“There was something magical about this Girls Camp trip that convinced me of the power and importance of all-girls experiences,” says Emmy Held, who co-led the Allagash Canoe Adventure with Abi Ruksznis last summer. The two women traveled 150 miles by canoe with eight girls, ages 13-15, during three weeks on the West Branch of the Penobscot River and the Allagash River Waterway. “It will forever stand out in my memory as a time filled with happiness–a wonderful balance of hard work and relaxing and playing,” says Rukznis.
Like all wilderness trips, though, this one had highs and lows. But Ruksznis says “great wilderness trips have some combination of challenges that unite the group, unique and fun experiences in beautiful places, and a daily routine that allows every member of the group to be appreciated. Last summer’s Allagash trips were the essence this definition.” Her favorite part was the gunnel swimming. “We would paddle hard for a few hours and then take a break to jump out of our canoes and cool off,” she says.
Held remembers the three-mile portage from Round Pond to Allagash Lake. “It’s an incredible challenge,” she says. “The night before, we practiced putting boats on our backs and picked portage partners. It was so cool to talk to the girls, acknowledging that it would be hard, really hard, but that there was no one else to carry the boats for us, and we were strong ladies and could and would do it.”
On some coed wilderness trips, Held has observed “girls taking a step back and letting boys do more work or get more recognition for physical achievements. That dynamic was eliminated on this trip. The girls crushed it. A ranger passed us during that portage and mentioned that several all-boys groups had had their canoes and gear shuttled around the portage for them. He said that we were the toughest group he had seen all summer, and the most cheerful (there was a loud Disney sing-along happening).”
One Allagash Canoe Expedition participant, Maya Khesin, says she “felt cleansed and revitalized” after the trip. “It really helped me return to basics, regain some of my confidence and self-esteem, as well as reconnect with my wilderness self.” Another paddler, Ursula Fusco, says the expedition taught her “the importance of living in the moment. I practiced staying present and it helped me learn more about what was happening around us.”
Both girls appreciated making the trip with other girls. “It’s easier for me to be completely myself when I’m surrounded by girls,” says Khesin, especially those who have “a strong love of the wilderness in common.” Fusco valued “being challenged and pushed, while also having a little family to fall back on if I needed to. The Chewonki experience of living in the wild and getting to know some cool people is really special.”
Tripping with other girls “allows for an open dialogue on all topics, and I think the girls feel empowered to be themselves,” Ruksznis says. Girls Camp Director Nancy Kennedy says, “We want our campers to develop a sense of who they are and what they bring to the table. Abi and Emmy created support and openness,” so these eight young expeditioners could “stop being aware of everyone else’s sense of who they are and start being themselves.”
Held believes outdoor experiences ground girls. “It is hard to be a girl in so many ways these days,” she says. “These girls talked about the competitiveness and cattiness they deal with in school. They thrive on trips like this because those barriers and groups do not exist. The wilderness has a wonderful way of humbling and empowering.”
“The girls are the ones who made the trip,” insists Held. “Abi and I feel honored to have been part of it. I can’t wait to see what’s next for these incredible individuals.”