it makes us seem just a little more human. Despite Mathews’ carefully worded warning in our information pack, I had left my earplugs in the car. I won’t need them, I thought. For one thing, the rain pounding on the tin roof of our cabin was loud but soothing. But not long after the lights went out, the pitter-pat of raindrops on tin was drowned out by another sound: a soft but unmistakable sawing and snorting coming from around the room. Snoring. It was almost as bad as the time I was camping with a group of trekkers in the desert, our tents circled around the campfire. That night, I woke up with a start, terrified that we were being attacked by javelinas until I realized that the snorting was coming from my slumbering fellow trekkers. Ah, well, something else women share with men, along with our yen for the outdoors.

The next morning, feeling slightly bereft of sleep, I was glad that my first workshop was fly-fishing, probably the quietest and most soothing of all the classes, except perhaps for basket weaving. Instructor Bill Harvey, then a resource conservation scientist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has a quietly witty, low-key way of teaching that also happens to be quite effective. I was entranced by his descriptions of the remarkable biological adaptations of fish to their environments, allowing discerning anglers to predict their behavior. Bass and trout clearly have few secrets from Harvey. Later, as we practiced casting in the field, sometimes cracking our lines inadvertently like Lash Larue, we were startled by the whoops and hollers of the women from the horseback riding class, who were obviously having a great time and well into the changes in demeanor that Ashley Mathews had predicted for us over the weekend. Clearly, these women had already unleashed their inner cowgirlhood, and I was a little envious.

That evening, over dinner, you could tell which participants in the group had completed the Wild Cave tour because they ap-peared to glow like fireflies with their newfound bravado. “That’s the most hard-core thing I’ve ever done,” said Jessica Dunaway, a student at Sam Houston State, and one of the youngest participants. “It was awesome!”

After dinner, I joined Bill Harvey and a couple of other fishing enthusiasts at the lake for a follow-up on our lessons. When I finally caught a nice-sized sunfish, you’d have thought it was Moby Dick. I tried not to celebrate in unseemly fashion, but it appears that women manage to absorb male goal-line celebration habits without even knowing it. Suddenly, before you know it, your backfield is in motion and you’re ready to spike the fish. Something else we have in common with men. I thought fleetingly about Louisa Spoede’s catch-and-release technique, but because I didn’t expect Mr. Sunfish to turn into a prince, back he went into the lake, gently, without a kiss.

The next morning, still wearing my earplugs from the night before, I felt ready to face the sporting clays. Charlie Wilson had set up the target-hurling machines so that we’d have clays flying in three different directions. I was glad that Stephanie Noland from Dallas was going first. Stephanie is a member of the Texas Divas, a women’s shooting club, and she’s already a good shot. She set a high standard for the rest of us, as did Gloria Wilcox, from the town of Eddy, who was taking the course, she said, to build her confidence. Her father had taken her hunting as a girl, and she cherished those memories.

When my turn came to step up to the shooting platform, I realized that I must have had too much coffee for breakfast. My hands were trembling, as I tried to nestle the shotgun against my cheek with all the finesse of Elmer Fudd. The 20-gauge Beretta seemed to weigh as much as a cannon. Wilson tried a sort of Zen technique to get me to breathe deeply and relax, but my hands didn’t seem to be getting the message. Then he thought a moment and stepped back, waving his hands in dismissal. “Tell yourself it’s okay to miss,” he said. “Tell yourself that you’re going to fail.” And lo and behold, I hit the going-away target, blew it to smithereens. Wilson had me dead to rights. And here I was doing the victory dance again.

I hadn’t realized that Charlie Wilson is a shotgun whisperer. He reminded me of the intuitive horse handlers who have a magical calming touch with high-strung horses. Wilson had figured out, far more quickly and astutely than some armchair analyst, what I was so afraid of out in that field. It wasn’t a dread of snakes. It wasn’t an aversion to mud. It wasn’t even a fear of a big recoil that might knock me back on my rear end. What I was really scared of was…failure. This was knowledge more precious than rubies, and I looked at Wilson with a new appreciation. Once I realized it was okay to be less than perfect, I was already on the road to improvement. And I knew I was going to be one of those “adapters,” as Mathews called them, who continue to practice the sport they’ve been introduced to in the BOW program. Already, I was mentally shotgun shopping, comparing Brownings versus Berettas.

And so it was, just as Mathews had predicted, that I did go home feeling different than when I arrived at camp on Friday. I departed feeling a lot closer to Annie Oakley and my Aunt Muriel, as well as to the feisty, supportive women in the BOW program who, like me, will continue our journeys in the wild with more knowledge, more confidence, and more old-fashioned cowgirl gusto.

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