Outside sports activities stay very white. Duluth teams are working to shut the ‘journey hole’


On a beautiful late summer day, nine-year-old Ryleigh Robinson scurried like a spider up a nine-meter-high rock face on Ely’s Peak in the west of Duluth. Dave Pagel of the Duluth Climbers Coalition shouted encouragement from below.

“Ryleigh, you will find a good grip for your other foot right in this corner,” calls Pagel as he secures her from the ground and uses a rope to keep her from falling.

Ryleigh arrives at a difficult point on the climb and pauses. “I want to go down,” she calls.

“Are you sure?” asks Pagel.

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

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

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

“Yes, Ryleigh, yes! You did it! ”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 get about a dozen kids to climb. Robinson had climbed the gym before, but this was her first experience of climbing on real rock.

“It’s hard, it’s kind of scary, I thought I was going to fall over,” she said when her feet were firmly back on the ground. But then she was ready for more.

“I want to do this one,” she called, pointing to another route up the rock face.

That climbing afternoon was a small attempt to tackle a larger problem often referred to as the “Adventure Gap”. As adventure sports like climbing and mountain biking become increasingly popular, they remain predominantly white.

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

Of particular concern to Pagel is this loophole in Duluth, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building mountain biking and cross-country skiing trails in recent years. The city has also invested in a new ice climbing park and kayaking and canoeing spots in the St. Louis River.

“With this development comes a moral obligation to ensure that everyone in town can enjoy these amenities,” said Pagel. “We have to ensure that these do not become corridors of privileges.”

‘Pay to Play’

In Duluth, many of these grounds are being built to the west of the city, which is much more racially diverse than Duluth as a whole, and has greater disparities in income, health, and education.

However, there are several barriers to getting more young people involved in these outdoor activities. One of them is cost – many adventure sports require expensive equipment.

“It’s really become a pay-to-play landscape in all recreational activities, so we’re trying to beat that,” said Russ Salgy, executive director of Valley Youth Center, an organization for children in western Duluth that also works with the Duluth Climbers Coalition.

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

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

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

Salgy works with groups like the Mountaineering Coalition, local governments and schools, and private companies to expose children to activities they may otherwise not experience.

Last winter, he teamed up with the Mont du Lac ski area to bring young people skiing every Wednesday evening.

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

The city of Duluth also works with groups like the Valley Youth Center and Boys and Girls Clubs to offer recreational programs. The Duluth Park Department also has its own programs, including ice skating and archery, for which they provide free equipment.

A young girl looks up with her hands on her head.

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

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Parks director Jessica Peterson said the city is trying to “crack the nut” in mountain biking. More than $ 2 million in public funds has been spent building the Duluth Traverse, a 100-mile mountain bike trail that spans the ridge of the city.

But mountain bikes are expensive, which can put people off who might otherwise be interested in tackling the trails. Peterson said the city is trying to secure funding to purchase a mobile mountain bike fleet that the parks department would make available to teenagers across the city to teach mountain biking skills and trail etiquette.

“We will continue such efforts to … find out what the Duluth recreational facilities are, who uses them, and who wants to use them, but there is some kind of barrier that we may be able to remove.” or reduce it so they can enjoy it more, ”said Peterson.

Representation is important

Research on participants in outdoor recreational activities also suggests that leaders of those activities need to come from the communities of the people they want to reach in order to truly fill those gaps, Peterson said.

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

Professional mountain biker Alexandera Houchin experienced firsthand the lack of representation. She began racing about a decade ago as a member of Lake Superior Chippewa’s Fond du Lac Band, who live on the band’s reservation about half an hour south of Duluth. “That’s when I really noticed. I rarely see brown people riding bikes, ”said Houchin. “I rarely see non-whites in these races.”

Two girls sit and watch a friend climb.

Majestica Szewcik (left) and Zayda Whonslea (right) shout encouraging words to a friend who comes across a difficult section of rock face at Ely’s Peak.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

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

When young people start seeing more people who look like them taking part in these sports, Houchin said, then those sports will become more achievable for them.

Houchin conducted a survey in the Fond du Lac reserve to measure interest in starting a cycling collective. She heard that people need a lot more than just equipment – be it a bike, skis, or climbing gear. Many people have no idea how 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 getting access to learn how to use these things is a real thing big problem.”

Overcome fears

Proponents of increased access to outdoor recreational activities say it builds skills that can apply to everyday life, such as perseverance and overcoming anxiety. It shows what they can do.

Russ Salgy said he had to work with children who experienced a “crisis panic” feeling when they were in the woods for the first time after dark in a park in Duluth. He said it can also take a long time for young people to feel comfortable kayaking and swimming.

“It can be a while before you even get a toe in the water,” he said. “Because they were taught that this was a very dangerous thing.”

A young girl is standing on a ledge while climbing.

Nine-year-old Shawntaya Bible looks down and listens to some advice from David Pagel as she climbs Ely’s Peak.

Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But when children are exposed to these activities, the hope is that it will ignite a spark that could turn into lifelong activities.

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

After a difficult ascent, the 13-year-old was amazed at what she has just achieved.

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

That is the goal of such programs. Growing up future climbers and future mentors who then inspire their colleagues to enjoy the outdoors in their garden.

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