Although born out of loss, the annual Way Out Women Ride is a celebration of life — and snowmachining.
“We try to combine our love of snowmachining with a need that needs to be filled in the community,” WOW founder Kathy Lopeman said.
On Feb. 24, community members gathered at Freddie’s Roadhouse in the Caribou Hills outside Ninilchik for the 14th annual fundraiser, which raises money for cancer while bringing the community out for a good time.
The event included a 50-mile women-led snowmachine ride, auctions, costume contest and a Wild and Wooly Bra contest, in which participants created the “wildest and craziest bras they can think of,” Lopeman said.
The day’s art pieces included an elaborate steampunk garment, complete with whirling tassles, a Valentine’s Day-themed bra, a bra evocating Mardi Gras — complete with mini-masks, and, keeping in line with the day’s “patriotism” theme, a red, white and blue “Make America Great Again” bra.
A first for the fundraiser, this year’s event also included a Bodacious Boxers and Briefs contest.
Ready, set, go
Kicking off at about 11 a.m., the ride took snowmachiners on a loop from the roadhouse to Homer and back. Along the way “cabana boys” handed out hot chocolate, cider and cookies at a rest stop.
As riders came trickling back to the lodge, they gathered at long tables — relaxing and talking — or wandered the edges of the room making bids on items up for auction. With all items donated by the community, the auction offered something for everybody — handmade quilts and mittens, dolls with multiple changes of clothing, “Star Wars” decor, jewelry, crafted wooden furniture, Alaska-themed calendars and miscellanea, gift baskets, horseback rides, stained-glass window dressing, a wooden art piece scorched to create octopus patterns, a steampipe lamp, Disney-themed games and toys, among many other things.
One item, a metal decorative flag, was made by a high school student during metal shop class. Massage therapist Angie Wellborn provided massages after the ride and donated her tips to the fundraiser. She also donated half of a $60 prepaid massage booked during the event to the fundraiser.
Food, items up for auction and other fundraiser supplies were donated and all raised funds go directly toward cancer patients, Lopeman said.
“We don’t have overhead for anything,” she said. “We don’t purchase anything.”
A moment of inspiration
Lopeman has spent much of her life around cancer.
She lost her mother, sister, two grandparents and uncle to cancer, and interacted with untold more through her job as oncology nurse at Central Peninsula Hospital for 20 years.
“I don’t think anyone in our community hasn’t been touched in some way by cancer,” Lopeman said.
As a nurse she saw the financial hardships those with a cancer diagnosis faced.
“It was driving me crazy that I couldn’t help,” she said.
Inspiration came to her one night, talking to a friend around a campfire about the need for a program that would help cancer patients cover the things that might be overlooked by insurance companies but are essential to keeping up day-to-day — money for groceries or to cover the cost of a babysitter, housekeeping help, or funds for gas or power bills.
“There are a million little things that fall through the cracks that insurance doesn’t cover,” she said. “And then people don’t have insurance.”
Financial support that does exist often requires filling out a stack of paperwork and overcoming onerous logistical hurdles, Lopeman said.
WOW Secretary Emylee Ridenour, Lopeman’s grand-daughter, has been taking part in the ride for as long as she can remember.
“I would sit on the front of my grandma’s show machine ride with her and hold onto kiddie bar,” she said. As a teenager, Ridenour raised funds for the group through school bake sales. Now 18, she serves as the secretary, and has her own snow machine. Since 2005 the organization has helped 714 people. In 2017 the group raised $103,000 and gave out 140 grants, Ridenour said.
Participants in the ride must donate at least $100, but many raise much more, WOW Vice President Cheryl Tachick said.
Tachick got involved in the fundraising event a decade ago, after her family lost her father-in-law to cancer.
Tachick said the event is important because all the funds raised stay in the community — and go directly to cancer patients who need help. The organization spreads the word to oncology departments, who advise patients about the program. Participation rates vary from year to year, Tachick said the event has gained anywhere from 50 to 200 people annually. 73 riders came out for the event this year, which raised approximately $45,000.
Honoring those lost
As part of an annual tradition honoring cancer victims, this year’s fundraiser honored Jim Harris, a U.S. Army veteran who died in 2017. Harris’ widow, Betty, and daughter, Nancy Myers, attended the event.
The family has a personal connection to the Caribou Hills, Harris said. She and her husband built a cabin up in the area decades ago, when there were few other cabins in the area, and since then have brought children and grandchildren up regularly to snow machine.
“We were up here every weekend snowmachining and building the cabin,” Harris said.
Harris said she and her husband participated in the WOW ride in the past, and Jim was one of a group of men who helped groom the snowmachine trails.
Although she isn’t riding this year, Betty brought a poster board memorializing Jim and featuring photos from the family’s time together in the hills.
“This is where our family has just been — so much of our lives are up here in the Caribou Hills,” Harris said.