Women for the wilderness

Menogyn 2019
The Wild Waters Broadband chapter of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness spent a weekend at Camp Menogyn on the Gunflint Trail to hike and clear portage entrances. Photo courtesy of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness

I love their name. It’s in your face and on the mark. They’re the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a Colorado-based, national organization with a Minnesota chapter of 40 women ranging in age from 50–80. 

They organized four years ago — to learn more about nature and the outdoors, to swing a hatchet or wield an axe to clear a portage trail and to lobby with other groups for clean water and unspoiled wilderness.

According to their national publication, Broadsides, it’s a strategic persona:  “There’s no doubt that a group of older, grey-haired women … can attract media attention, especially when walking into a Congressional office; or as grannies with rolling pins rallying against public land bullies; or arms linked together to protect an old-growth tree.” 

Minnesota’s Great Old Broads haven’t carried rolling pins, but they’ve joined with Friends of the Boundary Waters to oppose the two copper-nickel mines proposed for the northeastern part of the state. 

“Our focus here in Minnesota is clean water — cleaning it up and making sure it stays that way,” said Janet Bourdon, 76, the principal founder of the group four years ago. “The copper mining process is not safe, regardless of what the mining companies claim. What’s left behind is sulfuric acid and we worry about the watershed so close to the BWCA.”

Bourdon, who grew up in White Bear Lake, graduated from the University of Minnesota and had a career as a job-search consultant, which included developing curricula to help people find work. Beyond her profession, Bourdon’s had a passion for the outdoors — since she was a kid.

“I spent hours and hours outdoors,” she said, “exploring, canoeing, kayaking, skiing and hiking. You name it, and I think I’ve done it. I believe I’ve hiked in all the national parks in this country. I’ve also travelled abroad. But I do love the wilderness that is ours.”

That kind of passion is what drives Bourdon to encourage other women to join the Great Old Broads. One woman who’s grateful for the opportunity is 80-year-old Jan Butler from Minnetonka. 

Menogyn 2019

“I could just kick myself for not joining them earlier,” she said. “They have added so much to my life.”

What Butler’s got in the past two years is an up-close look at the ecosystem in Blue Mounds State Park and some of the finest trout habitat in Minnesota in Whitewater State Park. On one trip, they saw a bison herd and a fish hatchery. While they were learning, they were also camping, passing up motel rooms with soft beds for tents and sleeping bags. 

“I went out to Glacier [National Park] this summer,” Butler said, “and I camped by myself on the way out and back. I have camped all over the United States and Canada.” 

This fall Butler and a dozen other Great Old Broads spent a weekend at Camp Menogyn on the Gunflint Trail. They talked, gawked, hiked and worked, clearing portage entrances to Daniels Lake and Duncan Lake in the BWCAW.

“It feels good to be doing something,” Butler said. “We have so much camaraderie, and it’s just a fun time.” 

The group hopes that camaraderie attracts some younger women in Minnesota, too. Despite their name, they seek women who simply value the wilderness, desire to learn more about it and want do something to protect it. 

What I admire about these Minnesota women is they’re still eager to learn, to work up a sweat, to sleep on the ground and to raise a little hell (fuss, if you’d rather) for a good cause. 

Best of all, they’re having fun doing it.


Learn more

To join the Great Old Broads for Wilderness — annual memberships start at $30 — go to greatoldbroads.org or call 970-385-9577.


Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to dnimmer@mngoodage.com.