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Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.
Georgina Miranda | 07.13.2019

Aly Nicklas is a self-taught filmmaker and light chaser. She is in search of truth in her experiences, and the camera is her tool of choice for engagement with the world. She is passionate about creating, building, and collaborating, leading her to work on a broad range of inspiring creative projects.

At Outdoor Project, we've made it part of our mission to celebrate and amplify the voices of women in the outdoors, and Aly is someone whose life and work is a blend of the outdoors, adventure, and curiosity with the value placed on experiences along the way. In our third year of Women in the Wild, we are proud to share our platform again with courageous and inspiring female figures who are making a difference in the outdoor industry and the world at-large. It’s been an honor to be a guest editor this year for Women in the Wild, and I am grateful and inspired by all of the remarkable women that I got to connect with and interview. They are shaping a new narrative daily, and they show us anything is possible with tenacity, creativity, and purpose.

 

My work often feels like play because of how much I love it, and I work hard to keep it that way. It’s always been the goal to enjoy my work, and have an active, healthy life outside of it. 

—Aly Nicklas

 

In this interview, we talk to Aly Nicklas about starting to do what you love regardless of where you are, finding balance of work and play, and owning your own journey. This interview has been edited for clarity.

 


Aly Nicklas takes on Indian Creek. Ben Duke.

Georgina Miranda: Give us the skinny on Aly Nicklas. How would you describe your connection to the outdoors?

Aly Nicklas: I had a very outdoor-centric upbringing in Alaska. My parents moved there on their honeymoon in 1980 in pursuit of an adventurous, unconventional life, and that was at the core of how my brother and I were raised. They were well-educated people who desired a life grounded in the earth and in deep connection with it. My very free-range and active upbringing just continued on into adulthood. There’s a simplicity to being outside that feels very natural and freeing for me, and there’s nothing I love more than pushing my own physical and mental boundaries. I don’t believe that will ever change—the fact that I’ve created a career rooted in the outdoor space helps to further ensure that.

GM: What initiatives/projects/goals are you focused on?

AN: This summer and fall, my main focus is a short film I am co-directing with Analise Smith, who is also the main subject. We received a generous grant from Travel Oregon and the Oregon Made Creative Foundation, and have brought on sponsors including REI to make it happen. The theme of the grant and film is that the outdoors are for everyone. We’re following three women of color on a 325-mile bikepacking ride in Oregon this fall. They all have various skill levels—Analise and Dejuanae Toliver are brand new to mountain biking, and Brooklyn Bell is a professional biker, but this will be the longest ride for all three. It’s a story about pushing into unknown territory and creating space for others in the outdoors.

The goal has always been to work on projects that make the world a better place. My other focus this coming year will be putting a resurgence of energy into The Born Wild Project, a film series and online community centered around connecting families with wilderness and wildness that Alisa Geiser and I started in 2015.

GM: Where do you draw your inspiration/motivation from? Has that changed over your career?

AN: Inspiration and creativity can be fleeting, amorphous things. I often have my best ideas while running, driving, or riding my bike—times when part of me is very focused, but the other part of my brain is free to wander. I’ve found over the years that creativity can and should be considered a practice, and while it’s wonderful to seek inspiration (for example, I find film festivals such as MountainFilm​​​​​​ to be packed full of inspiring people, stories, and conversations and always leave absolutely buzzing), you can also find inspiration in the very mundane.

I have endless ideas—I write them all down. Most of these, I likely won’t act upon. Yet, when I have a good feeling about an idea I tend to trust it, which has proven to be an enormous asset in filmmaking and life. I’m very decisive when it comes to what I chose to act upon, and once I commit to something, it’s extremely unlikely I’ll bail—if I do it’s something out of my control.

GM: What do you see as the most important issue or set of issues affecting women in the outdoor/adventure space? Where do you see yourself having the biggest impact on these issues?

AN: Honestly, I don’t spend much energy on outdoor-specific issues as they relate to women. I know there are issues that are important ultimately. I’m much more personally interested in the issues women face across all spectrums of life: access to health care, rights to make choices for our own bodies, the wage gap, violence and assault, issues women of color face... it’s a long list. As my career grows and deepens, those are stories I hope to bring more awareness to. When they can be brought into or related to an outdoor space organically, I’m all for it.

GM: Many of your films depict women demonstrating resilience, whether in the face of failure or in the face of hardship. Why do you think it’s important to portray female characters demonstrating resilience on screen? What moments in your life do you feel challenged you to demonstrate the same kind of resilience and fortitude? What have been some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome related to your outdoor pursuits or your career? What helped you overcome those challenges?

AN: We all have different challenges in life, and we all need resilience. My goal with all of my films is that the viewer gets something for themselves from it, like a small gift. That can be inspiration and the feeling of not being the only one to deal with hardship. It might be laughter, joy, an idea. I hope when my work is watched, that the viewer leave with something, however big or small.

I believe the greatest gift to give is that of inspiration, and stories of resilience remind us that we are not alone, that we are strong, and that we can achieve great things in the face of the difficulties life throws at us. Sometimes the adversity we face becomes a gift in itself, even when it’s not immediately apparent. We grow the most when things are hard, after all.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to personally overcome was recovering from several traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) in my early twenties, including one that earned me a Flight for Life helicopter ride from Breckenridge to Denver because of the severity. It took many years until I felt normal.

I attribute my healing completely to the outdoors, specifically climbing, which I found soon after my last TBI at age 21. I dropped out of high school to pursue snowboarding at a competitive level, which is where I acquired the head injuries. So that path clearly didn’t work out. I’m a self-taught filmmaker and photographer, and building a viable career without any formal education or training hasn’t been easy. Ultimately, it’s made me appreciate how it’s worked out thus far so much more.

GM: What can the greater outdoor community and companies like OP do to better amplify and celebrate the voices of ALL women in our community?

AN: We all have our own way of approaching the outdoors—one woman’s Everest is another woman’s casual afternoon run. All of our experiences are valuable, and valid, and the trend toward sharing true diversity in the subjects and stories told is one I hope to see continue. There’s certainly a place for traditional adventure stories and films that focus on the most cutting-edge adventures, but I’m most excited by brands that are doing a good job of telling stories that transcend that typical model and dive into more relatable human challenges and issues, especially social impact stories.

GM: How do you keep your pursuits going? How did you get it all to a point where this is a feasible lifestyle for you and your family? How do you support your adventures/passions? Has this changed over time?

AN: My work encompasses a fairly broad range. I work as a freelance director, a director of photography doing commercial and documentary work outside of the outdoor industry, and I produce and direct my own films, which are often outdoor-centric. After a decade of doing this, I’ve found a good work-life balance, where I spend as much time as I can outside playing without a camera.

My partner is also a photographer, and we take very few photos when we’re out adventuring—it’s almost funny how not into documenting ourselves we are given our professions. It’s a cliche saying, but I keep the line between work and play blurry, which I have to acknowledge is an enormous privilege. My work often feels like play because of how much I love it, and I work hard to keep it that way. It’s always been the goal to enjoy my work, and have an active, healthy life outside of it.

GM: What’s been the most useful advice given to you along your journey? What advice do you wish you were given when you were younger?

AN: I’ve forgotten the source, but a friend shared a piece of advice years ago that said, “Stop comparing your beginning to somebody else’s middle.” It’s your journey, and wherever you are on that journey is perfect. Use inspiration from others to push you, but try not to compare. You’ll get to wherever it is you’re supposed to go if you stay with the path, and it’s a lot more fun if you’re not beating yourself up for not being as successful or strong or whatever as another human who’s on an entirely different journey.

A huge lesson I seem to learn again and again is that you don’t need to know how to do something in order to start doing it. It’s an incredibly powerful mindset to approach life. I am often approached by people, particularly women, who are interested in storytelling, and who want to know about how one gets started. As far as filmmaking goes, my answer is pretty simple. Get a camera, whatever camera you can (even if it’s just your phone), and start documenting, start experimenting, start reading about filmmaking, watching films, paying attention to what inspires you, what sparks curiosity, and follow that.

You don’t have to be good at something to start doing it, either. Our capacity for growth and adaptation is infinite, and if you really want something, really love it, and stick to it, you’ll probably shock yourself by where it takes you.

GM: Any other tips for women looking to embark on a similar career or path?

AN: Just start doing it, whatever it is you want. When I got into film, I had a cheap camera, a borrowed crappy tripod, and didn’t know what frames rates were. It seemed improbable that I’d be able to make it happen, and yet somehow it’s worked out in ways I couldn't have imagined.

Film and photography are so accessible now—I don’t even have a high school diploma and yet have been able to make a fulfilling and successful living as a filmmaker since 2011. One of the biggest pieces of advice I tend to give is to keep at it, even if your work isn’t anywhere near your own standards for a while. It probably won’t look like the people whose work you admire. It might be terrible, and you will likely hate it at times.

The first time I saw one of my films on the big screen, I wanted to cover my eyes (dramatic, I know) because I was so embarrassed people were watching it. This was at a very prestigious film festival, so obviously it couldn't have been that bad. Being a creative is hard—we’re generally people who feel things deeply, and our heart comes out in our work. It can feel very exposed to put our work out there in the world. It gets easier each time though. Start doing it, and stick with it.

GM: At Outdoor Project, we put a strong emphasis on the phrase, “adventure like you give a damn.” How do you “adventure like you give a damn” in your own way?

Most of my adventures involve storytelling, and there’s often a backbone of conservation and stewardship behind many of the stories I choose to pursue. The Born Wild Project, for example, is all about raising kids to be in love with nature so that they’ll grow up wanting to protect it. The deeper I get into filmmaking, the more I’m seeking projects that have conservation and social impact at the core of them. I see my career only continuing to dive deeper into those two themes.

GM: What's your favorite outdoor adventure to date and why? What’s on your adventure bucket list and/or coming up for you?

AN: Hands down my favorite trip yet was bikepacking on the Tibetan Plateau with my best friend and most frequent collaborator, Alisa Geiser. We’d never bikepacked before, had virtually no information on routes in the area we were going (at one point we actually followed a young cow up a dirt road that turned out to be the most majestic mountain pass). It was the most incredible unplanned adventure. We stayed with the most generous nomadic Tibetan yak herding families, found roadside hot springs, ate incredible food, and learned so much about the landscape and the people that reside in it.

I’m not a bucket list sort of human. I tend to follow my inspiration as it comes and stay very open to whatever shows up in my life. That said, I’ve got my eye on a long bikepacking route in South America that explores remote mountainous ranges. It would be an opportunity for both a wild adventure and to document the impacts of the unregulated gold mining in the area that’s having a devastating impact on both the land and the inhabitants of the region.

GM: What is the message you would like to share with the world, the outdoor community, and other women in general?

AN: Support each other. A shift I am seeing, and doing my best to contribute to, is an enormous amount of support and encouragement. It’s beyond awesome to witness—there’s so much love out there, and that’s one positive I see to social media. The flip side is the call-out culture that seems to be getting worse. Nobody wins when bullying is happening. There’s no room for growth if we don’t allow space for messing up and imperfection, and it worries me greatly when I see people being attacked online. It’s scary, like Black Mirror creepy. We don’t grow if we don’t feel safe making mistakes, and I hope to see a shift to more respect and room for error without vitriol online.

Want to hear more from Aly Nicklas? Follow her on Instagram @alynicklas. Find her official website online at AlyNicklas.com, and her studio, Ursa Major. Be sure to check out the Born Wild Project at its official website and on Instagram @bornwildproject.

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Brought to you by:

Women in the Wild 2019

Women in the Wild is a movement that recognizes the amazing women who enrich the outdoor community with their passions, inspirations, and accomplishments. Outdoor Project is proud to grow this campaign in 2019 with the help of guest editor and 2018 #womaninthewild Georgina Miranda, adventurer, entrepreneur, mountaineer, and founder and CEO of She Ventures. We're proud to open our platform once again for the incredible stories and photography of women throughout our community. From in-depth interviews with outdoor advocates, influencers, and athletes to female-focused content from the community, Women in the Wild 2019 aims to amplify the voice of women in celebration of female fortitude, strength, and camaraderie in the outdoors.

For a complete list of content published in correlation with Women in the Wild 2019, visit Women in the Wild 2019: Amplifying Women in the Outdoors.

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