Aren’t You Afraid to Be Out in the Woods, Alone?
“What’s the name of your group, again, Woods-men-women?” asked a man hiking beside me on the Hoh River Trail. Our group of 12 women seemed to be acting out the “Tortoise and the Hare” with him and his pals. We were on the 18-mile backpack approach to climb Mount Olympus in Washington, ultimately summiting at the same time. Each time we passed them, or they passed us, one of the men asked a question, like, “Where are your husbands?” or “Aren’t you afraid to be out in the woods, alone?”
Their questions seemed especially ironic to me, participating in the 1995 Leadership and Mountaineering course offered by Woodswomen, Inc. We were carrying 50-pound packs with mountaineering ropes and gear, as well as camping equipment, and learning why all-women’s groups can help to foster self-esteem and emotional safety, in addition to physical safety, through careful logistics, inclusive language and respect. Women often feel more comfortable learning technical skills from other women because there may be less pressure to perform in front of a mixed-gender group, where they can be marginalized by (supposedly) faster or stronger men.
The Roots Run Deep and Strong
Recently, Adventures in Good Company has been taking a closer look at our early roots based in Woodswomen, Inc. During two decades as a nonprofit organization, Woodswomen had a number of innovative programs, including gay and lesbian youth wilderness trips, women and kids’ trips, and working with the Minnesota Department of Corrections to facilitate outdoor experiences for women offenders, reenactments of historical outdoor expeditions by women, and even log cabin building opportunities.
Woodswomen was the first organization to offer outdoor leadership training focused on women’s experiences and needs. Their signature leadership training attracted women from across the country to intern and work as summer guides, learning and practicing the unique philosophy.
Woodswomen reinforced that we weren’t outside to “conquer” the mountain. We were outside to appreciate, foster well-being, inspiration, curiosity, and sometimes physical challenge that nature provides. Our guides were employed to focus on our participants and help everyone to develop healthy boundaries, practice outdoor skills, have fun, and be safe; the guide wasn’t to be the focus of attention. That seems obvious, but many adventure travel companies rewarded their guides for taking the limelight on trips.
I deeply appreciated the training which included anti-racism efforts, sensitivity to common issues women may have if they have experienced abuse, the role of women as caregivers and how that affects their time on a getaway, along with the core subjects of personal safety, cleanliness, and food preparation in the out-of-doors.
For me, the inclusivity training, including gay and lesbian concerns, was the first of its kind. In the 1990’s, it was unusual for people to be “out of the closet,” so it was important to Woodswomen guides to use inclusive language right away, to welcome all women into our group.
Memories from the Original Woodswomen
Marian Marbury had long been interested in becoming a wilderness guide. After seeing a flier in a local bookstore in 1988, she participated in a week-long Woodswomen Leadership Training Course in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. She didn’t realize at the time, but that was the first step in becoming a guide for Woodswomen; the experience totally affirmed that guiding was what she wanted to do.
Anne Flueckiger came to Woodswomen for an internship in 1995. After just a week in the office, she headed to the Grand Canyon to backpack and learn Woodswomen’s leadership philosophy from Marian Marbury. Then, the following week, she put her new skills to practice as an apprentice guide in the canyon. Anne recently said, “The Woodswomen guides had top-notch outdoor skills and were excellent teachers. The participants learned a lot (and so did I!). They set a high standard for being organized and hard-working and at the same time being attuned to each person on the trip. I could see that guiding required quite a variety of skills and personal characteristics (patience, compassion, sense of humor, humility).” Anne has guided with AGC since the beginning and sets an example of high guide standards and leadership, herself.
Deb Malmon, another AGC guide, first worked as a summer guide for Woodswomen in 1997, mostly leading canoe trips in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. She reminisced about learning from Denise Mitten, who was the executive director and creator of much of the guiding philosophy. “While on a whitewater canoe program, Denise taught us you can move faster than the river OR slower than the river to steer your boat in rapids. We so often only paddle harder in those moments, we head into strainers or obstacles. That notion that you could slow yourself down was pivotal and apropos to life!”
My first experience with Woodswomen was in 1993 at a weekend Integrated Leadership Workshop, as professional development for my full-time job at the Girl Scouts. I loved it and decided to volunteer guide on weekends for women and youth rock climbing and canoe trips on the Minneapolis city lakes and rivers, before taking the week-long leadership course two years later.
When Woodswomen, Inc. closed in 1999, Marian Marbury bought the mailing list, refined the trip offerings, and continued to foster the philosophy and important values from the organization. Marian recently said, “Adventures in Good Company changed a lot over the 20 years I owned it, but the basic guide philosophy didn’t change - although of course how we understood and implemented it continued to grow.”
Today, Adventures in Good Company continues to provide outstanding trips for women, in the United States and around the world. Occasionally we still get questions wondering why our husbands aren’t with us, but there is no confusion about our name. We are obviously having an adventure in the very good company of women, grateful for our leadership foundation inherited directly from Woodswomen.