Pioneering paddlers

Maxine Davis lights up the dark filmmakers lounge of St. Anthony Main as she talks about her film, “Women Outward Bound.”

It’s easy to see why. The documentary, which took over 10 years to make, resonated with the sold-out theater, because it so clearly resonates with her.

Davis, 67, of Linden Hills was one of 24 women who took on the challenge of surviving a month in the Boundary Waters in 1965 as part of the first Minnesota Outward Bound class open to women.

“I decided 40 years later that I wanted to have a reunion. Outward Bound meant so much to me and I wanted to see if it meant as much to them,” Davis said of why she made the film.

This pioneering group was the first to prove that women could not only accomplish the same grueling outdoor tasks that men could, but they could thrive at them.

“I want girls, women, boys, fathers, to learn that there was a different time when some opportunities weren’t available to girls,” Davis said. “I wanted people to see that girls can do almost everything boys can do.”

The film debuted at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival on April 10. Ten of the original 24 women were in attendance for the film’s premier.

After the film, the women held a Q&A session and many attendees spoke to the film’s heartwarming message. Several of them even shed tears as they told the women just how inspired they felt after watching this story played out on the big screen.

The film’s combination of sweeping Boundary Waters scenery, moving interviews with the original members of the program and touching messages of female triumph made it hard not to fall in love with the story.

“I think the real reason [Max] made it is that . . . what she went through was during a time when girls were supposed to be ladies,” said Melody Gilbert, the film’s producer. “It was the beginning of the acceptance that women could do exactly what men could do.”

The film follows the story of the young women as they went through the grueling month outdoors. Many of them were from different backgrounds and none of them knew each other prior to the trip.

“They purposely had half the kids on a scholarship so we had a wide range of income levels and social classes,” said Davis, who was the only Jewish girl in attendance. Other girls were raised in Catholic families and one of them was sent to the camp by a social worker.

Cathy Crowson thought she would be attending a traditional girl’s summer camp and got quite the surprise when she realized she’d be spending a month just trying to survive the brutal wilderness of the Boundary Waters.

“Even though Cathy thought she was coming to ride horses and do her nails she really loved it,” Davis said.

The women were taught several outdoor tasks throughout their month-long experience, including orienteering, whitewater canoeing, portaging, and rock climbing. Each of them also had to spend three days completely alone with three matches, a knife, fishing equipment, and a pot to boil water.

“We had the clothes on our back, we had a whistle in case there was an emergency, and we each spent three days out there by ourselves,” Davis reflected.

Their experiences in 1965 changed them all and it demonstrated the hardiness women are capable of, but it also changed those around them for the better.

“I think the fact that we went to Outward Bound changed our daughters. And our husbands had a different sense of who we are because they had the sense that maybe they were marrying a different kind of woman,” Davis said.

Since the first 24 girls participated in Outward Bound, countless women have had the opportunity to go through the same experience.

“Thousands and thousands of women have gone to the outward program — 1,500 a year have gone since then. Women . . . are out in the world doing almost everything,” Davis said.

After all those years of the program’s success, Davis was able to reunite some of the original group and capture their return to the Boundary Waters on film.

“The reunion was the key. I just wanted to get all these women together and see who we all were,” Davis said.

Davis decided to film the reunion at the last minute and she and Gilbert enlisted the help of outdoor videographer Nick Clausen.

“Nick is an amazing outdoor videographer. He’s quiet. He’s genuine. He’s gracious in a very quiet way so he was with all of us and he was like a fly on the wall,” Davis said fondly. “He just followed us around for three days.”

The women returned to the camp in 2012 and got to see how the program has evolved since its inception. They were toured around by current instructors and got to go out canoeing and swimming in the frigid waters again after 47 years. There were many tearful moments as they reflected on the experiences they shared all those years ago.

“I cried a lot then. I cry in the film to. I’m a big crier,” Davis said with a chuckle.

Many of the women grew tearful in the film and during the Q&A session afterward, but it only proves that emotion and strength need not be mutually exclusive.

These women are shining examples of perseverance in their lives to this day.

Patricia Giebink became a doctor in a time when women hardly ever attended medical school and now takes a month off each year to volunteer in countries around the world.

Elizabeth Kilanowski went on to get her bachelor’s and master’s degree in geology from the University of Minnesota and Western Washington University. She currently lives on a boat in Bellingham, Wash.

Janice Fraser took her abusive husband to court and was the first woman to do so in Hennepin County.

Above all, the film encapsulates what this group of women accomplished for all women in a time when girls weren’t provided the same opportunities as men and told they were inferior. It’s a moving story of perseverance, strength and teamwork and a heartwarming reunion of women who changed the face of history.

“Let’s have our girls, our daughters, be the strong women we came to be a little sooner,” Davis said. “And please, please, take your children out into the woods. Let them experience nature and what it means to survive the outdoors.”

Madison Rude is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.



FYI: To learn more about the film, including information about upcoming screenings, go to The film will also screen as part of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival’s Best of the Fest on April 26, 7 p.m.