“So, when is whale watching season?” I asked, as I stood on the rocky shore of the Salt Creek Recreation Area with my hands in my pockets, waves crashing precariously close to my leather boots. The weather was quintessential for the Olympic Peninsula - a wet cold that chilled you to the bone and rain that came and went as it pleased. Looking out over the water, it almost seemed as if there wasn’t a horizon. The overcast sky blended with the gray blue water, broken up only by distant hills draped in fog and kelp that had congregated in places on the surface of the water.
A few people gave answers, though the general consensus was that no one really knew. A sign hinted that the Salt Creek Recreation Area was part of a national Whale Trail, a series of sites along the Pacific coast where the public may view marine mammals from the shore. I’d always wanted to see a whale, but that desire had fallen into the “maybe someday” category, as in, “Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford a ticket on a whale watching tour.” I hadn’t given much thought to the possibility of seeing one in the wild.
Just then, someone spotted movement in the water. We waited, thinking it might be a dolphin. A gray, speckled back rose out of the water and back down - it was a baby whale! We had been sitting and painting together, then supplies were left scattered and we all scrambled across slippery rocks and over tide pools, trying not to knock each other into the water. We were desperate to get closer. We stood in awe, not saying much as the whale slowly made its way through the water. Finally, the whale dove deep enough for us to lose sight of the ripples on the water’s surface that marked its presence. We stood there digesting the magic in the moment long after the whale had made its way out to sea again.
Though the whale encounter was at the top of the list, there were plenty of moments throughout the weekend that could appear in a highlight reel of the Outdoor Women’s Alliance Salt Creek Retreat. Nikki Frumkin of Drawn to High Places, an artist and alpinist from Seattle, led a watercolor workshop that left had women who had never picked up a paintbrush before feeling inspired and confident. We painted by the fire. We painted in the rain. We painted morning, noon, and night. Charlotte Austin, an award-winning writer and international mountain guide, led an adventure writing workshop that wasn't just aimed at inspiring those of us who consider ourselves writers, but encouraged us all as women to work through our fears and insecurities that hold us back. Together, Charlotte and Nikki discussed the parallels between these different art forms, and the insecurities and challenges they've faced as artists and women in the outdoors. As the group of sixteen women got comfortable with one another, it lent itself to a familiar atmosphere that resembled a childhood sleepover. We painted late into the night, ate copious amounts of chocolate, went out for pizza, and tried to counteract all of that with some sunrise yoga, led by Jenny Houston.
I often find myself underwhelmed by the options I have to choose from when searching for a word to describe a specific feeling. There are over 3,000 English words available to describe our emotions, yet somehow they all fall short on occasion. The wistful, yet bittersweet feeling you get while looking out a window? The Japanese have a word for that, setsunai. The pleasant, intimate feeling you get while sitting around a fire with close friends? The Danish have a word for that, hygge. The hope that you feel surrounded by women of all ages, body types, and experience levels encouraging one another on their path to experiencing the outdoors? I really wish there was a specific word for that, but if I had to choose one, it feels a lot like sisterhood. There were watercolor artists, a pianist, a mountain guide, adventure writers, photographers, an engineer, mothers, college students, and two tiny house dwellers. We identified ourselves with titles that had nothing to do with one another, but we all had one thread of commonality running through us - our love for the outdoors.
During the adventure writing workshop, Charlotte Austin referenced a book titled, "Women Don't Ask." We all mulled over the meaning of that title and how we identified with it. The premise of it is that there are too many women in the world standing in the shadows because they're too afraid to simply ask - for a job promotion, a day to themselves, whatever it is. They let fear guide them instead of standing up and living the life they want. I have to confess that I almost chose not to go to this retreat out of fear. Compared to the plethora of badass women I've been lucky to meet who tout a resume of impressive summits and impossible miles, I feel insignificant. I'm certain I'm not the only woman who left that Sunday afternoon feeling as if her trajectory in life had shifted a bit, that she had been changed. I'm also certain there are other women out there who are rife with fear of the unknown or of being a beginner. They will continue to be held back by their fear, never reaching their potential, never being pushed over the edge of their fear, unless encouraging women comes alongside them and say, “I was a beginner once.” After experiencing this kind of encouragement, I feel as if I’m now holding the torch and I must run, hike, and climb to pass it to other women.