Membership is so much more than discounts and dividends; it's a chance to join a community that shares a common love for the outdoors. The REI Women's Campout in Vernonia, Oregon, offered an opportunity to break out the camping gear, learn new skills and explore alongside fellow adventurers.
Before I could walk, my parents put me in a child backpack carrier and explored the outdoors. We climbed down cliffs to reach secluded beaches, hiked into the hidden valleys of the Pacific Northwest, and climbed mountains to camp at alpine lakes. As I grew older, the backpack was occupied by my younger brothers, and I was given the task of carrying my own weight. I learned how to start fires and find clean drinking water, and I mastered the tight roll of my sleeping bag and tent. I felt free, and capable, away from the strict limits of my everyday life. Then, somewhere around my teens, my social life took precedence and I haven’t picked up a backpack in close to two decades.
Now I have a family of my own, and I’m feeling the need to share the wonders of the great outdoors with my daughter. I want to teach her skills that can help her feel self-sufficient and capable in the wild. As if it were fate, an old friend I haven’t seen in years passed my name along to the crew organizing the Women's REI Campout being held the last weekend in July, in Vernonia, Oregon, about 50 miles northwest of my home in Portland. Luckily for me, I got the invite. Admittedly, I didn’t understand how opportune this was at the time.
Driving through winding country roads, I soon arrived at Vernonia Springs. The first thing that caught my eye was a huge wooden rainbow trout at the base of two tall pines, with the letters U-CATCH painted across it. The property was once a trout fishing camp, but the otters had long since cleaned them out; now the property is a private park with yurts and camping sites. It looked like a place straight out of Pinterest with its pine trees, a timber-framed lodge and large, log pergola, and a picturesque lake covered in lily pads. A yoga platform with sheer, billowing curtains overlooked a grassy field edged by forest. It was the perfect setting for the sea of tents set up by REI members and guests.
After grabbing a swag bag of goodies, creating my personal itinerary from the long list of activities and listening to a short introduction, I left with the group for a short hike at L.L. Stub Stewart State Park. We entered the trail where the road had cut away at a hillside, leaving a towering wall of forest. It didn’t take long before the busyness of the city I left behind had surrendered to the stillness of my surroundings.
Leslie, our REI Outdoor School instructor and guide, stopped occasionally and pointed out edible leaves and berries. Once we received the OK on what we had picked, we tasted our small bounty of tart treats and my mind wandered, thinking about the many hidden foods of the forest. As we reached the end of our 3-mile loop, I felt a little humbled. We walked into the forest as a group of strangers and left with a common bond.
After returning to our idyllic base camp, we snacked and chatted among ourselves. The instructors set up for the fireside sessions, which are an opportunity for the participants to gather around the knowledgeable instructors, experts in their fields, and learn about different skills and equipment. On the itinerary: how to build an emergency shelter, fix a bike flat, pack a backpack, purify water and start a fire. Many of these things I had learned as a child but had long forgotten.
I joined the session on how to pack your pack. The instructor emphasized the importance of educating yourself before you set off on any adventure, by looking at maps of the area, locating your water sources, and making sure your Ten Essentials are covered. For even more assurance of safety, she talked about bear spray and the technology of satellite location systems. A huge obstacle to getting back outdoors is the feeling of being incapable. While taking part in the fireside sessions, I felt a new excitement bubble up in me to start planning a trip with my family.
Later in the day, I walked down to the lakeside in the afternoon sun. A mother of two young girls who were playing on the dock was standing next to me. The girls were catching the nymph form of the damselflies swimming in the lake, and were attempting to catch water gliders in the lid of a cup, to no avail. Her mother explained to me that she herself hadn’t been camping since she was a little girl. Her family had been through a lot of hardship in recent years and life was finally settling down when she saw this opportunity come up on the REI website. Now, standing here watching her daughter ooh and aah over the exoskeleton of a dragonfly attached to a stick, I could see a beautiful experience unfolding, one that any person touched by the wonders of nature can relate to.
The members of the REI Co-op, brought together by a common love for the outdoors, revived something in me. I realized how this community could bridge a gap to the places I strive to go to. I walked away from this experience confident in my abilities and ready to get back to secluded beaches, wild forests and a lake under the stars, this time with my own family.