Erika Faulk and her cousin, Gale Robinson, could have met up for a weekend spa retreat or planned a shopping excursion, but the two middle-aged, suburban moms opted for weekend learning to shoot guns, build campfires and track deer deep in the Ocala National Forest.
Faulk, Robinson and about 100 other women were taking part in a three-day workshop called "Becoming an Outdoors-Woman." The program began two decades ago in Wisconsin and has spread to 40 states and Canada as a way to teach women the skills needed to enjoy outdoor activities. In Florida, three workshops are held in different parts of the state throughout the year. Organizers say the sessions are so popular they usually fill up just days after they are announced.
Faulk's 18-year-old-son laughed at her when she told him she was planning a weekend of camping in the woods.
"He said, 'You are paying money to do this, go outside? You don't want to go to a Ritz Carlton?'" Faulk said.
Faulk, who is from the Tampa area, took classes in archery, boating and firearms. Robinson's schedule included a class in outdoor cooking. Robinson, who lives in the Atlanta area, had not been camping since she was child. But the two cousins, both in their 50s and in the pharmaceutical sales business, said they had a blast sleeping in bunk beds in a cabin shared with other women, hiking in the woods and experiencing the great outdoors.
The program began in 1991 in Wisconsin after researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point studied why women were less likely than men to participate in some outdoor activities, said Lynne Hawk, an education specialist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and director of the Florida program.
"The women didn't feel like they had the skills to be confident and comfortable to be outdoors doing these activities," Hawk said.
The Wisconsin program was an enormous success and spread from there, she said. States tailor their workshops to outdoor activities common in their areas and teach whatever survival skills are needed in the region.
Florida joined the program in 1995. The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission usually holds workshops every year near Tallahassee, Ocala and West Palm Beach.
The Florida program includes courses in boating, kayaking, whitetail deer, fishing, knot tying and outdoor photography.
Instructors even teach students how to back a boat trailer into the water and how to tie a boat up to a dock.
"We think part of the whole boating safety program is learning to control the boat, control the trailer and to know the knots necessary to secure the boat to the dock," said Dot Goodwin, a boating safety instructor. "The husband might want to be in the boat and then the wife would have to put the boat in the water with the trailer and then bring the trailer away so she needs to know how to operate it also."
Debbie Hanson had a tough time maneuvering a trailer hitched to the back of a truck through a series of traffic cones and into the lake. "What can I say other than it took me five hours," the Estero woman said to roars of laughter from her companions when finally she completed the task in about 20 minutes with Goodwin's careful coaching.
Julia Beasley, from Altha, met her sister Dottie Love, who lives in North Carolina, for the weekend. The sisters joked that they are wilderness opposites — Julie has spent little time in the great outdoors and Dottie loves to camp, fish and hunt.
"She's 100 percent and I'm like five," Beasley said, comparing their enthusiasm for the outdoors.
Love has gone to Becoming an Outdoors-Woman events in North Carolina for more than 10 years. The Ocala program was Beasley's first.
The sisters' class choices reflected their differences. Beasley learned about bird watching, cooking outdoors, and making ornaments from plant leaves. Love got tips on deer hunting.
Despite their different tastes, the sisters shared a cabin in the national park and ate together at communal meals. "It was a good time for us to get together as sisters, which we've never really done before, and I think it's great. It's a good thing for all women to get out and do their own thing," Beasley said.
Florida's next Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program is offered in November in the West Palm Beach area.
Programs are offered in most states at various times throughout the year.