{ Adventure & Travel }

Women’s Wilderness

With a heart for underserved populations, Emily Isaacs and her team bring people together to experience the outdoors in a meaningful way.
by Carrie Visintainer

The trail looks like it might go on forever. At least that’s how it appears to some of the nine- and 10-year-old girls as they walk in a single file line along a path through Boulder’s Chautauqua Park, their shoes crunching gravel. It’s only midmorning, but already the summer sun feels intense. One girl, whose green headband holds back a shock of dark hair, taps the shoulder of the bandana-clad girl in front of her. “What are we doing after this, again?” she asks, swinging her water bottle.

Instructor Amber Guzzardo, Executive Director Emily Isaacs, Instructor Aleya Littleton

Just then the leader, a twenty-something wearing khaki shorts and a baseball cap, turns and squats low, pointing into the brush. “Hey, shhh, look!” she says with excitement. The girls shuffle over, craning their necks, hands on each other’s shoulders, a few arms around waists. And then someone whispers, “Deer!”

There is a collective, “ohh,” followed by several “cools” and “whoas.” As the deer stares curiously at the girls, the leader takes a minute to identify the creature as a doe and then offers a few facts. One participant announces that she’s never seen a deer “in the wilderness” before and beams as she lists the people she will tell: her dad, the neighbor, all of her friends. The others nod, chiming in. The girls on this hike are part of an Adventure Days program, one of the flagship courses offered by the nonprofit Women’s Wilderness (WW), which provides innovative, heart-centered personal development and leadership programs for girls ages eight through 18.

Women’s Wilderness was founded in 1998 by Laura Tyson, who’d previously worked for male-oriented companies like The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Outward Bound. Tyson felt the need to look more closely at what women need from an outdoors program, homing in on the broader question of who doesn’t feel included in the dominant story of the outdoor industry and how best to serve them. She wanted to empower girls to have fun in nature while building relationships and asking the questions: Who am I? What’s my identity? What do I believe in? How do I lead from my strengths? And ultimately: What does it mean to grow up as a girl in our culture? She launched WW with a couple of technical and skills-based programs for teens.

Nearly two decades later, WW continues to traverse this territory. For the last couple of years, Emily Isaacs, an outdoor educator and therapist, has been at the helm and she and her team have continued Tyson’s mission, recruiting widely for their programs at schools and events along the Front Range. She’s proud to welcome all girls; more than 50 percent of girls-program participants receive need-based financial assistance, and approximately 35 percent are Latina, African-American or Asian-American.

In addition, Isaacs is always looking at ways for their programs to become more inclusive. For example, it came to her attention that in modern society, people who are non-normative in regards to gender or sexuality often have not felt like they had a place in traditional nature-based programs. WW applied for a grant from the Open Door fund and recently launched a program called Queer Nature, open to the LGBTQIA+ community. Participants, led by a therapist and two others who have experience with rites of passage and wilderness awareness skills, gather to explore ancestral skills like pine needle basket weaving and wildlife tracking in a safe and welcoming environment. It offers a way for participants to reclaim their own belonging in the world, in nature.

Isaacs says that the takeaways past program participants share are moving, that they regularly have women come back in their twenties who did courses 15 years earlier and say it was a turning point for them. One woman who’d attended a climbing camp as an adolescent said it was the moment where she realized this was a part of her identity and who she wanted to be. Another young woman who attended five WW programs with financial aid over the years went on to be the first person in her family to attend college. A participant from Queer Nature said that they’ve always been interested getting outdoors and exploring their relationship with nature, but it hadn’t been a place in which they felt safe and included, until now.

In terms of dreams moving forward, Isaacs said Women’s Wilderness would love to own a parcel of land somewhere on the Front Range, “that would serve as a sanctuary, a place to belong.” But above all, she’d like to see WW become one of the big leaders in the outdoors industry, because it meets such a strong need. “Women’s Wilderness [offers] an alternative way to be outdoors that is not about conquering, not about crushing. We do go to the top of the peak, and we feel strong and powerful and brave, yet our experiences are highly relational, collaborative; an alternate way of being together in community on the land.”

Want to participate or get involved? Visit womenswilderness.org