We are proud to officially launch our newest program, Adventure Borealis. This program of the Northern Center will provide natural history based excursions with a goal of creating safe, supportive spaces for communities that the outdoor industry has historically excluded.
On June 22, join us in Fairbanks for the first Adventure Borealis event hosted by Ryan Arash Marsh, where we will get the chance to spend a couple of hours enjoying the evening light and plentiful bird life adjacent to Creamer’s Field. Meet at the small parking area at the end of Henrik Court for a 7:00 PM start time. Bring your own binoculars if you have them, boots for the bog, and mosquito protection. You can register on Adventure Borealis’ newly launched website.
Below, get to know Program Director Ryan Marsh and how the concept for Adventure Borealis was born.
What sparked the initial concept for Adventure Borealis?
The idea was born when my good friend Mike, who I’ve known for 20 years, came to visit me during the pandemic. We’ve both been outdoor guides – me with a focus on natural history, and him with a focus on climbing. Inspired by the work I was doing in Denali National Park, where I took folks out to build deep connections to the lands they were visiting through natural history, we wanted to create something that would bring that natural history focused guiding to the rest of Interior Alaska. We saw a gap in who was getting to participate in outdoor excursions, and set out to create inclusive and accessible trips to get more people to experience that deep connection with the land.
Can you tell us about your background in Interior and Arctic advocacy, and your background in outdoor guiding?
After studying conservation in graduate school, I came to Interior Alaska to work as a natural history guide out at Camp Denali. There, I learned about and was deeply inspired by the legacies of Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood and the many decades of conservation work they did to help protect public lands in Alaska. That led me to work on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge outreach and advocacy with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center as the Arctic Program Manager, where I was further inspired by the broad coalition of voices advocating for protection of these lands.
Conservation has long been dominated by a particular set of stories, centering whiteness and inaccurate narratives that erase Indigenous peoples and their relationships to land. In order to build a broader conservation base, and truly reflect the many different stakeholders when it comes to conservation, we need to continue to build an increasingly diverse and inclusive movement. When I started doing Arctic advocacy at Northern Center, I was introduced to a coalition that had been working, some for decades, and others for generations, to protect the Arctic. This expansive and diverse group’s work to advocate for the Arctic offers an example of the future I hope to see in conservation more broadly.
As for guiding, I have been climbing and mountaineering since I was a teenager, and organizing outdoor expeditions since early college. I traveled to Madagascar to lead field expeditions where we would spend three or four weeks at a time in camps in the forest. Since 2016 I have been guiding in Denali as well as leading wilderness based university courses in Montana and on the Colorado plateau through an organization called Wild Rockies Field Institute. We study natural resources conflicts and public lands management while backpacking, kayaking, and doing natural history interpretation on these trips.
What are some of the barriers to access that result in disparity in who gets to do trips like these?
In the outdoor education and adventure communities, there are a number of underserved groups that are less likely to be out on the trails or in the parks. A recent study by Merrell found that about 20% of people reported experiencing discrimination while recreating and women, queer people, and people of color all felt less safe and less welcome in outdoor spaces than straight white men. I think there are a number of reasons for this, including economic factors, access to knowledge and resources, historical discrimination, and safety.
For me, one of the first steps in supporting marginalized communities in accessing outdoor programs is the building of trust. Trust can be built in many ways. While we hope folks (participants, etc.) will come visit us for programs, one of the ways I plan to build trust is by working directly with communities and groups to develop inclusive programs that are tailored to where folks are at–be it indoor skills workshops, half day intro trips, or more elaborate and in-depth expedition planning.
In Alaska in particular, it can be especially challenging for someone who is new to the area or new to adventuring generally. Much of the recreation in Alaska is very remote and requires significant financial investment just to reach. There are very limited options for people who use mobility aids like walkers or wheelchairs. Even for those looking for a close-to-home adventure, like folks who just want to go birding on local trails, there are significant barriers. With winter lasting seven or eight months, unmarked and hard to map trails, and local wildlife that must be respected for everyone’s safety, it is essential to have access to good information – but that can be hard to come by. Local outdoor clubs have a tendency to be dominated by white and male voices, and may feel unwelcoming to people of color and otherwise marginalized individuals.
We hope to address these disparities with Adventure Borealis. We’re seeking to break down barriers and help more people form deep connections with our public lands. By centering marginalized members of our community and providing various types of trips, including wheelchair accessible and lower intensity outings, we hope to create more approachable options for getting comfortable getting outdoors.
What benefits do you see to building Adventure Borealis as a program of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center?
When Mike and I determined that the structure of Adventure Borealis should be a nonprofit, we immediately approached Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Because of my past experience with Northern Center, I knew about its commitment to education, and thought this type of program might fit in well. We explored multiple options for how we might collaborate, and ultimately determined that Adventure Borealis should become a formal program of Northern Center. I think this will ultimately benefit and strengthen both Adventure Borealis as a program, and Northern Center overall.
Northern Center is a conservation organization advocating on behalf of public lands to minimize development and conserve lands and ways of life maintained on those lands for millennia. That work requires a diverse conservation constituency, and the organization has been working to strengthen ties with Indigenous partners and bring in a new and diverse generation of conservation voices. One of the best tools to build concern for a landscape is spending time on it in a meaningful way. Getting to know local people, plants, animals, and the interconnectedness of all of them opens up a deep connection to the land. By creating these opportunities to form connections on the lands Northern Center advocates for, we will inspire more people to take action and publicly speak up for these ecosystems and others.
How are you getting input from the communities you aim to serve with Adventure Borealis?
This year, we are spending a large portion of our time planning and building relationships. Because we are housed at an existing organization, we are not feeling pressured to move forward with undue urgency and miss our chance to get meaningful input before planning larger trips.
We have established an Advisory Committee of folks with various identities and community ties, who have personal and professional experience navigating disparities in the outdoors. With that group’s expertise, we are actively working to build our standard operating procedures, our safety protocols, our gear lists, and develop our itineraries. We are also working on building relationships with organizations serving BIPOC and queer communities so we can collaborate on programming for members of these organizations. We will continue to build relationships and look for opportunities to provide logistics support and facilitation of trips to Interior and Arctic Alaska for organizations that are already looking for ways to get out on the land.
What makes an Adventure Borealis trip so unique?
We’re not your typical guiding organization. We aim to expand who is included and deepen the experience itself. Our main focus is on natural history education, connecting people to plants and animals, and ecology of these landscapes. Beyond just learning a western scientific perspective of the region, we seek to work with Indigenous elders, leaders, and knowledge holders to center traditional ecological knowledge of the regions we visit on our trips.
An Adventure Borealis trip will leave the participant with a deep understanding of the history of the landscape and a personal connection to the life there. This deep sense of connection will stay with a person as they return home, wherever that may be, and remain strong long after the memory of a name of a specific flower or bird has faded. That unwavering grounding will drive advocacy and concern for our public lands that remain eternally imperiled by development and need a continually renewed network of advocates willing to speak up on behalf of these lands.
How can people get involved?
- Sign up for the newsletter on our website! You’ll receive a quarterly seasonal email with information about the program, natural history, inclusivity in the outdoors, and upcoming trips.
- Join us for our first public excursion (a beginner friendly birdwalk) in Fairbanks on June 22, and keep an eye out for more pop-ups this summer and fall.
- Donate items to the resource library. We’d love to have enough gear to provide to all participants to remove one of the barriers to access. If you have spare binoculars, winter clothing, or any other gear necessary for recreating in Interior and Arctic Alaska, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact our office at (907) 452-5021 to arrange a time to drop it off at our office.
- Donate funds to our program. We hope to build out our scholarship program to be able to subsidize trips to ensure access to folks in various financial circumstances. Go to our donation page to offer your one-time or continuing donation.
- Are you a member of an organization working on behalf of BIPOC or queer communities in Alaska or Outside? We would love to work with you to design programming to get your community outdoors, deepen outdoor skills, and connect with the land. We are actively seeking to build intersectional trust, alliances and partnerships.