Turning women into girls
Sisters on the Fly celebrates over 20 years of adventure
By Sonia Duggan
Imagine being part of a group where only women are allowed. No kids, no husband, no pets. Your only responsibility is for yourself – and making sure you have fun! Sure, there’s a caveat. You must be willing to commune with nature as you fraternize with a group of empowered women who will not only support you, they will challenge you to be all you can be. Your hotel is your personalized camper decorated for comfort and style. Meals, depending on the trip, can be potluck, catered, or in local restaurants. Activities are optional but can run the gamut from fly fishing, kayaking, river float trips, Cowgirl College, wine tasting, boats tours, shopping and any other fun the group can find.
If it sounds like Nirvana to you it just might be the adventure you need at this point in your life. Whether you’re married, widowed or divorced – or any age above 21 – Sisters on the Fly is the largest women’s organization in the U.S. with over 17,000-plus members, offering empowerment and sisterhood through exceptional outdoor adventures.
It all began in 1999 when sisters Becky Clarke and Maurrie Sussman went on a fishing trip in Montana with Maurrie’s son as the guide. One of the women managed to catch an 8-lb trout. They cooked the trout for dinner that night and celebrated with some wine, all the time thinking they should be celebrating with girlfriends because it was so much fun. The rest is history. Sister on the Fly became sort of an unofficial sorority for adventuresome women.
Eventually, the idea of vintage trailers became a ‘thing’ for the group, often decorated in themes and outfitted for comfort. Growth has been steady over the past 21 years, some years more than others depending on how much publicity the group gets.
The trailers are eye catching, almost like custom dollhouses, but not all of the SOTF members prefer this mode of travel. Some members prefer newer models of trailers as they offer more of the comforts of home, more specifically bathrooms, while others stay in cabins, tents, teepees, hotels or make a bed in their SUV.
A typical excursion will cost anywhere from $25-$75 depending on the trip. It usually includes two breakfasts, a catered dinner, the camping spot and a private tour of the area they will be visiting.
Potential new Sisters can visit as the guest of another sister as a “Sister on the Try”
to see if the excursions and camping are for them before joining. There are a few trips that are pet-friendly, husband friendly (aka Sister Mister), and one called “Grandmas on the Loose,” for those who wish to bring grandchildren along.
Have camper, will learn to tow
When Martha Ballew’s husband died unexpectedly in 2015, the 58-year-old widow was not ready to give up on adventure.
Just a year prior, Ballew and her husband had purchased a new 20-ft. camper. Although they had gone camping a few times, Ballew said she did not know much about it other than “I had a camper and he hooked it up.”
She liked camping much more than her husband did so when her son’s best friend’s mom, Bonnie Shafto, said to her “Don’t sell that thing, learn how to use it,” she did.
Already a SOTF member, Shafto told her about the group. Ballew said she paid her $70 membership fee and joined SOTF in 2016. Her fears, she said, were soon cast aside as she pulled into the campground because “the sisters were there in a heartbeat.”
“Even if you don’t know people, if you’re a single woman, they’ll offer help before they even see you,” she said.
Not only will sisters assist one another, the atmosphere of camping with only women, says Ballew, is so much less stressful than camping with men. “If men are in that situation, they like to be the boss,” she said.
In time, Ballew said she mastered the art of backing up her trailer and now parks it in her driveway of her Allen home.
“You’ve got to do it enough times and you’ve got it.” she said. “Now I’m one of the ones that helps.”
Although Ballew is an avid outdoorswoman, she admitted camping in hot, Texas summers is not her thing, but she camps during other seasons and is now a member of several camping groups. She attended the Teton Tango last year, A SOTF event attended by 400 women.
“You just meet people from all over – it’s just great,” she said.
Now four years later, the Allen sister is in charge of monthly dinners for the Collin County SOTF group. She says they’ll often meet at area restaurants or a sister will host at her home.
“I’ve become really good friends with a lot of sisters over the years,” she said. “Hats off to the men in some of the sister’s lives. They empower them, they learn to do. They get a lot of encouragement from their husbands.”
Looking for a camper, got much more
Sheila Jones, 62, of Greenville, was looking for a camper and didn’t even own a truck to haul a camper when she joined the group.
“I got online and started looking at all the cute, vintage campers in the group,” she said. “I ended up finding a camper, joined SOTF, and bought a truck all within two weeks.”
The trailer, a 10 ft. bumper pull Winnebago, happened to be located in Fort Smith, Ark. Jones said she was terrified to haul it so she enlisted the aid of her brother-in-law who was a truck driver thinking he would be the one driving, and pulling it back home.
“He made me haul it back,” she said. “It was dark, I was crying, and I had no idea how to back it in.”
After she tried several times to back it into the driveway of her home in the middle of town, her brother-in-law finally gave up and took over. She says, it made her even more determined.
“I learned how to pull it and back it up by going to a community college that was closed on weekends. For four hours I practiced driving around and backing in,” she said. “I can back up like a champ now!”
The camper took a bit of work to get it into shape, says Jones, so she painted it and rewired it, and she had to obtain a title – something the sisters blog about on the SOTF website. Buying a camper without a title takes more time and trouble than many want to tackle.
Jones says before she camped with the group the first time, she did a practice run to Cooper Lake then attended the annual Mayflowers SOTF trip.
“That’s my favorite one, she said. “It’s so much fun!”
The Greenville sister attends three or four SOTF events per year and tries to camp on her own up to two times per month.
“I tend to be pretty independent,” she said. “There’s something very empowering to learn how to pull a camper and travel on my own.”
Jones confessed she wasn’t a frou-frou girl before she got involved with the group but now has “50 tutus, and a million hats.” In addition, decorating the campers offers a chance for the women to express themselves and, for some, many embrace the challenge. Jones’ camper shows her love of flamingoes in a Boho style.
“The beauty of having your own little camper is that it’s like your own little dollhouse,” she said. “You can make it your own. It’s a fun way to express yourself.”
Last year, Jones decided to abandon the retro trailer and bought a new 2019 Casita which she says feels safe as far as repairs.
“The first one was literally like a tin can to sleep in,” she said. “No running water – I probably would have kept both but I didn’t want to turn into a camper horder.”
Jones, director of Special Programs for Quinlan ISD, hosts a few small campouts each year and said her “Simple Camping” trip is a favorite.
“There’s no obligations, no fee,” she said. “You don’t have to pay other than for the camping spot and your food.”
Camping at a campground, says Jones, is fun because everyone becomes instant friends, plus it gives her the opportunity to hike, take pictures and paint.
Jones is a fan of state parks, especially Cooper Lake, Bob Sandlin, Dangerfield and Atlanta because they’re convenient.
“I have traveled to Venice, Italy and Ireland, but there are so many beautiful things to see in the U.S.,” she said.
Like Ballew, Jones hosts SOTF dinners with a fellow sister – only hers are in Hunt County. She says there’s no obligation to make it a grand affair.
“Anyone who wants to host a dinner can do as much or as little as they want,” she said.
As a widow since her mid-40s, Jones says it’s important to learn to do things on your own and not to stop living.
“There’s a lot of us that ended up being widowed,” she said. “You lose some of those social connections. Women come from all different walks of life – all different professions. We are able to support them through bad times. “You can’t beat that support for one another.”
Boots on the ground
Some women have what it takes to lead other Sisters on the Fly.
McKinney resident Carol Hayes hadn’t even been a sister for a year when she was picked by the original sisters, Clarke and Sussman, in 2015 to be one of four SOTF wranglers in Texas. A wrangler is considered the SOTF point of contact or “boots on the ground” for an area. The energetic and resourceful Hayes, 67, handles North Texas while other wranglers are based in Colorado City, Houston and Boerne.
Each wrangler takes a month every four months and writes the welcome letters to new members. Hayes said they have wrangler meetings by phone every month and talk about any issues going on with the group. SOTF does not allow display/talk of political or religious views and encourages everyone to “be nice,” and keep it “real vanilla.”
“We don’t do any discipline but will report it,” Hayes said. “We don’t want anybody to feel like we’re management. If they have a problem, we’ll help them – wranglers are a good resource.”
Although Hayes is very knowledgeable and confident about all things related to SOTF, it wasn’t always that way. She says her first trailer was a 10 ft. Scamp, and like the other sisters, she was scared when it came to pulling and backing up her trailer. She encourages members to learn Camping 101: how to back up a trailer, learn about safety chains, how lights hook up, etc.
“All of us have our own way of doing things but we always encourage members to learn how to do it themselves,” she said.
Like Jones, after a while Hayes upgraded from her smaller trailer, only she didn’t go modern. Instead, she chose a 20 ft. vintage Airstream Argosy “Minuet,” a rare and lightweight design which she proudly says she can turn around on her street. The camper has been totally restored and is adorned on the outside with a feminine butterfly design which is also featured on her truck tailgate.
When she’s not renting her trailer on Airbnb near the Square in downtown McKinney, Hayes takes her Airstream on the road with her sister crew. In pre-pandemic times, she said she would camp about once a month. Travel distance is considered when camping, and Hayes says she typically will do a four hour pull to the Hill Country area. In September, Hayes, Ballew and many other Texas sisters met at Leisure Park in Fentress – a 6-hour trip – for fun times and float trips, their first SOTF campout in months.
“Everybody’s ready to do something,” Hayes said.
Sisters are charitable
A group of women can be quite powerful especially when it comes to fundraising. State and countrywide, the sisters raise money for causes that are near and dear to their heart. One sister, Lariann Hinton of Lucas, said that on some of the SOTF campouts they have trailer tours where they charge a fee and the money goes to a charity of their choice. In some instances, funds are raised for Casting for Recovery, a nonprofit dedicated to providing healing and therapeutic fly-fishing retreats for breast cancer patients and survivors.
Sisters are encouraged to raise money and awareness in their area with events and parties for a CFR retreat. The retreats cost $20,000 and all money raised goes straight to the local retreat program.
“CFR is the perfect cause for SOTF as it stands for everything we love, too – women’s health, fly-fishing, the great outdoors, empowerment, wellness and happiness!” states the SOTF website.
Given the fact that many of the sisters have trucks and trailers, and the country has been hit hard with natural disasters, SOTF formed its Sister Corps in 2017. The Corps offers sisters the opportunity to join forces to help in areas affected by a natural disaster.
“Our members-driven Sister Corps events are hands-on, and members are ready to dig in…literally. They can tackle debris & trash removal, hauling, potable water delivery, property clearing, home repairs, personal hygiene supplies, etc.” the website states.
Their first project was helping out in Port Aransas after Hurricane Harvey, and since then board members for the Mazie Morrison Foundation, named after Clarke and Sussman’s mother, formulated a plan to help in disaster areas nationwide including the recent wildfires in California.
Members affected by a disaster can apply for grants, and any sister can donate to the foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit.
Whether bonding over a campfire or helping others in need, empowered sisters stick together.
Over the last 21 years, the sisterhood has expanded to include almost 17,000 SOTF members across the U.S. and Europe. If you’ve been searching for new adventures, and you’re willing to test your limits, become a Sister on the Fly and change your world.