For nine days this fall, a diverse group of homemakers, teachers, nurses, a district judge, commercial pilot, veterinarian, and even a doctor all shared a common desire: the longing to experience something unique, unexpected, and challenging. Something that would force them to step outside their comfort zones. Many of the women received an encouraging nudge from a supportive spouse, while others made the decision entirely on their own. But each eventually chose to venture to the Land of Enchantment for an adventure camp for women, the National Rifle Association’s Women’s Wilderness Escape (WWE).
Alaska’s Shauna Pajak summed up the way many of the women felt about their journey. “I was looking for adventure,” she said. “I am not interested in sitting at home quilting. As women, we tend to get stuck in a rut of child rearing or growing our career or providing for our family.”
From Sept. 24 to Oct. 2, 50 women who started out as strangers awoke each morning to a new adventure in New Mexico at the NRA Whittington Center. As the week progressed, one might have expected to see fatigue, frustration, and maybe even boredom setting in. Instead, a spirit was building within this special group of amazing women, a spirit of sisterhood and an appreciation for our freedom and our country. A spirit of self-confidence that comes from the contagious energy of enthusiastic women.
According to Rosemary Herr, manager of NRA’s Women’s Programs Department, “We had another wide cross-section of amazing women that participated in WWE this year. These women simply amazed me with their character.”
Candy Sugarman from North Carolina might have summed up the camaraderie best: “The ladies are awesome. The best part is that we are all cheering for each other. It is the safety of learning something without feeling that someone is criticizing you. You feel safe to make mistakes. You feel great when you do a little better and you feel fabulous when you do what you’re supposed to be doing. I can sleep later. I don’t want to miss a thing, and I would recommend this event to every woman that I know.”
The underlying theme of the event can be summed up in three little words: “You Go Girl!” Each day, one participant after another stepped up to the various shooting lines and challenged only herself, while at the same time knowing that she had the full support of the other participants and instructors. At each event, rounds of cheering seemed to drown out the sound of gunfire. Even the normally quiet sport of archery experienced repeated outbursts of laughter and applause as self-confidence grew with each and every bull’s-eye that was hit.
“I was astonished at how much I learned,” said Melissa Maestas from New Mexico. “A lot of the impressions that I had in my mind about archery and muzzleloading were totally wrong. But when I tried them I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment, like ‘Oh my God,’ I can actually do this and I want to do this.’”
For many of the women, this was their first opportunity to shoot muzzleloading firearms, high-powered rifles, pistols, archery equipment, shotguns, and fully automatic firearms. The camp was outside most of the women’s comfort zones, but that did not slow anyone down. As predicted, the participants flourished in this new environment.
Perhaps the smile on the face of London native Victoria Shipp said it all.
“WWE had so much planned for us,” Shipp said. “I have fallen in love with archery. I rarely use American slang but shooting the fully automatic guns was ‘too cool.’ My husband was so excited when I told him about my day.”
It is no secret that men and women are different on every level, especially when it comes to learning new skills. So developing a program that embraces those differences instead of downplaying them is one of the keys to the success of WWE. The fact that the women stay in comfortable lodging and have plenty of time to build new relationships, all while enjoying a lot of comfort food, just makes for an all-around pleasant experience.
Add in the fantastic vistas provided by the backdrop of the southern Rocky Mountains, the bountiful wildlife found at the Whittington Center, and the complex’s world-class facilities, and one can quickly figure out why WWE has quickly become so successful.
“The center is absolutely gorgeous. I love the quietness of this special place,” reflected Faye Baker of North Dakota.
The Whittington Center is rapidly becoming the “go-to” location for hosting special events, such as national shooting championships, youth camps, the NRA’s International Youth Hunter Education Challenge, and now the women’s annual event. So it was no surprise that the Whittington Center staff also got involved in the excitement of the WWE. This year, the Whittington Center generously donated a cow elk hunt that was raffled off at the event. The lucky winner, Tracy Young of Virginia, can now put her newly discovered shooting skills into action when she goes on her very first big-game hunt next January.
“We believe that women are the key to getting the family involved in shooting and hunting,” said Wayne Armacost, executive director of the Whittington Center. “Donating a hunt, here on the same property where the women learned new skills, just seemed like a natural progression. We are happy to do what we can to encourage women to shoot and hunt.”
Putting together a winning program did not happen overnight. Herr and her team put in the legwork to find 33 dedicated instructors that are experts in their respected fields.
“I knew that the NRA has been noted for having quality people to instruct their events, anything associated with NRA is top shelf,” said Jan Didich of Ohio. “However, I did not expect the ultimate ‘top shelf’ within the instructors at WWE. I am blown away.”
Suzanne Mason of Texas echoed those thoughts as well. “WWE has the most amazing instructors and they all know how to work with women, and I think that is the most important thing,” she said.
Although WWE is only in its second year, the program is rapidly becoming a hot topic among women and even men. “The ladies have once again exceeded my expectations even with a different schedule and event. We are building on what started out as a successful program, and I couldn’t be more pleased with each and every one of the attendees. Smiles from ear to ear, an appreciation for the opportunity, and open arms for the NRA and its efforts is what sets WWE apart from other programs,” Herr said.
Although the ladies left with new-found abilities in shooting and survival, they also left with new friends that share common interests and goals. Perhaps most importantly, they left New Mexico with a new sense of patriotism for our country, a strong appreciation for the Second Amendment, and a better understanding of what the NRA truly stands for.
Women are a powerful and energetic force, and they know a good thing when they see it. The key is that they do not hesitate to share with other women what they have learned, which is probably why the 2010 event is already beginning to fill up quickly. “The women were so moved that one woman bought a lifetime NRA membership. Another group of ladies joined together and made a donation to the WWE program. And the women even enjoyed a little fun auction action thanks to supporters such as FNH USA, to help generate funds for this program so women may enjoy future WWE events,” added Herr.
The 2010 Women’s Wilderness Escape is scheduled for Sept. 23 to Oct. 1 at the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, N.M. For more information, visit the program’s website at www.nrahq.org/women/wilderness_escape.asp or call 703-267-1378. Registration forms for next year’s WWE will be available at the end of October 2009.