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On July 25, a group of four young girls from Northwest Passage Prairieview hiked down to Schaefer Cabin for a day of recreation and relaxation. Schaefer Cabin, is tucked away in the woods sitting above the Namekagon River. The rustic log cabin, large grass yard, cozy fire pit area, and alluring forests surrounding this region makes it an ideal place to find privacy and peace. (Schaefer Cabin is in the process of being renovated to become a retreat center for residents at Northwest Passage.) On this day, the girls were there to play by the river, but they also had their first photojournalism assignment. Meet, interview, and photograph Branda Thwaits.

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Park Ranger Branda arrived shortly after the girls finished their picnic lunch. Branda stepped out of her truck with her inviting smile, hopeful eyes, and bright voice. She works as a ranger for the National Park Service and is considered to be an ambassador to the local river ways. She is a brilliant planner with a knack for connecting groups of people with positive experiences on the Wisconsin rivers. Branda brought along her mucking tools, and together we gathered on the shoreline of the Namekagon River to explore together. We began to investigate and learn about the small creatures that are usually overlooked by the paddlers and fisherman.

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One young girl timidly conversed with Branda about the thought of leeches being in the water. Nevertheless, these nature girls forged ahead leaving the worries of leeches behind after realizing the cool sandy water was more or less a place of sanctuary. I looked out to see these young girls playing in the water. They were enthusiastic about the bugs and small creatures they were finding. I watched from a distance as one photojournalist (aka resident) hunted to capture a frog with Branda. I also caught sight of Branda exclaiming the discovery of a dragonfly nymph – the first one to be found by the girls. The girls happily mucked in the river as the water slowly grazed past their legs. After a short period of time Park Ranger Branda helped the girls identify dragonfly nymphs, caddis fly homes, minnows, crayfish and a frog.

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Soon it was time to get to know this incredible woman on a more personal level. The interview first began with a remarkable introduction by one of the girls. She asked Branda “What is your happy place?” Branda immediately lit up with the thoughtful question and fired back with the curiosity of wanting to know who came up with such an insightful question. Little did we know the thoughtful, honest, empathetic, and earnest conversation that was about to unfold for all the girls… The conversation that evolved from these interview questions led into moments of vulnerability for each girl, and for Branda. “What is the most challenging obstacle you have overcome?” Branda answered by discussing the difficulties of parenting. The girls responded with answers reflecting on their treatment. One girl decided that admitting she needed help was the most difficult thing she has had to do. Another girl recounts her difficulties with being away from home. The interview continued with a mixture of light-hearted questions. “Do you have any pets” and “what do you think your best traits are- why?” Branda responded to the second question by describing her ability to find the good in people, a trait she picked up from her father. The girls explained their skills in dance, having a positive attitude, the ability to speak languages, and one young girl deciding one of her best traits is being brave. Overall, the atmosphere sitting together on the bank of Namekogen River was genuine, open, and moving. Branda allowed each girl to find connection to her by listening to the individual thoughts and passions of the girls. Before long, time was running low, and the girls needed to get back for dinner.

Before we left the girls snapped some portrait photos of the compassionate individual they spent time getting to know. Each girl approached the shot with different images in mind, and Branda eagerly played along. Overall, it was a moving and memorable experience. It seemed to have sparked a sense of connection for several of the girls. The connection to the natural world, and in a short amount of time they were given a connection to a remarkable role model. Each of the young ladies was reminded of her own great traits and how everyone has had to overcome obstacles in life, making their journeys feel a little less daunting.


“Women of the Valley” is a photojournalism project at Northwest Passage that connects the young women in our program to the women who are shaping the culture of our region. Through telling the stories of these women, the young artists ultimately learn to understand, share, and shape their own stories.

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