I’ll never forget the first time I was in an outdoor space and I felt like I truly belonged. To be honest with you, it wasn’t that long ago. I was on a bikepacking trip with a diverse group of friends, staying at an auspicious-sounding camping ground that catered to both horseback riders and birders. We reminisced over our 30-mile, relaxed-paced trip around the fire pit at the end of the night. I looked at the other riders I consider long-time friends and realized how lucky I am to have people in my life that love to bike and camp who are of various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds.

For those of you not familiar, bikepacking is essentially backpacking but carrying all of your personal items on your bike instead of your back. It is absolutely my passion in life, and what makes it so great is how diverse bikepacking can be. Almost everyone I meet likes riding a bike, and most of those people enjoy camping. Thus, many people approach bikepacking with a certain respect and understanding. Above all, bikepacking doesn’t look a certain way, and as a person of color, I am thankful that every bikepacker I meet welcomes me just as quickly as I welcome them. 

I grew up riding bikes and always felt a certain level of privilege in being able to own a two-wheeled time machine — even if I had to share it with my two twin brothers. Through the bike as a medium for self- and physical-discovery, I realized how amazing the world can be when you are literally feeling it as you ride through it.

When I stopped riding in my teenage and college years, I knew I was missing a bit of the past that I was only able to discover again many years later when I borrowed a bike as an adult. Later connecting camping to my love of cycling made me truly rediscover nature in a way I had not experienced since I was a child. I have nothing but the bikepacking community to thank for making me immediately feel like I was a member of the family, even if I am not the typical person you see outdoors. 

Outdoor doviersity in St. Louis

The author on a bikepacking trip in Arizona. (Andy Chasteen)

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the outdoor industry has seen a complete shakeup. We have definitely found ourselves spending more time outside, and the outdoor industry, which has struggled with inclusion in the past, has worked diligently to make natural spaces more accessible and available to more people than ever. All major cities across the US have seemingly found ways to improve our parklands and public spaces; even my neighbors found time to beautify our small neighborhood pocket park. 

The Thrive Outside Initiative
St. Louis is not an exception to this outdoor growth that we are experiencing across the country. In fact, in a pandemic year when much of the US struggled, the city of St. Louis was the recipient of one of four Thrive Outside grants from the Outdoor Foundation, a national organization dedicated to reversing the trend of decreased outdoor participation. St. Louis shared this honor in 2021 with the Twin Cities region, Minnesota; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and the state of Maine.

The Outdoor Foundation’s Thrive Outside initiative awards multi-year, capacity-building grants to diverse communities to build and strengthen networks that provide children and families with repeat and reinforcing experiences in the outdoors. This community-led initiative is built with trusted local and national partners and is supported by three years of funding. Since 2019, the Thrive Outside initiative has helped get more than 16,000 youth outdoors while improving the connections to the outdoors in diverse communities. Over the next 10 years, the initiative plans to grow the number of regions it invests in from eight to 32.

“The Thrive Outside initiative is working to create a more inclusive and accessible outdoor experience for all,” said Stephanie Maez, Outdoor Foundation executive director. “We are thrilled to expand our grants and programming into four additional communities [in 2021] and inspire kids and families to experience the powerful transformative benefits of connecting with nature on a regular basis, particularly among youth in diverse communities.”

“Working with all of our community partners, we are making a significant impact by empowering youth to enjoy spending more time in nature,” said Jen Mull Neuhaus, Outdoor Foundation Board Chair. “The expansion of the Thrive Outside initiative [in 2021] moves us one step closer to our goal of driving positive change in the health, well-being, and social fabric of communities across the country.”

The Formation of River City Outdoors
Thrive Outside communities are chosen by the Outdoor Foundation Board of Directors based on written applications, virtual site visits, in-person interviews, and third-party consultant research. Each Thrive Outside grant requires the recipient community to provide a one-to-one funding match in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the network. 

One backbone organization in each community manages the grant and facilitates the work of the network partners; in this case, the newly-created nonprofit River City Outdoors will represent St. Louis and work to activate a growing network of community stakeholders dedicated to making outdoor recreational opportunities more accessible and equitable for the region. (See “Thrive Outside Partner Groups” sidebar for more.)

Working alongside its network of partners, River City Outdoors will initiate and support programs in St. Louis’ urban, suburban, and rural areas aimed at making outdoor recreation inclusive for all. These efforts could take the form of partnering with Boys & Girls Clubs to develop long-term programming for youth focused on activities like rock climbing, camping, fishing, and biking. Or perhaps a program for St. Louis Public School students to paddle on one of the region’s big rivers. Or even helping grassroots outdoor community groups and organizations gain traction and build capacity by providing mentoring, marketing, and fundraising support. 

Thrive Outside St. Louis

The inaugural Thrive Outside Day in St. Louis. (Big Muddy Adventures)

Through these and other initiatives, River City Outdoors hopes to foster better mental, physical, and emotional health in the St. Louis community; maintain and enhance the value of the region’s natural and recreational assets; and help create a vibrant city where businesses want to locate and people want to live.

“The St. Louis region offers some of the most unique natural spaces and inspiring recreational opportunities anywhere. So why hasn’t every kid in our community kayaked past the Gateway Arch on the Mississippi River or climbed the boulders at Elephant Rocks State Park?” asked Rachel Bartels, River City Outdoors steering committee member.

The impact of the Thrive Outside initiative has, in fact, already been felt. The inaugural Thrive Outside Day in St. Louis occurred on October 2, 2021. On this day, Jack and Jill of America, Inc., an organization of mothers dedicated to raising the next generation of African-American leaders while enhancing the lives of all children, took 38 mothers and their kids canoeing on the Mississippi River. Local guide service Big Muddy Adventures partnered with River City Outdoors and Jack and Jill of America to make the experience an incredibly memorable day for all.

“This was just the first of many events that will allow us to collaborate with and support other great organizations that help connect St. Louisans with our incredible local rivers, lakes, trails, and parks,” said Bartels. “Through River City Outdoors, we are activating an inclusive network of community partners that shatters barriers to access and empowers all St. Louisans to experience the transformative power of nature in our own backyard.”

Outdoor Afro Embraces the Missouri River
It is not just large industry foundations that are noticing the opportunity for growth and diversity in outdoor spaces in St. Louis; smaller inclusion organizations are also taking note.

Oakland, California-based advocacy group Outdoor Afro came to St. Louis last fall to paddle 100 miles of the Missouri River. Outdoor Afro is the nation’s foremost network that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. With more than 100 leaders in 56 cities around the country, it joins thousands of people to nature experiences, changing the face of conservation.

Anthony Beasley was part of the 15-member team of volunteer Outdoor Afro leaders from all over the country that came together to paddle the Missouri. Beasley, a St. Louis-area resident and interim director for River City Outdoors, said the experience was nothing short of magical. 

Outdoor Afro St. Louis

Outdoor Afro members on their Missouri River paddle.

“We wanted to honor York, who was the only African-American on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. York not only contributed to the overall success of the trip but also holds the distinct honor of being the first African-American to cross the continent and see the Pacific Ocean,” said Beasley. 

“To paddle 116 miles in four days was definitely a challenge,” Beasley admitted. “Most of the other Outdoor Afro leaders had never paddled on a river this expansive. But the best part was showing others that black people do recreate on the river.

“It’s a real honor to reintroduce black people to the outdoors as part of Outdoor Afro,” he continued. “I love seeing people’s joy as well as knowing there are health benefits to everyone. I’m excited about getting people over their fears of being outdoors, and, above all, I want to affect a generation who will get a younger generation to recreate outdoors also.” 

Based on the three-year partnership with the Outdoor Foundation and its Thrive Outside initiative, the establishment of River City Outdoors, and the growing interest that residents and supporting organizations are showing, the future looks bright for St. Louis’ outdoor spaces. To echo Beasley’s words, hopefully this movement will be the beginning of some important changes that will encourage outdoor inclusivity and diversity for generations to come.

Thrive Outside Partner Groups

As part of its growing network of partners, Thrive Outside and River City Outdoors are working with the following groups to collectively create pathways for equitable access to the outdoors:

Great Rivers Greenway
The mission of Great Rivers Greenway is to make the St. Louis region a more vibrant place to live, work, and play by developing a network of greenways. As a steward of taxpayers’ dollars, Great Rivers Greenway embraces the diversity of the St. Louis region, proactively creating inclusive public spaces and processes with and for all. greatriversgreenway.org

The Missouri Interscholastic Cycling League
Founded in 2018 as an Emergent League of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), this nonprofit facilitates the development of mountain biking teams/clubs for grades 6 to 12 and provides the education, training, licensing, and insurance for coaches and volunteers. It also produces events and races that emphasize the value of participation, camaraderie, positive sporting behavior, and well-being over competition. missourimtb.org

Author: Jessica Alexander is a contributor to Terrain Magazine,