I am a woman gone wild. Please let me clarify – I am just back from my second Wild Women’s Expedition – hence my claim. Wild Women Expeditions (WWE) is an all women’s adventure travel company based in Canada. At least from my perspective they are less about “women going wild,” than they are about getting women back into the wild.
Women’s adventure travel is a growth industry with several new companies cropping up throughout North America in the past decade. Wild Women Expeditions was an early starter, its roots date back to 1990 when founder Beth Mairs packed up her career as a social worker in Toronto, bought a base camp in Northern Ontario, and began offering women-only canoe tripping adventures. “I’m an eco-feminist at heart. I believe women and the natural world experience a mutually restorative benefit through experiencing each other by paddle and canoe,” says Mairs.
Over the past twenty-two years WWE has grown into Canada’s largest all-female outdoor travel adventure company offering an extensive list of trips throughout North America. New WWE owner Jennifer Haddow says, “It’s exciting to see outdoor adventure travel branch out in so many ways to be accessible for more and more women who want to dare to explore their wild side.”
All-female travel is conceivably the next logical step in the sequence from chick flicks to chick lit though without all the lip gloss and stereotyping. Perhaps the opportunity for female bonding is something we’ve lost in a world where quilting bees and church socials no longer bring women together with any degree of regularity. And with an ever increasing amount of time being spent attached to computers, tablets, and cell phones, time away in the wilderness has become the sought after antidote.
Last year, with my fiftieth birthday upon me and scarcely wild at all, I booked to go on a WWE trip to Newfoundland. I chose the Wild Arts Tour – a kind of combo pack with a bit of everything from rug hooking lessons to rugged hikes across the tablelands of Gros Morne National Park, one of the few places on earth where the 470 million-year-old earth’s mantle is exposed.
My friends thought that away from my co-ed life, I might just fall in love.
Shortly after I arrived in Newfoundland, I met Kelly, a guide with WWE at the Deer Lake airport. She spoke with an east coast accent (I had been warned not to use the term “Newfie” – only bonafide Newfies can do that). She asked me how I’d like to go and have dinner in Corner Brook to kill time while we waited for a later flight to land with the arrival of another wild woman. So we sat that evening, eating cod, of course, and drinking white wine, in a dining room perched up a large rock face, looking out at across the magnificent Gulf of St. Lawrence as the sun sank over Newfoundland.
Earlier the same day I had left my home in Kingston, Ontario – crossing the source of the mighty St. Lawrence River. By nightfall, I was sitting at the other end the vast waterway, the mouth of the river – the place the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean – the immense Gulf of St. Lawrence. Early settlers to Canada had taken weeks to cover the 1,000 some odd mile stretch of waterway that I’d just done in a day.
For the next nine days, we, a group of sixteen women from all over Canada, explored the northern peninsula of the Island of Newfoundland. Canadian travel writer, Laurie Gough and Candace Cochrane, a former National Geographic photographer were along with us leading workshops in their respective fields. We also had two guides, Kelly, an artist, and Kat, a trained outdoor adventure guide.
We spent our days kayaking, whale watching, and touring from Gros Morne to the northernmost tip of the island, where we stayed at Tuckamore Lodge, near remote St. Anthony, a rustic but high-end hunting and fishing lodge, more used to catering to wild men than wild women.
Women take note – fishing and hunting lodges aren’t necessarily primitive shacks in the woods designed for hunt-camp food and beer swilling. Tuckamore is gorgeous with large gathering spaces, handsome, comfortable furniture, soaring ceilings, wireless Internet, a sauna, an abundance of windows looking across the lake and fabulous bedrooms. Who knew wild men liked such sumptuous bedrooms?
For the most part, the trip went reasonably well. There were a few hiccups in planning – but this was the first trip run by Haddow – new owner of WWE. The group got along well most of the time but at times, tempers flared and personalities clashed even though there was generally a festive up-market, grown-up, summer-camp type atmosphere.
The women on the trip ranged in age from early twenties to a very game woman in her seventies. One woman talked almost incessantly. Some of the women apparently snored, loudly. My roommate, an old friend from university, was a gem. She got up early (5am) and crept about quietly while I slept and I did the same in reverse at night. A couple of times we laughed so hard over nothing that we cried.
Along the way we saw icebergs and caribou and so many moose we lost count. We met locals and heard stories and music and an awful lot about the impact of the cod moratorium, as well as the history of Newfoundland and the history of Canada. They’re still talking about Joey Smallwood, the first Premier of Newfoundland – a province that joined the rest of the nation in 1948. We visited museums and lighthouses and fishing villages. We saw the famous Buddy Wasisname (of Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers fame) live on stage at the Trails, Tales and Tunes Festival. And later that night we took the last water taxi home to our cabins in WoodyPoint.
In the small coastal village of Conche we examined the French Shore Tapestry – a 216- foot-long, hand-embroidered mural based loosely on the famous Bayeux Tapestry inFrance. The work depicts the history of the Northern Peninsula’s eastern shore from the time when pre-historic animals roamed, through the various influxes of settlement beginning with the Vikings and ending in 2006, when a group of Conche women began thousands of hours of embroidering. Later that day, the good ladies of Conche made us a traditional Newfoundland dinner featuring Cod au Gratin cooked in an outdoor French-bake oven – one of a multitude of delights along our route.
We ate cod almost every night. By choice of course. We made exceptions for a night of lobster. And one night by mistake, I ate a steak. I should have stuck with cod.
And so, I did fall in love.
I fell for Newfoundland. I found a sense of connection to the land and the history of this country that bowled me over and smacked me in the face. A migrant in this land, I’d never felt so Canadian in my life. I loved the bleak but beautiful, rugged, open landscape. I loved the legendary but very real hospitality of the locals – the music, the art, the spontaneous storytelling. I loved the coastal villages with their painted clapboard homes and laundry flying in the wind. I loved magnificent Gros Morne Park. I loved being in the company of women and mostly I loved the wildness of Newfoundland.
A year after my first Wild Women Expedition, I was still thinking about Newfoundland and that got me thinking about doing another trip. This time I opted for a four-day canoe trip through Ontario’s Killarney Provincial Park– a park I’d last visited at age seventeen, thirty-four years prior.
My first day I drove north and west away from Kingston. Seven hundred plus kilometres clicked off on my odometer. Eight-and-a-half hours after I set out, somewhere west of Sudbury, I wondered when I might begin to feel as though I’d arrived in the North. I was pounding down highway #17, singing loudly, peering out my bug splattered windscreen, heading west sandwiched between transport trucks and watching road signs for Espanola and Sault Ste. Marie, and billboards for McDonalds, Petro-Canada, Tim Hortons and Walmart. No trace of moose, no sign of feeling remote, and except for the place names, no obvious signs I’d left behind Southern Ontario and arrived in the North.
Finally, “the Brit”, as I call the highly authoritative, male voice on my GPS, told me to turn right, off the Highway. A few wrong turns later and I arrived at my destination – a flagrantly purple farmhouse on the water’s edge. I’d reached the WWE Base Camp on the Spanish River.
Woman by woman we arrived – were assigned our cabins – and set out to explore the facilities – namely a summer kitchen, a sauna, two side-by-side outhouses and a shower and sink station bearing the sign, “Beaver Bathhouse.”
After tea and homemade wild raspberry pie, we settled down to review the maps of our canoe route – pack our gear – and head off into the dark night to our cabins ahead of our early morning wake-up call.
My waterside cabin was perfect. Extremely rustic but fabulous with exposed wood walls, decorated in an Indian theme – pink silk and beads, a double platform bed, an eclectic array of reading materials, funky art on the walls, a writing desk and chair – and lo and behold – electricity. I promptly re-charged my cell phone and iPod and half-heartedly attempted to organize my backpack for canoeing.
When I finally lay down and closed my eyes it was as though I was still on the highway. Somewhere between awake and asleep I kept seeing taillights on the road in front of me and transports barrelling up behind me. I sat up in my bed – turned on the light and started to read the book I’d brought with me. I awoke an hour or so later with the light still on and the book on my head.
Nearby an owl was calling. It sounded like a Barred Owl. I took off my glasses, turned off the light and lay in the dark listening to see if the owl had a partner but the call was never answered. The lone owl hooted patiently, softly, over and over and over again. I willed myself to stay awake, to hear every last thing that owl had to say.
At sun-rise we were awoken by Beth Mairs, former WWE owner turned “resident base-camp goddess,” singing as she made her way between cabins calling out that coffee was ready and breakfast was cooking.
I didn’t want to leave the WWE Base Camp. I could have stayed right there in my own little cabin on the edge of the Spanish River, eating wild raspberry pie and listening to owls until winter set in.
But the bus was coming and the canoes and paddles and packs needed to be loaded. And breakfast was ready.
A couple of hours later we were on the water in Killarney Provincial Park – a place made famous by the Group of Seven (Canadian landscape artists) and particularly by AY Jackson who captured the craggy ancient white quartz mountains, the clear indigo lakes and the windswept jack pines with brush and paint and a remarkable eye for landscape.
By nightfall we were fifteen kilometres, a couple of lakes, one beaver damn and two portages into the park. We’d set up our tents and were cooking our dinner. That night before bed we watched the reflection of the full moon across the lake as the loons and whippoorwills called. All night long I heard the mournful wails of the loons – the haunting lullaby of the wild.
Our guide was amongst the youngest members of our group and more used to canoe-tripping with teenagers in Algonquin Park. Our group – aged twenty-something to fifty-eight, posed our own special challenges – probably the most obvious being that our skill and fitness levels varied dramatically. And we were also likely more resistant to instructions than a group of teens. Most of us had our own agendas – something we wanted to get out of the trip. I wanted some time alone in the wild and a physical challenge. Overall, for a bunch of “wild women” we were actually remarkably tame.
Not having men along means a lot more freedom in some ways. It’s easier to use the “facilities” (there were none). It’s easier to strip down and go swimming (but don’t think body image isn’t still an issue). There’s a tiny bit of smugness about not needing men. Okay more than a tiny bit.
Over the course of the four days, personalities emerged. Miss Congeniality for example – a necessary member of every group – pulled more than her weight – smiled constantly and remained consistently pleasant. Bless her! Two were smokers. Several were snorers. A couple were cranky. Some shirked. By the final day tempers had spiked and one member accused another of not pulling her weight. It struck me that in so many ways, nothing had changed since high school days. I wanted some solitary time. And I noted that I could still be surrounded by people and feel lonely.
Still, one of the many great things about women’s adventure travel – about any organized adventure travel – is that it takes the complicated logistical work out of travelling. Park permits are increasingly difficult to come by – often offered on a lottery system or a first-come-first-serve basis months ahead of time, long before ordinary mortals get around to actually planning trips.
Equipment is a big deal too. We were using beautiful, expensive Kevlar canoes. And then there’s the packs, paddles, life jackets, stoves, tents, and the planning and packing of food, fuel, and supplies. All we had to bring was our personal gear – clothing, raingear, toiletries, flashlights and sleeping bags. After years of planning family holidays and backwoods trips, I appreciate somebody else doing the planning for me.
On the whole, I found being on all-women trips less intimidating and more reassuring. I would not have booked this trip if it had been co-ed. There’s a safety, comfort, and familiarity level with all-women travel that just isn’t there with co-ed travel.
The night after I returned from Killarney I was back in my kitchen in Kingston– smiling – missing the eight women and especially my canoe partner who managed at one point to tip the canoe and dump me in. I was still thinking about being out on the open water, about finally being able to stern a canoe, about swimming in crystal clear lakes, about owls calling during the night, and loons and whippoorwills, about beaver dams, and full moons reflecting in dark lakes, and thick mist hanging over the mornings. I was remembering s’mores around the campfire made with premium dark chocolate and our unanchored tent sliding down the rockface towards the lake during the night.
I realized how much I cherished being in the open air for a few glorious days in the wild.
I love being a wild woman.
Shame I waited so long.
Featured writer: Lindy Mechefske