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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Shifting Gears and empowering womxn

Mount Baker looms over Bellingham as seen from Lummi Shore Road. // Photo by Christa Yaranon

By Christa Yaranon

With recent conversations involving female empowerment, support and inclusivity, one nonprofit organization focuses on fostering womxn communities around Bellingham.

Shifting Gears, is a nonprofit organization that aims to create welcoming environments and recreation experiences for individuals who self-identify as womxn, transgender, femme or non-binary, according to the organization’s mission statement.

The organization hosts various cycling and hiking programs focused on breaking down barriers that often prevent womxn from their aspirations as well as encouraging confidence, learning, wellness, growth and joy, according to Shifting Gears’ executive director and co-founder Nadine van Niekerk.

“We want to be able to provide these inclusive spaces and create a community where womxn can come together and learn from one another,” van Niekerk said. 

One of the events that helped to foster community involvement is the Road Bike Ride: Lummi Island Ferry Hoppin’, an annual bike ride that starts from Bellingham and finishes at Lummi Island. 

The bike ride on Saturday, July 27 brought womxn together to share experiences, create community and put a focus on empowerment through a mutual passion for cycling and spending time outdoors, according to van Niekerk.

The event began at a meet-up at Cafe Velo and served as a way for people to chat and get to know each other. The group of nine participants and three ride leaders took off for the Lummi Peninsula by 9:45 a.m.. 

The event’s skill-level was intended for beginner-intermediate level riders specifically designed at a slower pace for participants to enjoy each other’s company and take in the scenery, according to Shifting Gears’ program manager and co-founder Kari Humphreys.

After riding along Marine Drive and taking a few detours, the group reached Lummi Shore Road, a drive which hugs the shoreline and provides panoramic views of Bellingham and Mt. Baker across the bay. The group was able to spot mudslides, bald eagles and expansive views of their final destination for the journey.

Lummi Island was particularly selected as the destination because of its easy accessibility, according to van Niekerk.

The ride continued on through the Lummi reservation, where an event called “Paddle to Lummi” was ongoing. Riders got to see and witness different tribes from all over the Northwest gather on the reservation after traveling by canoe for several days, according to Humphreys.

The group proceeded toward the Lummi Island ferry, where they could choose to stop for lunch, explore or continue to take a seven-mile loop around the island before taking the ferry back to the mainland and cycling back home. 

Part of the reason why these events are special to many are the bonds that are created throughout its duration, according to Humphreys.

I am a strong believer that when we get a group of womxn together, something kind of magical happens where everyone feels more empowered,” Humphreys said. “I think that being able to go on a bike ride together for a lot of us is a little bit of a challenge – to get up and say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna spend my whole Saturday with a group of strangers that I’m riding 40+ miles with and I’m not sure of what to expect.’”

Humphreys explained that these nerves are common for participants but often go away quickly once the ice is broken and relationships are formed. 

“When I see everyone meet up and we have a chance to introduce ourselves and tell a little bit about our stories and then get out there on the road, most of the time folks are opening up and they’re telling us how wonderful this feels to them,” Humphreys said. “To have a welcoming and supportive group of ladies to go on a really rad adventure with is inspiring.”

Gina Ebbeling was one of the participants on the Road Bike Ride to Lummi and only knew one other person in the group prior to the event. Ebbeling had participated in indoor cycling classes that Shifting Gears hosted and this was the first time she joined in on one of their outdoor bike rides. She said she later left that day with newfound friends and felt empowered by the community aspect.

“Getting a new group of womxn together to have this experience with was really fun because we just had lots of different conversations going and it was just a totally new way to connect with others,” Ebbeling said. “[The bike ride] provided a perfect platform to create community with womxn, so my experience was really comfortable and it was really great for us to gather before the trip, to tell each other our names and our experience with biking and then let those conversations grow organically throughout the trip.”

For Humphreys, serving as a leader hits on a personal level, as she observes relationships form firsthand during these journeys.

 “I hear things like, ‘I feel like a kid again, this is so much fun,’ and people are having lovely conversations about whatever is on their mind,” Humphreys said. “It’s just a really special space that I think not a lot of us practice putting into our lives on a day-to-day basis, so I see that community being built in our programs pretty quickly.”

The duration of the entire bike ride lasted around eight hours, with a total completion of 40+ miles spent biking. Organization of the miles and route planned were structured for easy accessibility for participants of all different skill levels.

“I am a big connector,” Ebbeling said. “[And] I think in a place like Bellingham, there’s so many different options for ways to be active and for some people who may be new to different activities or unsure of their skill level, this is such a perfect way to make it accessible. What they’re doing is exactly what is needed in this community.”

One of the options provided by the organization included an optional ride pick-up that was intended for those who couldn’t bike the whole way, according to Humphreys.

We always have an on-call person that’s available to come and pick up a bicyclist, should they not want to continue the ride for whatever reason and so that’s something that also impacts somebody’s overall mileage for the day,” Humphreys said. “Being able to offer that lets anybody push themselves out of their comfort zone and see what it’s like to ride 20 miles out of town without that big scary risk of not knowing if they can make it all the way back to Bellingham.”

The atmosphere of the journey was lively and exhilarating, which helps to provide memorable experiences for riders to reflect back on, according to Humphreys.

You could just feel a buzz in the air,” Humphreys said. “All the energy was high and there was a lot of laughter. This intent of leading and encouraging other womxn and then to see the trips play out like how this one went is really beautiful.”

Both Humphreys and van Niekerk find value in the way that their organization creates support when womxn band together. 

“We’re reminded all the time that this is making an impact on people’s lives and that our mission is being heard,” Humphreys said. “It’s a really great reminder of what we’re doing and why we’re here.”

Looking toward future aspirations, van Niekerk hopes to continue fostering unity and acceptance among womxn. 

“The overall vision is to help womxn realize that the outdoors is accessible and that it’s a welcoming space,” van Niekerk said. “Anyone is welcome here. It doesn’t matter your financial status, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, everyone is welcome in these spaces.”

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