Wild woman: Mary Geis looks toward 80 without slowing down
By KAYLEY MENDENHALL Chronicle Staff Writer
September 6, 2004
Mary Geis has hiked her way through life.
At 79, the spry Geis is often still the first in her group of women hikers to reach the top of a hill or to bound back down to the bottom. Decked out in a baseball cap and fleece jacket, toting hiking poles and a backpack, Geis leads the way a Bozeman Women's Activities Group once a week.
"She is an inspiration to everybody," said Judy Phillips, a member of the Tuesday BWAGs hiking crew known as the Bushwhackers ."She's so extremely knowledgeable, extremely modest. She never gets mad."
But she does seek adventure and has been known to lead groups off-trail -- with a twinkle in her eye -- just for the sake of seeing different sights.
"She's the only person I know who has a compass in her head," said Karin Utzinger, another member of BWAGs. "If you're ever out in the wilderness, Mary is the perfect person to be with. She has an almost infallible sense of direction.
"It's like going out with a guide or a naturalist. She knows the flowers, the birds, even the scat," Utzinger said.
Trekking across the hills near Geis' Kelly Canyon home last week, the group talked a lot, but also listened and learned when Geis explained things about her extended backyard.
Pointing to a small patch of spotted knapweed and sulfur cinquefoil, told the the group she is conducting an experiment. She has pulled almost of all the knapweed in those hills, but left one patch to see which invasive weed would take over the area first.
"She is intellectually very sharp," said Anne Banks, another long-time BWAGs member who has known Geis for 30 years.
As a graduate student at the University of Montana in the 1950s, Geis conducted a study of Canada geese on Flathead Lake. She wanted to determine whether the species was heading toward extinction.
"That study," Banks said, "is still highly regarded today."
Before attending graduate school, Geis taught science in the Northeast, which is also where she grew up. Her father was the state forester of New Hampshire, which is where Geis first fell in love with the woods.
"Now parents wouldn't let their kids roam in the woods like I used to," Geis said. "I would chase butterflies."
She still loves to wander and said that within a 50-mile radius of Bozeman she's covered most of the hiking trails. Geis has run into all kinds of animals and firmly believes moose are more dangerous than bears as she was once charged by a cow moose while on cross country skis.
"I've met bears a dozen times at least and always they turn and go in the other direction," she said. "I've never had to use my bear spray."
She led Girl Scout troops for years. And through the Audubon Society, she started a bluebird project that involved building 500 birdhouses, which she and volunteers clean every year and use to band the birds.
"This year we raised about 1,000 blue birds," Geis said. "For 20 to 25 years I've been doing this."
Although she keeps busy with her many projects, Geis still finds time to write poetry for her friends on their birthdays and to hike with her dog, Daily, every day.
"It's always the sense of adventure. You never know what's going to come up," Geis said. "I guess that's why life is so exciting; you never know what's going to happen next."
'Bee-wags' celebrate 30-plus yearsBy CARTER G. WALKER For the Chronicle
There’s a group of women in town so tough that they reportedly wear burlap underwear. And they ski or hike, come hell or high water, every Tuesday.
They weave their own climbing ropes for their skis and, collectively, have probably summited more peaks in the area than any other group.
But these aren’t extreme athletes that we can only admire from afar. These women are our mothers and grandmothers, retired teachers, practicing lawyers and housewives. Although the baby of the group is 14 years old, most are in their 50s and 60s and the original members are striding comfortably into their 70s.
As members of the Bozeman Women’s Activity Group, these women are known around town as BWAGs, or “bee-wags.” What unites them is a love of the outdoors, a willingness to share adventures with other women, and a steadfast, even stubborn commitment to freeing themselves up on Tuesdays.
”When we started it all those years ago, I would never have imagined it would still be going,” said Margaret Emerson, a lifelong skier and hiker who founded the group here. “I don’t know how it will evolve, but as long as there are women, who cares?”
More than 60 BWAGs filled the event room at the Bozeman Public Library Tuesday night to celebrate 31 years of adventures, misadventures and camaraderie. Everyone wore nametags, yet no one needed to look. The room was full of favorite hiking companions and best friends. They talked and laughed with the ease of sisters and the wisdom of expedition mates.
BWAG was founded in 1968 in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Emerson participated in that original group. She brought the idea to Bozeman in 1969.
The idea was “to give women fun, companionship and the opportunity to learn skills,” and to be affordable. To this day, participation in BWAG activities cost 10 cents, or “a dime a time.” The money is used for miscellaneous expenses and the remainder donated to organizations that allow BWAG to use their facilities.
The number of participants varies according to the season; but some 100 women are resolute, year-round BWAGs.
Bonnie Hammer, 56, has been a BWAG since the early 1980s, when she had just moved back to Bozeman and thought it seemed like a good way to meet like-minded, outdoorsy people.
”It’s not good to go into the mountains alone,” she said. “And this is a great way to get a group of fun people to go with you.”
Hammer points out that for every activity there are women at every comfort, age and ability level. And everyone is willing to try.
”I’ve taught a lot of people here to ski,” she said, glancing around the room. “A lot of them were from back East and they were scared to even walk on skis initially. Now, they’re so adept, I can’t even keep up with them,” she said.
But BWAGing is more than hiking and skiing. Every time six or more women voice an interest in an activity -- from ping pong to quilting -- a group can be formed. As a result, BWAG activities have evolved as the group has grown.
”Upholstery used to be THE group,” Emerson said. “You could only have as many people as the room would accommodate ... and people would bring sofas. It was so popular.”
Although the Tuesday hike/ski is now the most popular activity, there is also hiking, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing on Mondays; pool shooting on Tuesdays; quilting on Thursdays; and a dog walk on Thursdays or Fridays.
A BWAG since 1971, 75-year-old Mary Geis doesn’t miss a beat. Or a Tuesday.
But when asked about her favorite memory, she sounds like a grandmother asked to reveal which grandchild she loves best.
”It’s just too hard to pick one,” she said. “I couldn’t do it.”
Lynell Martel, 58, joined BWAG in the early 1970s. As long as her then 12-year-old daughter Lisa maintained good grades, she let her skip school occasionally to go BWAGing.
Lisa Switzer, now 40 and an avid BWAG, encouraged her daughter Kendra, 14, to hike with the BWAGs this summer.
”She made me go the first time,” Kendra said with a smile. “But I liked it so much that I went again.”
Kendra said she proud to be both the youngest member of the group, and the only third generation BWAG.
In addition to celebrating their history Tuesday night, the BWAGs took steps to preserve it. In a simple ceremony, they donated several scrapbooks and a few artifacts to the Pioneer Museum. The scrapbooks, which contain 31 years of photos, clippings, stories and poems written by members, will be housed in the museum’s research library.
Emerson remembered that it was a different world 31 years ago, when women didn’t have as many options as they do today. No one was working out, most women weren’t working outside the home and in social circles, they were often known as their husbands’ wives.
A BWAG day was a break for many of these women.
”It was weeks or months before we asked about each other’s husbands,” Emerson recalled. “I remember times when the wife of the president of the University was skiing with us and so was the wife of the local butcher. All that mattered was that we were all skiing together.”
The group started Ladies Day at Bridger Bowl ski area, despite the initial protests of the ski area’s board of directors.
”We all wore pink or red,” Emerson said amidst peals of laughter.
But times have changed, and so has the gear.
To wind up the evening, Mary Geis bestowed her burlap underwear upon Emily DeLuca.
DeLuca, who just turned 70, held up the hand-sewn bloomers that read “IRON BWAG.“ It was decided that the underwear would be passed along to each BWAG on her 70th birthday.
”I’ve had them for five years and they haven’t worn out yet,” said Geis.