Wild Sage Summit / Women Backpacking in the Bitterroot Mountains / Part III

This is a 3-part series. If you haven't yet, here's Part I and Part II

You could slice through our collective fear. It wasn't quite 6am, the light barely able to break through the forest. We had only one idea what that very large wild animal sound could be. Well obviously,...A BEAR!

I cued, "1, 2, 3, XENA!" and we all shouted our loudest, sharpest Xena call we could muster.

Silence. It must be gone...

It started again. Thumping and huffing.

I cued, "1, 2, 3, HEY BEAR!" followed by our collective "HEY BEAR!!!!""


Thumping and huffing continued. 

If there was any part of me still asleep, I was now sitting up wide awake. I could feel my tent mate Jaymie's heart thumping out of her chest. We Xena and "Hey bear-ed" a few more times, but this mysterious creature was never phased. (Why is everything so much louder and scarier inside a tent?! It's just a thin piece of fabric!)

Of course by this point, I had run through my mind the scenario of me jumping out of the tent and confronting the grizzly face-to-face before it could attack the ladies. It went something like: I jump out of the tent (you know that this is impossible to do from inside a small backpacking tent with any sort of ease), spray it with bear spray, then it bites off my arm. The bear eventually goes away and I'm bleeding profusely, talking the ladies through how to bandage me to stop the life-threatening bleed. We then calmly proceed to develop an evacuation plan.

:) Totally ridiculous, right?

I rehearsed it over and over during those moments of silence while IT huffed and thumped around. It helped me build the courage I would need if I actually had to act.

The forest waking up.

The forest waking up.

It seemed time wouldn't move fast enough, or more accurately, that the creature wouldn't move on fast enough. In the silence, there was finally a voice. She said to me, "I have to pee." (Really? Right now?) LOL. (I wasn't laughing in the moment.)

Jaymie and I crawled out of the tent and while she peed, I stood guard with bear spray in hand. Then Alyx and Korrin crawled out of the tent to go pee too. I guess everyone had been holding it during our "bear" episode or triggered by it. Either way, everyone was now relieved and the light began to illuminate the place we couldn't see before, the place that held such frightening mystery. It was actually quite calm and beautiful, full of stillness, an obvious contrast to the wild chaotic story of my mind.

As the wilderness woke up, I sat wrapped in my sleeping bag outside, unable to shake the early morning adrenaline rush. Everyone else rolled back into their tents. The episode was over. That big scary creature was gone and we could sleep in peace.

[Side note: If you're wondering what the "bear" actually was - thanks to YouTube - we learned it was actually a moose. Moose are still quite a threat in the wilderness. (In fact, more deaths are caused by moose than bears and wolves combined).]

The hike out felt easy. The trail, clear -- perhaps a bit too clear, too obvious. It was a welcomed respite from the day before, but my spirit didn't feel as alive as it did when we weren't sure where we were...when we had to pave our own way. Could it be that I actually preferred the wild bushwhacking adventure from the day before?


A journey like that doesn't just end when we all say our goodbyes. All it does is illuminate our deepest desire for community, depth of relationship and experiences, and our longing to meet again.

Now when branches reach out and brush against my legs (which still makes me cringe a bit, by the way), I'll remember those hours we bushwhacked, and I'll remember the way I felt in the company of new friends, of my trail sisters.


All my love to the women of Wild Sage Summit!

Chanell's Story / One black woman's journey into backpacking


Disclaimer:  I (Chanell here) share this post as my own opinion on blacks and their relationship to the outdoors. I am not a spokesperson for an entire race and cultures so please do not take these posts as truth for all blacks. These are my own personal musings, based on my father’s stories, family history, and a very quick Google search. :) 

Initially when I imagined writing this blog post, I thought maybe it would lead to breaking the stereotype around black people and hiking. It would go something like this: Black people don’t hike. After working all day – the last thing I’d want to do is sling on a backpack and traverse through (potentially) difficult terrain to then sleep on a hard ground.

Then I imagined I’d share a bit about knowledge and access: there aren’t any commercials for the National Parks and it can be difficult for communities of color to access far-flung destinations like National Parks or other camping grounds. That didn’t feel right to me either.

What did feel right begins with a percentage.

11 percent, to be exact.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, that is the number of blacks in 2013 who participated in outdoor activities such as backpacking. I don’t think anyone is surprised by that number. I certainly am not. Despite changing demographics in United States, where people of color either are or are projected to be the majority in a number of states, 70 percent of the people engaging in outdoor activities are white. As a black woman, I keep asking myself this question: Why is this reality?

Backpacking – especially if you have kids – is a great way to respect our environment, appreciate its beauty and power, learn how to survive, and is far cheaper than Disneyland. And yet, my parents never took me backpacking or camping. So I thought about my father and his childhood stories, specifically the ones that related to nature.

As a child, my dad spent his days picking cotton and fruits in the fields. It was back-breaking labor that lasted for hours, but it had to be done. My grandmother was a single mom with four children in the 60s; she needed every penny she could get. His experiences in the outdoors were not spent reveling at the nature around him; it was spent soaking in sweat, laboring in a field, and being exhausted by the end of the day. My ancestors experienced a similar fate: foraging and tracking through the wilderness wasn’t a trip filled with beauty and wonder, it was life or death. I think about Little House on the Prairie (which I love!) and contrast that with my ancestors’ reality. Or I think about John Muir, the father of National Parks, who was preserving the National Parks while my family was suffering under segregation and Jim Crow laws.

The reality is that from my dad all the way to my ancestors, no one had the privilege or access to enjoy the outdoors. The outdoors was either about labor or survival, not recreation. This is the history of slavery is what shapes my relationship to the outdoors. Historically, the outdoors has not been a space of recreation for blacks. And whether it was conscious or not, that’s how I internalized (and externalized) my relationship with the outdoors. 

For a number of years now, I’ve been working hard on a policy level to save our environment. I’ve promoted equity, public health, conservation, and sustainability in our land use and transportation planning. I've been preaching and acting on the conviction that this integration is what we need to do if we want to survive as a society. This work, however, has made me much more critical of my own relationship with the environment and of the (potential) dissonance between myself and others who are not black. 

Let me unpack that. I find that most whites are surprised that I’m not an avid camper or backpacker, considering the kind of environmental policy work I do. For them, saving the environment goes hand-in-hand with enjoying the outdoors. So the fact that I don't see the outdoors as a place of recreation or that kind of enjoyment, can cause quite a face contortion. 

As I reflect on this topic, I’m realizing that our history is complicated when it comes to the topic of people of color in the outdoors. The conversation runs deeper than "urban versus rural" or “black people don’t do this kind of thing” stereotypes - (good thing, because I’m sick of that anyway!). This conversation ignites the organizer in me and I can't help but reimagine policy changes, asking how we increase not only knowledge, but participation of people of color in our National Parks. Is it changing the mediums we use – do we need more commercials that highlight how much fun (and cheap) visiting National Parks can be? Is it by promoting and creating spaces like Outdoor Afro

But this post – this journey, my journey – isn’t about me organizing for anyone or for any policy. It’s about me exploring me before, during, and after my own backpacking trip. To be honest, I don’t have any answers. This trip, to my surprise, has become much bigger than my original goal. Empowerment, space, beauty, and breathing – yes, these are all reasons I want to go - but now, I feel like there’s an opportunity to connect with something much larger and deeper than myself. I’m not sure what that is, but I’m excited to figure it out. 

Thanks for following my journey. It's exciting for me to have a space and reason to share. Stay tuned for more on my practical steps to get on the trail.


P.S. I’m assigning myself some required reading: Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the
Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors
. I found it googling around and now I want to read this on my trip! Well, that is, if it doesn't weight too much to carry. Note: Buying the book using the link above helps supports the work that Liz is doing with Snowqueen & Scout. 

Reflections / What does it mean to be an outdoors woman?


Jeanine Pesce, Founder of This is Range posted an interesting long-form essay about what it means to be a modern outdoors woman. In her interviews with various women in the industry, she came to this description:

"The Modern Outdoors Woman is inquisitive, kind, and willing to introduce her less experienced friends to the outdoors...She is beyond stoked to collaborate, and her competitive nature, although present while in motion, is more passive when creating content. She finds strength in her femininity, and doesn’t feel that words like 'tomboy' define her. She is just as comfortable casting a line as she is shopping online, and is constantly daydreaming about trips and adventures."

What surprised me in the description was the characteristic of "willing to introduce her less experienced friends to the outdoors." I wouldn't have initially thought to include that, but I completely resonate with it. In essence, I think what that highlights is the characteristic of hosting, of welcoming someone into a new space with the hopes of making them feel at home or at ease. I believe this is a defining characteristic of femininity -- (to clarify, this doesn't mean being female).

At our best, I think women are incredibly supportive and nurturing. (Yes!) Have you ever been in the company of women who make you feel like you can be fully yourself? You feel accepted and there's not a single ounce of judgement or pretense. You can just be. It's a feeling of being loved for exactly who you are. It's incredibly nourishing to be in the company of those women.

But at our worst, we can tear each other down with gossip and a misplaced competitive spirit. Anyone know what I'm talking about here? :( 

The essay goes on to summarize some interview findings:

"All the women we spoke with were different, but they all had the same things in common: a unified, deep-rooted love of life and an absolutely pure appreciation of nature and the great outdoors.

Simply put, we are on a journey to discover something deeper and more meaningful."

(OoOh, I love that last line and completely resonate with it!) I might expand on Jeanine's description to define the modern outdoors woman as a woman who journeys into the outdoors seeking a deep experience of life and of greater acceptance of oneself.

How about you? How would you define the modern outdoors woman? 

Firsts / Your first time backpacking will suck.

And that's exactly why you should do it.

Yeah I know, not something you want to hear right? But let me share why. 

The first time you go backpacking, you'll likely have borrowed someone's old heavy backpack, oversized tent, a heavy (but hopefully warm) sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and big ole pot and stove. You'll take more clothes than you need and lots of other little things that "don't weight much" but actually do. You will feel all that weight on your hips and shoulders, and especially so because that backpack probably won't fit just right for your frame. You won't even know why it's so uncomfortable, but it will be. And with all that extraneous weight, you'll really feel it on your hips.

But you know what? Most people have awkward first time experiences in backpacking and in life. Think about your first kiss ever. I bet you were thinking, "OH MY GOSH, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT'S HAPPENING RIGHT NOW. WHERE DO I PUT MY LIPS...AND, NOW MY TONGUE!!! WHAAAAA?!" (If you haven't had your first kiss yet, you're in for a fun ride! I was a bit of a late bloomer and had my first kiss at age 25. Hehe)

Anyway girl, you are not alone. Anyone's who's gone backpacking numerous times will say that it's a continual process of learning. I'd bet they could tell you a story of their first backpacking trip and how they royally screwed up. There are always going to be ways to improve your process, your gear, your attitude, etc. So you are free to experiment!

But the real reason why you should still try backpacking is because I believe something deep will shift inside of you. It's simple, but significant. You won't even be able to name it necessarily; you'll just know. If I had to take a stab, it's that you will experience feeling incredibly capable.

You might already feel capable in lots of other capacities (professionally, relationally, physically, etc), but there's something unique to wilderness backpacking that can't often be mimicked in a non-backpacking context. Backpacking brings us back to a forgotten way of being in a developed world, carrying just what we need, struggling and surviving in the thick of wild natural grandeur. We are invited to simply be, to walk, to eat, to pay attention without our modern-day distractions. I think the appeal of backpacking is that it brings us back to something ancient that we unknowingly, but deeply long for.

After your first backpacking trip, you'll likely experience this feeling of accomplishment, of satisfaction, of believing you are capable of doing more, of digging deeper, of curiosity ("What can I do next?") It's feeling empowered, plus more. Funny thing is that you will feel different inside, but not much will have changed on the outside, except for your dirty feet and hair. But that small internal shift will mark you for a lifetime.

Your first backpacking trip might suck, but so what?