I’m still glowing from having just returned from helicopter-hiking.
To be dropped into a remote landscape and to hike to a hidden glacial waterfall is a heaven-on-earth experience. I’d already been heli-hiking for several days in New Zealand when I had the quintessential helicopter-hiking experience. Dion Mathewson, the pilot of the R40, the 4-passenger Robinson helicopter that he operates out of Cedar Lodge where we were staying, flew my guide and me into Boundary Creek.
He swooped us down into a wild valley in the middle of nowhere, exactly like I’d imagined. With the propeller still whirling, he yelled that he’d be back about 4:30, in six hours.
The low valley floor was crisscrossed with rocky streams, and steep mountain ranges rose on all sides. We slogged through a swampy, muddy marshland toward the trickle of a waterfall we could barely see. Since there are no predators in New Zealand, no bears and no snakes, no poison oak and no poison ivy, those weren’t the dangers we had to watch out for: Instead we had to be careful with each step--to lift your boot all the way up out of the muck, and then locate a safest spot to place it back down. This was mindful-hiking at its most extreme. Out in the middle of nowhere with no one around you don’t want to twist your ankle, or worse.
The sight of the first graceful waterfall was worth wading through swampy marshland for a hour. “Just wait,“ said Ket, my guide. “The best is yet to come.”
After inhaling that first waterfall, we headed back, and started fording the chunky creekbed. Sometimes we were wading in freezing mountain water up to our knees.
For almost four hours we crossed the creekbed sixty plus times, and still we hadn’t heard or seen this next huge waterfall. I teased Ket that it didn’t exist. Ket Hazledine, 57, and a world-class mountain climber—she intended to climb the Matterhorn in Switzerland in the summer— smiled, and kept charging, sure-footed, ahead.
Finally, we came around a corner and hidden by a mountain ridge--was the waterfall! Ket called it “Spectacular,” and it was. To reach such a stunning sight, untouched in nature, unnamed on a map, is a once-in-a-lifetime hiking experience. And it was available only because we got helicoptered into a totally inaccessible valley. At the top of the 70’ vertical drop there was no viewing ledge with a protective guard rail with the obligatory caution sign for tourists, because there were no tourists. And at the edge of the glacial pond there was also no green and yellow government sign like at other tracks in New Zealand because the “Spectacular” waterfall is off the charts.
We positioned ourselves on rocks, wearing raincoats for protection against the spray, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Ket produced a picnic lunch: a salad picked fresh from her garden, and, because I’d commented that I hadn’t been getting much shellfish in New Zealand, her husband, a fish exporter, contributed crayfish. Biting into the delicious sweet crayfish, in the spray of that waterfall—and I know this will sound corny-- but I felt, I’ve died and gone to heaven.
Because we’d arrived by helicopter, we didn’t have to trudge all the way back. We could lay down and relax until the helicopter came for us.
It was my best day in nature—ever, and it caused me to question why when I take out my passport I’m most likely to travel to places in nature. Whether it’s trekking in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, struggling across the Nature Walk marshland in Bhutan, or hiking in the mid-Atlas Mountains in Morocco, why am I also always lacing up my hiking boots, strapping on my fanny pack, and grabbing a water bottle?
I suspect it’s because I grew up on Lake Washington in Seattle. It was around that gorgeous evergreen lake where stately evergreens grow down to its shoreline that I first started walking in nature, though I wouldn’t have put it that way when I was five years old.
Back when kids could wander out safely by themselves, I’d leave early, carefully cross Lake Washington Boulevard, meander over to the swing sets--take a pump or two--and then I’d leave the public playground and enter my very favorite private place--the walking path in the forest that led up to the middle of the peninsula. That path, always unpopulated by other people, was my hidden, secret place. I still remember the green, musty smell and the spongy softness of the footpath.
My parents and I certainly never thought little Jo Ann is getting smarter by spending her days out in nature, but recent scientific studies prove that getting outside not only does people good but makes them smarter. In an experiment at the University of Michigan, participants took memory and attention tests after strolling in a botanical garden and along city streets. The nature walk improved their results as much as 20 percent, while the sidewalk version had no effect. The research found that even looking at nature imagery had a positive effect on concentration. But we know that’s not nearly as much fun. And many of us are familiar with that well-publicized study where patients recovering from surgery were facing a brick wall versus recovering in rooms overlooking trees. The patients confronted with an expanse of brick requested narcotics at a higher rate, complained more, and spent longer in recovery than those with the leafy vista.
My next travel adventure? Hiking the glaciers in Iceland with a favorite grandson.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.