Poised at the mouth of a ravine, the deep blue sky of a late summer mountain morning invites deep contemplation - until an excited female voice shatters the silence.
"Pull!"Zzzzziiiippppp. A fluorescent orange, saucer-sized disc cuts through the canyon calm, trying to escape the inevitable shotgun blast (BOOM!) that follows. "Yes!" scream a dozen voices, which then break into chatter about the adrenalin rush that follows the shoulder-shuddering blast that breaks the clay pigeon into a hundred tiny pieces.
"And you said you couldn't do it - anybody can do it, if you take the time to learn it right! There's nothing difficult about it," says Gene Ekenstam, a burly-but-teddy-bearish grandfather of an instructor. He's all smiles and congratulatory grunts as his next protege steps to the line.
"The shells go here," he says, popping the 12-gauge shotgun barrel open to reveal two chambers. "Put two of 'em in and fire off two rounds - that's a real kick," he chuckles, as Deb Hinricks carefully nestles the gun's butt in the cartilage pocket between her shoulder socket and collar bone.
"You just need to be aggressive," Ekenstam assures her. "You don't want to think about it too hard. Just get up there, go through the movements. Your brain will tell your finger when to the pull the trigger, and it will surprise you."
"Pull!" BOOM BOOM - two shots fired, another pigeon decimated. Hinricks shoves a victory fist into the air as her classmates cheer again.
"I've spent 30 years teaching women to shoot," Ekenstam grins, "and they're better shots than men. I won't teach men - they already think they know it all. You can't tell 'em anything - big fat egos. So they never get it right - and the women'll outshoot 'em every time!"
The sentiment permeates this canyon as women of every shape, size and background come together to learn the "right way" to hunt, fish and navigate through nature. "Becoming An Outdoorswoman in Utah" isn't your average slumber party/scrapbook weekend.
Participants in the state-sponsored program flock to this mountain retreat to learn the basics of what their husbands, brothers and boyfriends already know - without the bravado that can discourage them from feeling competent.
"I went back to Wisconsin last fall and went hunting with my family," says Hinricks, a Forest Service contract specialist from Ogden. "Everyone had a gun but me. I had one episode of being knocked on my butt (when she fired a shotgun) as a kid. I decided that since we're supposed to go goose hunting again this fall, I was going to learn to shoot. That's my reason for being here."
Hinricks met her goal, as evidenced by the fluorescent orange shard left on the mountainside and the clear-to-the-core smile on her face. "I'm a shotgun woman now!" she beamed. The smile lasted all through Saturday and into Sunday morning, as she prepared to take a course in survival skills.
"This is my first time here. Another lady I work with went last year, and she said it was the greatest thing she'd ever done. She was right!"
The enthusiasm was infectious. Housed in condos near the lower lodge at Elk Meadows ski resort in the mountains of central Utah, participants turned mealtime into a continuous recounting of their newfound talents and adventures.
Sue Igo, a graphic designer from Taylorsville, was so hooked by the muzzle-loader class she took during last year's seminar that "I went out and bought a .22 a month later. About a month after that, I found a .50 caliber cap lock."
As her excitement grew, so did the expense. But Igo doesn't care. During one afternoon shooting session last fall, she went through a box of 100 roundballs. "I fell in love with it. I spent so much time out at the Lee Kay Center (in Magna) that the woman who runs it said I could shoot there for free if I'd do a six-hour shift once a month as a range officer. Now I have this passion for it. Two weeks ago I looked at a flintlock that was just gorgeous. I have guns hanging on my walls at home."
Igo's expertise at muzzle-loading put her on the other end of the gun barrel during this year's session, held Aug. 28-30. Outfitted with her powder horn and lead balls, last year's student was this year's instructor. Her passion has come to the point that the thirty-something divorcee now lists the criteria she has for any serious relationship.
"He has to fly fish, and fly-tying is definitely a plus. Shooting, camping, hiking and mountain biking - I do 'em all. Most of all, he can't be intimidated by my belly dancing, or any of this other stuff. He has to be open-minded and adventurous."
Geri Lawrence, a Tooele mother of five boys, gathered two of her daughters-in-law, one of their mothers and another family member for the weekend away. No stranger to the outdoors, Lawrence says she's taken her sons backpacking "a lot. I like to do that with them still, and I'm into outdoor photography. This weekend, we wanted to go where our husbands couldn't find us.
"We've gone down the Green River in canoes and snowmobiled in Yellowstone - we leave the men home. I've had five women down in Coyote Gulch. My boys don't have time to do it anymore."
At the other end of the spectrum, Geri's daughter-in-law, Michelle, says most of her previous experience as an outdoorswoman "was (LDS) girls camp. But I've done a lot of whitewater rafting."
Before the weekend was through, Michelle had ridden a wave of a different sort. She joined a dozen others learning to groom, saddle and ride a horse. While the ride started out OK, Michelle's horse got spooked, bucked and landed her on the back of her head. "But she got up and got right back on," Geri says with a twinkle in her eye. "She wasn't going to let it get the best of her."
None of them were. Steven Beckstead of West Jordan says he sees incredible tenacity in the women who attend the annual event. Watching a group of first-time archers take aim, he intoned the same sentiment instructors throughout the event shared.
"Women make better students than men. I also find that women have better eye-hand coordination and better fine motor skills. They tend to pick it up quicker. With men, it's always, `Oh, I know how to do it.' John Farnham, director of Defensive Training International, told me something that I've found is true. All men think they are born with the car-driving gene, the gun-shooting gene and the lovemaking gene. And I tell them over and over, these are all learned skills. Men just don't ever believe you."
Recent sessions at the workshop
"Becoming An Outdoors Woman in Utah" is an annual three-day workshop offered by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Sessions this year included beginning shotgun, rifle and pistol, beginning muzzleloading, fly-tying, fly-fishing, survival skills, navigating, canoeing, kayaking, camping & backpacking, firearm safety, campfire cooking, archery, outdoor photography and wildlife identification.
For information about next year's event, or related events for women, call RaLynne Takeda at 538-4710.