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Whatcom women get wild with volunteer group's celebration of outdoor empowerment

Shifting Gears plans its annual Wild Women Week beginning March 1

Wild Women Week seeks to encourage women everywhere to embrace what makes them feel strong and beautiful. This year's celebration marks the fourth week long event hosted annually by Shifting Gears. // Illustration by Alfie Short

Shifting Gears kicks off their fourth annual Wild Women Week on March 1, leading up to International Women's Day on March 8. 

The local volunteer group hopes to celebrate breaking down traditional barriers to outdoor recreation by recognizing local women and non-binary individuals who aren't afraid to brave the outdoors and have fun while doing it. 

Board Member Aubrey McNeil said she found most of her love for the outdoors by working with the organization to create a more inclusive space for outdoor activities. 

WILD WOMEN WEEK BODY 4
An interactive whiteboard allows guests to write down how they got wild during the celebratory week at the 2020 Dirt to Indulgence After Party. The event allowed people to share their experiences in person on the board and virtually with the hashtag #WildWomenWeek. // Courtesy of Sarah Hardy Photography via Shifting Gears

"We just wanted to find a way to really celebrate women, recreating the outdoors in a way that made them feel wildly powerful and wildly beautiful," McNeil said. 

This year's event features in-person and virtual offerings, including a sunset paddle at the Bellingham Bay Community Boating Center on Thursday, March 3.  

The Virtual Adventure Movie Night includes a list of films sent out via email. It allows participants to enjoy the compilation of films from the comfort of their own homes at their convenience. 

WILD WOMEN WEEK BODY 3

A group of wild women celebrates the week-long event with a mountain bike trip in Spring 2020. Biking, hiking, swimming, dancing and even watching movies have found their place as activities featured in Wild Women Week. Courtesy of Michelle Holtorff via Shifting Gears

The group champions inclusivity and recognizes that gender identity transcends the sex a person was assigned at birth. 

"Part of the reason why Shifting Gears was founded in the first place was to make everyone feel more welcome and included in the outdoors, no matter where you're at, who you are or how you identify," McNeil said. 

In addition to the events, McNeil said the week's goal is to get people thinking about how to make getting wild in their own way a part of their day-to-day life.       

Whether participants share their experiences at an event or on social media with the hashtag #WildWomenWeek is secondary to encouraging a wilder, more empowered lifestyle. 

WILD WOMEN WEEK BODY 2
The Dirt to Indulgence After Party featuring an all-female band and bar staff concluding the 2019 celebration. The party celebrated a week of encouraging women in the community and beyond to define their image of "getting wild and feeling beautiful." // Courtesy of Sarah Hardy Photography via Shifting Gears.

Another tradition continued this year is the crowning of the Wild Woman of the Year. Last year's winner, open swimmer and artist Kelcey Bates, said receiving the honor still brings a smile to her face today. 

"The water, particularly the cold water, is a complete mind reset," Bates said. "Safety in numbers is great, not to mention the laughs and giggles and just flat-out joy that this brings."

Bates said the attendance for many of the weekly swims she hosts has continued to increase in the last year and expanded the broader community of open-water swimmers. 

"The group has gotten so big that I don't have to initiate things anymore," she said. "They're doing it themselves, now. I just said, 'here, look what you can do,' and it's just taken off."

The week will conclude on March 8 with a Pint Night featuring a special Shifting Gears beer at Fairhaven's Stones Throw Brewery, as well as a celebration of all those nominated for Wild Woman of the Year. 

Danielle Alleman, an administrator for the Bellingham Outdoor Women Facebook group, said creating a welcoming environment for everyone in outdoor recreation should be a priority. 

WILD WOMEN WEEK BODY 1
Kelcey Bates celebrates the surprise announcement of her title as "Wild Woman of the Year" at Marine Park in Bellingham, Wash. in the Spring of 2021. Bates was nominated by community members who took part in her open swim sessions for the last few years. // Courtesy of Shifting Gears

"Many spaces in the outdoors are designed to promote the egos of able-bodied white men, and it can often feel overwhelming to get involved in outdoor recreation if you don’t fit that description," Alleman said in an email.

McNeil said attending Wild Women Week events always brings her a sense of comfort and fulfillment. 

"When you're in this community, there's just something about it," she said. "You're suddenly not afraid, and the barriers just melt away the second you get there and get to connect with people, and the high that you feel after leaving those sorts of events sticks with you for longer than just the week."


Madisun Tobisch

Madisun is a second-year Journalism student at WWU covering city-life. In her free time she enjoys watching horror movies, taking care of her houseplants, and learning more about Bellingham. She can be reached at: madisun.thefront@gmail.com.


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