"If I say anything that sounds sexist, I don't mean it."
Brave words from a man in a hunting lodge full of women.
But then Steve Palmer beamed and added: "I can't tell you how happy I am to see you all here. Let's go play!!!!"
With that, the two dozen participants in the two-day Women in the Outdoors program laced up their boots, pulled their ball caps down low over their brows and tromped off to learn a bit about hunting, fishing, hiking and canoeing.
The workshop at the Woodmont Lodge in Hancock was sponsored by the Monocacy Valley Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWFT) and the Washington County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs.
More than two-thirds of the instructors were men who gave up last weekend in the hopes of recruiting women into the fold.
"Women and children are the largest untapped groups for outdoor sports," said Palmer, president of the sportsmen's federation and a member of the NWFT. "Without them, the future looks awfully dim for organizations like ours."
The federation scheduled 24 outdoors events between January and September geared toward women and children. More than 350 families are on Palmer's mailing list. (To learn more, call Palmer at 301-432-7121).
The first morning, 17 women signed up for a fly tying workshop led by the Antietam Fly Anglers. What they tied is what they fished with in the second half of the course.
Another half-dozen campers met with Angie Olha, a local search-and-rescue officer, to learn about outdoor survival.
Three more (plus this writer) sneaked off to learn the art of wild game cooking from the very funny and talented Dawn Failing of the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say, venison and elk never tasted so good. Campers from other groups and the organizers dropped by when the aromas from Failing's smoker and cast-iron skillet drifted their way. I promise Failing's advice and recipes will rate a column all their own just before deer season.
The campers ranged in age from 16-year-old Alisha Sweeney of Edgewater to, well, let's just say mature women from Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
Sweeney, a South River High School sophomore, said she was attracted to the program because of the backpacking class, but added that the workshop had so many interesting courses, "If they have it next year, I'd like to return."
For Lynn and Barbara Kambarn, a mother-daughter team from Salisbury, the weekend marked a continuation of their exploration of the outdoors that began when Lynn was a Girl Scout and her mom was a troop leader.
"By taking this course, you don't have to have your husband or boyfriend as a teacher, but once you learn you can join him later," said Lynn. "And you can be very confident because the people here know how to teach."
After a soup and sandwich lunch prepared by the menfolk, the women went back to class. Some went canoeing with Ron Shanholtz of the Mason-Dixon Canoe Cruisers; others learned about hiking and gear selection from Terri Paddy of the Howard County Recreation and Parks Department.
Eight women opted to listen to CDs brought by Bruce Cheney and Bob Eichler.
The "Spittin' Feathers" series won't be winning any Grammy Awards, unless the judges are turkeys.
But the women were attentive listeners to Volume 2, concentrating on the yelp of the hen, the spit and drum of the gobbler and the laugh of the barn owl.
"So that's what I hear at my daughter's," exclaimed Mary Flinn of Frederick, zeroing in on one recorded call.
Afterward, both men seemed pleased with the interest of their students.
For dinner, campers were served - what else? - a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings.
The learning wasn't over. After dinner, they learned about fur trapping and coon hunting.
The next day, classes included basic shotgunning, outdoor photography and turkey calling.
By 2 p.m., the outing was over. Everyone was smiling. Campers had T-shirts and fanny packs filled with outdoors gear to take home. Phones numbers were exchanged. And, perhaps, some attitudes were softened.
"This shouldn't be a man's domain, although I know there are men out there who believe that. But they're a dying breed," said Allan Taylor, president of the Monocacy Valley group. "If there's someone with an interest in the outdoors - any sport in the outdoors - it's our responsibility to nurture it."
The often-strident National Rifle Association could learn something from the NWTF's Women in the Outdoors program, which seems to realize you get more with honey than vinegar.
The NRA seems to delight in in-your-face stunts, such as opening a theme store in the heart of Manhattan, that do little to attract the suburban woman.
The turkey folks say they realize that the outdoor experience doesn't have to involve a gun. It runs its Women in the Outdoors program all across the country and has just begun publishing a magazine for women that talks turkey hunting, but also explores backpacking, birding and fishing.
"You do not ever have to hunt. You do not ever have to shoot a gun," said the NWTF national coordinator Trish Berry. "We do hope through this program and magazine [participants] understand that there are 1.5 million women in this country who hunt and it is not a bad thing."
To read an expanded Outdoors Journal or the fishing report online, go to www.sunspot.net/sports/outdoors.
To hear the fishing report, call SunDial and enter category 5378 on your touch-tone phone. The phone number is 410-783-1800 in the Baltimore area; 410-268-7736 in Anne Arundel County; 410-836-5028 in Harford County; and 410-848-0038 in Carroll County.