“Oh my God, you saved my life!” Lyvi exclaimed short of breath and with tears in her eyes. Lyvi, who is 12, had spent a few moments upside down underwater before I could reach her and right her small whitewater kayak. Through her tears, Lyvi looked up to me with a newfound appreciation not only for my presence, but for her own life.
While her words were flattering, I can’t help but wonder how critical I am to young Lyvi’s life. As the executive director of the Jackson Hole Kayak Club, a small non-profit dedicated to the growth of whitewater kayaking, my primary job is to ensure her wellbeing and safety on the water. In a safe environment, I can coach and teach Lyvi about the movements of the river, the varying features and hazards, and how much fun spending time outside on rivers can be. But, at the end of the day, I am a young man who shares little in common with a 12-year-old girl. I can’t help but wonder how a female coach could have provided a more rich experience for Lyvi that day on the water.
The disconnect between Lyvi and myself reflects a larger issue in outdoor recreation. Across kayaking, skiing, climbing, mountain biking and other outdoor adventure sports, the majority of coaches, athletes and participants are white men. Deeply embedded social structures and gender politics cause the gender gap in outdoor recreation, resulting in an outdoor culture where everyone looks, acts and thinks similarly. This “boys club” attitude of the outdoors can create invisible yet impassable boundaries that alienate women and people of color from interacting with the outdoors and participating in the activities that I enjoy the most. But, this is old news.
Outdoor recreation has been immersed in white American culture since the 1800s. Colonial influences shaped our perception of the outdoors and how we interact with nature, including driving through National Parks and participating in extreme outdoor activities. These influences, paired with the traditional masculine influences of domination and conquest, frame the outdoors as a space for macho white males. Though the recreation industry has a flawed history, playing outside is a critical step for young people to care about their environment.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, outdoor recreation introduces people to the outdoors and stimulates public interest in varying environmental issues, generating support for the preservation of air, water and wildlife. As climate change becomes an increasingly important issue, the importance of outdoor recreation thus also grows. And, while we seek various solutions to the complex problem of climate change, we must rely on fresh and different perspectives from various people to tackle such a problem. Outdoor recreation opportunities must be open to everyone.
At a young age, outdoor recreation (kayaking and skiing specifically) inspired me to protect the spaces I love to play in, and find thoughtful solutions to various environmental issues. But, my passion for the environment did not drive my return to skiing and kayaking; my coaches did.
I fell in love with my ski and kayak coaches over the years. I looked up to their demeanor, their high level of skill in the sports I was beginning to enjoy, and at their own passion for the outdoors. I wanted to be like my coaches, and felt I strongly that I could grow up to be just like them. Every single one of them was white and male. I only ever had one female ski coach, and she was a substitute.
In order to expand the range of people participating in outdoor recreation, we must create the space for a wider range of coaches and role models for the young people wanting to play outside. A female coach for Lyvi has the power to transform a scary situation into a light hearted one. Her leadership and demeanor are both traits for Lyvi to follow. And, finally, a female coach’s interaction with nature and the outdoors can pave the way for Lyvi to develop her own passion and care for the environment, cultivating new ideas and passion necessary to combat global climate change.
In my role at the kayak club, I find myself in a unique situation where I can fix this systemic issue of exclusivity in outdoor recreation. I want to be more thoughtful in who I hire as coaches, who participates in our programs, and making my favorite sport accessible to anyone interested. These sports, along with the coaches and role models in my life, were critical in helping me find my voice and passions, and I hope to create the same opportunities for everyone and anyone interested in playing outside.
While I might have saved Lyvi’s life that day on the water, with the right role models in her life she might be able to save our world.