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Omaha Magazine

Where the Wild (Women) Are

Sep 27, 2023 09:06AM ● By Sara Locke
Nebraska and Iowa’s inclusive adventure organization ensures that women who wander are never lost.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

(L to R) Lindsay Vanzee, Kerri Sorrell, Jenn Riggs.

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Ages ago, one’s ancestors ended a day of exploration around a fire; connecting with nature, their bodies, and their communities. A few technological revolutions later, and Wi-Fi and 24-hour access to work emails transformed the idea of exploring nature and sleeping under the stars into a luxury concept. Warnings about the inherent dangers of solo exploration and the pressure to invest in high-end camping equipment drove women even further from their drive to connect with the natural world. Add in accessibility issues, and the idea that the simple act of exploration was a pastime of the wealthy and physically fit, and the wedge between the great outdoors and the majority of the feminine population seemed impassible.

"There is a fundamental desire for humans to be outside,” Kerri Sorrell, co-owner of Wander Women Midwest insisted. “Modern society doesn’t allow, create, or prioritize that need for community and connection.”

That was a problem that founder and co-owner Jenn Riggs wanted to address when she founded the femme-exclusive backpacking and adventure organization, Wander Women, in 2018.

“I connected with Jenn when I heard that she was starting this business, and I really wanted to be involved,” Sorrell said. “I came on as an original tour guide in 2019.

Our first trip was to Wildcat Den State Park in Southeast Iowa. It’s an area with a lot of limestone features, canyons, and really beautiful trails. I think that’s when I truly felt the magic of what Wander Women was and could be. It’s very infectious.”

The first excursion brought together nearly 30 participants, proving Jenn and Kerri’s theory that women were hungry for an opportunity to reconnect with nature. The fully inclusive adventures didn’t simply emphasize safety in numbers; they provided techniques and equipment useful to
new thrill-seekers for any outing.

“I’ve always gravitated toward teaching, and being able to offer these women survival skills, basic and emergency bike repair and maintenance, and safety protocol is so dear to me. That first year really showed us how much of a need there was for this in Iowa, and I was excited to be part of what Jenn was creating,” Sorrell explained. “After our final trip together that season she mentioned that she wanted a partner. I leapt at the chance and became co-owner in 2020.”

When the COVID pandemic struck, most were forced out of gyms and fitness classes, gradually taking over local trails and giving birth to a new generation of intrepid, try-curious explorers.

“I think (the pandemic) re-inspired a love of the outdoors for a lot of people. There was that desire to be among community, and we saw an opportunity to bring people together and to do something we are all built to do that a lot of people hadn’t found the time or resources to do until then,” Sorrell said.

It was her search for just such a community that precluded Lindsay VanZee discovering Wander Women in 2021.

“They’re based in Des Moines, and I’m in Omaha, but there wasn’t anything like that here,” said VanZee, who has a background in outdoor recreation and has spent time trekking the wilderness from Florida to Colorado. When she stumbled on WW, she made it her mission to get involved.

“I knew after just talking with them, these are truly phenomenal women,” she said.

“They’re doing their research, they’re creating a safe and incredibly inclusive and accessible space, and they’re building the village that so many of us have been looking for. I immediately asked them — ‘How can I be involved?’”

VanZee became a guide, regularly making the drive from Omaha to Des Moines for the next two seasons.

“I had been yearning for something like this. I would have gone absolutely anywhere to be part of it,” VanZee continued. “It’s not all ‘glamping’ and stories by the fire. It’s a physically and emotionally challenging, and fulfilling experience every time. You’re hiking all day; you’re sweaty, you’re gross, you’re exhausted, and then these women, having already thought of and provided everything, cook and serve you a meal. You sit there and allow yourself to be nurtured, to be taken care of, to sit quietly or to connect with other people who are there for any one of a hundred reasons. And everyone takes something new or different from each excursion, but everyone always walks away fulfilled.”

VanZee was willing to travel for these experiences, but she knew that wasn’t a privilege available to all.

“At the end of last season I approached Jenn and Kerri and told them how wonderful their mission is and how happy I was to be part of it,” she recalled. “But I also had to let them know that if expanding was ever on the table, Omaha and Eastern Nebraska are a wide-open market.

“It’s such a testament to Kerri and Jenn, how solidly they’ve established this venture throughout Des Moines, their drive to include and empower as many women as possible, and the trust that they’ve shown me in letting me spearhead our Nebraska adventures.”

VanZee didn’t take that trust lightly, and immediately began scouting locations, sourcing gear, and planning an unforgettable event. This summer was Omaha’s first season with a Wander Women guide, and the overwhelmingingly positive response has ensured that it won’t be the last.

“It’s beyond time that spaces were created in business, pleasure, social situations, that are safe and accessible for marginalized women,” VanZee affirmed. “I am so proud to be part of an organization that creates empowerment, connectedness, and the village we’ve all been missing.”

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This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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