The Origins of The Venture Out Project…
Perry Cohen, founder and executive director of The Venture Out project, described himself right out the gate as being an outdoors person. Growing up in New Hampshire, he said, “there was nothing to do if you didn’t love the outdoors, [it was] the spot where I felt safe and like myself, and it was really fun.” There was a natural excitement in his voice when he spoke of spending time in the wilderness, but underneath that excitement, I also detected a reverence for what he was about to say next. “I wanted other queer and trans folks to get to have that opportunity.”
So, at risk of sounding cheesy, Perry ‘ventured out’ to find a way to create those opportunities for others in his community. “When I transitioned,” he told me. “I was like, well shoot, if I can transition my gender, I can certainly transition my job… I got out of corporate America and I thought I was going to work for some queer outdoor organization, but turns out, they didn’t exist. And I was young enough, and naive enough, and optimistic enough to think how hard can it be to start a non-profit?” A question I think many people who have attempted such a feat would answer by saying it’s really, really hard.
But he did it anyway. He put in what one might call the ‘hard work’—though, when I described his efforts as such, he was quick to remind me just how lucky he felt to be doing this day in and day out. “I can’t believe it, some days I wake up and I’m like this is work? This is great! … I think the difference is [from other forms of work] no matter how much work I do, I get to work with other queer people, people that I like, and it’s pretty amazing to get to show up as your true authentic self to work every day… Most of us don’t even realize we’re not getting to do that until we all of the sudden get to do it.”
Still, organizations don’t grow at the impressive rate that Venture Out has without a dedicated team of hard-working people. Through the combined efforts of Perry, his administrative staff, trip instructors, and volunteers, The Venture Out Project has gone from running just a couple of trips in a single state in 2014 to now running trips in more than 24 different states and adventuring with more than 1,000 people every single year.
Venturing Out doesn’t always have to be scary…
Safety—a topic that came up many times throughout our conversation—is clearly a very high priority for Perry and his team when it comes to facilitating these outdoor adventures. But when Perry uses the word ‘safety’, he isn’t just referring to outdoor safety in a way an Eagle Scout thinks of it. Sure, it’s good to have a first aid kit on hand when you go for a long hike, and learning how to properly tie a bear bag could be life-saving, but as Perry pointed out to me, there are other safety barriers that some people may face when deciding whether they feel comfortable exploring the natural world around them.
There is a type of safety that many of us, especially those outside of the LGBTQ+ community, often take for granted.
“You’re already probably feeling like you’re pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, sleeping outside for the first time,” Perry told me when I asked him to speak more on the topic of safe travels as it pertains to Venture Out. “Or being with a bunch of new strangers, and if we can take away that anxiety around—oh my gosh, am I going to feel targetted or… have microaggressions against me for being queer—if we can take out that fear… now I can actually take a deep breath and I can focus on how to set up a tent, or oh my gosh, I’m afraid of water, but I’m going to try rafting because it looks so cool.”
As if being in a new environment, and being surrounded by strangers wasn’t scary enough, being a member of a marginalized or targeted community can come with a whole different set of concerns—most of which are probably not going to be addressed on your average outdoor adventuring trip.
Good thing The Venture Out Project and Holiday River Expeditions are anything but average.
Holiday River Expeditions and Venture out—A Perfect Match…
There were only two sentiments that Perry felt the need to repeat twice to me throughout our discussion. First, he needed me to understand just how good the food was on the trip he took with Holiday River Expeditions last year through Cataract Canyon. And second, he wanted me to know that Venture Out “wouldn’t have partnered with just anyone.”
It all began with Perry going on a river rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. He described falling in love with rafting, and thinking, “wouldn’t it be amazing to do a queer rafting trip.” But, as Perry admitted, he didn’t have the skills or permits to make that happen, not to mention he assumed it would be too expensive. Then a friend of his told him about the Holiday River group, and he decided to meet the team and see if Venture Out and Holiday would be a good fit.
Perry’s top two priorities when determining whether to partner with Holiday River Expeditions or not—or with any other group for that matter—were to “make sure that who we partner with… shares our outlook on the world… As we bring our community in, we want to make sure they still feel safe.” Anyone familiar with Holiday River and/or with the team of dedicated people that make the HRE adventure trips happen, would know that these priorities were not going to pose an issue. Perry found that out for himself soon after meeting the HRE team and spending time with some of them out in the wilderness, and a new partnership was born.
A partnership that has only flourished, I might add, considering this year Venture Out will be teaming up with Holiday River Expeditions for three amazing trips!
What you can expect…
So, let’s say you’re thinking about attending one of these trips, what can you expect?
Well, in Perry’s own words, here’s what he and his team set out to do on every single trip: “First goal is to have fun. The second is to learn some new skills. You’re gonna eat well, you’re gonna push yourself to your comfort level, and you’re gonna meet new friends, and you’re gonna go to a beautiful place that maybe you never thought you would get to go.”
A place like Southern Utah perhaps?
Or—again, in Perry’s words— “A place where people can go and not have to explain themselves.”
If you’re still dubious, still feeling intimidated by the whole prospect, maybe it would help to know that over 50% of all those who travel with Venture Out return for another trip. These numbers are a testament to the community that Perry says he and his team work so hard to build.
For some, these trips offer an opportunity they do not run into often, if ever, in their daily lives—and that is the opportunity to meet others like themselves. Perry told me the story of one traveler who took two full days off work, drove eight hours there and back, to the location where Venture Out was hosting a short, two-hour hike. When the team asked this person why they drove so far, sacrificed two days worth of pay, just to hang out with the Venture Out crew for a few hours, the person said that they wanted to come so that they could finally meet another trans person in real life.
“I would’ve done anything,” they told Perry. “To be here today.”
What these trips have to offer is a lot more than just a chance to get away from the city, more than just a chance to sleep under the stars—they just might be the first, and only place, where some people can show up as their “true, authentic selves” and where they can “walk away with friends and community and a feeling of being part of something.”
And, as Perry could not emphasize enough, these trips will also offer you the chance to eat a lot of really, really good food.