BOW delivers outdoors skills through mentor program

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While striding through the woods to set up blinds, a group of newbie and veteran hunters stop to examine tracks.

Angela Axtell, chapter president of Itasca County Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), bends down to get a closer look at a deep impression in the mud.

“This is a big buck here. This is unreal. He’s a nice one,” she says.

“This is why we bring experienced hunters, so they can share their expert knowledge,” says Naomi Walker, a Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) volunteer. She has helped organize the mentor-led rifle hunts at Itasca State Park and La Salle Lake State Recreation Area for first-time hunters.

Coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, BOW delivers outdoors skills programming through citizen volunteers and collaborating organizations, like the MDHA.

Last year, there were five BOW mentor/mentee pairs stalking white-tailed deer at Itasca. This year, BOW welcomed eight.

The “Learn to Hunt Firearms Deer Hunt” program is among its newest offerings, but BOW also designs workshops for women who want to master fishing, hunting, snowshoeing, birding, geocaching and numerous other outdoor skills.  

Originally from the Twin Cities, Walker comes from a non-hunting family. She took interest in the sport in her 20s. After reading and researching as much as she could, Walker discovered she needed a mentor. As a DNR volunteer, she learned of a gender-neutral DNR hunting program -- which BOW is currently based upon.

BOW was established in 1994, but this is only the third year for the Learn to Hunt Firearms series and only the second year a BOW hunt has been held at Itasca State Park.

This year’s participants enrolled in the program for a variety of reasons.

Julie Monson of St. Paul wants to be able to hunt with her husband, stepson and daughter.

“I want to continue a family tradition,” she said.

Teresa Head wants to provide healthy venison for her family. “We’re trying to be more self-sufficient as a family,” she said. “Venison is really good for you. It’s not filled with chemicals.” She lives in Duluth.

Kristi Andersen plans to hunt with her friends next fall in Staples. They wanted her to get additional training before joining deer camp.

“Also, I like venison. So does my dad. It’s really good,” Andersen said.

Careers range from hydrologist to Montessori pre-school teacher to stay-at-home mom. Their ages also vary -- from early 20s to “quite seasoned,” Walker said.

“Many women don’t want to learn hunting from their spouses,” says Linda Bylander, statewide BOW coordinator. BOW offers “a supportive, non-intimidating atmosphere.”

“Safety is our main priority, so let me know if there any issues,” Bylander tells the mentees during a brief orientation meeting. “One of our goals is social connections and learning hunting skills. These people gave us their time this weekend so really be thankful to your mentors.”

Earlier this fall, BOW participants completed three classes, Bylander explained. The courses covered hunting equipment, deer biology, scouting, regulations, target practice and more. The program culminates with the one-on-one mentored hunt.

Chris Weir-Koetter, a Bemidji DNR Parks & Trails strategic program manager, hoped for successful hunting. “We want to thin out deer because, frankly, they’re a pest,” she said.

Weir-Koetter has been hunting for 40 years, mostly with bow. She is one of eight mentors at the 2016 BOW hunt.

Kathy VonBank, another mentor and a BOW steering committee member, has been hunting “all my life,” she said. “I got a gun when I was 12 -- from Santa.” Her dad introduced her to the sport.

Axtell gives Andersen some last-minute tips before they finish setting up the blind.

“A lot of first-time hunters when seeing a deer, their heartbeat and breathing are hard to control,” Axtell says. “Remember to shoot on the exhale. Squeeze, don’t pull the trigger.”

Head tagged her first deer -- a 17-point buck -- Saturday night with Walker’s help.

“Hanging out at deer camp with the girls is part of the fun,” adds Walker.

BOW offers a slate of hunting, fishing and other outdoors classes throughout the year. More than 100 programs are available for women and their families.

To become a BOW volunteer instructor or participant, visit www.mndnr.gov/education/bow or contact Bylander at linda.bylander@state.mn.us or 218-203-4347.