Women: Get Outside with a Variety of Activities in the St. Croix Valley

Anna Davenport and Lori Gonzolas are passionate about getting women outdoors and (a little bit) out of their comfort zones.

It’s a sad fact: Women’s participation in outdoor activities drops significantly throughout their middle years. According to a 2009 study (outdoorfoundation.org), by age 50, only 40 percent of women participate in outdoor activities; by 60, the number drops to 30 percent, and only 20 percent of women older than 66 get outside to play.

A few women in the St. Croix Valley have something to say (and do) about that. Get out your sunscreen, ladies, and meet these outdoorsy women and their organizations.

Women’s Outdoor Adventures

A graphic designer by trade, Pam Wright has been a self-proclaimed outdoors person all of her life. She and Lori Gonzalez “kind of eclectically found each other,” she says, at Faith Community Church in Hudson in 2014. “We were women crazy to do stuff outside,” she says of the serendipitous encounter. “We feel we connect with God in nature.”

Two years ago they formed the group Thrive Women’s Outdoor Adventures to share their love of recreation in an all-women environment; Anna Davenport came on board in 2015 after meeting Pam Wright at a Thrive event. “Any woman can join, you don’t need to belong to our church, or any church, to participate,” Wright says. Activities range from kayaking to canoeing to camping, and from hiking and biking to skiing and stand-up paddleboarding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

The trio also connects women of all skills and abilities to each other and, most important, have fun doing it. Once a month the group organizes a main local event, like canoeing on the St. Croix River or kayaking the “Kinni” (the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls, Wis.) for a day. They often use outfitters, so participants don’t have to purchase their own equipment. Scheduled activities are posted on Facebook.

Women ages 13 to 60-something have participated, some in mother-daughter or even grandmother-granddaughter pairs. Many are outdoor-sports beginners; all are encouraged “to come as you are,” Wright says. Part of the mission of Thrive is to “demystify outdoor activities,” she says. “Women can feel intimidated, nervous and worried about self-image in trying new things. Often, they feel like they don’t have the appropriate skills, or they shortchange what skills they have. Sometimes they worry they’re not fit enough, or they don’t know enough about the necessary gear.” Thrive addresses all of these concerns and more.

Take 42-year-old Vonda Rankin of Hudson. “As a mother of young kids,” she says, “it was hard to find time for myself and also to connect with other women. I’ve had positive experiences at all the [Thrive] events. You can challenge yourself as much as you want, and there’s no need to commit beyond one activity.”

On a spring evening, she and a dozen other women hiked more than two miles of hilly terrain at Afton State Park. Describing herself as a “woman who has become more active in the outdoors as [she] got older,” Rankin has only praise for the women who lead the charge. “Their hearts are in providing women opportunities outdoors, to helping women increase their confidence and enjoyment in outdoor activities,” she says.

St. Croix River Valley Paddle Club

Mellissa Dahl and her friend Tom Brinker began kayaking about five years ago, and it was Brinker who originally thought it would be fun to start a club for other people who loved kayaking. Kakattack was born basically from the idea that “I’m going to be here at this time to kayak, and whoever wants to join us can,” Dahl says with a laugh.

In 2014, local paddler Susan Overman offered to assume the increasing responsibilities of organizing and leading the group’s various water activities. Still active in the group’s Facebook administration and an avid kayaker, Dahl says her favorite kayak route in the Valley “is the Kinni for its natural beauty, like sheer cliff walls and wildlife, too—birds and deer, for example.” Waterfalls round out the experience, as well as a little whitewater along the way. (This particular route is not for beginners, Dahl cautions.)

Unlike Thrive, Kakattack is not a women’s-only group, although women generally make up at least half of event numbers. “It’s not particularly harder for women to get on the river than for men,” says Overman, which might explain at least part of the club’s popularity with women. Another reason is a little more ephemeral, according to Overman: “Women just seem to me to have more of a connection with rivers and water.”

Paddlers of varying abilities are welcome at an assortment of Kakattack outings. Activities are listed by abilities, and some are for beginners, Overman says, although it is generally not a “learn-to-paddle group.” Most people come with their own kayaks and other equipment—paddles, life jackets, dry-packs, etc. Every spring the club sponsors both a meet-and-greet and a separate safety and demo day run by Kerri Kolstad of Wahoo! Adventures—a good way for potential club members to try out a variety of watercraft, says Overman, and the best opportunity to get some beginner instruction.

So what might a Kakattack paddle outing look like? On a Wednesday evening, for example, a group of 10 to 12 might meet, everyone with their own kayaks, canoes or even stand-up paddleboards, at a designated put-in on the St. Croix. The outing might be a couple of miles to 5 or 6, depending on river and wind/weather conditions. “We’ll usually stop at an island for a mid-paddle break. It’s not a competition,” she says. “We’re just people who like to have fun together and love to paddle.”

Past activities also have included dinner or drinks or music. “We keep it light and casual,” Overman says. She started out three years ago this month scheduling only Wednesday-evening paddles, but “I heard from lots of people that they wanted a weekend option, too. Last year we added them”; as a result, this year Overman was looking for other people to help lead some of the groups.

Wahoo! Adventures

and SCORCH (St. Croix Off-Road Cycling Hotties)

Kerri Kolstad owns Wahoo! Adventures; she also runs Kakattack’s spring overview of equipment and safety. In her own business, which typically, but not exclusively, serves women, Kolstad does what she calls “pampered camping.” The events include everything you might need, including guides, bicycles, kayaks, meals, transportation or camping gear, Kolstad says. Schedules and sign-ups for bike, kayaking and women-only trips are also on the website.

Lori Gonzalez’s still-evolving SCORCH is another venue for women wanting to get outdoors in the Valley. A co-founder of Thrive, Gonzalez is an avid mountain biker and is interested in growing the local population of women off-road cyclists. Beginning to experienced mountain bikers are welcome to join weekly rides at 7 p.m. Thursdays at White Tail Ridge in River Falls. A helmet is required for all riders.