LEAD stands for Leaders in Environment, Access and Diversity. Through the LEAD program, we’ll redirect a portion of NRS resources to support the work of community builders and activists in outdoor participation and conservation. Our aim is to help our ambassadors make the world a better place, and for them to help make NRS a better company.
In the spring of 2021, we welcomed our inaugural class of LEAD ambassadors. As we’ve gotten to know each of these changemakers better, we felt it was time to share their stories and the powerful work they’re doing in their communities.
Paul Robert Wolf Wilson | Rios to Rivers
Rios to Rivers is working with a group of committed river-runners around the world to empower the next generation of river stewards. Through expedition-style exchanges, youth develop deep and lasting relationships with rivers that are in danger of or impacted by hydroelectric dams. LEAD Ambassador, Paul Robert Wolf Wilson is the Chief Storyteller for Rios to Rivers.
“It excites me to know that the momentum we have cultivated so far will only continue to grow.”
1. Ríos to Rivers has connected 180 underserved students from 16 endangered river basins in six countries. Our exchanges have included students and community leaders from 11 indigenous nations and have been conducted on the Klamath River, the Grand Canyon, and throughout Chile and Argentina.
2. I got involved with Ríos to Rivers after I went on an exchange to the Río Baker in 2017 as a Ríos to Rivers student. For the entire trip, I was able to drink water straight out of the river because it was so clean. The Klamath River, the watershed that has sustained my peoples since time immemorial, regularly becomes so toxic with algae it’s dangerous to touch. Spending weeks with other youth sharing these experiences continues to be one of the most powerful events in my life.
3. Before learning to paddle, my relationship with my river had mostly been as a part of my family’s food system or having to advocate for water quality and dam removal. My little sister and I came home from our first Ríos exchange and started putting together the Chiloquin Kayak Club. From that moment, paddling has given me a way of experiencing rivers outside of just showing up to fight for rivers’ health or for our traditional food systems. To be able to recreate on my ancestral waterways inspires me endlessly.
4. If I could expand Ríos to Rivers to a new region, I would love to start looking at programming throughout the Pacific’s ‘Ring of Fire.’ I feel like there is some powerful solidarity to be found in water-based cultures that have been shaped by the volcanic ring.
5. I never go on the water without sunglasses, at least two cameras, jerky, sunscreen and Yerba Maté.
Elyse Rylander | Out There Adventure
Out There Adventure is cultivating leadership, building community and empowering queer young people through their connection with the natural world. By intentionally and strategically connecting young Queer people with community and the natural world, OTA demonstrates time and again that Queerness is all around us and in fact perhaps one of the most natural experiences in the world. LEAD Ambassador Elyse Rylander is a self-described cheese connoisseur in a love affair with water. She founded Out There Adventure in 2011 and served as its Executive Director until late 2019.
“Out There Adventure’s mission at its core is to shatter the notion that being Queer is ‘unnatural.’”
1. I grew up in a canoe, quite literally. I took my first canoe trip on the Wisconsin River at 4 weeks old. At 16, I applied for a summer job at Rutabaga Paddlesports. I was becoming consciously aware that I was Queer, but didn’t live in a community where this was supported. When I came to Rutabaga there was not only a great representation of women on staff but a high representation of Queer women. It created community and the confidence I needed to pursue a career in the industry.
2. Out There Adventure first came to me in 2011. We received our 501(c)3 status in 2014 and took our first trip in 2015 (coincidentally the same week the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on gay marriage).
3. There are lots of little moments that remind me how important OTA’s work is, but one, in particular, comes to mind. After an OTA trip, a Trans girl came up to me and said, “I want to thank you for showing me what being a Queer adult can look like. I don’t get to see that at all in my life back home, and it’s honestly been hard to envision what that would even look like for me. Now I know I can do whatever I want, and be happy and healthy.”
4. All of the barriers to the outdoors are related, but it’s hard to be what you can’t see. It’s hard to imagine participating in something you’ve never had access to. Proximity, accessibility and representation all matter. It’s also hard to want to stick around if you have a negative (social, emotional or physical) experience, so culture and community also matter. It’s easier to tackle the first two than the last one, but we have to continue to work diligently to reduce all three!
5. I never go on the water without a PFD, [potable] H2O, sunscreen, stylin’ shades [+ Chums] and unwavering enthusiasm!
Andrea Knepper | Chicago Adventure Therapy
Chicago Adventure Therapy works with marginalized youth across Chicago to build life skills and help them become healthy adults. In the context of a supportive community, putting an emphasis on access and leadership has had unexpected clinical results. LEAD Ambassador Andrea Knepper is the Founder and Executive Director of Chicago Adventure Therapy.
“We focus on strengths, opportunity, community, and support.”
1. Before I founded CAT, I worked at a community mental health center with adolescents. I worked most weekends and evenings as a sea kayak instructor and guide. At the health center, I felt like despite engaging in mental health services, we weren’t giving young people the resources needed to safely navigate adolescence and into healthy adulthood. Meanwhile, as a guide, I watched paddling vacations change peoples’ lives. I wanted to be able to do the same, intentionally, with the young people I was working with at the mental health center.
2. I know how transformative paddling can truly be. The first thing about paddling that I really valued was that I didn’t have to be good. And for the first several years I wasn’t! Over the years, paddling has helped me through the hardest times in my life. It helped me recover from major spine surgery. It helped me through this pandemic. It helped give me the courage to create an organization that a lot of people told me was impossible.
3. There are lots of different moments that remind me that CAT is making a difference. Some seem silly—a past participant’s Facebook cover image is from a CAT trip taken years before. Some are big—a youth participant from one of our very first years of programming is now a senior staff member and just finished managing one of our biggest grant projects.
4. In the next 5-10 years, I want our staff, including senior leadership, to be primarily POC, with a significant percentage being women or gender non-conforming and who identify as LGBTQ. I would love for the majority of our staff to be people who started as youth participants. And I want all of Chicago to have access to outdoor sports.
5. My best piece of advice for new paddlers is simple: This is supposed to be fun. If you’re safe and you’re having fun, you’re doing it right!
Naomi Elyard | Columbia Gorge Junior Kayak Club
The Columbia Gorge Junior Kayak Club is working to break down barriers to make kayaking accessible and inviting to all local youth in the Columbia River Gorge. Without official programs, it’s hard for kids to build the mentoring system needed in order to kayak safely. LEAD Ambassador Naomi Elyard is the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Columbia Gorge Junior Kayak Club.
“As members of the outdoor community, we are called to create a safe open space.”
1. As a population, we’re extremely disconnected from what gives us all life—the Earth. Whitewater kayaking helped me reconnect with our planet by letting me experience the untouched beauty of river canyons, and these places remind me how badly we need to help our planet. However, without allowing individuals to develop their own connection and relationship with Mother Earth, it’s hard for one to see the purpose behind protecting her. Living in the whitewater hub of the Columbia Gorge, we all thought it was incredibly sad the lack of local kids who have the opportunity to kayak and make that connection.
2. One of the most impactful moments I remember is when this kid, J-Dawg, paddled the Lower White Salmon for the first time on his own. He had spent a couple of weeks in a tandem, but when he paddled it all by himself, you could see the confidence and stoke light up his face. It’s this moment when a kid falls in love with whitewater kayaking that makes our club matter.
3. I think the biggest barrier to paddlesports is the lack of information. Becoming part of the whitewater community often involves personally knowing someone who’s involved in the sport. And the lack of knowledge makes the outdoors in general a very daunting and seemingly dangerous experience. Creating safe spaces where people can acquire the knowledge and skills to mitigate those risks is key in increasing diversity among watersports and the outdoors.
4. I spend my non-paddling spare time doing school work. I’m a kinesiology major at Western Washington University. I also shape bread a couple of days a week at a local bakery.
5. One piece of advice I always give to beginner paddlers (stolen from Anna Wagner) is to sing a song when you’re scared or nervous.
Russell Davies | Professional Transformation Sports Development (PTSD)
Professional Transformation Sports Development works to encourage veterans to work toward discovering hope and possibility in post-military life. By engaging veterans in outdoor actions sports, PTSD provides a positive change for veterans struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. LEAD Ambassador Russell Davies is a veteran and the Founder and President of Professional Transformation Sports Development.
“Veterans inform me that this program undoubtedly saved their life.”
1. I created PTSD in 2017 after losing one of my best friends to post-traumatic stress disorder when he took his own life. Outdoor action sports helped me tremendously after serving in the military and I knew it could help so many others.
2. The intense lifestyle of serving multiple tours as an infantry grunt overseas has undoubtedly shaped my life. I thrive under heart pounding conditions and instead of trying to flush that out of me, I channeled it into kayaking. It’s something that has allowed me to close that chapter of my life and move forward from the military, keeping my thoughts on the next adventure and not traumatic past experiences.
3. It’s amazing to see the transition that other veterans make in the two weeks they spend in the program. I’ve had many veterans inform me that this program undoubtedly saved their life and we’ve even received thank you cards from families telling us how their significant other returned as a new positive person.
4. I’m excited for the future of PTSD. We currently help anywhere from 60-80 veterans a year. We have big plans to obtain a facility that will allow us to host multiple classes per season, which would give us the chance to double the number of veterans that are coming through our program. I’ve considered expanding to NC or WV, however, PTSD covers flights for any veteran located in the U.S to come out for our program, so location isn’t really much of a concern.
5. You asked for five, but here are six things I never get on the water without: A beer (in case I take a swim and have to drink a booty), throw bag, friends, PFD, helmet, camera.
Jessica & Sammy Matsaw | River Newe
River Newe is on a mission to increase representation and create spaces of equity through intergenerational learning experiences on homelands with Shoshone-Bannocks, Indigenous, and minority communities on and off the river. LEAD Ambassador Jessica Matsaw is a tribal member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and an educator at the Shoshone-Bannock Tribal Jr./Sr. High School as well as the Co-Founder of River Newe where she does it all, from rigging rafts and packing meals to developing curriculum and instruction for their tribal students to learn on their traditional homelands.
“This place is all the things I want for my kids, and all the things I want for the young people of my Tribe.”
1. I credit my own healing that I’ve experienced in connecting to our (Shoshone-Bannock) traditional homelands as part of the inspiration to start River Newe. Connecting with our lands helped me make sense of the abuse and violence I had experienced in my life, understanding that they’re residual remnants of intergenerational trauma, colonization and displacement. And I wish I had had access to healing as a young person.
2. The most recent moment that I remember seeing how River Newe makes a difference was last summer. With our tribal youth standing along the ridge of Underwater Canyon on the MF of the Salmon River, we were having a class discussion on how they thought our people salmon fished here. I listened as our students theorized how our ancestors connected to the land. I watched the students fishing alongside their ancestors as they realized that’s where they would stand with their future children and family. Interweaving past, present, and future generations in one moment represents everything River Newe is to me.
3. River Newe doesn’t end with the river season. But when I’m not working directly with River Newe, the community or being a mom, I do enjoy creating art, from traditional Shoshone art to printmaking and painting.
LEAD Ambassador Sammy Matsaw is a grandfather, father, husband, extended family relative and tribal member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and research biologist in their Fish and Wildlife Department. His involvement with River Newe as a Co-Founder is to facilitate all the things to assist Jessica in her delivery of curriculum for the tribal youth while assisting where he can in sharing Indigenous science.
1. The intergenerational learning experiences we facilitate within River Newe are to bring us back to ourselves, back to our relatives and ancestors. Growing up in these so-called deficit statistics that try to define our tribal communities (high rates of diabetes, suicide, substance abuse, etc.), I’ve heard only the negative stories. I see and live in those statistics, but I also live in great support systems and deep connections with homelands. No one tells that story or tells the story of our compassion. We are doing this because we want to tell a different story.
2. We took a couple of young men with us on a test phase to go down the Middle Fork of the Salmon. On the first night at camp, we shared through rose-bud-thorn: something positive, new and challenging. One of the young men said, “I don’t know why I’m here, I almost died, and I’m happy to be alive!” On our last night, we revisited our rose-bud-thorns from day one. When we came around to him, he said, “I know why I’m here, I don’t want to leave, and this is my home!” In that moment, I knew River Newe was going to make a difference.
3. We never get on the water without kids, water + snacks, Gorilla tape, Chacos, and a life vest with chapstick in it.