On a rainbow-coloured picnic table at what is usually a youth summer camp, a beaver carcass lies splayed across a garbage bag, a circle of blue-gloved women looking on.
As Christy Arsenault begins carefully cutting through a layer of muscle just below the beaver’s sternum and across its belly, to reveal its organs, game care instructor Nina Armitage provides guidance and tells the group that these skills can be applied to most other game, such as deer.
“You’ll see that the organs are attached to the spine,” Ms. Armitage tells the group. “If you were field dressing, you would hold your animal on a hill, belly side facing down. If you gently slide [your knife] against the spine, everything will naturally fall out.”
Ms. Arsenault completes her cuts and steps back to admire her work.
“This is probably one of the coolest things I’ve done in my entire life,” she says. “As someone who has been a meat eater all my life, I feel like it’s an obligation to know how to do this.”
“This feels like a selfie moment,” says another member of the group, raising her phone to snap a photo. The group laughs.
Each year since 2017, about 2,000 women in British Columbia have participated in the province’s Conservation and Outdoor Recreation Education (CORE) program, a prerequisite for obtaining a resident hunting licence. That’s up from 791 in 2004 and means that one in four new hunters in B.C. is a woman, according to the BC Wildlife Federation (BCWF), which operates the program on behalf of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. The total number of licensed women hunters surpassed 12,000 last year, a figure that has doubled in the past two decades.
For women who are curious about hunting, or simply want to brush up on their outdoors skills, the BCWF operates a program called Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW), modelled after a program of the same name launched by the University of Wisconsin in 1991.
Now in its 25th year, the B.C. program offers a number of beginner-level courses in trapping, game care, marksmanship, fly tying, wilderness survival and first aid.
The program is typically offered twice a year – it was suspended for two years during the pandemic – and can accommodate as many as 80 women at a time. It is run entirely by volunteers.
Joann Bosch began volunteering with the program in its first year as a “flunky and fundraising co-ordinator” and has served as the provincial co-ordinator for the past decade.
She says the program has drawn a wide range of women, including lawyers, nurses, students, veteran hunters and people who have never sat around a campfire. It has seen women as young as 19 and as old as 82, and the majority choose to come alone.
“There are a lot of single mothers who want to take their children hunting and fishing and not rely on someone else,” Ms. Bosch said. “The archery course became really popular after the Hunger Games movie came out. And there are a lot of women who come here by themselves because their friends aren’t interested in what they want to do.”
She said there is also a growing awareness of food systems and the fragility of food supply chains – something that was laid bare during the pandemic and again during the extreme flooding that paralyzed the province last fall. Many women also want to eat organic – “and you can’t get any more organic than wild game,” she said.
The trapping and game care courses teach not just technical skills but ethics – respect for the animals, recognition that they are harvested for a purpose. Holly Wise, an instructor for the CORE program who also teaches trapping for the BOW program, estimates that 65 per cent of the people taking her CORE course in the past year were either women or someone under 19.
“It has been a really great shift,” she said, attributing it to growing awareness. “People are looking at how they can get outdoors and become a little bit more one with nature.”
At this spring’s BOW event, held in Lake Country over a weekend in mid-May, women from their 20s to their 70s had a wide range of reasons for attending.
Ms. Arsenault, a trauma therapist from Port Alberni, said she married into a hunting family and was keen on learning the skills to participate in her own way. She said the game care workshop prompted her to reflect on the climate effects of food choices, as well as the respect Indigenous people show animals.
“Consumerism really bothers me – how we just move through the world without thinking about our impact on it,” she said. “Knowing how to do this, even though I may choose to buy meat at Save-On-Foods, is important to me.
“I’ve also wondered what my reaction would be the first time I saw a dead animal opened up. Doing this here, without all the guys standing around, I think is really important – that I can ask questions and not have them joking around and that sort of thing.”
At a nearby shooting range, Faith Budd pressed the butt of her semi-automatic shotgun into her shoulder and peered down the barrel. “Pull!” she shouted, signalling an instructor to send a clay disc flying down range. She followed the disc with her firearm and pulled the trigger. The disc exploded into pieces, and the group cheered. It was her first time firing a gun.
Ms. Budd is a preschool teacher who is planning to open a “farm and forest child care centre,” where children can learn from the land. She took the BOW program to learn how to care for the property and said she was pleasantly out of her comfort zone. “I took the truck and trailer course as well, and I’ve never driven a truck or a trailer before either,” she said with a laugh. “That is going to be extremely useful for moving animals and hauling produce.”
Fanny Agussalim almost cancelled on the weekend after a difficult personal situation that brings tears to her eyes. She ultimately followed through, and her first course was about practising self-care in nature.
Instructed to sit alone for 30 minutes and observe her surroundings, Ms. Agussalim sat on a grassy hill surrounded by bright yellow wildflowers called arrowleaf balsamroot, often referred to by locals as the Okanagan sunflower. In the distance she observed a pair of roads and, beyond them, a lake.
“I was sitting there and I saw these paths and roads. One was straight, and the other one was winding,” she said. “I thought: You know what? Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes you go straight, sometimes it’s winding. You don’t know what’s at the end of the road, but sometimes it’s just about the journey. And so I thought I should just stop and enjoy the beauty of this. The birds were chirping, I had the sun on my face. The lake was in front of me, and the flowers were blooming.”
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