So you want to talk about women and kayaking? How about hearing it from a group of women who are in the midst of their college education at Sweet Briar College- an all-womens college (hence the school colors pink & green); all whom have found their way into the college’s outdoor program…. specifically kayaking …and all of whom stand to take away some pretty amazing life skills when they graduate from college.

Studying, socializing, participating in clubs and team sports, or working…. we managed to sit this group down for a few minutes in between their overwhelming schedules to talk about themselves—and women in general, participating in an outdoor activity like kayaking; about what they think men think about it, and about what advice they would share with other members of the proverbial “fairer sex.”

Our roundtable participants:

Sara Rothamel ’09, double major in Biology and Environmental Science

Amanda Baker ’09, double major in Biology and Environmental Science

Carlie Adams ’10, double major in History and Economics

Jenna Wasalenko ’10, major in Chemistry

Rebecca Penny ’08, major in Biology with a minor in Studio Art

Sarah Jones ’11, major in international affairs with a focus on conflict resolution

Alright ladies, I know the typical question asked of a Sweet Briar College student is “why did you choose an all-women’s college.” So let’s not be “typical”–let’s start with what interested you in participating in the college outdoor program when there were so many things to occupy your time? And what was the first of SWEBOP’s (SWEBOP is the acronym for the Sweet Briar College Outdoor Program) activities you chose to participate in ? Sara-you are up first!

SARA: I always liked being outdoors but never really had the opportunity to be formally taught the proper way to do things outside 4-H, which was mostly agricultural. Swebop is actually one of the things that lead me to Sweet Briar as a perspective student. I always thought of outdoor sports as hardcore and I wanted to participate…but I’m somewhatcautious in nature. Flinging myself off a rock face looked fun but dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. But that’s the point of Swebop, they teach you how to be hardcore. One of the first big Swebop trip I went on was an indoor rock climbing trip. So now I can fling myself off a rock face without the “splat” sensation and the large hospital bill. It’s pretty sweet!

AMANDA: When I was a perspective student I went into the SWEBOP lounge and found a group of fantastic people that enjoyed outdoor adventures as much as I did. The group of girls sold me as soon as I stepped foot into SWEBOP. I can’t remember the first activity I participated in but I know one of the first was outing cabin certification with the SWEBOP instructors.

CARLIE: I first got interested in SWEBOP because I was interested in anything that would get me into the great outdoors. I came in as a freshman determined to get as involved as possible in SWEBOP. I did kayak clinics, rafting, rock climbing, and whatever else that I could.And I loved it!

JENNA: As an avid horseback rider and riding instructor, I have always been interested in outdoor sports, but I never had the opportunity to partake in more extreme outdoor sports until coming to SBC. The first SWEBOP activity I participated in was Beginner Climbing atGoshen Pass last fall…it was the thrill of a lifetime!

REBECCA: Before I came to Sweet Briar, I was involved with outdoor activities through Girl Scouts. I learned of SWEBOP as I was researching the school, and was immediately interested in the program. When I finally became a student, I knew that I would find like-minded people and meaningful (and fun) activities at SWEBOP. That’s where I went, and it was the first community group that really took me in. It was a place where I fit in and could use my knowledge and skills to get something done.

SARAH: I came to Sweet Briar because I knew they had a solid outdoor program. Before college I had hiked, canoed, rafted, and climbed; all of which I had loved. So I was very excited to come to Sweet Briar and be able to do all of these things more frequently than one week every summer. My first SWEBOP trip was Beginning Backpacking. It was one of the first weekends of my first semester, and seven of us backpacked a local Blue Ridge mountain. Although backpacking isn’t a high adrenaline sport it was a great first trip because I met a great group of girls and I learned a lot about basic outdoor skills (i.e. – the joy of long underwear, one pot meals).

Another topic for you: I’ve lost count over the years of the number of guy paddlers who have asked me why I cannot find more women to participate in kayaking. So here you all are at an all-womens college, and you all actively hook up with other schools when it comes to river time. It seems like other schools are pretty fired up to paddle with you.Why do you think the guys enjoy hooking up with the SWEBOP girls for a day on the river? Or on any outdoor adventure to speak of?

AMANDA: I feel that guys and/or co-ed groups like hooking up with Sweet Briar girls because we are very easy going and are there aren’t may female outdoors enthusiasts compared to male. With that said I think they are always interested in what we are going to do and ideas we have that don’t even cross their mind…. Also most outdoor guys would love the opportunity to hang out with outdoor gals in general.

SARA: Well there’s the obvious reason: Beautiful women in bathing suits or climbing harnesses who enjoy the outdoors just as much as the guys do. That’s probably the most popular attention grabber. Once you experience a trip you learn to love it for a million other reasons. It’s such a great learning environment, especially for beginners. I think we have the perfect balance of “it’s ok to be afraid, everything is challenge by choice” and “put on your big girl panties and do it!” We are a very supportive group while managing to still push your limits. It makes for very interesting debriefs to say the least: “Oh my god! That was the coolest thing I have ever done, please excuse me while I change into clean drawers…”

CARLIE: I think other groups enjoy going on trips with girls because we know how to have fun both with the event and with other things as well. Everyone is always determined to do the best that they can and squeeze the most possible fun out of everything. Then we also have just as much fun around the campfire being complete idiots. I think guys come on the trips because they think we will be cute but they come back because they love the fun and adventure we have.

REBECCA: What is there not to love?! We’re confident; that’s because we are highly competent. We’re fun; that’s probably because we’re confident in ourselves and our co-leaders. And, we’re known to come through in a pinch. We’re capable because we work hard and have excellent training. In a nutshell, we are impressive. I think guys/co-ed groups are intrigued by the idea of women that can lunch with the president in pearls and high heels or conduct real scientific research, and still totally kick their butts climbing or boating the next day.

SARAH: Guys tend to be really excited when they hear they are kayaking/rafting/fly fishing with a bunch of girls; I think they expect us to be really passive and just be there to take in the scenery. But as soon as we nail a white-water roll or beat them up a rock face they realize the best thing about being outdoors with Sweet Briar girls (or any woman) is that we can be just as competitive as men. The difference is that we look cuter in the clothes.

JENNA: I think that guys or other co-ed groups enjoy partnering with SBC girls in outdoor adventures because they find out we are a close group of die-hard outdoor enthusiasts, and we are willing to share our interests and talents with them. Also, I feel that we are more empowered to do things that some women might not think they could do, and we adopt a “balls to the wind” sort-of attitude, which is a true match for our male counterparts.

So what do you think you will take away from having participated in SWEBOP once you graduate from SBC?

JENNA: No one can ever take away that triumphant feeling when you get to the top of a climb and touch that ‘beener. Being a part of SWEBOP has taught me that every goal can be met as long as you are willing to put the effort into achieving it. One only fails when one stops trying.

REBECCA: I will take away confidence in my abilities to lead others, in my ideas, and in myself as a person. I will graduate (soon) with a true ownership of my skills and abilities. I think I’ll own my confidence, too. I know that I am capable of doing anything I set my mind to.

SARAH: The largest skills I’ve gathered from SWEBOP are my organizational skills and my ability to lead without micromanaging. Job-interview answers aside, I’ve learned a lot about how to find new opportunities to be outdoors- how to join up with the local paddling club; meet other college students interested in climbers- so that after graduation I can continue doing these things that I love.

SARA: Wow that’s a loaded question. I have learned so much from being an instructor. The program has introduced me to so many new activities and given me the skills I need to feel confident enough to jump into new exciting situations. And while I learned a lot of technical skills in different aspects of the outdoors that I hope to continue in after graduation, it’s the confidence that had the most impact on who I will be once I graduate. I know that I am capable of dealing with the worst case scenarios that used to keep me from becoming active in a lot of things. Actually I can not only cope with these situations, but lead others through it as well. And I have found this comes up not just in outdoor recreation, but in my future career as a field biologist, traveling to new places, applying to graduate schools almost anything you can think of.

AMANDA: I have learned so much about the outdoors and myself through participating in SWEBOP. I feel it has given me the courage to go out and tackle any obstacle.

CARLIE: I feel that I will take away a wide variety of things–the most obvious is of course all the technical skills that I have learned. I feel that by the time I graduate I will be comfortable at a level that will allow me to really stay involved in outdoor sports after graduation. Also, the great friendships that I made will certainly stay with me, as well as that amazing feeling that comes after a long day on the river/ rock/ slopes/ trails/ etc. with really good people.Finally, and for me most importantly I will take away the sense that I can really do a wide variety of things that I thought only really tough crazy people could do, and that I can dothem well.

So let’s talk “women adventurers to women interested in adventure” what advice would you share with other women?

CARLIE: The advice that I have for women adventures is to find a great group of people to adventure with, a group that is fun and exciting and will push you to the next level.

JENNA: GO FOR IT! You don’t know what you can do until you try…Outdoor adventure is the best natural high!

SARA: Go on an all womens trips….go on mostly male trips….the most important thing is to not be afraid to get out there. Believe me I know I am on of the biggest outdoor wusses you will find. Joining a group that you feel comfortable with will help you relax so you can enjoy learning the basics. But it’s also important not to get so wrapped up in that comfy place that you stop challenging yourself. Get out there, give it your best and as Maria says “Release the Tiger!”

AMANDA: Find a local group that does whatever you are interested in. You will be amazed in how willing most adventurers are to take you under their wing and show you the ropes. Personally, the Richmond, VA kayakers have been amazing and are always willing to let me tag along when I am in town. Also, look for local clinics that will teach you basic skills for your interests.

REBECCA: Go for it! You never know your limits until you push them. Find a group of people who will encourage and support you and draw on them as you build your confidence. Pay no heed to naysayers and be yourself. Still, don’t feel like you have to do it all or like everything.Find your passion and follow it. Have fun!

SARAH: Generally speaking, if you are interested in outdoor adventure, there is nothing stopping you from getting out there. Talk to people, find your local paddling club, and take a class on the nearest river. People who kayak or do anything outside love to share their sport with others; they want to meet new people to explore with. Your limitations are only what you deem them. Specifically for women, never use your sex as an excuse. Don’t let others use it as an excuse. Woman can have more fun in play boats because our boats are smaller. We can cave in awesome caves because we fit in smaller spaces. And we conquer mountain faces because we are flexible. Embrace your body and your abilities, and use them to have a great time, no matter what smack-talk the boys are talking.

Okay Laura Staman, as the director of SWEBOP, I would love for you to chime in here about kayaking and women:

Thank you! With kayaking you really work to get better and fail
sometimes, but triumph later after more practice and work. It is so
healthy for our students!

Now for a last two cents from me about my own personal thoughts on being involved in kayaking—especially for those coming out of college:

When I was at Sweet Briar, cow tipping was written up as an SBC sport by journalists (well, Playboy Magazine to be exact). Like most colleges at the time, the outdoor program was in its infancy.

I was inspired when I read the goal of SWEBOP: to provide outdoor recreational opportunities that foster personal growth, responsibility, leadership, and environmental sensitivity through experiential learning in small group settings. If I had to put my finger on only one thing that can help young women in the “real world,” I think that participating in individual sports–as well as team sports, is really important. Individual sports test you on so many levels—especially kayaking. And participation in individual sports is a part of “educating” a woman that is never really addressed.

Participating in kayaking or climbing or back packing for example is a sure way of setting yourself apart in the job interview process. An interviewer will take notice of a woman (or guy to be fair) who goes out and does whitewater kayaking—especially if the interviewer has tried it themself. And the social network is pretty awesome. Once a student graduates there really is no more team sport involvement to be found per se. So sitting in the big city, how do you find like-minded people? Happy hour is not usually the best place to look! But the network provided by finding fellow kayakers in the new city sure can help ease the transition from a close-knit college environment to the “real world.”

Kayaking helped make me who I am, which I think is so much better than whom I might have been (now that certainly was a mouthful!!). I did not have SWEBOP to help me find kayaking and so I am really glad that it exists now at Sweet Briar-and for both male and female, at any and all the colleges or universities big and small.

Thanks ladies. You are awesome. And we will see you on the river!