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Women Outward Bound

Meet one of the Trailblazers From ‘Women Outward Bound’, a Documentary About a Life-Changing Wilderness Program for Women

A Q&A with a Bellingham woman featured in the documentary Women Outward Bound.

February 28, 2018

Classrooms, boardrooms, the voting booth: until relatively recently, these spaces were often closed to women, or they came with caveats. But there is another, perhaps more surprising place that was also frequently off-limits: the great outdoors.  Up until the 1960s, most girls were not encouraged to explore the outdoors, get dirty, hunt, fish, hike and canoe. But in 1965, the inaugural Outward Bound course for girls in the Minnesota wilderness garnered national attention and broke down barriers.

Women Outward Bound is a new documentary airing on KCTS 9 on Monday, March 18 at 4:00 p.m. It tells the story of 24 young women who were part of the inaugural program in 1965. The film follows the women as they meet again nearly 50 years later and discuss the way the program altered the course of their lives. One woman influenced by the 1965 Outward Bound program is Bellingham resident Elizabeth Kilanowski.

Kilanowski says Outward Bound altered the trajectory of her life. She was born in Minnesota, and after the program she traveled the country working at outdoor education centers before pursuing an art education degree. She noted that it was difficult to find work in education, so she worked in the open pit mines of Northern Minnesota as a welder. She moved around for other jobs before going back to school and getting a degree in geology from the University of Minnesota in 1998. This, and a passion for sailing, eventually brought her to Bellingham, where she has lived for about 20 years.

While it may be hard to see how this fascinating journey could be influenced by a single summer in 1965, the path is clear to Kilanowski. She recently discussed the program and the documentary in an interview with KCTS 9. Here’s what she had to say about Women Outward Bound, the importance of the outdoors and how the experience taught her to dream about her future. 

Q. What inspired you to become involved with this inaugural Outward Bound program for women?

A. I grew up in a second-growth Oak and Birch forest outside a small town in central Minnesota, so I spent a great deal of time in the woods. I loved the outdoors and learned to hunt and fish from an early age.  When I heard that Outward Bound was initiating a girl’s course, I jumped at the opportunity. I saved my money and received a partial scholarship to attend. I had heard about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and had always wanted to learn how to canoe — it was exactly what I wanted.

Q. In the documentary, you say that Outward Bound influenced your decision to go to college. Could you explain how?

Elizabeth Kilanowski when she was working as an Outward Bound instructor, age 30.A. Neither of my parents had a high school education, so there was no expectation for me to attend college. Besides, I lived in a small town, was from a large working class family and there was no money for kids like me — especially girls — to go to college. I started working for my own money when I was 10 and was expected to finish high school, get married and have kids.

The Outward Bound course exposed me to young women from other socio-economic classes. I saw that there might be other choices and I became more determined than ever to try to go to college. I was 21 before I finally was able to navigate the financial and psychological challenges and actually get into college. My first degree was in art education from the University of Minnesota. But I always wanted to study science, so in my 40s I went back to get my geology degree.

Q. Would you be willing to share a personal story about something that happened to you that summer?

A. My solo experience was a time I will always remember. My instructors dropped me off in a spot where I could watch the sunset. The rocks there formed a little amphitheater down to the water and I spent a great deal of time looking over the lake and thinking about my life and my future. At night, I heated rocks in my fire and spread them out to lay on. As it was August, the mosquitoes were already past their peak season so I was pretty comfortable despite the cool nights. Years later, when I was an Outward Bound instructor, I stopped at my solo site and found the little amphitheater. It was one of those magical moments.

Q. After the 1965 trip, what was your involvement with Outward Bound?

A. In 1966, I got a job working for the summer in the kitchen and the Trips House at the Minnesota Outward Bound School. Later, when I was around 30, I worked there as an instructor for two summer seasons and one winter season. The winter season was challenging as instructors not only had to keep the students warm and comfortable, but ourselves, as well. I remember on one staff training cross country ski trip, the overnight temperature dropped to minus 40 degrees. We had to learn lots of tricks about how to stay warm and not get frostbite or hypothermia.

Q. What was it like revisiting this experience for the documentary?

A. It did bring back a lot of memories and it was interesting to find out a little about what directions the other participants went off in. I was sad to hear that a couple of us had passed away.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience with Outward Bound?

A. It amazes me to think that back in the 1960s, women and girls were not allowed to do the same things as boys and men. Having a “girls” Outward Bound course was a radical idea and I thank Jean Sanford Replinger (our program director at the time) over and over in my heart for pushing to initiate the women’s courses. She was courageous.

In some sense, the 24 of us who did the first course were not special at all. The real special women here were our instructors: Lynn Cox, Ginny Balmain, and others. And, of course, Jean Sanford Replinger who brought us together and led the way. Those women were older than us and had to overcome even more obstacles in order to go off into the woods without the “protection” of men. I honor them.

A group of young women from the 1965 Outward Bound program. Photo Courtesy Women Outward Bound.


Caroline Gerdes

Caroline Gerdes is the social media specialist at Cascade Public Media and a New Orleanian living in Seattle. She was also a National Geographic Young Explorer — which is totally a real job title. She recently published her first book, An Oral History of the New Orleans Ninth Ward

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