MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Va. – Milia Boiroyevich learned how to canoe with her family on the Danube river in her native Russia. Today she spends many of her Wednesdays plying the rivers and streams of Southwest Virginia with a group of friends. Boiroyevich is part of an all-woman canoe group founded by a retired physical education professor.
Group leader Liz Ritchey wasn’t quite born with a canoe paddle in her hand. In fact, her father made her wait until she was 2 before he let her on the water. At 68, the Canada native and retired professor leads the 31-strong Whitewater Women’s Canoe Club into rivers across Virginia and the Southeast. The average age of the membership is around 60, Ritchey says. The youngest members are in their 40s; the oldest in their 80s.
Ritchey and a friend organized the group in 1990 with help from the local recreation center and the Virginia Tech Faculty Women’s Club. In those days, the members pitched in to rent canoes and equipment, but many needed training.
Ritchey taught most of them “from square one,” beginning on a picnic table where they learned their strokes, she says. Then they moved on to books, tapes and, finally, experience on the water. “Each year, people get better,” she says. And now they have too many canoes and must rotate bringing their equipment.
Ritchey classifies 25 of the stalwart females as the “hardcore group.” What does it take to be part of the hardcore group? Commitment, Ritchey says. They paddle every Wednesday from April until October and usually take an extended trip South in February.
Ritchey shops and plans all year for that trip, finding budget accommodations at state park cabins and Boy Scout camps, longtime member Emily Stuart says. They haul their own food to keep costs down. The five-day trips allow these “mature” women some much-deserved playtime. Practical jokes aren’t unheard of, including the short sheeting of beds.
“We really revert to childhood and it is good therapy for us all,” Ritchey says.
“We’re totally at ease with each other,” Stuart says.
Most years, Ritchey offers refresher skills courses for the group; in fact, nearly every trip is a training session. Members will often swamp each other’s canoes just for practice.
Ritchey says the group often overstates her contribution, but they protest. They say she scouts out the runs, develops strategies for danger spots, researches weather predictions, compiles detailed maps, and tracks water levels. “She’s the most dedicated and unbelievable leader,” Stuart says. “[Paddling] is very risky, but the way Liz handles it, it’s as safe as can be.”
And they help others, even men who get into tight spots on the rivers, usually while fishing. The men don’t always want to trust a bunch of women to help them, Ritchey says. But if they are in enough trouble, they eventually acquiesce. “Many don’t realize that it can be more complicated than just hopping in a canoe and taking off,” Ritchey says.
On occasion men have paddled with the club. In the past members have brought along their husbands and teenage sons, but mixing the sexes on the water created difficulties, like privacy during pee breaks and minor power struggles that led to accidents. Ritchey once attempted to organize an all-male paddling group, but it just never worked out, she says.
For the women, friendship — despite differences in age, politics, even nationality — is the cornerstone of the group. “We don’t talk about politics and religion,” Ritchey says. But they have built a foundation of trust on the rivers, helping each other out of danger, encouraging and challenging each other.
“It’s an important group to all of us because it allows a lot of women who wouldn’t ordinarily get out and explore to do it,” member Suzie Leslie says.
Some of the older explorers are slowing down. Emily Stuart, now in her 80s, doesn’t go on many trips with the group. She’s losing some of her agility and doesn’t want to risk injury, she says. “But I still love the group. We get together even when we’re not canoeing.”
“We care for each other. When someone is sick or in trouble or has problems, members are right there, ready to help and give support, Ritchey says.
At 68, Canada native and retired professor Liz Ritchey leads the 31-strong Whitewater Women’s Canoe Club into rivers across Virginia and the Southeast. The average age of the membership is around 60, Ritchey says. The youngest members are in their 40s; the oldest in their 80s.