A golden sunset on the Mississippi River viewed from the back of a canoe. The crunch of fallen leaves underfoot as you navigate a dirt path in Pere Marquette State Park. The rhythm of wheels turning as you roll along a greenway that connects multiple St. Louis neighborhoods.
These are just some of the sounds and experiences of the outdoors. Not just any outdoors but our outdoors, here in Missouri and southern Illinois. These are the reasons we venture into nature. Why we bundle up for a hike in winter. Why we invest in running shoes, climbing gear, and adaptive equipment. Why we take classes and join affinity groups.
But not everyone is aware of the incredible outdoor opportunities our region offers, including those who live here. Some don’t know how to access them, some don’t have the gear or resources, and still others don’t feel safe and welcome in them.
All of these are reasons why the River City Foundation was launched in late 2023. The foundation brought the entities Big Muddy Adventures, River City Outdoors, and Terrain Magazine under one (ahem) tent to maximize the collective impact of the organizations, all of which are nonprofits operating in St. Louis, and to create a rallying point to support, promote, and advocate for outdoor recreation.
“It’s very exciting to get these programs together, and we’re looking forward to doing more to build the outdoor community and make St. Louis a healthier and more active place to live,” said Roo Yawitz, president of the River City Foundation. “Our vision is getting people outside and having everyone in the St. Louis region appreciate our assets and use them regularly.”
Of course, challenges exist. St. Louis is typical of many midwestern communities in that it does not have a mainstream active living culture. Its natural resources are largely underappreciated. And the region faces deeply rooted racial and socioeconomic challenges that serve as barriers for marginalized populations to benefit from outdoor recreation.
“We have a great opportunity here to change lives through increasing the number of outdoor opportunities in our region, making it easier to access those opportunities, and then sharing stories about those successes,” Yawitz said.
“Outdoor recreation can be a driver of many things you want in a great city, like positive health outcomes, economic development, and cultural vibrancy,” Yawitz continued. “A culture of active living can be a key to making St. Louis a better place to live.”
The characters in this story are the three “programs” that now operate under River City Foundation, but the hero is the collaboration between them to make St. Louis a thriving outdoor recreation community for everyone. Let’s look at how Big Muddy Adventures, River City Outdoors, and Terrain Magazine are building a collaborative, community-centered outdoor ecosystem and what it means to those impacted.
The Educator: Big Muddy Adventures
Thirty schoolkids chatter and goof around as Mike Clark goes over his mental checklist. Radios to communicate with boat traffic — check. Personal flotation devices (PFDs) and paddles — check. Coolers of water and food for the afternoon cookout — check.
No one is stepping foot into a canoe, though, until they’ve listened to Clark’s safety talk, which, among other things, includes demonstrating the correct way to hold and use a paddle and the proper fit of a PFD (“Snug like a grandma’s hug”).
Clark is an authority on paddling the Show Me State’s big rivers: the Missouri and Mississippi. He founded Big Muddy Adventures (BMA) 20 years ago to help people experience our iconic waterways from a canoe or kayak. He knows barge captains by name. He knows the depth of the rivers at any given time. And he’s trained his staff to know this stuff, too.
Relieved that the safety talk is over, and strapped snugly in PFDs, the kids scamper down a grassy bank and squish through thick mud to the river’s edge, where three canoes are waiting. Each 29-foot vessel can hold up to 14 people, seated two by two.
Most of the kids have never been in a canoe, and many cannot swim. Naturally, there’s some trepidation. But there’s also excitement: A new adventure is underway, and it includes the chance to explore a deserted Mississippi River island and to then paddle 9 miles downstream to the foot of Gateway Arch National Park.
The kids may not know it, but experts say outdoor adventures broaden their appreciation of nature, help them develop confidence to enjoy the outdoors, and build lifelong skills like teamwork and problem-solving.
For kids with few outdoor opportunities, this day will be burned in their memories. And now that the canoe outfitter is a part of the River City Foundation, more days like this will be possible, says BMA Director Matt Green.
“Big Muddy Adventures, at its core, has always been a mission-based company. But over the years, in order to be sustainable, we’ve had to make business decisions that slightly pull us away from our foundational mission,” he said. “Now though, being a part of the River City Foundation, we can refocus our activities towards advancing our mission, rather than serving our bottom line. We still have to be fiscally responsible, but our core focus can now be impact rather than profitability.
“As a part of the River City Foundation we’ll have a much louder megaphone to get residents and visitors alike outside and on the water in St. Louis, which is really exciting for us,” Green said.
The Collaborator: River City Outdoors
The schoolkids described above enjoyed their Mississippi River excursion thanks to the organizing and collaboration efforts of River City Outdoors (RCO), which is now part of the same foundation as BMA.
RCO staffers regularly meet with nonprofits, school leaders, community groups, and organizers to promote, support, and coordinate outdoor excursions. They’ve worked with more than 100 area groups such as the Boys & Girls Club of Greater St. Louis, Lift for Life Academy, Ujima STL, and Black Trans Bike Experience.
RCO recently created an opportunity for youth to climb giant trees in their own neighborhood park, with local business Vertical Voyages providing the equipment and instruction. “The kids loved it,” said Chris Geden, RCO’s Thrive Outside program manager. “They were able to experience their park in a way they haven’t before.”
RCO has worked with its network partners and program providers to offer activities ranging from paddling and climbing to overnight camping and birdwatching to snow skiing and biking. It provided close to 3,000 youth with outdoor experiences in 2023.
RCO also launched a Gear Lending Library last year, which facilitates free rentals for camping and hiking equipment. The library lends gear to St. Louis regional organizations and individuals that take children, families, and groups on outdoor trips. “One of the most common barriers we see when it comes to outdoor recreation opportunities is the availability and access to gear and guidance on how to use that gear,” said Geden. “We are committed to increasing equitable access to outdoor recreation in the region, and these resources help us to achieve our mission.”
Flint Fowler, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, says the collaboration with RCO has allowed them to offer outdoor adventures without needing to have all the expertise within their staff.
“That speaks to the value of a partnership and what they bring,” Fowler said. “It helps us deliver better on our mission. The broader experiences you can provide to young people, the more they’ll benefit. It’s exciting to have an organization that focuses on the outdoors.”
As a kid, Fowler spent a lot of time outside, camping for weeks at a time with the Boy Scouts and playing sports and games in his neighborhood. Now, he says, many neighborhoods in marginalized areas have vacant buildings and overgrown lots that aren’t safe. The Boys & Girls Clubs provide playgrounds and fields for kickball and other sports, but adding adventures in nature through RCO has been a bonus.
“In marginalized, under-resourced neighborhoods, there’s not a lot of positive stimulation outside. The mind doesn’t grow,” Fowler said. “Going to a place with flowers and trees is a lot more engaging.”
He says outdoor adventures promote leadership and character development, which are core values at Boys & Girls Clubs. These opportunities “reinforce what we’re doing to make kids successful in the present and future.”
The Storyteller: Terrain Magazine
As editor and publisher of Terrain Magazine, Brad Kovach has a pulse on what RCO and BMA are doing to cultivate outdoor culture on any given day, as all three organizations are now housed in the same office in Midtown St. Louis.
When he launched the magazine in 2014, though, it was more of a solo act. Back then, he says, the magazine’s theme was essentially “outdoor recreation is fun.” His idea was to feature folks having amazing adventures in our region: running, biking, hiking, camping, climbing, or paddling.
Yet, as he met more people in the outdoor ecosystem, Kovach saw opportunities to help bolster St. Louis as an outdoor recreation destination and, even further, to make it an inclusive environment that everyone can enjoy.
“Outdoor recreation can be a pathway to change, economically and socially. Knowing this, and now as part of River City Foundation, we’ve evolved Terrain into a publication to help make St. Louis a better place through outdoor experiences,” he said. “We’ve been growing the publication in a very intentional way, with this focus on the bigger picture.”
Luis Benitez is a big supporter of Terrain’s goals of building an outdoor brand for St. Louis. He launched Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, and following six years of success there, now advocates for the use of public lands to improve public health and equitable access to the outdoors. He is also involved in efforts to launch a federal recreation office in the Department of Commerce.
A St. Louis native, Benitez spent his childhood exploring Johnson’s Shut-Ins and Elephant Rocks State Parks. He went bird hunting and fly fishing; he developed a love of orienteering and mountain climbing on trips with his father. His grandfather owned Kelly Sporting Goods, so he learned to appreciate quality outdoor gear.
Benitez says that Missouri needs to better leverage its outdoor assets, as Arkansas and other Midwest states have done. “Missouri has a lot going for it. The glacial boulders at Elephant Rocks are just wild, mind blowing. We have rivers second to none for canoeing and stand-up paddleboarding. Arkansas has the Ozark Mountains, so we’ve got what they’ve got,” he said. “Arkansas has an outdoor industry office. Tennessee and others are working on it. My question to Missouri is: ‘What are you waiting for?’”
Nationally, the outdoor industry is on pace to be a trillion-dollar economy employing 5 million people. Businesses are looking closely at different regions for opportunities to grow, Benitez says.
“REI doesn’t have a store everywhere. They do their homework and see the percentage of folks getting out and recreating,” Benitez said. The St. Louis area now has two REI stores, which is a good sign, he says.
“This is why Terrain is so important,” Benitez said. “Other states wait for Outside magazine to do a piece on their outdoor industry, but it’s better to have a local publication consistently writing about what’s happening in your area. And the collaboration [with River City Foundation] is fantastic. I look at that as growing a voice, growing social and political capital.”
Kovach feels the formation of River City Foundation and its merging of three existing nonprofits is worthy of a headline, but “the real story is there’s now a foundation championing outdoor recreation in St. Louis. That’s never happened. There are organizations that do work in a specific segment of the outdoor space, but the purpose of River City Foundation is to advocate for the entire St. Louis outdoor community. At Terrain, we’re happy to tell the stories around that purpose.”
The Future: River City Foundation
As Roo Yawitz considers what the entities that make up River City Foundation have achieved, he thinks of the many people who have told BMA guides that enjoying a full moon float on the Mississippi or paddling into downtown has changed their view of St. Louis.
“I think we’re having a positive effect on individual people. People are appreciating our region more,” he said. “We want people taking advantage of all the unexpected things you can do in St. Louis, especially outside, so that more see it as an active, vibrant place to live.”
Leaders at Explore St. Louis agree, so much so that the cover of the tourism bureau’s 2024 visitors guide features a photo of a BMA canoe in front of the Arch. The guide is seen by hundreds of thousands of people every year, as it is distributed in hotels and city attractions and mailed to out-of-town guests planning a trip to St. Louis.
“We’re proud to feature a picture of Big Muddy Adventures on our cover,” said Brian Hall, chief marketing officer of Explore St. Louis. “We want to tell stories of all the assets we have, so that visitors can experience the outdoors, not just museums. When you consider the number of parks and green spaces and our region’s topography with rolling hills, it’s so great for hiking and biking. It helps when we can offer tourism experiences on water and trails and greenways.”
Hall continued: “For entirely too long, St. Louis has turned its back on the river. We love attaching the river back to the city and motivating tourists to explore it. The river tells the story of the more ecological side of St. Louis. It creates an entirely different orientation to what St. Louis is all about. It’s an experience for both tourists and residents.”
But it’s more than just getting butts in canoe seats, says Yawitz. It’s all the outdoor programs, events, businesses, organizations, and outreach that matter.
“I’m very happy with the work we’re doing at River City Foundation,” Yawitz said. “I also think there’s a ton of potential for us to expand the work.”
Want to help expand the outdoor culture in St. Louis?
Sign up for a full-service, guided river trip with Big Muddy Adventures, or start small and rent a paddle boat, stand-up paddleboard, canoe, kayak, or bicycle with Big Muddy Adventures at the Boathouse in Forest Park or at Simpson Lake in St. Louis County. 2muddy.com, paddleforestpark.com, paddlesimpsonlake.com
Visit the River City Outdoors website and contact them if you’re interested in collaborating or know a community group that could benefit from an outdoor experience or could utilize their free Gear Lending Library. rivercityoutdoors.org
Stay informed and inspired by subscribing to Terrain Magazine and mark your calendar for fall 2024, when the publication produces the annual Gateway Outdoor Expo. terrain-mag.com, gatewayoutdoorexpo.com
Author: Terri Waters is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: Big Muddy Adventures on the Mississippi River.