Backpacking with Girls Outdoor Leadership Development

The YMCA's Girls Outdoor Leadership Development (GOLD) program uses the wilderness and outdoor activities as a way to increase confidence, resiliency, community awareness and wonder in girls ages 11 to 18. Since their founding in Seattle, the GOLD and BOLD programs have expanded to 23 cities across the country. We sent our writer on a trek into the wilderness with a group of seven GOLD girls to find out more.

“I feel pretty, oh, so pretty, I feel pretty and witty and bright!” A chorus of voices rang out this classic from the musical West Side Story in Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, along the fern- and fireweed-filled stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail we were trekking through. Seven young women, two trip leaders and I marched back from successfully hanging our bear bag, singing at the top of our lungs. This trip is called Mountain Melodies, after all.

Girls crossing a log bridge

The young women cross a bridge on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Mountain Melodies is a two-week GOLD program focused on backpacking, baking bread, discovering local plants and—of course—making music. The program, which REI has been working with since 2012, received a $50,000 Force of Nature grant as part of our Force of Nature effort, where we pledged to invest more than $1 million in organizations that ensure women are equally inspired and equipped to embrace a life outside. This grant is allowing GOLD to provide scholarships to girls who might not otherwise be able to go on these trips, including some of the girls in Mountain Melodies. It will also fund training for instructors and help increase access for all.

Most of the girls on this trip had never gone on a day hike before let alone backpacking. A few weeks ago, I watched as they stuffed tents, sleeping pads and heavy sacks of shared food and group gear into borrowed packs. They were clean, they were nervous and they were certainly not singing.

But just days into the woods, cleanliness, nerves and quiet were thrown to the wind. They layered Outcast with Journey while they sorted group gear. They belted out Stayin’ Alive in the style of Eddie Vedder and filtered water. They “rah rah ah-ah-ah!”-ed Bad Romance while schlepping 70-liter packs.

I didn’t go with them, but I rejoined them for the last two days of their trip. I found them just as they returned to camp, all seven raucous young women taking off to hang the bear bag. They took out their trip journal, flipped to the page with a carefully drawn picture of how to hang one and worked through it. The grownups—leaders Maggie and Tessa—hung back, letting the girls figure it out themselves.

There were many false starts and frustrated moments. But as they worked through the problem, the overwhelming sense was of community and an ease in the wild.

Bear hang

Getting the bear hang right takes a village.

As they problem-solved, I asked a question that prompted some frowns: What was the hardest part of the trip? For Rahel, 16, it was horrible shin splints. For Trinity, 16, it was staying present with so much going on at home. For Lyvia, 14, it was carrying a heavy pack for days on end. They said it was a hard trip. They even had a running joke—each day, no matter how many days they really had left, they would groan, “But we still have two more days left!”

Even with the toughness of the trip, the group proved it doesn’t take long to come into your own in the outdoors. After the bear hang, the girls sorted through the remaining food odds and ends and came up with the menu for the night: a ramen buffet. Dibora, 17, Rahel, 16, and Jailin, 16, all told me that food was the best part of the trip. They ticked off their favorites, all backcountry recipes handed down from past trips: flavorful curry, a peanut-sauce concoction called swimming rama and cinnamon rolls that they made themselves, in the woods! My disbelief at good backpacking food evaporated with dinner—I mixed miso powder with peanut butter and stirred in their ramen, tofu and veggie invention—and downed two helpings.

Maggie writes notes for Mai, who learned a song on the ukulele during the trip.

Finally, we gathered in a circle, sitting on the hard-packed dirt of the established campsite. It was time to debrief. We swept around the circle, each person sharing what made the trip special.

“I realized I could do more than I thought I could before,” Lyvia said. She had gone on day hikes, but cooking bread for lunch herself (they actually baked bread, with the help of their highly practiced trip leaders, in the woods every day!), walking 56 miles and carrying more than 30 pounds of gear? She said the trip pushed her limits.

“I gained more responsibility for the environment and the group,” said Trinity, who was starting her junior year of high school the day after the trip ended. She added that she loved “laughing our tails off.”

More surprising than the good backpacking food was the comfort with which they were able to see their own strengths. Each day, one young lady was dubbed the Leader of the Day, and given the responsibility to keep the group on track.

Reading the map at 5:00 a.m.

“Young women are taught to ignore their natural talents to lead and inspire people. It’s important to help them connect with their strengths and realize not only can they lead but they are good at it,” GOLD National Director Courtney Aber said.

14-year-old Mai said her proudest moment was how she led the group on her day as a Leader of the Day. When she said she did a good job, there were nods around the circle. “You did,” another murmured.

They slept out under the stars for their last night, because they wanted to be together. We fell asleep to stars winking in the spaces between tall trees and the river rushing by.

The last day was bittersweet. There was a 4:00 a.m. wake up and a tough 4-mile hike to get out by 9:00 a.m.

When we finally arrived back at home base, all borrowed gear put away, there was another circle. But this time there were plenty of tears. As the young women held hands, led by Maggie into something called a cinnamon roll hug (holding hands in a straight line, a girl at the end spins toward the middle until there is a spiral of hug), there were shouts of “two more days!” No groans this time.

No one was ready for it to be over.

The girls did a cinnamon roll hug at the end of the trip.

GOLD is a YMCA program funded in part by REI. Each group is created to be reflective of the greater community, combining kids from different backgrounds and ethnicities. They partner with minority populations that aren’t well represented in the outdoors. Best yet, the program removes the financial barriers that prevent many from experiencing the outdoors. Last year two thirds of participants received financial aid, providing opportunities to youth who would otherwise not have access to the outdoors. If you are interested in making a scholarship donation, click here to find out more

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