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'Every woman is a force of nature': Project aims to connect women, outdoors

Angela Wood and her daughter, Taylor, 10, of Gnesen Township, bike along the Amity East Trail in Lester Park Tuesday afternoon. They bike about twice a week and spend a lot of time outdoors. "We're avid hunters and fishermen," she said of her family. Bob King / Forum News Service

DULUTH --When REI Co-Op, the national outdoor recreation chain, commissioned a poll about women in the outdoors last year, they got some mixed results.

The poll found more than 85 percent of women surveyed believe the outdoors positively affects their mental health, physical health, happiness and overall well-being. Some 70 percent agreed being outdoors is liberating.

But the poll also found obstacles in the way of women in getting outdoors. Some 63 percent of women said they could not name a single outdoor female role model. And six in 10 women said that men's interests in outdoor activities are taken more seriously than women's.

"We believe we can do better and that the time is now,'' said Jerry Stritzke, REI's CEO, when he announced the Forces of Nature project last year. "We believe the outdoors is, and should always be, the world's largest level playing field."

The goal of the Forces of Nature program is to help connect women to great places to recreate, local outdoors clubs and other resources supporting women outdoors. Best of all might be the connections or networking opportunities for all women who attend — like-minded forces of nature — promoters of the event say.

Stritzke called Forces of Nature a "disruption of the status quo."

Since 2017, REI has held hundreds of events across the U.S. aimed at getting more women outside more often. REI also pledged to develop more and better gear specifically for women and to invest $1 million in established groups, national and local, that promote women in the outdoors.

Nearly half of REI's members and 48 percent of its customers are women. Co-op members pay a single fee of $20 to unlock benefits and discounts, and receive dividends. For REI, of course, the project means more women buying more gear. But supporters like Duluth Mayor Emily Larson say there's much more to it.

"You only know what you see, and we want more women to see other women outdoors,'' Larson said. "Every woman is a force of nature. It's just a matter of how you exhibit that."

Larson — an avid runner, mountain biker, backpacker and Boundary Waters visitor — said she used to see just one or two women on mountain bike trails during a morning's jaunt.

"Now, I see dozens of women on the trail. We want to build on that and get everyone involved,'' she said.

After the program comes to Duluth, Larson said she's planning to build on the Forces of Nature theme with follow up meetings focusing on getting women into hiking.

"Everyone in Duluth now lives within 1,000 feet of a trail... Now, we need to work on getting rid of barriers to getting outdoors that are often based on gender or race or financial status," Larson said of trail hiking in Duluth.

"It's virtually zero cost for entry. Everyone can do it, but you have to know where the trailheads are, she said. "You have to know you can do it. That's what we want to do."