TUSKEEGEE, Ala. Mary and Emily Woulfe arrived late from the Atlanta airport, pulling into the parking area at White Oak Plantation after a day's travel from their home in Wisconsin.
First came the airline flight and everything that goes with that, including concerns that their hunting gear and archery equipment would not make it. Then came a drive of about two hours, with familiar landmarks on Interstate 85 passing by in the headlights.
Relief washed over them by the time they pulled through the gated entrance to White Oak, where for the last 13 years the annual Bows & Does women's archery deer hunt has been held. It's become a tradition of sorts to kick off the Alabama hunting season at the 23-year old hunting lodge, with about 20 women, a few outdoors writers and the White Oak staff getting into the flow of things for the 110-day deer season.
The Woulfes have been making the trip for the last five years, enjoying a break from the encroaching winter weather in Wisconsin to renew old acquaintances and climb into a tree stand. Instead of school activities and the daily grind of work, they slip into camouflage, strap on a safety harness, grab their compound bows and escape for a few hours each day.
"I've been hunting since I was 12 and shooting a bow since I could hold one," said Emily, a 17-year old junior at Tremper High School in Kenosha. "My dad is a big hunter and our whole family hunts. I grew up camping all the time, camping in summer, doing things in winter. This year we went rough camping in Canada for a week and we've been doing things outdoors all my life."
More women of various ages are hunting and getting involved in traditional outdoors activities every year. That includes shooting sports, such as skeet and sporting clays, along with hunting and fishing. Companies are designing clothing and gear specifically for women's physiques, and even Remington Arms is selling "pink" rifles and shotguns like hotcakes this year in an effort to target younger women who want something new or different.
Women participating in outdoors activities is nothing new they have been for decades but surveys by various groups or agencies including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Shooting Sports Foundation and the myriad outdoors organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Quality Deer Management Association and National Rifle Association show the numbers are steadily increasing each year.
Dr. Christine Thomas, professor of resource management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, founded the "Becoming an Outdoors Woman" program in 1991. Since then, virtually every state wildlife agency has participated and thousands of women have enjoyed the weekend or one-day workshops where they learn about hunting, shooting, firearms safety, fishing, boating, camping and other outdoors activities.
Mary Woulfe said each year, their family loads up for a week of hunting and camping at a national forest in Wisconsin. They don't own or lease land, so they enjoy the public land at their disposal. Getting away anywhere, whether at home or in Alabama, is a fun opportunity she doesn't want to miss.
That includes being able to spend time with her daughter away from home, where they can talk, laugh and share their hunting experiences in an atmosphere with other women who are doing the same things. The Bows and Does hunt at White Oak is a prime example.
"When we first started coming, she was younger and attached to me a little more she was afraid to go in the dark the first year and so they put us close together," Mary Woulfe said. "But after the first few hunts she was good on her own. She's an outdoor girl, has been from the time she was little. My husband and I are big into the outdoors, and she and our son love the outdoors. They've been hopping off rocks and looking for deer and all since they were young.
"I like the camaraderie with all the women and the last five years we've come to White Oak I've gotten to know quite a few of them," she said. "We just hang out with the girls and the hunting is a lot of fun. I like the fact I don't have to hang my own tree stand … you get spoiled a little bit. It's also boosted Emily's self-esteem as well … she's gotten three deer and it reinforces her belief in hunting."
Emily prefers the challenge of her Bowtech Liberty compound over a rifle.
"It's fun to hunt and apply your skills," she said. "It's one thing to shoot archery, but to apply it to hunting takes it to a different level. Bowhunting isn't like just picking it up and going out … there's a lot of practice and preparation involved. It takes more practice, skill and patience to make sure you have everything right."
At school, where she says "I'm not a girly-girl," she talks about her hunting trips with friends but has not encountered any serious anti-hunting.
"I get the 'Oh, you hunt?' reaction," Emily said. "None of my friends hunt they're not against it, but they just don't suspect it from me. My boyfriend figured I hunted first time he came into the house he saw my dad's deer heads on the wall."
Marissa Lee-Sasser is a regional hunter education coordinator for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. She's a champion clays shooter and enthusiastic supporter of women getting involved in the outdoors, serving as an instructor at the state's spring and autumn Becoming an Outdoors Woman weekends.
Lee-Sasser got involved in hunting while in school at Auburn University, where she began hunting with guys in her wildlife biology courses.
"Some of the guys hunted and invited me to go with them, and I got hooked," she said. "We went squirrel hunting first and then deer hunting. I thought it was great fun. I remember sitting in a tree stand all by myself with a single-shot shotgun, I turned around and saw a huge buck … he ran off, but the adrenaline and excitement of seeing a big deer got me hooked. I knew from then it was something I wanted to continue doing."
As with many hunters, two problems crop up when women want to get involved: How to get started and finding accessible land to hunt.
The first is remedied somewhat by changing times, with more fathers taking their daughters into the woods and avoiding the "it's a man thing" attitude. The second, accessible land, is more of a challenge for men or women.
"I think the main thing is most women don't know how to get started, especially if no one in their family currently hunts and can help them," Lee-Sasser said. "If they hunt one time, the thing then is access.
"It's easier for men to hear about land leases and all, but harder for women to get into land leases and hunting clubs," she added. "Males may be hesitant to allow women in their hunting club if they're married, how might it look to their spouse if they let a woman in their hunting club? That's a legitimate concern. And men also do want their space. I think we all do, to some extent."
The first time White Oak owner Robert Pitman thought about having the women's bow hunt at his lodge, there was obvious skepticism. Treestand manufacturer Warren & Sweat had hosted several events and volunteered to put on the first women's hunt.
The ground rules were simple: It was for women, they were to be treated the same as anyone else and the men at the hunt guides, maybe an outdoor writer or two were not allowed to hunt in the same areas or interact too much with the women. It was, simply, their hunting experience and the men should keep a good distance to eliminate any kind of intimidation factor.
"We had two women and 12 men," Pitman said. "The folks with Warren & Sweat weren't impressed."
But things got better through the years. More women signed up as news got out about the exclusive hunt. Industry companies such as Bowtech, Alpen Optics, ATSKO, Plano and others helped out. Today, it's an annual event that attracts women from across the country and Canada.
Pitman sees it as something, even at 13 years old, that can be viewed in the industry as a foundation for future growth for more events and equipment designed for women.
"It's certainly not wrong from a business standpoint," Pitman said, "And from a pay-back-the-industry standpoint and make-the-outdoors-more-friendly-and easy-to-work-with-for-women, it's going to grow."
Lee-Sasser couldn't think of any women she knows with their own hunting club or property exclusively for them. But it's something she'd like to see remedied in the future.
"It would be nice for them to have their own leased properties," she said. "I hope as more women hunt there will be some more women with their own leases. I hunt with a friend on property near our home, but we're able to do so because the landowner knows our husbands. They also hunt with us and it's a family situation we enjoy."
Alan Clemons has been Outdoors Editor of The Huntsville Times in Huntsville, Ala., since 1994 and is a freelance writer and photographer. A lifelong resident of Alabama, he enjoys hunting, fishing and generally knocking around outdoors looking for bugs, showing his children new things and seeing whatever's out there.