Best friends Sarah McLean and Cait Bourgault love hiking together. As full-time creative professionals—Bourgault, 26, is a photographer and McLean, 24, is a graphic designer—schedules and deadlines permeate their lives. Hiking helps them put the pressures of daily life behind them and focus on the sheer beauty of the trail.
Setting a goal and attaining it has its perks, too. “Ascending up a mountain is full of physical and mental challenges,” McLean says. “No matter how big or small, I think there’s something really rewarding about setting out to achieve a goal that no one asked you to complete.”
The duo wanted to share that feeling of summit triumph and trail camaraderie. They talked about how fun it would be to get a group of other women out hiking with them—an effort that would combine their creative talents with their love of exploring nature. “It suddenly dawned on us that all it would take was a little organizing,” McLean says. “I threw together a website and Cait started posting to an Instagram page and before we knew it, we’d planned our first hike.”
The Alpine Women Collective launched in February 2016 with their first “Babe Hike,” a women-only hike up Bradbury Mountain in Pownal. The group consisted of McLean, Bourgault and four of their friends. “Since that day,” says McLean, “we’ve gone on 16 day hikes with three overnight camping or hut trips.”
Hikes now rally anywhere from 12 to 20 women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, although all ages are welcome, who take to the trails in Maine and New Hampshire, which means McLean and Bourgault’s goal of getting more women into the wild is working.
“I think girls are often made to believe that they are not, and cannot be, as adventurous as boys,” McLean says. “Hiking leveled that playing field for me. Getting out there and summiting the same peaks that men were summiting showed me how capable I am.” That realization has flooded other areas of McLean’s life, instilling in her a confidence that permeates her personal and professional life. “Knowing that my abilities don’t fall short of anyone else’s just because I am a woman is something I’ve been trying to learn for years. Hiking is what proved it for me.”
Babe Hikes are planned about a month in advance and hikers are asked to reserve a spot ahead of time on the website, www.alpinewomencollective.com. Most hikes are free, and there is a nominal fee for overnight trips. Attendance ranges depending on the hike, and demand has blown the founders away. The group’s last hike in the White Mountains filled up within a day of announcing it and racked up a waitlist of more than 40 people, McLean says. While they wish they could take everyone hiking, they keep the groups small out of respect for the trails and other hikers.
The hikes are chosen based on McLean and Bourgault’s familiarity with the trails, the elevation gain and the distance of the hike. “We try to focus on hikes that a beginner would feel comfortable trying, as it’s our goal to help introduce more women to the mountains,” McLean says. “Aside from that, we do also have women in the group looking for more of a challenge, so we’ve hiked some taller mountains to push ourselves a little harder.” There’s no seasonality to the hikes. They’ve headed into the wilderness wearing shorts and tank tops as well as winter hats and traction cleats. Bourgault captures it all through her lens, her trusty trail dogs by her side when the hike allows. Her photos showcase the intimate beauty of nature as well as the smiling faces of the women who are experiencing it together.
“I think the AWC is the first all-women group I’ve been a part of since Girl Scouts,” McLean says. “Without men on our hikes, we’re focusing on organically creating supportive female connections, bonds and friendships. Women come away from our hikes with a new sense of appreciation for female empowerment—something they might not easily find anywhere else.”
The feedback McLean and Bourgault keep hearing from these Babe Hikes: “I needed this!” It’s the assurance that what these two women are doing is worth it. “Personally, I always thought that my goal in life was to be a graphic designer,” McLean says. “It was, and still is, but AWC taught me that design isn’t my only goal. It’s been a rewarding process to see women take their very first hike, and then not a year later, seeing them hike their first 4,000-footer. The happiness on their faces when they reach the summit gives me chills. When they don’t want it to be over at the end of the hike gives me a sense of purpose.”
MORE LOCAL ADVENTURE GROUPS FOR WOMEN
Becoming an Outdoors Woman
Learn more about the outdoors (and yourself) with seasonal workshops. This program is sponsored by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, and there’s a spring mini workshop on May 21 in Bryant Pond, which includes courses in fishing, fly casting, basic food preservation, bow hunting, axemanship and more. www.mainebow.com
Ladies Adventure Club
Do you like adventure but need a little push? That’s what this group is all about. From hiking and archery to writing workshops and surfing lessons, the Ladies Adventure Club is aimed at getting women together to get out of their comfort zones. www.ladiesadventureclubmaine.com
RESOURCES FOR ADVENTUROUS WOMEN
Check out these recommendations from Sarah McLean and Cait Bourgault of the Alpine Women Collective for inspiration and ideas:
Outdoor Women’s Alliance
A nonprofit media and adventure collective that engages, educates and empowers women worldwide. www.outdoorwomensalliance.com
Whoa stands for Women of Heart and Outdoor Adventure. Stories, gear reviews, activism and art. www.whoamag.com
A website with stories and a podcast geared toward inquisitive women in the outdoors and on the road. www.she-explores.com
Melanie Brooks loves to write about Maine. Her work has been published in magazines and blogs throughout New England.