Overcoming Barriers to Accessing Nature

Overcoming Barriers to Accessing Nature
Retired Oregon State Parks manager Kevin Price speaks to St. Andrew Nativity School students at Vista House. (photographer: Nick Wiltgen)

Thursday, June 21, 2018

By Erin Middlewood

The staggering beauty of the Columbia Gorge is for everyone to enjoy. Some people haven't gotten that message. Kevin Price wants to make sure that they do.

Price may have recently retired from Oregon State Parks, where he was the first and only African-American manager, but he hasn't stopped leading school trips to the Gorge or spreading the word that state parks are for everyone.

"The National Scenic Area is a fantastic spot. We have people who come from around the world to visit the Gorge. But we have kids and their parents who live within 15 miles and have never been," Price said.

He recently led eighth-graders from St. Andrew Nativity School on a one-day Gorge trip that included a hike at Latourell Falls, a stop at Vista House and a tour of Bonneville Dam.

"For me," Price said, "the fulfillment is seeing the look on those kids' faces."

"Helping students get to these places that they had no idea about"

Each spring, as part of its Great Gorge Wahoo! outdoor education program, Friends of the Columbia Gorge takes St. Andrew eighth-graders to the western Gorge with Price along as a guide. St. Andrew, which enrolls a high percentage of students of color, is a no-tuition private school that prepares kids to attend college-prep high schools.

"All of our kids are low-income," said Alex Park, a history teacher at the school. "They don't have the resources or time or wherewithal to get out in some of these parts of Oregon that I really cherish."

Friends of the Columbia Gorge helps make that introduction to the outdoors possible. In 2011, Matthew Winthrop's family established a memorial fund in his honor. It underwrites what's known as the Great Gorge Wahoo!, which began as a trip for St. Andrew seventh-graders to the eastern Gorge. Thanks to a fund established by current Friends board member Carrie Nobles in memory of her husband Buddy, the program in 2014 grew to add a spring field trip for the eighth-grade class in the western Gorge.

"This program is helping students get to these places that they had no idea about. Hopefully they'll want to go back and discover more," said Kate Lindberg, outdoor programs coordinator for Friends.

"My goal is, let's get you out there"

Park said Portland-area children of color and their families often don't have transportation to get to the Gorge, or it's just not something they know much about beyond Multnomah Falls, or they're wary because it's unfamiliar territory.

"I've had kids say, 'My mother said, “Don't let no bear get you”, Price said. “I say, 'OK, sweetheart, we're not going to be near bear. And they're more afraid of you.’ “You don't know what you don't know. For kids to say, 'I don't like it,' when they've never tried it, I say, 'My goal is, let's get you out there, and then you can say that.'"

And sometimes they do.

"Not all the kids love it. Some say, 'I miss my couch,'" Park said. "But mostly I see more interest. They express that they want to go do stuff like this more often."  

Among them is Aaron Leonard-Graham, one of the St. Andrew eighth-graders who went on this spring's trip to the western Gorge. (Listen to an interview with Kevin Price and Aaron Leonard-Graham on Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Think Out Loud"

"I loved seeing the scenery of the trees and the Columbia River," he said. "I'm planning on getting more involved with nature." 

Erin Middlewood is a writer from Vancouver, Washington. She enjoys exploring the Columbia River Gorge with her husband and two sons. She's especially fond of the Nancy Russell Overlook at Cape Horn. Follow her at erinmiddlewood.com/ or @emiddlewood on Twitter.

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