By Jaya Flanary
After 40 miles of paddling in one day, Susan Marie Conrad heaved her kayak onto shore. She knew she had to make a campsite, but she struggled in the high winds to pitch her tent.
“It was getting dark, the wind had picked up. I’m wearing a wetsuit but I’m starting to shiver. There are grizzly bears everywhere,” Conrad, an outdoor enthusiast, recalled. “I just started screaming.”
Conrad began her journey through the Inside Passage, a network of waterways that extends from Puget Sound to Southeast Alaska, on May 5, 2010.
She will share her story on Friday, July 20, at 7 p.m. at Cafe Velo for a Womxn on Trails seminar. The event is hosted by a Bellingham nonprofit, Shifting Gears, which aims to create welcoming recreation experiences for womxn.
Founded three years ago by Jenny Schmidt and three friends, Shifting Gears offers a variety of recreational programs for womxn, including hiking and biking. Most programs are free and those interested can just show up, while longer trips require online registration and a small fee.
“It seems like the community is asking for breaking down barriers for [LGBTQ+] and women,” Schmidt said. “I think when you think about barriers that are in place, that exist right now, those two groups have the biggest need for a safe and inclusive community.”
The organization hopes to do this for every demographic in the future, Schmidt said.
Womxn are less likely than men to participate in recreation, according to Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal.
“While it is very much centered around recreation and cycling, the recreation is more of a tool to get us toward being more confident as womxn in the outdoors,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt was terrified of biking until moving to Bellingham in 2009.
“My car broke down and so I had no other choice than to just suck it up and learn,” she said.
Eventually, biking became more than commuting. Schmidt began mountain biking, bikepacking and learning how to fix her own bike.
“By gaining access to all those tools, it created so much more self-confidence for me in my personal life,” she said. “I felt like I became healthier and a mentally stronger person.”
Schmidt and her friend Kait Whiteside originally wanted to start a bike-touring company. But the people they wanted to help, Schmidt said, couldn’t afford the trips. The two brought on their friends Nadine Van Niekerk and Kari Humphreys to create a nonprofit instead.
Recreational activities can be intimidating for a womxn, Schmidt said. This includes the safety of being alone in the wilderness, fear of judgment for not being good enough and not knowing how to access trails.
“When I first started getting into bikepacking, it was absolutely a man’s sport and I didn’t have that female comradery to help get through my social anxiety,” Schmidt said. “It took a lot of courage for me. I think that sometimes courage is really hard to find.”
Schmidt will be a panelist for the seminar this Friday. She will be talking about her 3,200 mile journey in 2012 along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico.
She said it was frustrating to be one of the slowest ones on the trail. She also struggled with pain and maintaining hygiene.
Schmidt’s next journey may involve exploring New Zealand, but as of now, she is enjoying what Bellingham has to offer.
“I hope that if anyone [at the seminar] has some sort of dream that they are holding themselves back from, that they walk away from the seminar feeling like they can do it,” Schmidt said.
Sadie Holwegner was one of the organization’s first members. She said she has always struggled with confidence, but Shifting Gears has given her the courage to fix things herself, rather than depending on others.
“I don’t have to rely on somebody,” Holwegner said.
The organization has given Holwegner a safe and comfortable space to ask questions.
“If I were to go into a bike mechanic, which is probably going to be a man, I probably wouldn’t feel super comfortable asking those random questions,” she said.
Holwegner also has embarked on her own solo journeys. Last summer she spent a week biking in Oregon, where she would sometimes bike for 30 miles in one day.
“It was a really, really empowering experience and I would not have felt comfortable if I wouldn’t have gone on the first bike tour with Shifting Gears,” Holwegner said.
At the end of the summer, Holwegner is going on a four-day trip in the Olympic Peninsula with her partner, who she has enjoyed teaching about bike maintenance.
Holwegner continues to take trips with Shifting Gears. Last weekend they rode 30 miles through Larrabee State Park. It felt powerful to ride as a large group, she said.
Conrad’s largest journey was solo as well. She spent 66 days kayaking the Inside Passage: 1,148 miles from Anacortes, Washington to Juneau, Alaska.
She made the trip because she was struggling with life at the time.
“I was just at a point in my life where I needed another goal. And the Inside Passage became the mother of them all,” Conrad said.
Throughout her journey, Conrad journaled every day and took almost 5,000 photos. With a background in journalism and a story to tell, she compiled it all into a book. “Inside: One Woman’s Journey Through the Inside Passage” was published in May 2016.
The book begins on the night she landed after paddling 40 miles, when she knew she was in trouble and at risk of hypothermia.
“[I] crawled in my tent and just tried to convince myself I was gonna wake up alive the next morning. And I did,” she said.
Going on journeys alone is a different experience, Conrad said, because the experience is all yours.
“Especially being a womxn, there’s this real heavy sense of freedom that comes from being 100 percent responsible for my own decisions, my own safety. And I like that, I find that really empowering,” she said.
Conrad believes she is just a normal womxn who committed to bridging the gap between dream and reality.
“The distance between that gap is action,” Conrad said. “I’ve always struggled with low self-confidence and body image and fear and all that kind of stuff. But coming out the other side of this trip I realized that this journey became a paradigm of my life’s journey.”
She plans to paddle the Inside Passage again in 2020, 10 years after the first journey, but from north to south, and slower. She said she rushed the trip the first time.
“I would do it slower and kind of stop to smell the roses on the way,” Conrad said. “Stop to smell the barnacles.”
Conrad was involved in the outdoor program at Southern Oregon University and later started her own business, Silver Moon Kayak Company, in Northwest Montana near Glacier National Park, which had a retail shop and provided guided trips, lessons and gear rentals.
While in Montana, Conrad became certified through the American Canoe Association, which she considers one of the best yet hardest things she’s ever done.
The certification allowed her to teach kayak lessons to people of all skill levels. She enjoyed teaching womxn because they tended to be fearful of tipping over, yet would always get excited after they tipped because it wasn’t as dramatic as they thought it would be.
As a child, Conrad was led to believe that because she was a womxn, she couldn’t do certain things, including challenge herself.
“I was always told by my parents, ‘You’re a girl so you shouldn’t climb that tree,’ or ‘You’re a girl, you shouldn’t ride your bicycle in any place except for the driveway,’” Conrad said.
Conrad believes a lot of womxn experience this, which creates the barriers that Shifting Gears aims to break down.