Outdoor sports remain very white. Duluth groups strive to fill the “need for adventure”


On a recent gorgeous late summer day, 9-year-old Ryleigh Robinson soared like a spider up a 30-foot-high rock face on Ely’s Peak in West Duluth. Dave Pagel of the Duluth Climbers Coalition shouted encouragement from below.

“Ryleigh, you’ll find a good foothold for your other foot right in that corner,” Pagel calls, as he secures her from the ground, using a rope to keep her from falling.

Ryleigh comes to a difficult part of the climb and takes a break. “I want to go down,” she shouts.

“Are you sure?” Pagel asks.

Apprehension spreads across Ryleigh Robinson’s face as she searches for a path to a rock face as David Pagel of the Duluth Climbers Coalition delivers words of encouragement at Ely’s Peak on August 20 in Duluth.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

She doesn’t respond and makes a sudden movement, reaching high with one hand and pushing off with one of her feet, climbing higher up the cliff.

“Yes, Ryleigh, yes! You did! ”Pagel yells, as she reaches the top of the climb.

Ryleigh was there with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Northland, who partnered with the Climbers Coalition to take a dozen kids out rock climbing. Robinson had climbed indoors before, but this was his first experience climbing on real rock.

“It’s hard, it’s a little scary, I thought I was going to fall,” she said, once her feet were firmly planted on the ground. But then she was ready for more.

“I want to do this one,” she shouted, gesturing to another route along the rock face.

This afternoon of climbing was a small effort to try to solve a bigger problem, what is often called the “adventure gap”. While adventure sports like rock climbing and mountain biking are gaining in popularity, they remain predominantly white.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, about 75% of Americans who participate in outdoor sports are white. Yet they only make up about 60 percent of the total population.

For Pagel, this gap is of particular concern in Duluth, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years building mountain bike and cross-country ski trails. The city has also invested in a new ice climbing park and places for kayaking and canoeing on the Saint-Louis River.

“With this development comes a moral obligation to ensure that everyone in the city can enjoy these amenities,” Pagel said. “We have to make sure that these don’t become corridors of privilege. “

“Pay to play”

In Duluth, many of these outdoor developments are being built in the western part of town, which is much more racially diverse than Duluth as a whole and has greater disparities in income, health and education.

But there are several barriers to the participation of more young people in these outdoor activities. One is the cost – many adventure sports require expensive equipment.

“It really has become a landscape that pays off in all recreation, so we’re trying to conquer that,” said Russ Salgy, executive director of Valley Youth Center, an organization serving children in West Duluth that has grown up. also associated with the Duluth Climbers Coalition.

The feet descend from the rocks.

Nine-year-old Shawntaya Bible descends a rock face in August while climbing at Ely’s Peak.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“Not all children have the same ability to pay, but they should have the same ability to play,” said Salgy.

Salgy is partnering with groups such as the Climber Coalition, local governments, schools and private businesses to expose children to activities they might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience.

Last winter, he joined forces with the Mont du Lac ski area to take young people on downhill skiing every Wednesday evening.

“We had kids that first Wednesday night who fell into fences,” Salgy said. But in February, they invited parents to the ski resort “just to show how these kids can now handle the ski slopes on their own”.

The Town of Duluth is also partnering with groups like the Valley Youth Center and the Boys and Girls Clubs to provide recreational programs. The Duluth Parks Department also runs its own programs, including ice skating and archery, for which it provides free equipment.

A young girl raises her hands on her head.

Nine-year-old Shawntaya Bible smiles between words of encouragement for her friend Ryleigh Robinson while climbing Ely’s Peak.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Parks Director Jessica Peterson said the city is trying to “crack the mountain biking nut.” More than $ 2 million in public funding has been spent to build the Duluth Traverse, a 100 mile long mountain bike trail that runs the length of the city’s ridge line.

But mountain bikes are expensive, which can deter people who would otherwise be interested in tackling the trails. Peterson said the city is trying to secure funding to purchase a fleet of mobile mountain bikes that the parks department will bring to young people across the city, to teach mountain biking skills and trail etiquette.

“We will continue efforts like this to… identify what recreational assets in Duluth are, who uses them and who would like to use them, but has some sort of barrier in place that we could perhaps help eliminate or reduce, so that they can enjoy it more, ”said Peterson.

Representation is important

Research on participants in outdoor recreation also suggests that in order to truly fill these gaps, the leaders of those activities must come from the communities of people they are trying to reach, Peterson said.

“The big challenge for us right now,” she said, “is how to grow our instructor base, so that it is more diverse than it is now.”

Professional mountain biker Alexandera Houchin experienced the lack of representation. A member of the Fond du Lac band from Lake Superior Chippewa, who lives on the band’s reserve about half an hour south of Duluth, she started running about ten years ago. “This is where I really started to notice. I hardly ever see brunettes riding bikes, ”Houchin said. “I rarely see non-whites at these races.”

Two girls sit down and watch a friend climb.

Majestica Szewcik (left) and Zayda Whonslea (right) shout encouraging words at one of their friends encountering a difficult part of a rock face at Ely’s Peak.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

It made her feel lonely and sad, she said, because cycling meant so much to her. It changed her life, she said, helping her adopt a healthier lifestyle and connect with her cultural identity.

As young people start to see more people who look like them participating in these sports, Houchin said, these sports will begin to seem more accessible to them.

Houchin conducted a survey on the Fond du Lac reserve to assess interest in creating a bicycle collective. What she heard was that people need access to more than just gear, whether it’s a bike, skis or climbing gear. A lot of people don’t know where to start.

“You don’t know what to buy, if you don’t know where to go, if you don’t know how to use these things. But even having access to learn how to use these things is a very big deal.”

Overcome fears

Advocates of increased access to outdoor recreation say it helps develop skills that can be applied to everyday life, such as persistence and overcoming fears. It shows what they can accomplish.

Russ Salgy said he must have worked with children who felt a sense of “crisis panic” the first time they were in the woods after dark in a Duluth park. He said it can also take a long time for young people to feel comfortable with kayaking and swimming.

“It may take them a while before they even have a toe in the water,” he said. “Because they have been taught that it is a very dangerous thing.”

A young girl stands on a ledge while rock climbing.

Nine-year-old Shawntaya Bible looks down and listens to David Pagel’s advice while climbing Ely’s Peak.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But by exposing children to these activities, the hope is that it can spark a spark, that they can become lifelong activities.

That’s why opportunities like the Duluth Climber’s Coalition are important. They are giving kids like Gabby Manthey a chance to do something they never thought possible.

After completing a tough climb, the 13-year-old was amazed at what she had just accomplished.

“I can’t believe I was actually that high! I’m shocked… because I just climbed really high, and thought I couldn’t do it, but I did.”

That is the goal of programs like these. Growing future climbers and future mentors, who will then inspire their peers to enjoy the outdoors in their garden.

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