MINNEAPOLIS — Decades ago, George Plimpton rose to fame as a “participatory journalist,” documenting what it was like to wrestle with boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, train as a backup quarterback for the Detroit Lions, or score for the Boston at a preseason game shoot brown bears.
Today, Minnesota has its own athletic everyman ready for outdoor adventures for the first time.
Chance York is the star of a new online series, Outside Chance. Produced by Twin Cities PBS, the series lets York try everything from snowkiting to logrolling to a dip in Lake Superior – in the dead of winter.
The show is the brainchild of two Twin Cities PBS producers, Ryan Klabunde and Luke Heikkila, who wanted to create an outdoor show that breaks out of the mold of a man in a flannel shirt with a hound dog.
They found another host in York, a 39-year-old Bloomington resident. York has had a successful career as a rapper and emcee, but he’s also a yoga teacher, teaches meditation, and has conducted wellness consulting at the YMCA.
On the show, York and its producers demonstrate that outdoor activities can and should be accessible to a more diverse community.
Many of the featured experts are black, including black mountain biker Gunnar Carlson, Hmong fishing coach Xao Xiong, and Janel Rieger, an experienced rock climber and daughter of Mexican immigrants.
“I think there’s a lot of people of color out there doing things,” York said.
And in York, the show has a charismatic, enthusiastic action hero who’s willing to be a series novice, willing to do anything the producers throw at him.
“I’m confident in my body, my health and my physicality,” York said. “I make sucking look good.”
Klabunde would say York is underselling.
“He’s good at things,” said Klabunde, who recently surprised York with a high-tired “penny-farthing” bike. “This guy jumped right on it and drove off like nothing happened,” Klabunde said.
In an episode of the series, York dons a wetsuit and goes for a winter swim in Lake Superior near the Split Rock Lighthouse to try out wave photography with photographer Christian Dalbec.
“It’s refreshing!” proclaims York as he steps into the 35-degree water. “It’s cold, but I’m not in panic mode or anything. My lips feel a little frozen.”
When he goes rock climbing with Rieger at Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls, he admits he’s a bit scared of heights. Nevertheless, he climbs a rock face.
“I feel strong, I feel capable, confident, still afraid of heights but a little less,” York said.
A kite drags him through the snow on a frozen White Bear Lake as he tries to go snowkiting.
“It feels like riding a wild animal,” he said. “When nature takes control, it is a force.”
He wasn’t even sure what geocaching was when he tried it.
“I thought it was rock collecting,” he said.
While mountain biking with Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists President Carlson in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, he takes a minor accident, but gets back on the bike and successfully negotiates the obstacle on the way.
“The bad shots make for good blooper rolls,” York said while filming a recent episode in which he played golf at the Hiawatha Golf Club in Minneapolis. “They love the blooper roles on the show. I fell off my mountain bike and they said you can do it in the first five seconds of the intro.”
Eight episodes of the show are currently available at tpt.org/outside-chance and on YouTube. Each episode is short — eight to 12 minutes long — but you can expect plenty of sharp-edged action shots, filmed with drones and GoPro cameras.
In addition to learning a new sport, York usually also offers viewers the history of the sport or the background of the outdoor recreation area they are visiting. And he does it all with a light-hearted irreverence you wouldn’t expect in a typical outdoor show.
“We’re just trying to bring something new,” York said.
As he’s about to go off track in the geocaching episode, he says to the camera, “We’re going off the beaten track. If I see bigfoots or aliens, this will be my last report.”
His GPS app leads him to an unlikely geocache location: what looks like a bank card reader and keyboard hidden in the middle of the forest.
“I’ve seen a lot of credit scams, but this one is the most elaborate,” York says dryly.
Along with the lightness, he manages to add the kind of thoughtful perspective of someone taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction course at the University of Minnesota.
When he played golf, he spoke of learning with “a beginner’s spirit.”
“Sometimes you have to go back to a beginner’s mind and meet where you are,” he said.
When he gets caught in freezing water, he says, “Remember, don’t let your comfort zone become a cage. Life is meant to be experienced.”
The challenge of balancing on a floating log is “simple but not easy”.
“I use that to describe a lot of things in my life,” York said. “Without struggle there is no growth, right?”
But then there’s that moment when it all comes together and York is gliding across a frozen lake, riding the wind.
“Once everything lines up, it’s a pretty awesome feeling of freedom and bliss,” he said.
The second season of eight new episodes of Outside Chance is currently in production and will be available online in March or April. Expect York to try your hand at golf, wilderness canoeing, disc golf, fly fishing, kayaking and sailing.