The Yukon Fish and Game Association hosted the Yukon Outdoor Woman (YOW) Program, a weekend where 20 women participated in outdoor workshops, in the bush, to further develop skills and knowledge.
Setting: arriving at 8 a.m. to the Vista Outdoor Learning Centre, just outside Whitehorse, with a number of women you have not met before, in preparation for a long weekend of new experiences. Everyone is wandering around in the bush, locating their beds for the weekend, checking the schedule of events and training.
At first, like most things, you’re hesitant to talk to people. You’re all strangers, so you feel things out and go with the flow. Nansi Cunningham introduces herself to the group; this vivacious, experienced woman gives us an introduction to the weekend and we disperse to our respective programming.
Day 1 was split, with morning workshops in backpack hunting and GPS/compass training, and with afternoon workshops in hunting and wilderness first aid. My morning was spent with instructor Bernard Briggs, and several women, as we ventured into the bush to talk backpack hunting and overall backpacking and camping in the remote wilderness. Even though I have travelled, backpacked and camped in numerous situations and countries, it was very informative.
I realized that my pack of eight years was incorrectly adjusted for me, and I learned new techniques so I could be more environmentally conscious in the wilderness.
Lunch time was the first of several incredible meals provided by some incredible cooks, which ranged from gourmet moose cacciatore, to delicious ribs, to just amazing food. Don’t plan on losing any weight or bringing any snacks, as this will be the best food you will eat all year.
After lunch, a small group of women were introduced to a hunter-education and outreach officer, Jim Welsh, who was our instructor for the Field to Freezer course, which focused on the process of harvesting meat in the field.
The first step was to drive to a local farm and obtain our meat, a goat raised for harvesting. Jim shot the goat in the head and it fell to the ground, legs still flinging for minutes after. A bucket was placed under its head and one of the girls was instructed on how to slit the throat to get the blood out efficiently.
Jim was adamant in explaining that the goat had given its life to give us sustenance, so we expressed thanks for the goat and took the animal back to the workshop where we were ready to start the harvesting process.
Jim explained the process, starting with the sternum cut. I was unsure whether it was from my first experience seeing something killed in front of me, or the fact that it was pulling something apart instead of putting it together. I had to sit down and observe for half an hour. I was concerned (and disappointed) that perhaps I didn’t have “the stomach” for this process, so I kept sitting, waiting and hoping that the feeling would pass. After half an hour, I started slowly moving closer and eventually taking the knife and skinning and cutting the goat.
It was an incredible experience—nothing like I thought it actually would be like. And after learning some butchering skills, I immediately wanted to keep going and practice. We packaged and labelled the meat in preparation for taking it home at the end of the weekend.
The persistent rain certainly didn’t dampen the events, as an outdoor camp. We persevered, and as dinner and evening arrived, we all started to get to know each other. Wine certainly helped as a “social lubricant,” and we sat by the fire, playing games and chatting about our adventures.
After a late evening of drinking too much wine and having the midnight sun play tricks on us (as to when it was time to go to bed), it was a struggle to wake up. But a delicious breakfast, coffee and being in the woods definitely helped.
The Saturday schedule had a variety of options, including fly fishing, outdoor photography, bow drill fire-making, northern bushcraft survival and a botany walk. My choice was to do an all-day northern bushcraft survival workshop with born-and-raised Yukoner, Tami Hamilton, and Jim Welsh.
The morning focused on the necessary equipment to take into the backcountry to light a fire. Surprisingly, it seems most of us would not manage to create a fire unless we had an ignition source such as a lighter. That afternoon we worked on survival shelters, gained valuable skills and heard some incredible experiences from our instructors.
After the day, half the group decided to opt for a nap, before evening, while the other half went for a hike to see a raven’s nest with two younglings.
Awaking from my nap to dinner was great … if only life could be me learning amazing skills, hanging around incredible women and being fed—I would be in heaven.
The evening was lively, with Nansi and my friend Nicole doing an outdoor-women’s fashion show.One of the cooks came, as they were getting ready, and the group sat around the fire and someone said, “Nansi is truly an incredible lady, and each one of these outfits she has had for many years and has been on many special trips.
“Please give her all the love and support because she truly is a special lady.” We all nodded in agreement, after talking with this woman who has been on many adventures and wants other women to have the skills and motivation to go on adventures. We cheered as they walked up, showing the clothing, some of it decades old and still “going on adventures.”
The evening wound down, while women—from different backgrounds, countries, jobs, home lives and experiences—bonded. The last crackling of the fire was heard before everyone went to bed.
It was the last day, and time to say goodbye. Half of the group were heading to Jackson Lake to go fly fishing, and the rest were staying in camp. Already everyone was hugging, swapping contact information and saying goodbye.
As many ventured off to try their newly learned fly-fishing skills, I stayed with a group of 10 women, with Tami Hamilton, on the environmental-education morning. We went on a walk to learn botany—to learn from and understand the environment—to learn what you can eat and how to respect the environment.
The afternoon was with Lloyd Lintott, and we learned about bow hunting and archery. We practised our new skills on fake life-size animals (except the fish … definitely not something to found in the woods) and used muscles we didn’t know we had.
As the last day drew to a close, the number of women grew sparser and, eventually, it was time to leave a weekend in the bush, having made new friends and having learned valuable skills.
Why women only?
I wasn’t too sure, when I arrived, how I would like being in a camp with just women. I am not the “girly” type; I generally tend to hang out with “the lads.” But, as the hours continued on, the form of discussion, support, and learning and teaching styles became apparent. There was nothing macho or competitive. It was an open, supportive environment to have fun in, be silly in and to “not know something” in—without being ridiculed or feeling incompetent. And we were encouraged to keep trying until we “got it.”
“[The goal of the YOW Program is] to provide opportunities for women to learn skills to enhance and encourage participation in hunting, angling and other outdoor activities. With a focus on skill development associated with hunting and angling….” (Yukon Fish & Game website)
It’s not about excluding men, it’s about creating a safe and comfortable place for women to gain new skills. Many women wanted to enhance their own abilities and learn other skills, to be able to feel more confident, in backcountry, with partners and family members.
It’s certainly about empowering women (these skills and processes are not limited only to men), and I think the Yukon is the perfect place to see equality and to promote that. No matter what your gender; you are capable of doing and being anything.
Visit the Yukon Fish and Game Association at www.yukonfga.ca or Yukon Hunter Education and Ethics at www.env.gov.yk.ca/hunting-fishing-trapping/heed, for more details and future training.