THE STRIKE of my paddle against the rippling water of Lake Ouachita is clumsily satisfying. It’s been years since I last found myself on top of a neon-colored kayak in a long-sleeved shirt and certified Dad-Hat (I’m pale). I’m more of a hiker, really. I enjoy watching the land move beneath my feet and gazing below at elevations climbed. I like the voluntary suffering and the delightful difficulty of navigating a new place, managing supplies, making miles. I like the way the sunset sucks away a previously unconscious sense of arrogance and security, and how the darkness reflects your complete lack of control right back at you.
It’s intense, but in the way that a good massage or a productive therapy session is intense.
And this? This unfamiliar water trail on Lake Ouachita? Also intense. Why? Well, if you’ve come of age in America in recent years, it’s likely we have something very annoying in common: a fear of failing at something we haven’t tried before. How many experiences have we left unpursued because we might try it for the first time and not immediately excel? And yet, there I was in my Dad-Hat and all, negotiating a kayak off of my car’s roof and into the water. I found myself on this “floating hike,” reveling in a gift of knowledge and empowerment that so many women across the state have received before me.
This, after only one meeting with an organization called Becoming an Outdoors-Woman.
On the first Monday in May, I parked my car and made my way into the cool air-conditioning of the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center. The room had three rows of tables, and a slideshow was cued to begin. There were 15 women plus two facilitators in the room, and our ages were delightfully varied. I noticed many of the women in the room seemed familiar with one another and the organizers, but I don’t think I was the only newbie. A pair of women sitting in the third row had the same wide-eyed, unsure expression I did (or maybe I was just projecting). I would later discover that BOW meets in this room on the first Monday of each month to discuss some outdoor-related topics of interest, in addition to organizing various events like kayaking classes, overnight camping trips, or fishing and squirrel camps.
On this afternoon, Becoming an Outdoors-Woman was hosting a presentation by Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Watchable Wildlife Coordinator Kristen Bartlow on (you guessed it) watchable wildlife. The wildlife described? Found and photographed on several of the state’s very own water trails.
The presentation included captivating wildlife photography and an in-depth guide to downloading digital, georeferenced water trail maps, where to find overnight campsites and a guide to local outfitters. While the prospect of sighting herons and woodpeckers out on the water was intriguing to this curious group, a reminder to expect snakes resulted in a response rowdy enough to prompt one of the facilitators to say, “Maybe we should put together another reptile workshop sometime soon!” This was met with laughter and agreement. These women—tough and comfortable, soft and bold—were there to learn. It wasn’t surprising. Women are known for our willingness to contend with snakes in exchange for knowledge.
While it might’ve been new to me, BOW is far from a newcomer to the landscape. Becoming an Outdoors-Woman was founded in 1991 by Dr. Christine L. Thomas, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and has since spread to over 40 states and Canada. The program came to Arkansas three years later in 1994, an effort made possible by Phyllis Spears, who was an Education Coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission—and, notably, unavailable for comment when I reached out because she was camping somewhere outside of cell range at the time. Current organizer and facilitator Lea White says that, “AGFC has seen more women wanting to learn about hunting and outdoor activities in the past few years and wants to encourage this movement.”
Simply put, Lea says, BOW’s purpose is to get women outside and teach them outdoor skills. These events happen throughout the year, including a flagship BOW event each October: an annual, multi-day event with workshops for outdoor activities including fishing, archery, outdoor survival, canoeing, kayaking—the list goes on. They also host smaller events throughout the year that teach these skills, and Lea suggests following their Facebook page for the most up-to-date news on what’s coming.
When I attended this meeting in May, I wasn’t sure what to expect or how I would be affected by the experience. I consider myself fairly accomplished in the outdoors, but I have a niche: I go on long hikes, covering many miles a day, over the course of several days. This casual meeting opened a door to an outdoor experience I hadn’t considered before. Without that meeting, I wouldn’t have known there were so many available water trails because I wouldn’t have been looking.
It was time to start looking.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to plan a weekend trip with friends in their 30s, but if you have, you understand on a deep level what I mean when I confess that we had to choose a Saturday two months in advance. July 13, 2019 was to be the day (because planning an overnighter would’ve probably put us into the fall season), and the Rabbit Tail Water Trail on Lake Ouachita was to be the place.
I also don’t know if you’ve ever been a person with tendencies for procrastination and wavering attention, but if you have, you will understand—down to the very marrow of your bones—when I say that a week before July 13 rolled around, the group text began to explode with messages like, “You guys, where are we going to get kayaks?”
Ultimately, the kayaks were easily sourced (thanks, Ouachita Outdoor Outfitters!). The water was warm and comforting as we swam, with the exception of two friends being bitten by curious fish with a taste for moles and freckles. The clouds provided some relief from the heat of the sun, and we ate chips and hummus and summer peaches, shaded by the sturdy trees along the quartz-abundant shoreline. We didn’t paddle the entire 8.5-mile trail that day, and I don’t consider that a failure. What we set out to do was something different, and we did. Becoming an Outdoors-Woman made that goal seem attainable. Without them, I would have stayed inside on that hot July day, pouting about our distant hiking season, rather than downloading a (georeferenced!) map, plopping into a kayak, and soaking in one of the prettiest lakes in Arkansas.
After our paddle back to the boat ramp, we learned the value of paying attention when someone shows you an unfamiliar method of strapping down a kayak, and we also learned that you can figure out anything with a little help from YouTube (it’s worth noting here that the outfitter provides a shuttle service that we opted out of). We made jokes about being proud divorced women who, “don’t need a man,” and cooled off in the lake before making the drive back. We would have another opportunity to shine after realizing I had punctured a tire and would need to change my flat at a gas station, but that’s a separate piece.
And, incidentally, a class you can take with Becoming an Outdoors-Woman.