Closing the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

I’m so happy that my piece on the adventure gap has finally found a home with Earth Island Journal! Read an excerpt below. And check out this photo taken by Sonya Doctorian during a rafting trip with cityWILD in Denver, when I totally almost died.

Only a few minutes before, I’d been pleasantly surprised at how easy I’d found rafting to be on this, my first time doing the activity in 33 years of life. I’m in the front, peering back out of the corner of my eye to Doctorian, who’s been tasked with setting our pace.

I'm on the left, trying to maneuver through a rapid in the South Platte River in Denver on a rafting trip in May (Photo by Sonya Doctorian).

I’m on the left, trying to maneuver through a rapid (Photo by Sonya Doctorian).

We bunker our heads down as we approach the first set of rapids, Nicastro directing our maneuvers. I clench my lips tight and paddle hard, exhibiting laser-vision focus on the task at hand, when suddenly, my butt slipped. I’m sitting too close to the edge. Too late now to reposition, our raft tipping as we whirl backward. My butt slips and then slips again until nothing is underneath but dirty, city river water, probably rife with all strains of Hepatitis. My ankle hangs precariously on the raft’s edge, causing my head to sink below the water. I reach up to release my foot then grab ahold of the chicken line around the boat’s perimeter. Sonya and Elise extend their arms as I grip my paddle. They heave ho me up to safety (Sonya, later: “The classic photojournalist’s dilemma: help or photograph? Easy decision.”). I pat the top of my head, indicating to the lead guide in another raft that I’m fine; the two other rafts, filled with cityWILD kids, had paddled furiously over to provide assistance.

“Kevin fell out too!” Sonya shouts, above the ruckus of the moving river. His head surfaces about 10 yards behind us. With Nicastro back aboard, I’m laughing inside in a delirious, adrenaline-drunk way, seeing the look of bewilderment on the faces of these kids staring at this inept woman who fell overboard on the very first rapid. I’ll never be as good at rafting as them, I think. It makes me really happy, for them, to realize that. And I’m willing to bet most of them will love rafting for the rest of their lives.

Now, here’s that excerpt:

Colorado Outfit Works to Close the ‘Adventure Gap’ by Getting Inner City Kids Outdoors

America’s wild places need urban youth and minorities to get interested and invested in nature

By Sena Christian

Students scurry around the decrepit warehouse, pulling up the legs of their waterproof pants and zipping up splash jackets, strapping on life vests and organizing themselves into two river-rafting teams. This isn’t just a typical summer afternoon at cityWILD in Denver, Colorado. This is race day, when the kids will demonstrate their abilities on the water with speed and technical skill. They’ll have a three-mile stretch to strut their stuff, and the South Platte River is flowing abnormally high today — running at 2,320 cubic feet per second instead of the usual 800, following a week of steady rain and snowmelt.

Anticipation builds, prompting the program director Kevin Nicastro to issue reminders about sportsmanship. “We don’t normally do competitions like this. There will be people who win and people who lose today. So I want you to strategize how you want to win, and how you want to lose,” Nicastro tells the students, who don’t look like the typical whitewater rafters. Most are multi-ethnic and come from poor neighborhoods in northeast Denver where violent crime and gang-related activity are rampant. Since 1998, cityWILD has been getting these kids out of the concrete jungle and on camping, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and snowshoeing trips. The nonprofit recognizes that starting with youth is key because when kids play around in the outdoors they tend to carry this enthusiasm into adulthood.

Students with cityWILD had spent the month before their big May race learning how to raft the South Platte River, which flows through downtown Denver past homeless encampments, an REI outlet, an amusement park and Sports Authority Field at Mile High where the Broncos play. On race day, 18-year-old Tim Smith paddles a raft confidently through rapids. He joined cityWILD as a seventh grader and by the time he was 14 years old had achieved the status of a junior raft guide, meaning he could help lead excursions. Now he’s about 6-feet tall and a high school graduate with a firm handshake, and preparing to enter the US Army National Guard.

“Before I became a student here, I had no experience (with nature),” Smith tells me. “I went walking once in awhile with my grandma, but that wasn’t really hiking. I went way out with cityWILD to places with no city lights, no cars within a mile.” The organization also paid for him to attend a month-long National Outdoor Leadership School program in Wyoming.

Youth come to the organization primarily from school referrals, outreach at community events and word-of-mouth. These youth are marginalized, whether socially, culturally or behaviorally, some with tumultuous home lives, others who have survived violence. Most have never gone on a trip with their families, says cityWILD executive director Jes Ward. Over spring break, several students camped in Moab, Utah.

… Read the rest of the article here …

A Visit to Where the U.S. Government Keeps Confiscated Animal Parts

I’m taking a departure from my agriculture reporting to showcase an article I wrote on the illegal wildlife trade for Newsweek. In February, Ted Scripps Fellows visited the repository at the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver, Colorado to learn about trafficking and see up close and personal the many products and dead animals seized by law enforcement in this global trade. Here’s an excerpt from my article:

A rug made out of a lion at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge repository in Colorado.

A rug made out of a lion at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge repository in Colorado.

Where the U.S. Government Keeps Confiscated Animal Parts

By Sena Christian

When visitors to the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver enter the 16,000-square-foot warehouse and see the full array of dead animals and products kept within, they tend to stop short, open their eyes wide and utter something that suggests shock and awe. “Whoa” seems to be a popular choice.

“I always like to see people’s faces when they turn the corner,” repository supervisor Coleen Schaefer tells a group of visitors on a warm day in February. She’s part of the office of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which confiscated all of these products from the illegal wildlife trade and brought them to the repository, situated inside the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

Outside the repository, snowcapped mountains rise up in the distance. Throughout the year, deer, coyotes, burrowing owls, bison and a few hundred other creatures roam the 15,000 acres. Once an Army weapons factory and then a manufacturing plant for pesticides and herbicides, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal underwent a massive environmental cleanup and was designated as a refuge in 1992. The cleanup finished in 2010.

Inside, visitors come face-to-face with more than 1.5 million specimens in the repository—the only one of its kind in the United States. The sheer volume is, Schaefer says, “mind-boggling.” There are palettes of sea-turtle-skin boots, fur coats, taxidermied tigers, exotic birds, coral stolen from the ocean and rows and rows of reptiles from Mexico and South America. There are curios—turtle paperweights, bookends made of zebra feet and footstools crafted from elephant feet. Tiny seahorses packed tightly into plastic bags will never reach their intended destination in Southeast Asia for use as traditional medicine. Shelves stock the heads of tigers and jaguars, their mouths open in a perpetual roar.

Schaefer motions to a small item on a table across from the heads. “Probably the saddest thing is the tiger fetus carved out of its mother, stuffed for someone to put on a shelf,” she says.

… read the rest of the article here …