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Silver Lining Productions

Publish Date: 4/2/2005

Women’s Wilderness Institute client Heather Janson, left, 33, of Denver helps Ethel Swartley, 40, of Highlands Ranch put on her backpack during an overnight winter camping trip near Cub Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park on March 26. Times-Call/Lewis Geyer

Closing the gap
Institute works to bring women, girls into the outdoors

BOULDER — Sleeping under the stars and sipping cowboy coffee — that blackish brew that steeps like tea — seemed to Diane Thorne like a scene out of a classic John Wayne western.

That fiction feel lasted until she got wind of the Boulder-based Women’s Wilderness Institute, which aims to close the gap between desiring and doing time in the great outdoors.

In the past, Thorne, 47, had settled for campground “car camping” with her husband.

“He had no interest in (backcountry) camping because he had done enough of it in Boy Scouts,” the Longmont woman said.

By 1998, veteran Outward Bound instructor Laura Tyson had heard enough of that story.

So, she co-founded the Women’s Wilderness Institute for women and girls willing to go into woods and up mountains if enabled by leaders and some same-sex company.

Besides demystifying the wilderness, Tyson — now WWI’s executive director — figured targeting an all-female clientele would give them a fuller experience.

“There’s a real tendency in mixed (gender) courses for women to end up in the background,” Tyson, 45, said. “This helps them take responsibility for their own adventures.”

Otherwise, she said, women often defer the skill-based camping duties, from building a snow cave to building a fire, to men.

When they do take charge and succeed, they are also more likely to credit strong teammates, favorable weather or good luck — to “externalize” their accomplishments.

Men, on the other hand, tend to “internalize” those accomplishments, to appreciate the success for what it is, as their own doing.


Thorne’s WWI adventure took place last September in a slickrock canyon near Moab, Utah.

The place looks prehistoric, with its barren, rust-colored expanses, its weather-carved rock and endless square miles of fossil graveyards.

Without much annual precipitation, it feels like a last stand against civilization.

But the graphic designer laced her boots, despite nagging worries about being out of her depth.

Then, with the last slam of the van doors, she was off.

In a small group with skilled leaders, Thorne got Tyson’s brand of outdoors experience, one based on safety and comfort, not hard-core survival.

“I’ve spent 25 years in this industry and over a thousand nights outside, and I’ve never had to eat a chipmunk,” Tyson said.

Tyson understood from the get-go that women and girls often prefer daily programming flexibility on the trail and feel intimidated by a militaristic, sink-or-swim approach.

Sure enough, for Thorne, the theory worked in practice.

Toward the end of her week in Utah, she had been nudged enough to do a solo night out of earshot and eyesight of the group.

Thorne had a gym teacher’s whistle around her neck in case wildlife encroached or her nerves got the best of her.

“But you know, I felt safer out there than when my husband and I go car camping,” she said.


Every year the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Foundation surveys the participation, attitudes and behaviors of American women participating in outdoor recreation.

The most recent survey shows the average participant is a married, 37-year-old white woman who earns between $53,000 and $57,000 a year.

Favorite activities included road biking, camping, backpacking/hiking and paddle sports.

Tyson and her staff at WWI study the report and reach for those on the margins.

To attract those women and girls to the outdoors, they now offer about 40 courses, from flyfishing to wilderness yoga. Participants range from age 11 to over 60, Tyson said.

And though these women aren’t hard-core outdoors types, they aren’t coddled.

Backpackers schlep 35-pound loads and sleep in tents using pajamas as pillows, if need be.

They rough it. But they rough it together and at their own pace, Tyson explained.


That philosophy reeled in Diane Renz.

The Longmont psychotherapist said she needed to borrow everything — including hiking boots — to go on her WWI adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park last summer.

Renz had ventured into the outdoors once as a teenager, but bagged the activity as being too far out of her comfort zone.

“Well, there was always the bear factor and the lion factor,” she said.

Little did she know there would also be the lightning, rain, hail and porcupine factors when she took up with WWI.

Yet, the adversity that dampened her experience as a teenager enhanced it as an adult.

“There so much when you go out in the wilderness that’s very specific,” Renz, 44, said. “There are specific things to be afraid of and specific things to do.”

To demonstrate a lightning drill, she stopped sipping her fruit smoothie and squatted beside the table at an outdoor Boulder cafe.

With knees bent and arms extended, she showed how best to let electricity bypass her heart if lightning struck her.

Renz signed up for another trip this summer to master more skills.

“I was afraid of lighting the stove,” Renz confessed with a smile. “I was afraid it would blow up, and I never advanced.”


Advancing tends to happen in both practical and psychosocial ways, according to WWI instructor Ruth Kajdan, 25.

A good outdoors experience can be a wrecking ball to perceived limitations while gradually building more competence, comfort and confidence.

While developing those qualities might be a better take-home bonus than color photos, WWI soft-peddles the gains — especially when marketing to at-risk youth.

“Who wants to think, ‘Well, I’m going on this course because I don’t believe in myself?’” she explained.

Instead, WWI punches up the fun factor to take people beyond their expectations and bring them home full of more than vacation memories.

Natalya Fearnley, 12, took her mom’s lead last summer.

Like Renz, she went backpacking with strangers and wondered how it would all work out in the woods.

Besides breaking down in tears on day three because it was cold and she was homesick, Fearnley settled in and enjoyed rock climbing by day and talent shows by night.

With the other girls, she made up songs about everything from flashlights to guacamole and tortillas.

“Down here, we wouldn’t think it was hilarious. We would think it was stupid,” she said. “But up there, it was about being ourselves together and not really trying to be someone else.”

Instructors hope that lesson sticks long after the participants closet their gear.

Fearnley feels that way about her high-altitude adventure.

“I’m shy,” the Longmont girl said. “But I try more to talk to people now. I feel like I don’t need my parents as much.”


Find out more about this topic by visiting www.womenswilderness.org or calling 303-938-9191.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.

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