At first glance, the scene resembles any ordinary, estrogen-charged summer gathering. But the women padding around the pool aren't carrying suntan lotion and cheap paperbacks. They're toting compasses, archery kits and guns. Well-coiffed professionals, hunter's wives and young hippies are arriving at Doe Camp, a women's-only, outdoor-skills development program that turns aunties into Annie Oakleys. But unlike deer camp, its back-to-nature vibe is not conveyed in a rustic cabin littered with beer cans, but amidst the creature comforts of a Vermont resort.
Now in its fourth year, Doe Camp shifts location around the state. This summer, it's being held near Magic Mountain in Londonderry. Seventy-five campers have shelled out $285 each for a package that includes room, three meals a day and a choice of four courses -- from 42 -- taught by volunteer instructors. Although most are male, it's still an opportunity for participants to tap into their inner outdoorswoman while bonding with like-minded females. "These are women looking for other women with similar interests, needing to get out of the office, hoping to reconnect to their own nature or just interested in trying out new things," says Doe Camp Director Eve Greene.
Greene first attended Doe Camp in 2002 -- the year it was created with funding from the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. She took over last year, after the founding director departed. "I didn't want Doe Camp to disappear," says Greene, who grew up in New Zealand because her American parents saw it as a safe haven in the event of a nuclear attack. "It blew my mind -- the instruction and the energy," Greene says of the all-women session, now managed by Vermont Outdoors Woman with support from the Vermont Outdoor Guide Association.
The 2005 roster includes campers from as far away as Hawaii, though most are from Vermont. While many women come solo, the group includes college buddies, cousins, at least five mother-daughter combos, and one set of in-laws.
"We come to do the things we wouldn't normally do," says Northfield's Suzanne Young, 48, who attended Doe Camp 2004 at the Stowehof with her daughter, Amy, 20. They've returned this year to try kayaking, Adirondack guide boat rowing, rock climbing and shooting hand guns.
Greene greets most of the campers personally as they file past the registration desk in the pool house and pick up their nametags, which are fashioned from slices of yellow birch. Outside the window, a dead fisher hangs by its hind leg. It's roadkill scheduled to be gutted and skinned for Saturday morning's "Waste Not, Want Not, the Outdoors Woman Way" class.
I've signed up for a more appetizing option. "Easy Gourmet Game Cooking" is being taught by Bradley Carleton, an outdoor guide from Charlotte. Later in the weekend, he'll be offering "SeDUCKtion -- the Art of Getting Waterfowl to Come Home With You." He starts out the game-cooking class by explaining how he likes to honor his harvest by preparing melt-in-your-mouth meals. Today's menu: venison with a plum-pepper sauce, and cherry-ginger duck.
As we sous-chefs take turns slicing medallions and shredding orange peel, we swap stories. "I'd never shot a gun before last year," says Vanessa Olmstead. A debutante and opera singer originally from Atlanta, she now lives in Johnson. This is her second Doe Camp. "I came to get over my fear," she says. "It's such a supportive, emotional environment. We all clap for each other when we accomplish something."
The tone is more serious in my "Wilderness Survival" session. It's led by Marty Simon, an Army veteran who heads up the Wilderness Learning Center in Chateaugay, New York, and John McCann, a former Marine Corps drill instructor who did "mercenary shit" in Africa before founding a Poughkeepsie counter-espionage firm.
"I used to teach Marines to fight with knives," McCann comments by way of establishing his expertise in practical weaponry. Crouching before a steel suitcase filled with knives, he gives us the dos and don'ts on deadly blades. A double-edged number marketed for "survival" is a definite don't. "It's only intended for killing another human being," says Simon, adjusting the brim of his hat. He's banded his chapeau with parachute cord -- in the event that he needs to rappel off a tree -- and lined it with fishing tackle, just in case.
"Fish is one of the best sources of protein in a survival situation," he informs us. Another do-or-die lesson: cattails -- the "supermarket of the wilderness area" -- taste just like peas when you spread them with butter and eat them as "cat on the cob." Simon doesn't explain where the butter comes from in a survival situation. We do learn, though, that the inner bark of a white pine is edible; that balsam fir sap prevents infection; that maxi pads are an inexpensive way to stop bleeding; and that contractor bags make excellent raingear, blankets and mattresses.
"Jeezum crow," comments one of my classmates, considering the multitude of survival techniques from her perch atop an overturned planter. In the distance, we hear a strangled, guttural cry. Must be the critter-calling class.
Some of the tricks taught by Simon and McCann seem specifically catered to their female audience. After showing us how to communicate with a plane using signal mirrors, they suggest that our compacts will do the job. And after explaining how to turn a discarded beer can into a whistle, McCann adds that noise-makers aren't just useful in the wild, but also, "for you young ladies, in an urban situation. Maybe you're in a mall and somebody bothers you."
If anyone's offended by his patronizing tone, they're not letting on. The atmosphere here is less about kicking ass than kicking back. And a lot of that R & R comes during meal times -- events made raucous with clanging silverware, rushing busboys and the din of friendships forming between sips of iced tea and bites of venison, which appears even at breakfast. At each meal, items donated by sponsors -- gun-cleaning kits, survival packs, plaid hunter's caps and prints depicting ruffed grouse -- are raffled off. Post dinner, women relax by grabbing beers from the bar, soaking in the hot tub or heading down to a bonfire for s'mores.
One evening, there's a self-defense class on the tennis court, led by a local boxer. Slapping away mosquitoes on the sidelines is Gray Stevens of the Vermont Outdoor Guide Association. He's watched Doe Camp grow to be one of the most popular events on the organization's annual calendar. Because of the demand, a fall Doe Camp has been arranged for Camp Abnaki in North Hero, and a winter version is in the works. "We're going to have to offer a course for the guys," says Stevens, "so they can learn to deal with the women who know how to handle themselves outdoors."
I've always considered myself fairly competent outdoors. But the weekend definitely teaches me a few things: the natural relationship between hunting and sauce reduction, for example. And the high vitamin C content in a cup of pine needles.
The most surprising discovery reveals itself on a field trip to the Chester Rod & Gun Club, where Nancy Steffen, a 70-year-old grandmother of five from Bennington, quickly demonstrates she already knows her way around a rifle. At first, I'm reluctant to pick up the weapon, maybe owing to the National Rifle Association fliers posted around the clubhouse. I wish I'd chosen a kayaking or painting class instead.
The man in charge, instructor Larry Hamel, tries to reassure me. "There are fewer people injured in shooting sports than in any other sport," Hamel says -- "including falling off of barstools."
Finally, I bite the bullet. That is, I fumble it into the rifle and click the safety into position. Peering through the sight, I spot the black circle of the bull's eye, and pull the trigger. I wait for the sound of the bullet whizzing into the woods. What I hear instead is the satisfying sound of the bullet piercing its paper target.
I pop the safety as the shell bounces to the ground and smoke curls from the muzzle. Wow, I think. This is actually pretty fun. It's hot, and flies are covering my bare back, but I don't care. "Can I keep shooting?" I ask.
"Line is hot," says Hamel. Translation: the coast is clear. "Let's rock 'n' roll."