Posts Tagged: Wisconsin

Community Feature: Westby, WI

Old Traditions and New Opportunities
in Westby, Wisconsin

By Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Spring 2018 Inspire(d)

It would be easy to tell the story of Westby, Wisconsin through quaint scenes of Norwegian Americana: The 50th Syttende Mai festival that will take place this May, the all-volunteer Snowflake Ski jumping Club, heading into its 95th year, or the Westby Dairy Cooperative, celebrating its 115th Anniversary – and marking Westby the “Cottage Cheese Capital of Wisconsin.”

But just focusing on that would be an understatement of “Uff-da” proportions.

Make no mistake, from the Westby Stabbur to Borgen’s café, Dregne’s Gifts to the Historical Society’s Thoreson House, the Norwegian theme is strong. There’s even the Nisse House of Art, two storefronts offering unique artisan wares and class space, including “Koselig”, a tea and coffee counter. Owner Monica Orban has held the outpost in downtown Westby for the past five years – an idea that came to fruition after farming in Vernon County and spending seven years as Organic Valley’s Senior Events Coordinator. But despite the Nordic themes and deep community ties, Monica isn’t exactly an “old timer,” as they say.

“Well, I’m the president of Syttende Mai…,” laughs Monica, a wide grin perched under her browline glasses. “I’m 100 percent Polish. But, the thing is, I’m only a generation away from being an immigrant.”

A tight-knit Polish neighborhood in Detroit proper taught her what it meant to be a part of an immigrant community.

“People are willing to learn – you have to be creative,” says Monica.

The Westby community is on that creative track. Much like the town’s original Norwegian immigrant settlers, folks are taking large leaps of faith – moving forward with the conviction that they can create and re-create the small community they want to live in.

Just down Highway 14, housed in one of the oldest standing homes in town, Ruth and David Amundson are working to tell those immigrant stories in creative “out of the box” ways through their project, “History Alive.”

“When you have a small rural community, it can be very single-minded – ‘oh, I’m Norwegian, I’m German’ – but to know what happened to make a city, that’s something,” says David. Ruth picks up in a heartbeat, “We work to pique interest through active history, working through students, the community, Syttende Mai, and even with students in Gausdal [Norway].”

David, a lifelong photo collector, and Ruth are both retired high school teachers. History Alive’s goal is to share the history of Westby through photos, stories, and projects – often focused towards high school or younger audiences.

It’s the immigrant story of America – one that has come full circle in our recent world, playing out relevant as ever. But the story of Westby is what all of those immigrant stories can become.

In the mid 1840s, after time at Koshkonong and Galena, Norwegian immigrant Even Gullord walked off a boat at Coon Slough (near Genoa, Wisconsin) onto the banks of the Mississippi. He kept walking, hiking up the valleys until he found, with conviction, what would become his new homeland, Coon Prairie. He settled alongside Driftless Native Americans on the familiar-feeling land, filled with abundance. More immigrants followed, with prompting – from Biri, Gausdal, and across the struggling nation of Norway – making the harrowing weeks long trek across the Atlantic Ocean to new opportunities. Among them was Even Gullord’s nine-year-old nephew, Ole T. Tosten, whose family would take the surname of Westby upon arriving in America. Ole would eventually have a mercantile that would warrant a Westby railroad stop. A town was born.

Norwegian immigrants knew how to farm, how to milk cows, how to grow wheat and crops, eventually even tobacco. Farmsteading was incredibly difficult work, but they found success by looking out for each other, sharing the services they could provide, and through the eventual creation of cooperative agreements. Dairy cooperatives were formed, like the Westby Creamery, plus commodity ag cooperatives, including thriving tobacco croppers like M.H. Bekkedal, and the Northern Wisconsin Tobacco Co-op Pool – most with direct Norwegian immigrant ties.

“I’m still amazed I got elected as mayor, I’m only half Norwegian,” jokes Danny Helgerson, second term Westby Mayor. “But, you know, we have a city and county full of coops,” he continues, reflecting on the changes of rural Vernon County.

Even the communication system is cooperative-based. When telephone systems began to grow mid century, many failed to reach rural areas, deemed too unpopulated to be serviced. That didn’t stop a group of Norwegians from picking up the party line though, as Vernon Communications Cooperative formed in 1950. With the same cooperative principles that had led their agricultural successes, the award-winning provider was formed to service the flowing hills and steep coulees of Vernon County. The Cooperative now serves over 7,000 customers in Western Wisconsin with cutting-edge fiber connectivity, cable, 12 community access channels, and additional computer and IT services. It has been nationally recognized as one of the top rural communications companies in the country.

The cooperative model, woven into the very fabric of the region, provided a path for groups like Organic Valley, Select Sires,Vernon Communications, Premier Coop, Vernon Electric Coop, Westby Co-op Credit Union, the Viroqua Food Co+op, and many more.

“A lot of it has to do with heritage, from the Norwegian settlers with that mentality,” says Dr. Dave Brown of Select Sires – one of the largest AI (artificial insemination) and Bovine genetics providers in the world, which has roots in Westby.

“We’re going to help each other and take care of each other…it’s not quite as cut throat. It worked really, really well for lots of small farms, and we’re evolving with it as businesses grow,” he says.

But a business doesn’t actually have to be a cooperative to benefit from the model. In the early 2000s, Borgen’s Café, a Westby landmark for a century, had hit tough times. The Scandinavian café had become tired, and was eventually shuttered, much to the dismay of patrons, who for decades had stopped in for a piece of pie and cup of hot coffee. So the town got together – a group of investors formed to buy the business, make necessary repairs, and re-sell it to a community-minded owner.

“It’ll be 10 years in November,” says Blane Charles, citing the decade he and his wife, Mary, have owned Borgen’s. “It was a great way for us to get into the community. It was a win-win, it benefits the community, and it’s what we wanted to do.”

Mary and Blane have never been short of things to do – the couple embodies the value that there’s no sitting back in a small town. Mary worked her way through nursing school waiting tables, and Blane started cooking in his mother’s restaurant at age 16. They also ran a dairy farm for several years, and are present on a number of community groups and projects. At Borgen’s, they’ve brought back to life a town hub that provides everything from pie and coffee to meatball dinners to banquet and catering facilities – even nightly lodging.

“You have to buy into and be a part of a community to be successful,” says Blane.

“It’s really awesome to see how one hand washes the other, so to speak – how we all benefit. You get people into town, and they stop for lunch, but they’re also going to stop at the gas station, or they’re going to the winery, or cheese store. We’re all in it together – and when we see that common vision, we all benefit.”

Michele Engh, Director of Faith Formation at Westby Coon Prairie Lutheran Church, agrees. “You work to build your community; you don’t sit and wait for your community to build you.”

For years, Michele worked with CouleeCAP (the regional Community Action agency) and Vernon County on a grassroots level in economic development and grant writing, before finding her way to Coon Prairie Lutheran. But it was a statewide call for action from the Wisconsin State Associations that sparked her most recent endeavors. “From AARP to the churches, teachers unions, town associations – all of these state associations and leadership groups realized, ‘Hey, I’m working on this, you’re working on this, how do we cross these ‘silos’ and help put them together?’ How can we make this area better for our grandchildren?”

Once folks from the different organizations started meeting, challenges within economic development came to the front, and immediately under that heading came childcare.

“We live in a childcare desert,” says Michele, “and that prevents employers from being able to hire. So how do we address the need in Vernon County?”

With small communities like Cashton, Viroqua, Viola, and Westby all several miles from each other, the physical challenges of rural communities are magnified. There is no one-size fits all answer, Michele says, so by working with various agencies, they came up with a “Shared Services” model. “There are about 25 of these that operate nationwide, much like the many cooperatives that operate in our area.”

The group received a $400,000 grant from the Medical College of Wisconsin, disbursed over four years, to help get the program off the ground. Their focus is on in-home childcare providers who are legally allowed only three kids at a time. That number can be raised to eight, Michele says, but the work to get there can be daunting.

“So we’re creating a structure, along with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association, to do the majority of the paperwork, training, and pooling of resources to get these providers licensed and regulated for eight kids,” Mary says. “That doubles our current capacity across the county. Providers will also receive training in early education awareness, communication, and support systems to not only help themselves, but parents of children as well… a sharing of services.”

This spirit of cooperation – working from the ground up to move a community forward – is a cornerstone principle behind Servant Leadership, a timeless philosophy that’s been inspiring the Coulee Region for years.

The phrase, “servant leadership,” was coined, in recent times, by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay first published in 1970. A “servant leader” is essentially a person who, first, wants to serve their community in some capacity – on the city council, as a mentor, anything that gives back. Second, they lead in their community with positivity – through a specific project, on a board, anything that helps move things forward.

“Our communities change when good people get together and do good work,” says Tom Thibodeau, Director of the Master of Arts in Servant Leadership (MASL) program at Viterbo University. “This is what changes communities, this is what impacts lives, this is what creates a sense of trust.”

Mayor Danny Helgerson has seen firsthand the impact of everyday leaders. “I got a phone call at city hall,” say Danny, “and Lori Pedretti wanted to know if we could talk… we’d never met. So we did, and she said, ‘I’d just like to know what we can do to make this a better community?’ That’s a great conversation. We got talking about servant leadership – I was sold once I understood that you basically start with what you have that is positive and build on it. All the way through is positive.”

On a chilly Driftless evening, Lori Pedretti walks into The Logan Mill – one of the oldest buildings standing in Westby, which now offers travelers a place to stay or gather with groups. The historic structure represents not only a unique place in history, but like Lori, a renewed sense of purpose in the community. Lori completed Viterbo’s Master of Arts in Servant Leadership program in three years, while being a full time RN, raising a toddler, and nursing her husband through a battle with brain cancer. Along the way, she started connecting with community members to bring the concepts of Servant Leadership to town.

“As I started talking to people, I realized there were all these great things happening but people didn’t even know about them – nobody helping bring it all together. I just had this big ‘a-ha’ moment, where I knew I wanted to do something. I started talking with anyone who would listen – telling them what we wanted to do: Build relationships in the community, identify all the things we already have in place, acknowledge the positives, and figure out the needs,” she says. “It was important for me to get a wide audience – farmers, business owners, single moms, families, our seniors.”

So Lori, with the help of her professor Tom Thibodeau and Michele Engh, set a series of community meetings to share the principles of Servant Leadership.

“Our goal was to have conversations – what are the things that would make this area better? How do we, as a grassroots movement, find answers? Not looking from the top down, but what will fit our area and make sense from the bottom up?” says Michele, an edge of excitement in her voice. “It’s so easy to look at the community and say what’s wrong instead of what’s right – and saying what’s right is more fun. It’s exciting to be in Westby right now, because when you bring 100 people together and talk about what’s good with a community – it’s amazing what happens.”

But the work of gathering community conversations is real work – make no mistake.

“Everyone needs to be protected, respected, and connected to the community,” says Tom Thibodeau, “and this is the good work that Lori and Michele are helping to facilitate in the Westby community.”

They hope to do six more meetings in 2018, Lori says, with the goal of supporting current initiatives, identifying what needs to meet next, and always moving the community forward.

In many ways, the Servant Leadership ideals were already in place amongst community members of Westby. The group that helped realize the vision of the Westby Area Performing Arts Center is a great example of that.

In 2001, the Fine Arts Foundation of the Westby Area (FAFWA) was formed to figure out how to build a performance facility for the Westby community and schools.

“Seventy-four percent of high school students in Westby are involved in music, and consistently do well in contests,” says Linda Dowling, FAFWA Chairwoman. “A lot of us felt it was time for them to have a performance space that fit, and not just a gym.”

But funding was a challenge. The process drew on for years, with small successes, but no momentum.

In 2014, a community member challenged the foundation to get things moving. The group was reinvigorated, and a referendum passed with the agreement that FAFWA would come up with a sizeable amount of the budget – both in short and long-term views. Four years later – February 2018 – the facility celebrated its grand opening.

“But that’s what I see with a small town – how people come together to help each other,” says Linda. “The timing was right, the energy was there, the commitment.”

Common good, shared services, cooperative business models. This could be the description of a modern Scandinavian country, but it’s not; it’s rural Vernon County.

“There’s definitely a tipping point – I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I can’t wait to see what’s next,” says Monica Orban. “When all is said and done, you can have the small town us and them, the insiders and outsiders, but when push comes to shove, people offer a hand. Time and time again, they just give. We’re celebrating Westby, we’re celebrating history, it’s like the sign says – we have these old traditions, and new opportunities – boom. That’s the formula to move forward.”

—————————————————-


Benji Nichols is a big fan of kind people, the hills and valleys of the Driftless,  communities that are working hard to make positive change, and cheese. This story is a living testament to those truths. A special thank-you goes out to Evelyn Larson for the use of her Nisse and button art in this story. 

 

—————————————————-

Westby’s 50th Syttende Mai!

Westby, Wisconsin celebrates the 50th year of their most well known community celebration, Syttende Mai, May 19-20, 2018. The small town comes alive with a troll hunt, folk art displays, food demonstrations, sporting events, great music, church services, the kiddie parade Saturday, and Grand Parade Sunday!

Evelyn Larson  (Pictured at left) has designed the Westby Syttende Mai buttons ever since year two of the town’s celebration (the first year the button – at right – was made by the American Legion Auxiliary). Evelyn is the local Nisse creator as well. Don’t miss her Nisse at Syttende Mai (plus a couple of her drawings in this story!).

Find the entire 50th Westby Syttende Mai schedule at
www.westbysyttendemai.com

—————————————————-

Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center

“Norwegian Valley” started as a 100+ acre farm near Coon Valley, WI that was donated by Dr. Alf and Carroll Gundersen to the UW La Crosse foundation in 1977. An arboretum was established on the farm in memory of Gundersen’s mother, and  in 1982 the Thrune Visitor’s Center was completed. Since then, the Nature and Heritage Center has grown into a 400 acre treasure of coulee, springs, creeks, and prairie. It also holds the Bekkum Homestead – a collection of original log buildings built by first generation Norwegian Immigrants arranged in a traditional horseshoe-shaped ‘tun’ or farmstead. Various trails, shelters, and facilities are available by reservation, and the facility is supported by visitors and memberships. Plan a visit and find out more at www.norskedalen.org

—————————————————-

Westby Rod & Gun Club

The Westby Rod & Gun Club is a unique conservation club that has been serving the region since 1937. The Club is also Wisconsin’s longest surviving conservation club to stock trout each spring in local streams. For over 75 years the club has been providing opportunities to sportsmen, and supporting local conservation and habitat projects, as well as fundraisers like their Christmas Toys for kids drive, which raised almost $4,500. for local families. The club maintains a bar & kitchen on Main Street in Westby, which is known for huge weekend breakfasts, and occasional events like smelt fries and hosting sporting contests. With additional camping, range, and banquet hall facilities just outside of the city, membership is available on an annual basis with unique perks.

Female Mountain Bikers Rule!

Female Mountain Bikers Rule!

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Looking down at your mud-covered mountain bike tires, you wipe the sweat from your face, take a drink, and think, “Screw it. I can’t do it.”

But then, you do.

Just like you knew you could.

“Women, by definition – I feel – are not quitters,” says Josie Smith. “We constantly prove to ourselves that we can get things done.”

Josie, in addition to blogging honest and heartfelt stories about her journey to the #bikelife on josiebikelife.com, is the “first lady” of Decorah Bicycles. She and owner Travis Greentree are getting “hitched” this summer at a cycle-filled wedding in a prairie smack dab in the middle of singletrack-land in Decorah.

But not that long ago, Josie was, self-admittedly, “allergic to exercise.” She grew up on a gravel road in rural Waukon and was done biking by age 10. “I was out of shape, I hated hills…it wasn’t an inspiring environment,” she says with a wry grin.

Luckily, inspiration hit one Monday morning in 2012. “I was making a humble breakfast of toast and decided, out of the blue, that I wanted to buy a bike,” she says.

She tried out options in town, looking for a used bike “in case she didn’t like riding,” and ended up at Decorah Bicycles, where she ultimately found “Sir Richard.” That’s a bike, not a guy.

“He was my upright, ducky, knight-in-shining-aluminum,” she says. “It was a campground rental that didn’t seem too used. First I decided I wanted to ride to work…and that began my adventures in bike riding. That bike helped me get through everything – it got me out of the house… I could be in the moment.”

Shop owner, Travis, offered up tips as Josie set off riding around town and on the paved Trout Run Trail that encompasses Decorah.

“Eventually this bike opened up my mind and heart, and I found out that I needed to divorce my then-husband,” she writes on her blog. “Our marriage was over and had been over for about five years, but neither of us were strong enough at the time do to anything about it. My confidence from riding eventually gave me the confidence to make a difference in my life.”

Josiebikelife.com started shortly after an early-on, difficult ride. “I wrote about how hard that ride was on Facebook, and asked if others ever felt like quitting. Someone commented that I shouldn’t say biking is hard – it might discourage others from trying it. But I wanted to say what I thought,” she says with passion. “Sometimes biking IS hard. I want people to have a very real perspective – not every ride is going to be rainbows and sunshine.”

That was evident – once again – for Josie when she attempted some of the challenging mountain bike trails around Decorah.

“I started off with three or four terrifying rides the fall of 2013,” she says. “Then that winter – January and February – they got fatbikes at the shop and I tried it out. That fatbike made me hate it less. I thought, ‘This is kind of possible.’”

Embracing the fatbike love, Josie’s first race was a winter one: Decorah’s 2015 Pugsley World Championship.

“It put all my fears about racing and made them go ‘poof’!” She says with a motion of her hands. “I didn’t want to be last. And technically I was. And nobody cared. The environment was very positive. Someone asked, “Are you having fun? And I was like, ‘Are you frickin’ kidding me?! Yes!’ That’s when I realized, yeah, I actually am.”

Having the blog to record it all has offered some great benefits: From connecting with other women – she frequently interviews biking women online – to tracking her own personal growth.

“It’s amazing to see where I used to be. Mountain biking is something even in my wildest dreams I never thought I’d be doing,” she says.

It would seem other women think mountain biking is a “wildest dream” as well. Finding a group of females out riding the trails is kind of rare.

“It’s like finding a pack of unicorns,” Josie says with utmost sincerity. “It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen and you want to find more of them.”

Happily, there are kind folks – like Kathy Mock, the co-director/founder of the Wisconsin High School Cycling League – working on that.

Kathy worked at Trek, headquartered out of Waterloo, Wisconsin, in the late 80s and early 90s, “back when mountain biking first came around.” There, she met her now husband, Aaron, also a biker, and they had one son, who, of course, was introduced to biking.

“That’s the number one reason I got involved,” Kathy says. “My son was 11, and he said, ‘I like riding with you guys, but I want to ride with kids too!’”

So Kathy and her husband launched a grassroots mountain biking club for kids in their home-base, Lake Mills area – it brought in four towns and 85 kids in the first year. Kathy and Aaron ran this club from 2013 until just recently, when they turned it over to a new group of coaches and director for its upcoming fifth season.

Knowing of this prior experience, Trek approached Kathy about starting a High School Cycling League. Kathy, knowing herself, said, “Not alone!” She teamed up with Don Edberg, the founder of the Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS), a racing series that often pulls in anywhere from 600-1000 riders. Don was already thinking of starting a league, so the team-up made perfect sense.

Currently, there are 19 High School Cycling leagues in states across the U.S., opertating under the umbrella of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). Founded in 2009, NICA is devoted to developing these interscholastic mountain biking programs. The sport is growing so fast, NICA had to put a cap on how many leagues can join per year.

“Middle school is the fastest growing portion of this. NICA started as a high school- only program,” says Kathy. “But we said, ‘We’re not doing it unless you include middle school.’ We found that there’s a much greater probability of reaching kids if they’re able to try a new sport early. If you wait until high school, they’re already set in their activities.”

So, although it’s called the Wisconsin High School Cycling League, it’s inclusive of sixth to twelfth grades. The WI League’s first season kicked off just over three years ago, but there are already 30 teams, 478 athletes, and 266 coaches.

There’s a reason there’s so many coaches. NICA requires a one to six ratio of coaches to athletes before they can even start a practice.

“I direct a team of 45 kids, and I have 20 coaches on my list. I think all of our teams in Wisconsin are like that,” Kathy says. “This is different than any other kind of school sport. We highly encourage parents to get involved.”

There are four coaching license levels: general volunteer, rider leader, assistant coach, and head coach, and each level has different requirements that must be met. But the most important requirement is a connection with kids.

“I don’t really care if you’re a good cyclist,” says Kathy. “I say to parents, ‘If you’re good with kids, let’s get you certified as a coach.’ Kids need as many mentors as possible.”

Roughly 80 percent of the students who have joined the WI league had no prior experience on a mountain bike.

“One of the more notable things about our program is that we draw in those kids who are not necessarily classic sports kids,” Kathy says. “Mountain biking has all the things I wish other sports had. Everybody gets to participate at every minute. Nobody sits the bench. You’re on the team, and you’re an athlete. Plus, you’re not in a gym; you’re outside.”

It doesn’t have the year-round pressure of other classic sports as well. The WI League has a five-race season. Practice – held two times per week – can start July 1, and races begin mid-September and wrap up the end of October. The kids get to choose whether or not they compete – out of the 478 WI riders in 2016, 322 of them raced.

“Many teams don’t even focus on riding every practice,” Kathy says. “ They focus on being outside, slowing down, and learning to enjoy nature.”

While NICA’s goal for every league is to be above 25 percent female, the WI League is currently sitting at 23 percent girls.

La Crosse, Wisconsin’s Ella Shively is part of that percentage. The 17-year-old, rad and inspiring-in-every-way Central High School senior has been exposed to mountain biking pretty much her whole life. Her dad, Josh Shively, is an avid mountain biker in the Driftless, and Ella started attending his races when she was just a baby.

“I was twelve years old when I went on my first real mountain bike ride with my dad. I had to step off a lot, like all beginners, but I don’t remember ever feeling particularly scared or frustrated,” Ella says. “I loved being out in the woods for extended periods of time, and the challenge of learning how to maneuver around a new obstacle. Every time I fell, I learned something new from the experience.”

Josh Shively started the La Crosse middle/high school team (within the WI League) in 2015, when Ella was a sophomore.

“I had been riding mostly with my dad, and occasionally with some riders who were a few years older than me (and much faster!), so it just made sense for me to be part of a larger group experience,” she says. “My favorite part of being in the league is definitely traveling to different race venues and camping out with the team. My teammates and their families are all really fun people. I remember playing a lot of ghosts-in-the-graveyard in the campgrounds with my teammates that first year. We always pre-ride the night before, and then stay up way too late talking around the campfire.”

Indeed, the social side of a sport is often what draws people to it. And it might be part of what keeps women from joining certain sports – when there aren’t as many females riding, others are less likely to try it out. The fear of not fitting in, or “slowing down” the other riders can hold some females back.

“To combat this,” Ella says, “those of us women who are already experienced riders need to be vocal about our existence. Other women need to know about those who have pedaled successfully before them. We can grow the number of women in mountain biking by introducing our friends to the sport, and encouraging young riders.”

That’s been Martha Flynn’s goal since the launch of the Minnesota High School Cycling League in 2012.

“The disparity between the number of girls and boys participating in mountain biking was painfully evident from the start,” Martha says. “To attract more girls to the sport, Amber (Shult) Auer, created the Crank Sisters, a program within the League focused on getting girls on bikes. The vision is to empower and build confidence in young women through mountain biking.”

Martha herself has been mountain biking for about 15 years, having started in her late 30s and working up to a pretty intense racing schedule in her mid-40s. But her focus now is all about getting more girls on bikes.

Because of the MN League’s program, they are already seeing more girls participate in off-road cycling.

“Our priorities are threefold: To introduce girls to the league, retain them by building confidence and camaraderie, and create a community of female cyclists and supporters –in coaching and other leadership positions,” Martha says. “The girls are able to connect to female role models and become a part of this growing sisterhood.”

The Wisconsin and Minnesota Leagues are employing similar techniques to get girls involved. Basically, an opportunity to “try it out,” separate from the male riders, to help reduce nerves and make it more fun. Kathy Mock offers a “Try Out Party,” where girls can invite their friends to come and learn a few basic mountain biking skills. With the MN League, they call them “Try it Out” Sessions.

“The very first singletrack ride is a very important moment for girls and mountain biking,” Martha says. “It’s a make or break chance for us to help them realize their potential through a positive experience.”

The women volunteering at these try-it-out sessions work to help reduce an often-female tendency towards perfection. “We tell our stories of times we ‘messed up’ or were nervous,” Martha says. “And of course, we make it fun, not competitive. Our hope is they come off the trail with a smile and want to get the details about joining a team in their area.”

The MN League also sets up a tent at races where girls and women hang out, share stories, and connect with other riders.

“And it’s for everyone,” Martha says. “We welcome the guys, and younger sisters hang out at the tent too. We talk with them about riding and how much fun it is, so that they grow up thinking why NOT mountain bike.”

In 2017, Martha will be moving her focus to getting those younger sisters on bikes. She’ll be working with a program separate from the League called Little Bellas, for girls ages seven through 13.

Little Bellas doesn’t have a competitive element – it’s purely to create a community that will empower girls through mountain biking. “We emphasize the importance of goal-setting, promote healthy lifestyles, and recognize the positive effects of strong female bonds,” Martha says.

For women outside of that age group, Josie Smith has set up a different program called FWD: Fearless Women of Dirt. FWD is for women passionate about mountain biking and helping others find their bike life. Ambassadors can start a FWD group based off Josie’s template virtually anywhere – there’s even a Stratford, Ontario group. It’s as simple as setting up a Facebook group and putting the community out there.

“I see this as a gateway for women who would otherwise not create their own mountain biking tribe,” Josie says. “It makes it less daunting, and then you have a network of awesome FWD to connect with via social media. I suppose I felt this was a good thing to do because I, myself, have felt like a loner as I was learning to ride.”

Josie plans to keep blogging about her #bikelife adventures on josiebikelife.com, always highlighting both the good and the bad. And this is good, because nobody is perfect.

“Don’t let the fear of falling keep you down!” says Ella Shively. “Women often feel pressure to be perfect, but perfection is not conducive to improvement. You will fall at some point. Then you will pick up your bike, ride off, and realize, ‘Oh! That wasn’t so bad after all!’ Mountain biking is not the dangerous sport it is sometimes made out to be. That said, don’t let anyone pressure you into riding faster than you are comfortable with. The less anxious you are, and the more you look forward to the next ride, the more likely you are to stick with mountain biking for good.”

And sticking with mountain biking is not only good for your physical health, but your mental state as well – being out in nature, deep in the woods on a singletrack trail, is one of the greatest experiences there is.

“If there are raspberries growing on the side of the trail, stop and eat them,” Ella says. “If the change of seasons has embroidered the forest in red and gold, stop to take in the view. Mountain biking can make you see things you’ve never seen before. You will never regret taking a moment to enjoy the experience of it all.”

——————————————–

Aryn Henning Nichols is super excited about becoming a better mountain biker this spring, summer, fall… forever! She is grateful to all these awesome women for their awesome inspiration.

 

For all those women (and men!) out there thinking of joining the mountain bike community, Ella Shively would like to say:
“Welcome! May your rubber side remain down, and may you ever shred gnar (that’s mountain biker for ‘have an awesome ride!’)

Here are some tips to get you going:

  1. First step: Visit your local bike shop! Many will have options for renting mountain bikes, and even offer led-rides to get you acclimated if it’s your first time out. They will definitely have suggestions on gear, where to start, and the best beginner trails.
  2. Talk to other people who ride. See if you can join up with them!
  3. Once you’re into it, remember you don’t have to be on a trail to improve your technical riding. “I taught my friends about cornering by setting up cones to make a slalom course on a grassy hill,” Ella Shively says. “In seventh grade, I learned how to ride no-handed, lift my front wheel, and corner smoothly during my daily commute to school. To this day, I commute by bike as much as possible throughout the year – riding over chunks of snow on the sidewalk imitates the challenge of riding a rooty mountain bike trail!”

Martha Flynn’s top 5 reasons for loving mountain biking:

• Connecting to nature
• Being able to push myself to my limits or just ride casually – whatever I need that day
• Meeting so many amazing women and men through the experience
• Being brave and tackling things I never thought I could do… riding a big drop at Spirit Mountain in Duluth, making it through a gnarly rock garden or finishing a 100 mile single track race
• Finishing a ride completely sweaty, dirty, scratched up and thinking there is nowhere else I’d rather be right now

Ella Shively’s favorite places to ride:

“The Human Powered Trails (HPT), now called Upper Hixon Forest, is a wonderful place to ride in La Crosse! The difficulty level ranges from the mostly flat Prairie Loop for beginners, to a little more challenge and some fun turns and obstacles on Twister, to more descents and climbs like Obi Wan/The Dark Side. There are no user fees, and the trails are well-maintained. You can even ride up the Vista Trail to the HPT to maximize time spent on dirt instead of the road. If you’re up for a day trip from La Crosse, Black River Falls and (of course) Decorah also have challenging trails in beautiful natural settings. I’ve also enjoyed long weekends in the areas of Chequamegon and Copper Harbor (favorite trails in Chequamegon and Copper Harbor: Gravity Cavity and Daisy Dukes, consecutively).”

Online Resources:


ellacyclingtips.com
(like them on Facebook, too, for regular tips and stories about female cyclists)
YouTube (tons of demos on bicycle maintenance and handling)
decorahbicycles.com
www.nationalmtb.org
www.wisconsinmtb.org
www.minnesotamtb.org
wors.org
www.littlebellas.com
www.facebook.com/fearlesswomenofdirt/

 

Electing for Change: Alicia Leinberger

electing_alicialeinbergerAlicia Leinberger

The words – uttered on public radio the fall of 2015 – stopped Alicia Leinberger in her tracks.

They also changed the trajectory of her life.

“A Bernie Sanders supporter was talking about how the campaign was all about creating a political revolution,” recalls Leinberger, founder of Ethos Green Power, a renewable energy business in Viroqua, Wisconsin. “When she said that, I was like, ‘Wait! What?! Someone actually said that out loud?’ Those words set me on fire.”

Leinberger immediately threw herself into the local Sanders campaign, joining a couple dozen other tireless supporters who canvassed door-to-door in Viroqua to educate voters about the Vermont Senator’s platform. Their efforts met with success last April, when Sanders tallied more votes than rival Hillary Clinton both in Viroqua and statewide in the Wisconsin primary.

“It felt great,” says Leinberger, who attended the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July as a Sanders delegate. “But then my thoughts turned to, ‘Now what?’”

She didn’t have to ponder that question very long. Soon members of the local Democratic Party were knocking on her door, asking if she would run for the 96th District Seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Leinberger, a single mom who has never held elected office, carefully considered their pitch, consulting both her parents and her daughters (Maiela, 13, and Zirelia, 11) before announcing her candidacy in May.

electing_alicialeinberger2If elected this November, she will take her seat in early January, when the assembly convenes for the 2017–18 legislative session. Leinberger sounds poised to hit the ground running in Madison, where her responsibilities would involve working on Wisconsin’s state budget and other legislative matters, serving on standing committees, and, of course, handling constituent matters back home.

“Win or lose, I hope my daughters learn that nothing can stop them but themselves,” she says of her decision to run for office. “I hope they learn that if they have an opportunity they really want to pursue, they should let nothing hold them back.”

Leinberger has lived her life by that credo. A native of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, she moved to El Salvador with the Peace Corps in 1994 to teach sustainable agriculture to coffee farmers after earning a degree in conservation biology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Three years later, Leinberger returned to Madison to advance the fair trade movement in the Midwest. She worked first with coffee farmers, then with dairy farmers, before cofounding Seventh Generation Energy Systems – which promoted renewable, clean energy – in 2002.

In 2007 Leinberger moved to Viroqua, lured by the fresh water, clean air, and overall beauty of the Driftless Region, as well as her desire to enroll her daughters in Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School. Three years ago, she opened the doors of Ethos Green Power, a small business that offers opportunities to buy, build, and sell green power. “The two best ways to effect positive change are through business and through politics,” says Leinberger. “I don’t have a problem taking a risk if I believe in something.”

Certainly entering politics at a time when many Americans feel disenfranchised from the political process could be considered a risky proposition. But Leinberger has been inspired by “learning what the people of the 96th District hold most dear” and hopes she gets the opportunity to communicate what she has learned when the assembly convenes in Madison next January.

“I’ve always had a strong belief in the democratic process, in putting the best parts of ourselves – and the best interests of the people – first,” she says. “The only way to make the process work better is to participate.”