The Ice Age Trail Alliance’s Trailtessa events aim to bust stereotypes about women in the outdoors.
But there’s one that holds true: Where there are women, there will be wine.
It was early March 2020, before social distancing and masks became part of our daily lives, and more than 60 women were crammed into a shelter at Hartman Creek State Park outside Waupaca. Laughter filled the pavilion as the women pulled on hats and gloves in preparation for a 2-mile snowshoe hike through the woods.
A week before the country would begin locking down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the mood in the air was still light.
“Woo hoo! And we haven’t even busted out the wine,” said Amy Lord as she greeted the group. There would be wine after the hike, along with hot chocolate, and soup and bread from the woman-owned Gypsy Moon Bakehaus in nearby Amherst.
Lord, the outreach and education manager for the IATA, manages the group’s Trailtessa series, which they started in 2017 in partnership with REI’s Force of Nature initiative, a push to introduce more girls and women to the outdoors.
Lord said REI had done research on how women feel when they’re outside and learned they love it and feel empowered, reinvigorated and at peace, “but what they also found was women don’t feel like they can be out there.”
“They want to spend more time outside, but they just didn’t know how to make it happen. They felt like there were obstacles or barriers. They didn’t know how to take that first step,” she said.
So REI created Force of Nature, a multi-pronged effort “to advance gender equity in the outdoors.”
“This isn’t about elevating one group above another or pivoting REI to serve one gender over another,” then REI president and CEO Jerry Stritzke said in a statement in 2017. “This is about ensuring women are just as inspired and equipped as men to embrace life outside. Everyone should expect to get the same level of expert service, gear and experiences, and we need to get better as an industry at doing that.”
Among other things, REI launched hundreds of new REI Outdoor School classes and experiences designed for women, and donated more than $2.5 million to groups that were working to get women outside. In 2017 the IATA was one of 26 groups — out of 500 applicants — awarded a grant to help fund Trailtessa.
The women-only retreats include everything from snowshoeing to introduction to backpacking, and are all named “Be” something — Be Blissful, Be Fierce, Be Happy.
“We went on the theme of we want women and girls to just be you, whatever that is,” Lord said. “We want it to obviously be a positive and uplifting event, but just an opportunity to take time, slow down and just enjoy. Enjoy those around you. Bring your community – bring your girlfriends, bring your daughter, bring your moms. Or come alone and meet other like-minded individuals who are seeking this type of community.
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At Be Blissful, the snowshoeing event, Lord encouraged the group to mingle and make new friends. And everyone did, chatting on the bus ride to the start of the hike, on the trail back to the shelter, then over soup and wine afterward.
Mary Guell of Ripon had just finished hiking all of the Ice Age Trail in segments the previous October — earning the title of Thousand Miler — and said she had come alone to Be Blissful to meet people and get her trail fix.
“It’s funny because when you’re done with the trail, it’s still so much a part of you,” she said, noting she was surprised at how many people, especially young people, were there. She said she mostly sees older people when she’s hiking.
The group did include women of all ages, from a Girl Scout troop to a few women in their 60s from Ladies Actively Exploring the Great Outdoors (LAEGO), a central Wisconsin outdoor group for women ages 45 to 75 that was started by two Thousand Milers in 2015.
Groups like LAEGO and Trailtessa aren’t about excluding men, or implying women aren’t capable of doing the same things men do. They’re about giving women the confidence to get outside in a safe, unintimidating place.
“Women can do everything the guys can do. The part we’re trying to help with, the part we’re trying to bridge, is making sure women know that,” Lord said. “We hear the question of, I want to do something, I just don’t know where to start. Or I’m not as familiar as I think I should be, or I’m a little nervous because I don’t want to do it by myself.
“By no means do we want Trailtessa segregated. … We want Trailtessa to be that bridge so women start to understand and start to believe, yes, you can do everything the men can do.”
The first year, more than 550 girls and women attended 11 Trailtessa events. In 2019, 695 took part in eight events. Like most other events in 2020, Trailtessa went on hiatus after the March event.
But the events are back on for 2021, beginning with an on-your-own Be Blissful snowshoe hike that took place in February.
Next up is Be Happy, a series of virtual happy hours on Tuesday evenings in May featuring presentations about the trail, including by Kathy Vincent, the trail’s first female thru-hiker who completed the trail in 1997 with her 2-year-old daughter ( May 4); and Melanie McManus, who set the first female fastest known time record on the trail (May 21). The presentations take place from 6 to 7:30 pm on Tuesdays in May; registration for all four is $25.
June brings another on-your-own hike, this time on the summer solstice, June 20-21.
Fall will hopefully harken the return to in-person events with Be Fierce, a beginner backpacking trip Oct. 22-24. No previous experience is necessary for the trip, but participants must be age 21 or older and must be able to walk 12 miles a day for three days in a row. The trip will be led by Sharon Dziengel, one of the trail’s first thru-hikers who has thru-hiked four other national scenic trails. The trip is limited to 10 participants. Registration, which costs $100, opens at 6 am July 1 at iceagetrail.org/trailtessa-force-of-nature.
Lord said they hope to add a couple more in-person events in the fall, perhaps one in conjunction with the IATA’s Mammoth Challenge in October, when people are encouraged to hike 40 miles of the trail.
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