“It’s important to explore all the different pathways in life. I stand out so much more because I lived in a canoe for six months.”
“It’s important to explore all the different pathways in life. I stand out so much more because I lived in a canoe for six months.”

This Veteran Paddler Says Teenage Girls Need Adventure

Author Natalie Warren wants young women to disregard conventional rites of passage and get lost in the wilderness

“It’s important to explore all the different pathways in life. I stand out so much more because I lived in a canoe for six months.”

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A two-week canoe trip in northern Minnesota changed the trajectory of Natalie Warren’s life when she was 15 years old. From that pivotal point onward, she bucked the norm of her urban Miami upbringing to chase a life outdoors. More than two decades later, Warren, 32, is recognized as one of the most accomplished adventure paddlers in the U.S. She’s canoed 2,000 miles from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, paddled the entire length of the Mississippi River, carried out 30- and 50-day river expeditions in Canada, and paddled 450 miles in 53 hours to win first place in the Yukon River Quest. As a new mother, a Ph.D. student of environmental communication at the University of Minnesota, the founder of Wild River Academy, a nonprofit that teaches urban youth about rivers, and the author of the adventure memoir Hudson Bay Bound, Warren is spreading the gospel of outdoor adventure for teenage girls who feel like they don’t fit in. 

In 2005, Warren was burned out by daily three-hour saxophone practices and other rigors of attending an arts high school when a friend suggested YMCA Camp Menogyn, near Grand Marais, Minnesota. Despite having no prior relationship to the outdoors, after her first river trip with the camp, in which she spent every day paddling and every night sleeping outside, she was hooked on outdoor adventure. At that formative time in her life, she had finally emerged from what she calls the “blur of living in a large urban area that had a certain ideology and tastes for material things that I never identified with.” Living outdoors, moving slowly, observing everything around her with time to digest it, connecting with her boat partner—these aspects of canoe life helped shape Warren’s perceptions of the world.

She found her people, her place, and her own voice in the outdoors and on the water, which eventually provided the backdrop for the rest of her life. Now Warren’s goal is to encourage teenage girls to think critically about what they actually want in life—and how scheming adventures can help them get it. Here are four pieces of advice for teen girls ready to embrace adventure.

Fight for What You Want

“We’re constantly told all of these milestones that we’re supposed to have,” Warren says. “A lot of us sit back and we’re like, That’s not what we want. How do we fit into a culture that’s telling us what we’re supposed to be doing when we’re not even sure that will make us feel fulfilled? You’re told you can’t ever hop off the tracks because you can make one decision that will derail your potential for future marriage, job, kids, success, and retirement.” 

“I really fought for what I felt like I needed,” she says. “For me it was following a feeling of what I was supposed to be doing at the time. I couldn’t rationalize it. The surge of emotion when we’re teenagers or early twenties can be a really, really powerful force in directing us where we want to go.”

Forge Your Own Path

“Instead of getting an unpaid internship in the summer after college, I canoed for three months. I thought that would literally ruin my career, because an internship is what I was told I needed to do to be successful. I want teenage girls to think more critically about the messages that they’re receiving, whether they’re subtle or obvious, to be able to say, ‘I can do something different.’ Start to think, like, Oh, land is connected. I wonder if I could walk across the country? Water is connected. I wonder if I can sail across the ocean?”

“Wilderness trips, and canoe trips in particular, are about getting into a flow of everybody working together,” she says. “We all need each other. We all serve different roles. We’re trying to get from point A to point B. What are we going to eat? What is the weather like? And how do we solve problems together? That just strips away all of the added pressures and layers of what we’re supposed to look like, how we’re supposed to respond to certain things.”

Have the Courage to Take a Big Trip

“It’s important to explore all the different pathways in life,” Warren says. “I stand out so much more because I lived in a canoe for six months. It provides fodder for interviews. It’s group work. It’s not a hole in your résumé at all. It’s actually something that could make you stand out and could become your career in many ways. Without feeling like we’re safe to take those risks, we often forego the possibilities that those trips can provide for us.” 

Find Your Place in the Outdoors 

“What I found in that first trip especially was that I felt really confident in the outdoors. I sort of discovered what made me feel the most me when I was at that age, when high school was traumatic. I had a lot of teen angst, and when I was in the outdoors, when I was paddling a canoe, when I was living in the wilderness, I felt a sense of peace and belonging that I had just never found in the city,” Warren says.

“I have already introduced my daughter to just being outdoors and being by water, telling her stories and reading books about women doing adventures,” she says. “I’d really love to be able to support her in taking those risks, especially at a young age, without feeling like if she stepped off the track, she would lose her future. When we step off the track, we get on another track that can be so much better.”

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