August 2008 Issue
A woman-only weekend focuses on getting in touch with Mother Earth.
All the rage these days, girlfriend getaways typically center on spa treatments and pink drinks. The trips are a customized way for groups of women to get together and have a good time. Lifelong outdoorswoman Mimi Morrison was ahead of the curve –– she’s been taking groups of women on hiking, cycling and kayaking adventures for more than 16 years as part of her business, Touch the Earth Adventures.
A petite and fun-loving guide (she’s been known to make a meal out of beer and cheesecake), her business helps men (they’re welcome on day trips; longer excursions are still just for the girls) and women unwind through quality time with Mother Earth –– no pink drinks required.
Which is why last Labor Day weekend, I signed on to attend the Appalachian Adventure Women’s Outdoor Weekend with Morrison. In addition to the educational hiking and kayak trips she holds everywhere from the hills of southeastern Ohio to the bays of Cape Cod, Morrison hosts this annual women-only workshop to encourage participants to leave the stresses of work and family behind long enough to go outside and play.
Winding up rural St. Rte. 78 toward Burr Oak State Park, I felt confident that this trip would be as fun as it was educational. The weekend is structured as a series of learning workshops, which Morrison has dubbed an “Appalachian Adventure” since it takes place in the rural beauty of the Appalachian foothills, and many of the subjects –– storytelling, plant identification –– are rooted in Appalachian tradition. When I registered, I selected my classes from more than a dozen different topics, ranging from outdoor activities such as kayaking, backpacking and birding to creativity-based classes such as papermaking and beading. According to the itinerary, the gaps would be filled in with campfires, cookouts, sunrise paddles and mountain music. By Monday, I would add good conversation, laughter and the opportunity to meet a fantastic group of women to that list.
Our adventure commenced Friday evening with a welcome ceremony, where we had a chance to meet some of the instructors and figure out our schedules for the weekend. After a brief overview, we settled in a circle around a bonfire in front of Morrison’s cabin, taking turns telling the group something about ourselves.
That first night, I learned that in our group of 31, the oldest was 83; the youngest, who had come with her grandmother, was just 15. Some came from as far away as Texas. Two were sisters. Three were breast cancer survivors. Many were mothers, one of them a single mother of five taking her first vacation in more than 15 years. Some had never done anything like this before, and another had just retired after 26 years in the Air Force. As the conversation and the fire faded, Morrison stood in front of the group and held up a circle, about three feet in diameter, made from a grapevine she had cut near her home in Athens. “The Native Americans believed in the power of the circle,” she told us. “Everyone here is a part of the earth’s circle of energy.” Pointing to spools of brightly colored yarn, one for each cabin, Morrison asked Ruth Smith, who would provide the music on Saturday night, to weave the first piece of yarn around the vine. “I’ll hang this in front of my cabin, and throughout the weekend, I invite you to come and add your energy to this circle,” Morrison said.
Saturday morning sessions began promptly at 9 a.m., and my first class was beginning yoga with instructor
Renee Ripple, a high school English teacher who has been teaching yoga classes for about six years. “This is not boot camp,” she told the group as we eased into our first downward dog. “Concentrate on your breath.” For the next hour and a half we stretched every pliable part of our bodies, including our faces, following Ripple’s instructions to open our mouths wide and stick out our tongues while making a breathy “ha” sound for the lion pose.
Walking to my next workshop, I joined a group that had taken advantage of the optional 6 a.m. sunrise paddle on the lake with Morrison that morning. Apparently it was a good morning for spotting egrets and other waterfowl, and their conversation made me wish I didn’t find birds to be unbearably cheerful at that hour.
We convened at the Ravine Trail trailhead for the Nature’s Treasures workshop, a guided hike with two of Ohio’s most respected naturalists, Cathy and Paul Knoop. Both technically retired, Paul spent 35 years as an interpretive naturalist at Dayton’s Aullwood Audubon Center, and Cathy was a master science teacher. Harnessed with binoculars, Leatherman tools and hand lenses, they led our group into the woods, stopping almost immediately to point out some poisonous white snakeroot (“that’s what killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother,” Cathy tells us) and jewel weed, which has a reputation in Appalachia as a remedy for poison ivy.
Our walk in the woods was as much a lesson in seeing as it was in botany — the Knoops peeled back tree bark and turned over logs to reveal hidden salamanders and other forest creatures. Pausing in front of a stately red oak, Paul said, “It takes two human lifetimes to grow a tree like that, but just five minutes to cut it down.” Two members of the group joined hands for a picture and encircled the tree’s massive trunk. I thought of Morrison’s circle from the previous night.
After lunch, it was time to get a little creative during a handmade paper workshop led by Julie Davis. Davis, who also teaches the birding workshops, is an energetic and incredibly organized person who still manages to have a thriving artistic side. “This is a hobby you can start without buying $100 worth of supplies,” she tells us, swiftly demonstrating how to puree paper scraps, add the pulp to a mold and deckle (in this case, a picture frame with window screening pulled tightly across it), and press it into paper. We took turns making rectangular sheets as well as using her molds to make dragonfly and butterfly shapes. After that, my classes came to a close with a presentation on herbs and medicinal plants.
After supper Saturday night, we gathered in the lodge for a performance by husband and wife music duo Steve and Ruth Smith. The Smiths, who describe their music as “Celtic Appalachian,” travel to Burr Oak each year from their home in North Carolina to perform for the group. Their songs, mostly produced by a guitar and hammered dulcimer, have the soul of mountain music and the gentle grace of mountain air.
Sunday workshops came and went, and after the last class, we assembled on the beach for a relay race and scavenger hunt before the day came to a close. That night, we gathered in our circle again and shared our experiences from the weekend. I asked two women how they ended up at the retreat. Both replied they had discovered it online and tried a kayak trip with Morrison before signing up. “Oh, are you friends?” I asked. “We are now,” they smiled.
The next morning, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. to enjoy the morning and take advantage of one of the bonus paddles Morrison was leading before people began their journey home. I stepped outside onto the porch, and there in front of Morrison’s cabin hung the grapevine, completely entwined in a web of yellow, blue, red, purple and green yarns. Our circle was complete.