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Six women, six days in the wilderness

Live auction item won at Derby Day unexpectedly becomes inspirational life changer

First night camping at Toe Jam Lake.

First night camping featured a spectacular view of the Sierra Nevada.

What do you get when you mix a group of five inexperienced women with backpacks that weigh one-quarter their weight and 20 miles of trails in the Stanislaus National Forest?

“The transformation in six days was amazing and I could not have been more impressed,” Alyssa Kutzer, Council on Aging’s Director of Development said. “They became my heroes in that week. I feel honored to know each and every one of them.”


The group takes a break in the Emigrant Wilderness on a backpacking trip won at the Derby Day silent auction.

The wilderness adventure was offered by Kutzer as a live auction item from Derby Day, one of the biggest fundraisers of the year hosted by Council on Aging. The event celebrated the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby and benefits the Meals on Wheels program that helps to feed isolated seniors throughout Sonoma County.

Participants Meredith Freed, who won the trip, Leeann Vieron, Lisa Rogers, Kelly Neronde and Susann Mischke ranged in age from 34 to 53. Four members of the group are ER nurses at Memorial Hospital, save Neronde, who is a flight nurse for REACH in Sacramento.

“I’ve never bought an item like that, but saw how Alyssa described the trip and knew it was an amazing opportunity to try backpacking,” Freed said. “I knew I could find five other adventurous, tough, and smart women to come with me, and I did.”

The trip began with a night of camping at an elevation of 8,600’ on a bluff overlooking the Sierra Nevada mountain range at Gianelli Cabin Trailhead in the Emigrant Wilderness outside of Pinecrest, California.

“We were all nervous, but more excited,” Freed said. “Alyssa really has a passion for it and her love for nature made us eager to get out there.”

Over the course of the next few days, this group of intrepid women would learn how to make a comfortable camp, complete with a “Flintstones table,” cook gourmet meals, and they even survived a night that featured a mountain lion visiting camp.

The famous "Flintstone table" complete with a floral centerpiece.

The famous “Flintstone table” complete with a floral centerpiece.

Trepidation and excitement marked the first day’s hike, a 6.3-mile jaunt to Y Meadow Lake. All but Mischke had no backpacking experience, so the first day was spent acclimating to the altitude, steep terrain and the weight of packs.

“There was a ‘plan B’ in case we were unable to make it, but all of the girls rallied,” Kutzer said. “They were absolutely thrilled with the lake and almost immediately jumped into the icy water to wash off and cool down.”

Neronde’s wife provided the group with homemade muffins for the first morning, as she thought this would their last “real meal” for six days.

But little did the group realize that Kutzer, a longtime, passionate wilderness backpacker, had many culinary surprises in store for them.

“Everyone thought we would eat minimally for the trip and the food would taste like cardboard: Little did they know we would be eating like queens,” she said. “I really dislike the MRE’s (meals ready to eat) they sell at [camping stores], so I’ve been dehydrating homemade meals for a long time.”

Kutzer spent months making and dehydrating food, including barbecued hamburgers with sweet potato buns, pickles, grilled mushrooms and onions; homemade chili with fresh cornbread; Joe’s Special breakfast; and even Moroccan lemon chicken for dinner one night with dessert every night. It was accomplished at only 1.3 lbs of food per person per day.

“We even made fresh bread using a rehydrated watermelon rind as the cooking vessel that we set directly on the coals of the fire,” Kutzer explained.

Bread baked in a watermelon rind.

Bread baked in a watermelon rind.

The food was served on tables built out of granite gathered at the campsite, complete with wildflowers Vieron collected as a centerpiece.

Toe Jam Lake, a 4-mile hike, was the second day’s destination, and by then women felt more comfortable with their packs and roles setting up tents, filling water bladders to filter and collecting firewood. The night featured chocolate cake baked in re-hydrated orange rinds and fishing in the lake.

On the third, a day hike to Leopold Lake was capped with stunning views of Half Dome and there was even cell reception. After checking in with loved ones, the group ate lunch, collected white quartz and swam in the icy water.

But the real excitement came at about 3:30 a.m. on the fourth day when a mountain lion entered the camp that did not seem to be in any hurry to leave

“A lot of noise was made to scare him off; whistles blown and a large bonfire built,” Kutzer said. “He finally sauntered off. It was a little scary but all were safe when daylight finally arrived.”

By the last two days of the trip, everyone was more comfortable with the rigors of hiking and each had naturally assumed roles in the daily activities associated with setting up camp and building a Flintstones table.

At one point, Neronde yelled, “Who builds a table when backpacking?” to which the women responded in unison, “we do,” and they all high-fived at a job well done.

“It was awesome and we had such a good time,” first-time camper Lisa Rogers said. “I’d never been backpacking or even camping before and Alyssa was the perfect guide. We didn’t shower for a week, but I can’t describe how great it was having all women in the group: It was all positive and very empowering.”

There were also no conventional toilets.

The final day was spent hanging around camp, sleeping in the hammock, swimming, reading, playing cards and exploring the area around the lake.

Leeann Vieron and Meredith Freed.

Leeann Vieron and Meredith Freed.

There was even an impromptu ceremony by Vieron, who made awards for each person in what they had excelled at most during the trip.

“I watched these women go from being nervous about being in the wild, not knowing how to set up a tent, build a fire or purify water, to becoming confident, overcoming fears, carrying more than 30 lbs of gear, setting up camp on their own and so much more,” Kutzer said. “This shows that, young or old, you can overcome fears and conquer challenges.”

To Freed, the experience was challenging, but well worth it. Pushing up a hill with a 30 lb pack, looking out over a clear mountain lake, was an experience she won’t soon forget.

“It’s hard to describe just how incredible the trip was,” Freed said. “Being able to disconnect from a cell phone and work and focus on the simplicity of nature and what you had to do to make that day a success was a gift. Alyssa was an awesome leader and really gave us all such an experience.”

By David Abbott, Sonoma Seniors Today Editor

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