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Women hit the trails - sans men

Demand for single-sex training prompts new books and courses

Molly Mulhern Gross will never forget one of her first kayaking lessons: How to do the Eskimo roll.

"I was told by my male instructor to 'Just turn the kayak over and get out,' " she says. "He had no clue that I was scared to death of getting stuck upside down, underwater."

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It wasn't until a lesson from a female instructor that Ms. Mulhern Gross learned she could roll her kayak -and enjoy doing it. The woman, she says, "understood my fears and talked me through the steps, before I even got in the boat."

The experience convinced her there must be others that prefer the female teaching style. It also inspired her to create a series of outdoor sports guides for women, the first ever such books written by women, for women.

Packed with all the information needed to master these activities, the year-old Ragged Mountain Press Woman's Guides are winning praise among the growing number of women participating in outdoor sports. And they come at a time when an increasing number of groups are offering outdoor training and trips designed especially for women.

"A common trait in women is to want to get lots of answers before trying a new activity," says Shannon Meyer, who has led women's courses for Outward Bound and now teaches at the Wild Rockies Field Institute in Missoula, Mont. "They also tend to be more comfortable asking questions in a group of other women."

In the last five years, groups ranging from the Sierra Club to local outfitters and sports shops have added women's programs in a wide range of outdoor skills. But for those who want to go it alone, Mulhern Gross's books, published by Ragged Mountain Press in Camden, Maine, offer guidance on activities including sea kayaking, backpacking, and fly fishing.

The guides, says Ms. Meyer, provide answers to the wide range of questions a woman might have when learning a new sport, and do so "in the tone of an experienced friend, someone you could ask anything."

Each guide is written by an expert in her sport. With a "you-can-do-it" attitude, she takes the reader step by step through the skills necessary to become an accomplished sportswoman, no matter what shape, size, or age.

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In the backpacking guide, for example, author Adrienne Hall describes her own experience hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. She then gives advice on how and what to pack, building physical fitness and confidence, and equipment (a lot is now designed especially for women). Ms. Hall also addresses personal safety, which she says women have told her is one of their greatest concerns.

What gives these books the "friendly" tone that Outward Bound's Meyer and others like, are not just the authors' voices, but also stories and comments from women of all ages and abilities on their experiences.

They tell about getting a kayak on and off a car alone, backpacking while pregnant or with young children, the thrill of skiing down a mountain for the first time. Photos and drawings show women -not men -in action, something Mulhern Gross says she's rarely seen in her 13 years of editing "how-to" books.

Such female camaraderie and support is apparently a big part of what is attracting so many women to all-female outdoor courses and trips.

Diane Lueck is assistant international director of "Becoming an Outdoors-Woman" (BOW), a program based at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which teaches skills in hunting, angling, canoeing, orienteering (using a compass, for example). Ms. Lueck believes that many women, particularly those over 30, were not encouraged or given the opportunity as children to participate in outdoor sports and are reluctant to try them now. She says BOW - offered in 44 states and Canada -appeals to women because it allows them to learn new skills in a sociable and cooperative, rather than competitive, atmosphere.

Andy Blair, an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in Lander, Wy., which runs women's kayaking and rock-climbing courses, agrees. He says he's noticed that women often feel more comfortable taking risks, particularly in technical sports such as rock climbing, when no men are around.

That's what Ann Scott Williams found when she took a women's Outward Bound sailing course in Maine 21 years ago. While she says the lessons were just as tough as those for men, she felt safer and more able to try new things.

She says that despite moments of fear and self-doubt, she completed the course feeling powerful and accomplished. Now a sales director for Mary Kay Cosmetics in Plain City, Ohio, she hopes to celebrate her 60th birthday this year on another Outward Bound women's sailing trip.

While Ms. Williams's all-female program was one of the first, today there is a wide variety of such opportunities. This year the Sierra Club is running women's backpacking, canoeing, and volunteer service trips in California, Colorado, and Minnesota, as well as a lodge stay in Utah studying native-American history. Earthwise Journeys, a woman-owned company in Portland, Ore., offers backpacking and trekking trips in the US, Canada, Europe, and Latin America. And the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset, Maine has a leadership course for women who want to lead programs of their own.

Of course not all women want special programs. Mr. Blair says NOLS gets plenty of calls from women specifically requesting co-ed courses. And there are men who appreciate what editor Mulhern Gross calls her "talk-it-over-and-think-it-through-first school of learning."

"I have received letters and comments from male readers who like the guides' whole-person, step-by-step approach," says Mulhern Gross. "I hope that the books won't have to be gender-based 10 years from now."

Resources for women


PO Box 220

Camden, ME 04843



University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

College of Natural Resources

Stevens Point, WI 54481

877-BOWOMAN (269-6626)


288 Main Street

Lander, WY 82520



National Office

100 Mystery Point Rd.

Garrison, NY 10524



85 Second St., Second Floor

San Francisco, CA 94105



PO Box 16177

Portland, OR 97292



485 Chewonki Neck Rd.

Wiscasset, ME 04578


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