Youth Outdoors-Duluth bridges the gap between young people and the outdoors

The program connects outdoor organizations with youth programs and helps get young people outside.

A group of girls listen as a woman talks in a canoe
Reserve education coordinator, Deanna Erickson leads a lesson on canoe safety during a Girl Power! camp session in Superior on July 12, 2019.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

On a recent canoe trip down the St. Louis River, 11-year-old Samantha Wilson was eager to get out on the water. Canoeing isn’t something she gets to do often, she said, and she was happy to get to explore the river with her tight-knit group of friends.

“I’m not really able to go much, but I do like canoeing and having chances to go,” Samantha said. “I love the water and how pretty it is.”

For some of the girls in the summer program Girl Power!, this was the first time they had ever been out canoeing, and they were excited to learn the ropes and get out on the water.

A young girl stands for a photo next to a sign with nature information.
Samantha Wilson stands for a photo at the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

The canoe outing that day was just one of the trips run by Youth Outdoors-Duluth, which coordinates outdoor resources and programs with community youth organizations in the Duluth area.

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Although it doesn’t run any outdoor programs itself, the group works as the connective tissue between the outdoor organizations that do and the young people who might not otherwise have access to the state’s vast outdoor programs.

“The outdoors is a place for all people,” said coordinator, Matt Kraska. “When we’re exposing these outdoor providers to a different demographic, I think it opens their minds as well, ‘Hey the outdoors are for everybody and there’s many ways to explore the outdoors.’”

Deanna Erickson is Education Coordinator at the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve in Superior, Wis., which ran the canoe trip with Girl Power!. Erickson said the partnership with Youth Outdoors-Duluth has helped her reach more young people from all backgrounds and she wants to help give more kids in the area the chance to connect with the outdoors.

“It’s particularly important that we have experiences like this for our understanding and for our regional identity,” she said. “It really helps define who we are and what living here is like.”

For Erickson, part of making the outdoors more accessible is creating a comfortable and fun experience for all the kids she works with, regardless of their background with outdoor activities, and she makes sure to meet the kids where they’re at.

People paddle canoes on a river.
Girl Power! Campers canoe on the St. Louis River.
Simone Cazares | MPR News

“The last thing I want is for kids to come outside and feel like this was scary or uncomfortable or made me nervous and I don’t want to go back,” Erickson said. “So I’m trying to keep it low-key, skill oriented and built around the delight and the joy of being outside and it being summer.”

And for Kraska, that’s exactly the experience he hopes young people will have when they go out on a Youth Outdoors-Duluth trip and he enjoys hearing about the reactions they have.

“I think their minds are blown a little bit in that, this is their city but a lot of these kids have not been out on those parts of town,” he said. “It’s pretty mind blowing to see this giant waterfall that’s seven blocks from your house but you’ve never seen before. It really opens up this new horizon for a lot of kids.”

Get involved:

Youth Outdoors-Duluth is housed under the Duluth Y, but is primarily funded through grants and fundraising. Each year it serves around 500 young people and will work with about 10 outdoor organizations and youth programs this year. To get involved youth programs pay a yearly membership fee and have access to the programs Youth Outdoors-Duluth puts on during the year. More information is available on the Youth Outdoors-Duluth website.

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