The inclusion gap: Building barriers to break them with the Women in the Woods

After hiking in the rain on a cold Saturday morning, 12 women came to what looked like a fork in the Douglas Fir Trail of DNR’s Mount Si Natural Resources Conservation Area. So they dropped their packs, but they weren’t there to rest —  they were there to work.

“We’re going to be really defining the trail,” said Mountains To Sound Greenway Trust Volunteer Program Coordinator Caroline Villanova. “To make sure people know where they’re going, they’re not getting lost, not going down a decommissioned road, and they know clearly the trail they are on.”

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Villanova explains hugelkultur mounds. It’s an agricultural technique where mounds are constructed from woody debris, organic materials like leaves, and rich soil.

The sight of yellow hardhats and swinging pickaxes isn’t unusual along the trail. Thousands of volunteers graciously dedicate their time to maintaining and fixing up trails like ones in the Mount Si NRCA.

What’s different about this one? It’s a step in the right direction to bridging the inclusion gap in outdoor recreation.

Nearly 10 years ago, a Mountains To Sound Greenway Trust staff member saw the need for spaces for women who wanted to do trail work. So they created Women in the Woods,  supportive, year-round events for anyone who identifies as a woman and wants to use a power tool out in the woods.

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Maria Sheldon, Greenway Trust Education Associate, uses a pickax to dig a trench.

Zan McPherson, Greenway Trust Volunteer Program Associate, and Maria Sheldon, Greenway Trust Education Associate, were both out on the Douglas Trail as part of the all-female leadership.

“I love the all-women space,” said McPherson. “It’s important, and personally feel so much more empowered as a leader in a group of all women.”

Sheldon continued, “Zan and I, being leaders, we get the opportunity to share what we know but also learn, and not only does this empower women but people who are trying to get more experience, and so we get a variety of trail maintenance experience [from people during events], and we get to learn from people as well.”

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Volunteers complete the hugelkultur mounds by transplanting ferns.

Along with Villanova, McPherson and Sheldon coached volunteers on the task at hand: building hugelkultur mounds. It’s an agricultural technique where mounds are constructed from woody debris, organic materials like leaves, and rich soil.  Together, it creates an egg yolk of nutrients that will help the forest floor to form and allow more native plants to grow. Also, the mounds and the plants clearly divert hikers away from the wrong path.

It took six hours of digging around for good soil, moving rocks, and sawing fallen logs to complete. Stepping back to see what they accomplished, the volunteers took away more than just the satisfaction of a hard day’s work.

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The group celebrates completing their work at the Little Si trailhead.

“We have people who come together who don’t even know each other while working on the trail together and problem solving,” Villanova said. “I can see people getting to know each other more, making jokes, laughing, and all of sudden we end the event and everyone is friends. We’re closer, like physically, we can hang out. Clearly a community has formed around Women in the Woods.”

  • Learn about future Women in the Woods event here
  • Volunteer with a DNR work party here