In the early 1980s, West Virginia was not known for its outdoor recreation resources, and women who were passionate about adventure weren’t always welcomed by the local community. “Back then no one wanted to rent to river people,” says Colleen Laffey, a world-class paddler, skier, and camera operator who moved to Fayetteville in 1981. “Now it’s the whole #vanlife thing. Back then, they lived in vans because they really had to.”
Today, it’s relatively normal for women to hop into vans and travel across the country pursuing the outdoors, but adventurous ladies from the eighties were on the fringe, sometimes stigmatized for their passion to get after it. In the face of challenges, these women tried harder, got stronger, and had more fun while doing it. Using gear that was just awful by today’s standards and working in an outdoor world chock-full of men, these ladies not only pushed the limits of what was physically possible, but also the perceptions of what female adventure athletes could do—all while balancing full-on careers and families.
These women undoubtedly set the bar high, but more importantly, they set the tone. The spirit embodied by the leading ladies of West Virginia shaped the culture and community that defines outdoor adventure here today. Thanks to their hardcore and humble efforts, more gals are getting out, smashing barriers, and making the outdoors an increasingly inclusive place.
Bad Gear, No Fear
The 1980s and 90s were the heyday for whitewater in West Virginia. There were at least 16 whitewater rafting companies in Fayetteville alone, which attracted adventure-seeking clientele from far and wide. Everyone had to be adventurous back then because the technology was nowhere near what it is now, says Terry Peterson, associate professor of adventure sports at Garrett College and one of the few women to guide on the Cheat, Gauley, New, Youghiogheny, and Russell Fork rivers. “We wore tennis shoes and wool socks and you’d buy wool sweaters at the used clothing store. You were lucky if you got a Farmer John wetsuit. It was brutally cold,” says Peterson.
Along with less-capable personal gear, the rafts were not self-bailing, a key consideration when navigating holes, drops, and waves. Piloting a 16-foot bucket boat through class V rapids was far more difficult when it was filled with clients and tons of water. Peterson recalls using five-gallon buckets to empty water out of her raft after going through each rapid. “Rafting was harder. Kayaking was harder. The river’s the same, but the gear makes a big difference in the skill level that you need to be able to do it,” says Laffey, who guided on the New and Gauley rivers.
Climbing, skiing, and mountain biking also required some serious skill and finesse given the technology. Nanette Segilman, artist and long-time ski patroller at Canaan Valley Ski Resort, remembers when Chip Chase and Winslow Ayer introduced her to telemark skis. “Three-pin, long, skinny skis with metal edges. I don’t know how we turned them,” she says.
Mountain bikes didn’t have many of the fancy components they have today either, like suspension systems and dropper posts. “They beat you to a pulp,” says Diane Miller, a marathon runner, skier, and mountain biker who started adventuring in West Virginia in the late 1970s. “I can remember riding Plantation for the first time; I think my body hurt for seven days.” Riddled with roots, rocks, and ruts, Plantation Trail in Davis is still notoriously difficult even with more capable mountain bikes.
As the gear pushed women to improve their skills, the male-dominated outdoor scene pushed them to get physically and mentally strong. Being an adventurous woman often means you not only have to prove something to yourself; you have to prove yourself to others. “We were of the fringe, and women even more-so to be guiding, especially when you get into the harder rivers,” says Peterson, who’s paddled the Upper Yough well over 3,000 times.
The ‘good old boys’ club’ vibe was palpable in the rafting, climbing, and mountain biking industries, where women’s capabilities were sometimes doubted. “When I had a bad day, I needed to train again, but if a guy had a bad day, [he] just had a bad day,” says Peterson.
Diane Kearns, co-owner of the Gendarme and Seneca Rocks Climbing School, also remembers far more men than women working as rock climbing guides. The women who started guiding were “very confident, self-assured people because you’re working in a man’s world,” she says. “You just have to go ‘No, I got this. I do know what I’m doing.’”
During the winter, these women continued challenging notions of what was possible. Before Canaan Valley Ski Resort, few ski areas permitted their ski patrol employees to tele ski. “That was a really big deal,” says Segilman, who became ski patrol director at Canaan in 1985. Despite some initial pushback, Alice Dunning Vernon, a renowned skier, paddler, and mountain biker, took her National Ski Patrol test on tele gear and worked as a ski patroller at Canaan while she was pregnant with her daughter. “I can’t stress enough the difference in how much more women celebrate their pregnancies now than they used to,” says Laffey. “Her ski patrolling while pregnant was huge.”
Regardless of their capabilities, women weren’t always compensated equally for their achievements. Because there were so few female mountain bike racers, the prizes were often far less for women than men. “Sometimes you didn’t get money at all,” says Dunning Vernon, who despite winning recalls not even earning back the entry fee at some races. “Then it’s just a cycle. You’ll get more women if you offer better cash prizes.”
Despite the challenges, these ladies saw no reason why they shouldn’t pursue their passions and push the boundaries of what could be achieved outdoors. “I always felt like I was mentally tough,” says Dunning Vernon. “I might not be fast, but I could out-suffer someone for a long time.”
And suffer she did, often for 24-hours straight. In 1993, Laird Knight started the infamous 24 Hours of Canaan race, the first 24-hour mountain bike team relay in the country. In its first year, Dunning Vernon and Miller put together a women’s elite team. When Knight began allowing riders to race solo, Dunning Vernon immediately signed up. “It was hard but it’s only for a day,” she says.
As someone who enjoyed riding at night, Dunning Vernon was able to rack up laps while other racers rested. Her husband and son camped out along the trail in sleeping bags to offer support throughout the race. Although she doesn’t remember ever breaking 100 miles, she frequently rode 80 or 90 miles across dense mud, slick roots, and giant bogs.
Miller also enjoyed the suffer fests of Knight’s Canaan Mountain Series races. “I would run 15 miles in the morning and come over and do the bike race.” During one race, Miller took on Mary Morningstar, a newcomer to the mountain bike racing scene. “I would pass Mary on the technical and she would fly by me on the downhill. We did this through the whole race and we were both so competitive we really weren’t talking to each other,” says Miller.
Towards the end of the race, Miller and Morningstar had to cross the Blackwater River and they both fell over, sending their bikes downstream. As they picked up their bikes, Morningstar yelled, “You can have it!”, to which Miller retorted, “Race me, damn it!”
“We both picked up our bikes and ran to the top of the hill,” says Miller. “It was the spirit of ‘you’re not quitting now.’ I don’t even remember who won.”
This competitive spirit transitioned with the seasons as the ladies traded in their boats and bikes for skis. Cross-country skiing at White Grass first brought Miller, Peterson, and Segilman to West Virginia. Laffey and ski-legend Charlie Waters also worked at White Grass during the winters, running the café and teaching cross-country and telemark ski lessons.
When they weren’t working, these ladies often competed against one another during the telemark race series that occurred throughout the region. “If you weren’t feeling like you were just going to yard-sale hard, you weren’t going quite fast enough,” says Dunning Vernon. “There was always that fine line of really letting it go.” Along with the adrenaline, she says the kindness among the competitors made the race series extremely fun.
But no matter how badly they wanted to win, they never forgot how to support each other. Cassie Smith, a world-class mountain biker who came to West Virginia in 1988 for college, recalls when a bee stung her while leading the final race for the WVMBA race series. On the verge of winning the championship, she started having a reaction. Five girls were behind her in the race, but instead of passing Smith, they stopped to lend her a hand. “They wouldn’t finish in front of me,” says Smith. “I get chills talking about it. It was such a great sportsmanship experience. The girls, the camaraderie; I’ll never forget that.”
While being an adventurous woman comes with some unique challenges, the outdoor recreation community in West Virginia was extremely supportive and welcoming overall. “I moved to West Virginia and I instantly had this profound sense of place and my belonging here,” says Maura Kistler, climber, paddler, and co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors in Fayetteville. “There’s something really cool about the energy of this place. I’m kind of goofy about it.”
Her goofiness helped create the tight-knit, inclusive community that defines the New River Gorge today. From 1982 to 1985, Kistler climbed exclusively at Seneca Rocks and remembers seeing a couple on a 5.7 route, later she found out they owned the gear shop. “That was the raddest thing I could imagine at 23 years old. It’s funny to me that that’s where we ended up,” she says.
In 1991, Kistler and her husband Gene moved to Fayetteville to start establishing routes at the New River Gorge. “We had so many people staying with us when we first rented in Fayetteville, which was kind of scary. It was just a total flophouse and we lived next door to the mayor and were representing the new climber population.”
At the time, the New River Gorge didn’t have a centralized climbing scene. People camped wherever they could and chilled on the bridge at night because there wasn’t much else to do. In 1994, Maura, Gene, and Kenny Parker opened Water Stone Outdoors, and since then, have watched Fayetteville develop into the vibrant outdoors community it is today. Although the town’s growth was slow and punctuated by setbacks, Kistler says, “it’s been a gift in disguise. It’s one of the reasons we have such a coherent vibe in this community.”
Part of this coherent vibe is a willingness to help those following in their footsteps. After working as a raft guide for several years, Laffey got into video kayaking, which allowed her to reconnect with her passion for photography. She shares this passion with Katie Johnson, who grew up on a farm in Iowa and moved to Fayetteville in 1993 for Gauley Season.
Despite a long-standing interest in kayaking, Johnson never quite found the right community of mentors until she moved to West Virginia. “I didn’t know that the people who were reaching out to help me, like Colleen or some of my guy friends, were world-class boaters,” says Johnson, reminiscing about how Laffey taught her how to roll a kayak in five minutes. “The level of skill here is really high, but you would never know it.”
Once she started kayaking, Johnson was hooked. She got into video boating and started challenging her friends to surf big holes and waves on the New River. In 1995, Johnson met her future husband, B. J. Johnson, who convinced her to spend the winter paddling creeks throughout the East Coast. They brought their video cameras, put the footage together, added music from West Virginia bands, and released their film under their production company, Falling Down. “We sold our first video and it blew up,” says Johnson. (Watch it. Seriously, it’s awesome.) After the video was released, the Johnsons were offered sponsorships and started doing freestyle competitions around the country.
As a sponsored paddler, it would have been easy for her to develop an ego. Instead, she was always a little bummed to leave West Virginia to embark on the competition circuit during the summer. Now, as a full-time resident, she invests in the next generation of female whitewater athletes. “They’re fired up to paddle. I love seeing their energy and enthusiasm.”
Paving the Way
Although these women could have settled down anywhere, many settled on West Virginia and the rest still call it home. For them, the accessibility of natural resources was ideal for recreating, pursuing professions, raising families, and growing the community of adventurous gals. “I work all over the world and then I come home and I’m happy to be here,” says Laffey, who recently returned from a trip to Fiji while working as a camera operator for the World’s Toughest Race. “More appealing than all the outdoor pursuits is the sense of community and the people who are here.”
Johnson agrees that travelling gave her a greater appreciation for what’s in her backyard. “We can have kids, have a job, and still go out in the evenings.” She says teaching her kids how to swim, paddle, ski, and bike was just as fun as learning herself. “Our kids are both in college now, but they still like to play with us because we do fun things,” she says.
Beyond their own families, these leading ladies are invested in supporting the next generation of female adventure athletes. As mountain biking grew in popularity, Smith, along with legendary racer Sue Haywood and artist Annie Simcoe, created opportunities for girls and women to get into the sport through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association and women-specific clinics and workshops. “If you can get a woman away from her significant other, she tends to not judge herself so harshly,” says Simcoe, a full-time artist who helps manage the trails at Big Bear Lake Trail Center. “It becomes this really supportive, really fun environment that has a whole lot of giggling.” Haywood also brings this welcoming spirit to the Canaan Mountain Bike Festival each year. “Sue’s done so much for women’s biking,” says Miller.
Today, there are far more women guiding and pushing the limits in outdoor adventure sports, in large part because these exceptional ladies paved the way. Through writing this story, I learned the smallest fraction of what these women actually accomplished. Instead of reciting a laundry list of every gnarly thing they’ve done, they giggled through stories of their past, imparted a deep respect for those who came before them, celebrated the achievements of their friends, and treasured what they’ve learned from the girls who followed in their footsteps. Hardcore and humble with a sense of humor—if that’s what it means to be an adventurous woman in West Virginia, sign me up.
Author’s Note: There are so many women that broke down barriers in outdoor adventure sports in West Virginia and helped create the communities that thrive here today. While they couldn’t all make it into this story, their contributions are deeply appreciated. Nikki Forrester is associate editor of Highland Outdoors and was infinitely inspired to out-suffer anyone after writing this story.
Feature Photo: Alice Dunning Vernon (center left) and Diane Miller (center right) at the 24 Hours of Canaan mountain bike ride. Photo courtesy Diane Miller