By Amber Johnson
Women are a complicated breed. We have to wear many hats with limited hours in the day, yet we insist we need romancing! We need passion! We need poetry and music! We need laughter and spark! Sure, we enjoy the outdoors, but how can we find time anymore?
If you’ve never heard of Grandma Gatewood, her story is worth retelling. In 1955 when she was 67 years old, she set out to hike the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail. Years earlier she had read an article about the trail in National Geographic and “thought it would be a nice lark.” Her experiences and coping mechanisms of seeking refuge in nearby mountains during years of spousal abuse prepared her to complete the trail. During her hike newspapers started reporting her progress, and she gained a national audience. Her efforts proved that with a light pack, guts and determination, you too can bellow the words of “America the Beautiful” like she did from the summit of Baxter Peak, Maine.
Some of my fondest memories from when I was a kid are from when my family was packed and ready for an entire week of vacation. I remember the excitement I felt perched on top of the Coleman cooler between the front bucket seats of my parents’ van. The road atlas was open on my lap, and the cold sodas and sandwich ingredients were underneath. The destination was on that map, and I loved the adventures and gems we found along the way.
I was fortunate that my family chose “driving vacations” to destinations, many of which were national parks. My mom would mail inquiries to the state tourism offices, and after choosing a destination, we would pack the van and pop-up camper and drive. I treasure the joy I felt as we meandered through the Needles Highway or viewed Old Faithful for the first time. We often stopped at scenic overlooks, tourism information centers and other sites of interest.
In fact, my sister and I still joke about the time my family had settled into a KOA campground late one evening. She and I had found our way to the women’s shower house/bathroom. Once inside I declared, “Look, you can see the full moon through that high window! I’m going to howl at the moon like a wolf.”
I then proceeded to make sounds similar to what I had heard from the coyotes or wolves outside while sleeping over at a relative’s acreage on a previous family vacation in Montana. I was in heaven.
Fast forward 20-plus years, and the spark and excitement of exploring the outdoors had faded. At the time I was a few years post-divorce, and with a wine glass in hand for liquid courage, I found myself clicking through the enrollment of my first online dating profile. I hovered over the hobbies and interests section with my mouse and was stumped.
“Can I click on hunting/fishing or traveling or hiking if I haven’t participated that activity in over a decade?” I asked myself. Sure, as a kid I had walked the fields with my father as he hunted pheasants and dutifully played fetch with our black Lab, but I had become a hermit, by default, as I liked to say. I had two kids, worked full time and had seen my married years slip by without exploring the outdoors.
The time I spent filling out my dating profile was sobering. “Geez,” I thought, “get yourself together and reclaim your interests and joy — start howling at the moon again!”
And so began my courtship with the outdoors.
In my hope chest I discovered my well-preserved yellow hunter-safety ID card from middle school. I smiled as I recalled taking that class with my great uncle, Stan Lundquist, who was a Hamlin County conservation officer, but I didn’t stop there.
I soon completed a handgun course and purchased my first handgun. I read the book Cornered Cat: A Woman’s Guide to Concealed Carry, by Kathy Jackson. My kids and I enrolled in several of the neat outdoor classes offered at the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls, where we took part in different activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, Women’s Try It Day and more.
I purchased a pair of Keens and headed to the local state parks to hike. I hiked alone or with my kids and friends. I selfishly reclaimed Mother’s Day as mine and took my kids to Newton Hills instead of the usual brunch. When we found a beautiful scene, we began the tradition of raising our hands high and wailing a high “C” note with our best opera voice, praising God for the beautiful tapestry before us.
I bought a book detailing the trails and hikes available in the Black Hills and slowly chipped away, conquering the trails listed inside with friends and on my own. I still laugh at how petrified I was one November a few years back while I was hiking solo on packed snow on the Willow Creek Loop in Custer State Park. Looking back it was the silliest of mornings. I had my pocket knife and Ruger for courage, but I was secretly terrified. I crept along the trail in the stillness, waiting for a lion to pounce on me, only to be startled by a herd of deer several times. My heart pounded each step of the way, but I was glowing with pride when I completed it alone.
A few years ago an email from the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department arrived in my inbox with information on the state’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman weekend event. It was held at a camp and would be for women only. I grew up attending and loving church camps, so I thought, “well, why not?” I didn’t know a soul attending, but I knew this was a great opportunity for me to gain knowledge and skills on outdoors activities. I have attended the BOW workshop for three years now and cannot stress how much fun I have had those weekends.
Seeing my renewed interest in the outdoors, my Uncle Wayne offered to take me duck hunting a few years ago. I was thrilled for the opportunity, thinking my BOW “Intro to Shotgunning Class” would finally be put to the test.
The day of the hunt I showed up in Uncle Wayne’s kitchen with warm fall clothing and a sparkly camo cap securing my ponytail. Uncle Wayne promptly removed my cap and replaced it with one of his own spare camo caps, “without the bling that will scare the ducks away.”
My heart was thumping as we ever so quietly parked the truck a long distance from my grandparent’s slough in Kingsbury County and army crawled to our shooting areas. The sun was just rising, and we could hear the first shots of hunters on nearby public land. What a thrill to shoot my first duck and goose, never mind that his shotgun was so powerful it tipped my crouched 5-foot, 3-inch frame! I was really hunting again! And I still had my eagle-eye shot!
I continue striving to keep myself outdoors. The secret is to keep saying “yes” to those invitations to hunt, fish, hike, kayak, rock climb and more. What I want to stress to the readers of this column is that you have plenty of opportunities to renew that spark for the outdoors, and the first step is acknowledging that the outdoors is good for your soul and heath.
It comes as no surprise that medical research has proven that time in the outdoors can improve your health. In fact, you can even receive a “prescription for a park” from participating local physicians. For more information on this program, go to healthysd.gov/?s=prescription+for+a+park.
One piece of advice I’d offer is to seek out a mentor if there are certain outdoor activities you want to try. Also, please consider being a mentor to others if you have special outdoor skills.
In my experience, I found the best hiking companion and mentor simply by reaching out, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities he has shown me and my kids. It was through my hiking mentor, Les, that I was able to give my son an epic hiking experience to the summit of Inyan Kara Mountain in Wyoming. This site was the beginning of the Black Hills Expedition led by General Custer in July of 1874. We uncovered some etchings, presumably made by General Forsyth during the expedition, on concealed by rocks at the summit. It was an amazing opportunity for my history-loving son that doubled as a 13th birthday present.
When it’s all said and done, you have to make the effort to get outdoors. Don’t use the excuse that you’re a fishing or hunting season widow, and don’t be an armchair critic. Get out there and participate!
And while you’re at it, please help get the next generation of women outdoors, too. Did you know that in 2017 South Dakota sold 70,000 licenses to women? Of that, only 6.32 percent were from the youth/mentored/junior category. Let’s raise that number. Connect with others. Find groups on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Sign up for the emails from wildlife agencies. Get involved.
Also, sign up for this year’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshop, which is set for Sept. 7-9 at NeSoDak Bible Camp on Enemy Swim Lake north of Waubay. Designed for women 18 and older, the BOW workshop focuses on learning outdoor skills usually associated with hunting and fishing, such as archery, fly fishing, birding, shooting, paddling, photography and more. For more information or to register, call Tami Herren at 605-223-7700 or go to gfp.sd.gov/bow/.
In addition to the BOW workshop, there are several other opportunities worth considering. Harvest South Dakota is a neat new program from SDGFP that offers a series of five classes to adults who want to learn to hunt from the bottom up. Community education classes in your city or town can also offer fantastic opportunities for nurturing your hobbies. Also, don’t forget that both SDSU and USD have rock climbing walls, complete with equipment and staff to teach. Last but not least, keep in mind that Sioux Falls will soon be getting their own climb gym, too.
What are you waiting for? Get outside and do something fun! You are not too old to try something new or pick up your former passions. Let’s face it ladies, we got this, so pencil in a date on the calendar and go!
Stay tuned for my next column in the August issue of Outdoor Forum, where I will introduce you to three generations of women whose archery skills are right on target.
About the Author: Amber Johnson is a freelance writer and avid outdoors woman.