Over the last few summers I have taken my daughter on a number of canoe trips, and we’ve always had a great time. She loves stopping at little islands to explore and eat snacks, and when she was really young she would nap in the canoe. This year, I signed us up for a three day “Women and Girls” canoe trip in Killarney Park guided by Wild Women Expeditions. While I love planning routes and organizing trip menus, my work schedule has been heavy enough that a bit of luxury seemed in order. With the fab WWE guides in charge, I just had to pack some gear and get us to the trip access point. Better yet, on this trip my daughter would have other girls to play with. I want to nurture my daughter’s sense of adventure and offer her challenging opportunities, but I also want it to be fun. Kids are the experts there.
And they had fun. They swam, jumped out of canoes, and took over a tiny island which they quickly determined was for “kids only.” (No Lord of the Flies, so far as I could tell…) They ran wild for hours and encountered many fascinating creatures: a water snake, a beaver, a barred owl, and the usual frogs, minnows, loons and hawks. The trip was also just the right length for 7 year olds. We spent enough time in the canoes for the girls to get the feel of travelling by canoe, but not so long that they were bored. And there was only one short 30m portage, so the girls got to experience portaging without its unique hardships. They can find out about those later.
The trip was great for the grown-ups too. Laughs over gritty ‘cowgirl coffee,’ lots of swimming, and a break from the usual demands and judgments of everyday life. It’s also really good to connect with others who want to nurture wilderness skills for girls and foster their sense of adventure. And I found the trip freeing in the way that backcountry trips usually are. In wilder places, I feel light and peaceful.
Nothing brought home the full meaning of our trip more, though, than two comments directed to my daughter and I at its end. As we unloaded packs onto the dock, one of the outfitter guys challenged “Isn’t this women-only trip sexist?” Later that night, we were eating dinner at a resort and a man stopped at our table and “joked” to my daughter “You know what I like most about you? You look like your mother.” This man – whom I suspect has been entertaining women with his comedy for decades – was probably unaware that his jokey compliment contained an insult. Among other things, he conveyed to my daughter that what might be best about her is her looks and moreover, that what is good about her looks is that they involve looking like someone else.
The comparison over appearance that women and girls engage in, and are subjected to, is a source of much unhappiness. So is the entitlement that some men assume in their interactions with women and girls by virtue of the fact that they are male. These ways of relating with women and girls steal joy and dampen feelings of adventure, wildness, strength, and capability.
On the bright side, these two fellows offered up some fine teachable moments. I explained to my daughter why I didn’t like these comments in an age-appropriate way. More important, though, is that we had just been on a fun adventure. She saw women charting routes, hauling packs, building campsites, paddling lakes, all the while not giving two hoots about appearances. She experienced first-hand the energy of strong, capable, respectful, fun-loving, and risk-taking women. And she got to feel wild and free. Such experiences fortify girls and women against poisonous compliments and willful ignorance about social power, and do so in ways that may run deeper than conceptual points or clever come-backs (however fun). Where the wild girls are, and how they spend their time, may be more important than we realize.