By: Lauren Wood
Back in 2021, I convened a group of BIPOC-identified artists, organizers, facilitators, and friends to dream up what would become our inaugural Black, Indigenous & People of Color Affinity rafting trip. We talked about the values of a project like this, baked in accountability, integrity, transparency, and joy. We also talked about the need: research shows that people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the total U.S. population, while nearly 70 percent of people who visit public lands are white. Additionally, people of color are three times more likely than white people to live in places that have no immediate access to nature. As a white-settler river rat, who had the cosmic luck of being born into an intergenerational family of river runners, I knew I needed accountability partners to begin down a path of prying open access to these backcountry spaces that I’d enjoyed my whole life.
When I was a kid, I didn’t realize most people didn’t run rivers. Each summer, my parents and grandparents would take me, my brother, and my cousins into deep desert canyons. We’d pack into an old 1988 Toyota Land Cruiser with a TV cam-strapped to the center console. Six sesame streets later and we’d be in Green River or Vernal Utah, ready to pack up and head out into the wild. My childhood memories were built out of drip castles and shaped by kind river guides; I was raised on wooden oars, native plant identification, and starry night skies.
This unique worldview allowed me to smooth the rougher edges of childhood bullying and helped me reflect back an honest sense of self. Coming out as gay in high school was possible because when I was out on rivers I was able to connect to the most authentic parts of myself. Being in natural spaces allowed me to find refuge from the cruelty of policies created in the places I lived. Later as a river guide, it allowed me to make abstract concepts like climate change tangible as I saw the impacts of drought on an ecosystem and experienced extreme weather events with nothing but a tent or rain jacket to separate me from the elements. It’s what led me to become a climate justice organizer.
But growing up, I didn’t understand the rigid structures upholding racism. It would take a long road of organizing for climate justice and queer rights to understand how insidious and interlocking these systems of oppression were. All I knew at the time was that rivers were magical, Dutch-oven lasagna was delicious, and almost every single person going down the river with me was white.
As a non-binary person who grew up as a girl, I often think back on how important it was for me to see myself in the talented, curious, and fun-loving female guides I saw on the oars. They gave me the courage to become a guide — a daunting job description, full of hard work, long days, and Class V whitewater. Visibility was essential, even for me, a third-generation river-kid, to feel safe enough to try it for myself. That visibility in outdoor recreation is a key ingredient to changing who has access.
Leading up to the 2022 inaugural BIPOC affinity trip, one participant shared in a blog, “The land doesn’t care about what I look like, what I smell like, how much money I have or how well I form a sentence. It doesn’t care that I’m Black or queer. It grants me permission to be whomever I choose to be in the moment, and it accepts me regardless.”
I joined that inaugural BIPOC Affinity trip in 2022 as the token white river guide. I deepened relationships with attendees, and I listened to conversations about removing barriers to access and all the reasons Black and brown folks are underrepresented in the outdoor recreation scene. I also witnessed dance parties, laughter, joy and healing.
Dismantling the barriers for Black, Indigenous and people of color communities to access the outdoors is a foundational part of fixing what’s wrong with our planet. There is no way we can heal the planet or hope to protect rivers without the perspectives and leadership of those most impacted by the harmful systems that have gotten us into messes like climate change and social injustice. We aren’t going to solve big issues like racism as one river outfitter, but increasing access to rivers is one way Holiday can make a real impact.
I know from spending dozens of summers taking kind hearted people down the river that our guests are chock-full of good intentions, creative solutions, and love for these beautiful places. I also know our guests prioritize experiences, joy and fun. These are all such admirable qualities that make our job as river guides all the more rewarding. They are also qualities we hope to harness in helping us increase the amount of diverse voices and faces experiencing these backcountry trips.
With the third BIPOC Affinity trip set to push off shore this August, we are looking to lower the barriers to access for guests who may not otherwise be able to afford to join us. We have launched our new Outside for All Fund, giving all our guests and supporters the opportunity to join us in creating a more inclusive and accessible backcountry. All donations will go directly to subsidizing sliding scale rates on BIPOC affinity trips.
None of these structural problems will change overnight, but if we take one step at a time towards something better, I can’t wait to see what new possibilities we build together.
Will you join me? Donate Here
About the author: I have been a river runner my entire life. It was learning from the Holiday boatwomen and men of the 1990s that led me to find my own oars. I have been a guide for Holiday River Expeditions since 2009 and am now co-owner of Holiday. In my spare time, I work as the Green Riverkeeper Affiliate with Living Rivers. A life well spent organizing communities to protect the rivers and lands I love. I find that the lessons from the river inform my climate justice work and truly all aspects of my life.