On our last night in the backcountry, the girls on W.O.L.V.E.S. spread about our campsite with their journals. They perched on rocks along a rushing stream and sat amongst the tall summer grass, all scribbling away. We had posed to them a question: Why has it been important for you that this be an all-female trip?
W.O.L.V.E.S (Women Only Leadership, Volunteering, Exploration and Science) is a nine-day program that involves five nights at TSS’ Jackson campus and three nights in the backcountry. Participants were rising 7th through 9th graders, ranging in age from 11 to 14. They were from all over – Wyoming, Idaho, New York, California – and had a wide range of outdoor experiences.
Yet their bonding happened fast and freely, I suspect because of the all-female atmosphere and the challenge of the program, both of which helped push friendships into fruition. In the frontcountry, we focused on cultivating their individual leadership skills and team communication. We hiked to Taggart Lake and up Granite Canyon, completed low and high elements on the Doug Walker Challenge Course, canoed at String Lake, and did a service project at Snow King with Friends of Pathways. In the backcountry, the girls put those leadership and team skills to the test, ticking off roughly sixteen miles from the Ditch Creek Trailhead to Lower Slide Lake, summiting their highest peak at 9,190 feet. They slept in tents and hiked long uphills together, survived swarms of mosquitoes, and hunkered down through three lightning and hail storms. Even though they were exhausted, we could hardly get them to stop chatting and go to sleep at night.
Now, on the last backcountry night, Becca Holdhusen, Maddie Johnson, and I – their instructors – were curious to hear what they thought of their experience. We re-grouped in a circle. The air was breezy, the temperature mild; light filtered through the conifers overhead. In somewhat of a miracle, the mosquitos had vanished. Going around the circle, each girl shared what she’d written. Many said they loved how comfortable they felt – talking about their bodies, bodily functions, emotions, and thoughts with each other. One girl talked about how boys were “immature” at this age and would have made fun of those conversations. Another mentioned how she felt she had to act “fake” around males. Overall, they gushed with enthusiasm for each other. “I can just be more myself with you all!” someone said. Everyone agreed.
In so many ways, we teach our girls that they are not competent enough to belong in the backcountry. Young women are expected to be clean, kind, and unassertive, which are not characteristics associated with the outdoors. Girls and boys are still socialized differently, and girls are typically not taught the same hard skills as boys. We learn early on that technical skills are not our forte, exacerbating that notion we are not “tough” or skilled enough for wilderness. In such spaces, we are often portrayed as novices in need of assistance. Even while carrying canoes with W.O.L.V.E.S. at String Lake, I was asked twice by passerby men if we needed help. Though I knew such an offer was ostensibly polite, I also knew it would not have been made if we were an all-male or even co-ed group.
Our students felt that the freedom and deep bonding they experienced on W.O.L.V.E.S. would not have been possible in a co-ed setting. This makes sense, since gender expectations come into relief in co-ed environments. Consciously or not, women shy away from activities or behaviors that run contrary to that “clean, kind, and unassertive” narrative, and for good reason: if we don’t, we fear being labelled as bullish or unattractive. At the same time, we fear failing in the outdoors, since any weakness signifies, once again, that we do not belong in such a space.
An all-female setting can ease, and start to erode, some of the impacts those negative social structures have on young women. It creates a more open and even playing field where girls can honestly navigate the outdoor world with less fear of judgement. And they can do it together, which creates the kind of deep kinship the W.O.L.V.E.S. girls experienced. They can learn how to set up a tent together without feeling stupid or less-than for forgetting a knot, or as if such forgetfulness reflects on their gender. If they break down on the trail crying, they don’t have to worry that they’re being perceived as a “weak female.” They can make decisions and lead boldly with less fear of being labelled “bossy” or “stubborn.” They can, in their own words, “be more themselves.”
That night along the stream, sitting in the grass, I could feel the girls’ excitement as they explored the uncharted territory of the discussion – their femininity, their relationships to each other and the world around them, those big questions of who they are, who they want to be and who they are becoming. In just a few days, their parents would come to pick them up. They would go back to their respective communities and lives. “I’m excited to go home, but I also don’t want to leave,” one girl said.
“Well, think about how you feel right now,” Maddie said. “I challenge you to see if you can bring that feeling home with you. See if you can feel that way when you’re not here, not in all-girls group.”
What we experience in the backcountry translates to the frontcountry, and this is my hope for the nine students on W.O.L.V.E.S.: that by building confidence in the outdoors in an all-female environment, they can have more confidence in every environment.