January 26, 2020

Women take nontraditional trail to empowerment

Published: Sunday, 3/29/2015

Women take nontraditional trail to empowerment


There is more to encounter along a rugged trek through the mountains than mud, boulders and an occasional cluster of poison ivy. For the women who are now taking to the trails, there is immense power and a strong sense of freedom found in trudging up those narrow switchbacks and imposing inclines.

Backpacking, climbing, hiking, and mountaineering are welcoming women in increasing numbers, and women are finding significant rewards while traversing terrain that in the distant past belonged primarily to men. Many parks throughout the country are now offering hiking and backpacking programs designed specifically for women, and these programs often include survival skills training, orienteering, map reading, sessions on setting up a camp, and even lessons on safety in bear country.

April Bruder is the mother of three and a kindergarten teacher in the Cincinnati area. She took part in the “Women in the Wilderness” program in the Great Smoky Mountains and came back anxious for a return trip.

“I love being outside, and I love the wilderness, so the idea of being in the outdoors with like-minded women sounded really appealing,” she said. “I was looking for a great experience, and it was all that, and more.”

Bruder said she and her family are not experienced campers, and that her husband “rolled his eyes” when she first pitched the notion of going backpacking, but eventually he was supportive of her taking part in such an adventure.

“I learned so much about the forest — everything is a nature lesson when you have a good guide,” she said. “We walked through flooded creeks and we slept outside, with the bears. This is so empowering for women, just to show ourselves that we can do it, and prove to others that we can do it.”

Most of the backpacking trips in the “Women in the Wilderness” program last three days, but longer outings are available. The groups are eased into the experience with a 3-5 mile hike the first day. Vesna Plakanis, who runs “A Walk in the Woods” guide service in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the outdoors adventure provides women with a boost in self confidence that can benefit every aspect of their lives.

“Women who join us are forever changed,” Plakanis said. “They come away feeling so strong and confident after learning how to make a fire with just one match, how to deal with the sounds and darkness of the woods at night and how to make themselves comfortable in the natural world. It’s empowering for a woman to give herself permission to do something just for her and to accomplish something she never thought she could do.”

Amy Conn is an assistant principal in the Canton school system, and following a divorce she decided she needed an experience that would be both demanding and rewarding, and she found it in a backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail.

“I had some challenges in my life, and I wanted to do something I could accomplish for myself,” she said. “I debated going on this trip for a long time, and then I finally paid for it so I would have to go. I just needed something that was just me — nobody helped. I could look back and say I did it all on my own.”

Conn, who has three children, said she initially balked at going backpacking in the mountains, fearing she might not be able to handle the physical demands of the trip. There would be no contact with the outside world during the hike, and no cell service available.

“My family thought I was crazy, and I was really afraid to go, but it turned out to be much more than I expected,” she said. “It was not like a normal vacation at all. We were 12 miles from the nearest road, but you get used to the isolation, and when you finish, the sense of accomplishment is much more that I ever expected.”

Many women who step out independently and take that initial backpacking trip, make that baptismal climb, or walk a mountain trail for the first time say they want to return with their children and/​or their husband so that family members can share the fun and the adventure.

“It is not on purpose, but I think women fall into that routine when they are married and they always have someone else to lean on, someone else to take the trash out, and so on,” Conn said.

“But doing this kind of thing on your own — it is empowering. You put one foot in front of the other and get lost in your thoughts, but when you come back you just want to do it again, and take your kids and your family along. You want them to have the same great experience in the outdoors.”

Along a similar line, Ohio and Michigan both offer a wide range of skills training in the “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” program, which has been around for nearly 25 years and is now available in 44 states and nine Canadian provinces.

The workshops take place over a long weekend and in Ohio they are coordinated through the Division of Wildlife. Each fall, a group of women gather to learn how to handle a fly rod, navigate whitewater in a kayak, or load and fire a muzzleloader. There are also sessions in basic canoeing, cartridge reloading, outdoor photography, archery, basic shotgun use, tracking, handgun basics, using a tree stand, trail foods, and Dutch oven cooking. More information on the Ohio “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” program is available by calling the 1-800-WILDLIFE hotline.

The “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” workshops offered by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are focused on offering women the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to enjoy activities such as hunting, fishing, canoeing, orienteering, and backpacking, with all of the lessons emphasizing a “hands-on” approach.

More information on the Michigan “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” program is available by emailing Sharon Pitz: pitzs@michigan.gov. Additional information on the “Women in the Wilderness” outings in Great Smoky Mountains at: National Park can be found at the AWalkintheWoods.com website.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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Women take nontraditional trail to empowerment

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