Women only wilderness weekend gave me a chance to stop, listen and breathe
Galz Gone Wild is a group for women to connect with each other and the outdoors
With ages ranging from 22-37, the participants of the Galz Gone Wild community came from an array of backgrounds. Photograph: Melissa McDermott
I have one abiding memory of a family camping trip to Achill Island in the mid-90s. After years of threatening to buy a tent for all four of us, my dad had finally taken the leap, packed us into a car and driven west. Having spent a few years in his 20s camping across the Canadian Rocky Mountains, he was determined to turn his two young daughters into outdoor aficionados.
But my father’s memories of bluebird clear skies and balmy, Canadian summer evenings did not quite fit into the set-up we found ourselves in on Keel beach. If I remember correctly, it rained for most of the trip. We had a pack of cards, a few board games and some books, but kneeling crouched over in a small tent while the rain pounded down on the canvas above our heads put the camping dream to bed for a few years.
A trip to the US northwestern state of Montana with my family as a young teenager successfully awoke in me a fascination with the outdoors, which has endured ever since. A return trip to that part of the world about a decade ago only served to bolster my appreciation for the wilderness. But, as is often the way, I allowed city living and work to take over. All of a sudden, this summer, I realised my trusty two-man tent had been gathering dust, untouched for four years.
So when the editor of the Magazine suggested I join a group of similarly minded women for a weekend of outdoor skills training, I immediately agreed. After a particularly taxing few weeks of work, on a Friday evening in late August I pulled out my rucksack, sleeping bag and thermals, jumped into the car and drove south into the Wicklow mountains.
I had been invited to take part in a weekend of wild camping led by Melissa McDermott, founder of the Galz Gone Wild community, and ancestral skills teacher Lucy O’Hagan who runs the Phoenix Forest School in the Phoenix Park. I arrived into a small car park shortly before nightfall, where I was met by three women also taking part in the weekend’s activities.
A short walk through the forest brought us to a collection of tents nestled among the pine trees, and then on to a small clearing where 13 women had already gathered around a blazing camp fire.
With ages ranging from 22-37, the participants came from an array of backgrounds. Some were veterans of these organised outdoor adventure weekends, while others, like me, were trying to rediscover a part of ourselves that we had lost sight of in recent years. In our daily lives our paths most likely would never have crossed. But any differences rapidly diminished as we shared stories around the campfire.
McDermott initially founded Galz Gone Wild (GGW) in 2017 as a monthly hiking group for women. After 15 years working in retail management, including three years in London, she returned to Ireland in her mid-20s feeling burned out and suffering from depression.
“It was a scary time and retail management was all I knew,” she says. “I was so lost and had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I realised I didn’t want to go back to working in retail, because it wasn’t making me happy. I had thought if I earned a ton of money and bought all the expensive material things like handbags and clothes, that would provide me with the happiness I needed. But it didn’t.”
It was pretty clear to me that day that there was a need for women to come together and connect with each other and the outdoors
After a year studying photography and developing a love of capturing outdoor shots, McDermott began searching for female hiking groups she could join. Eventually, in July 2017, she set up a Facebook event for her own expeditions, and was surprised when 30 women turned up for the inaugural Wicklow walk.
“It was pretty clear to me that day that there was a need for women to come together and connect with each other and the outdoors,” she says.
The project quickly evolved into frequent hikes, before expanding to navigation and mountaineering training weekends. Two years on, and now a full-time pursuit for McDermott, GGW offers a whole range of outdoor activities across the island of Ireland.
The 48 hours I spent in the Wicklow mountains were focused on learning wilderness and bushcraft skills. After an 8am wake-up call on Saturday, and porridge around the embers of the previous night’s fire, we pulled on our walking boots and ventured into the forest to gather the materials needed to build an outdoor shelter.
Following O’Hagan’s knowledgeable lead, I found myself on hands and knees digging deep into the earth for the long, thin, elastic tree roots we would use as rope for our shelter. I was surprised by the overwhelming calm I felt by simply digging in the ground – the smell of the damp, green overgrowth and sight of dirt gathering under my fingernails served as a reminder to slow down and distance myself from the thoughts that had been rushing through my mind for weeks on end.
We learned how to use a small axe to chop tree branches, which were used as stilts and supports for our new outdoor home. Meanwhile, I discovered another form of brain therapy which involved simply whacking an axe against a piece of wood. After three hours of sweaty work, we stood back to admire the leafy bedding we had created beside the camp fire.
The afternoon was spent honing our whittling skills as we carved spoons from blocks of wood (though there was nothing spoon-like about the jagged piece of wood I brought home), before following O’Hagan back into the forest to learn about the medicinal benefits of wild flowers and plants.
The insanity of our decision to meet for a sunrise swim became apparent once the complete numbness overtook my feet as we waded up the river
As our campsite was situated right beside a river, we were encouraged to treat our dusty bodies to a couple of exhilarating wake-up dips in the chilly Wicklow waters. On Sunday morning, shortly after 7am, I joined McDermott and two other women for a short hike down the river to a secluded swimming spot. The insanity of our decision to meet for a sunrise swim became apparent once the complete numbness overtook my feet as we waded up the river. After battling through a dense incline of prickly bushes, we emerged into a heavenly clearing where the first rays of morning sunlight reflected off the cliff face above us.
Our late night swim pact included an agreement to strip down completely, so we reluctantly pulled off the layers before tentatively submerging our naked bodies in the dark, brown river waters. Yes, it was bloody freezing. But pushing my body into “fight or flight” mode also forced my over-active brain to stop, pause and take stock of the tranquillity of our surroundings.
Sunday was spent learning the arguably vital skill of building a fire using natural materials, before traipsing back into the forest one last time, where O’Hagan talked through the basic skills needed to track wild animals through the Irish wilderness.
After packing up our tents and belongings we were encouraged to spend 20 minutes alone and in silence away from the campsite. I planted myself on a rock facing upstream towards the spot where only a few hours earlier I had taken my morning dip. We rarely have the chance to just stop, listen and breathe. For me, its potential for healing is indisputable.
A few days later, having returned to my fast-paced city life, albeit with some newfound clarity in my mind, I sent McDermott a couple of WhatsApp messages with follow-up questions for this article. I expressed genuine gratitude for the invitation to take part in the weekend and admitted that the experience had not only re-awoken my love of the outdoors, but simultaneously served as a powerful antidote to the darkness that had weighed on my shoulders for weeks.
McDermott wasn’t surprised. Her decision two years ago to dedicate her life to outdoor pursuits enabled her to finally deal with years of struggling with depression.
“Back then there were no real mental health supports so I had to save myself. I realised the focus was on finding the happiness within myself and the outdoors brought me that. I say to the girls now you can reinvent yourself at any time in your life, and that’s exactly what I did.”
For more information on Galz Gone Wild visit galzgonewild.com
Robbie O’Raw is setting up a version of GGW for men, promoting the benefits of hiking and spending time outdoors for your mental health. The group doesn’t have a name yet but he can be contacted through instagram.com/robbieoraw