From fear to fervor, how this millennial is making the outdoors more inclusive

After high school, Reth Duir got the opportunity to explore the outdoors through a kayaking expedition in Prince William Sound. The trip changed how he felt about the outdoors. (Photo courtesy Chugach Children’s Forest)

When you open a REI catalog or page through Outside magazine, what do you see? Do the people on the page look like you? Arctic Youth Ambassador Reth Duir is working to make that imagery more representative.

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“When you look at the depiction of what people go outside it’s usually white people,” Duir said. “When you look at these catalogs, you look at Facebook ads, and you go to REI, you don’t see a lot of diversity of people. So I think it can be very tough for someone trying to explore the outdoors because there’s not much commonality.”

But the University of Alaska Anchorage junior hasn’t always been an outdoors enthusiast. His childhood was split between Minneapolis, MN, and Omaha, NE. Playing outside meant playing basketball or cops robbers with his friends.

When he was eight years old, his mom told him a story that made him fear the outside world.

“I noticed there was a wound on the outside of my mom’s ankle and her skin was just completely different,” Duir said. “I was like, ‘how did that happen?’ And my mom was like, ‘I was bitten by a snake.’ She became instantly very sick and she could have died that day.”

Duir had a different childhood than his parents. Before he was born, they fled East Africa because of political and religious oppression. When he was 10 years old, his life and his parents’ lives were about to become even more different. They were moving from Nebraska to Alaska.

“I thought they were crazy when they first said that,” Duir said. “I knew Alaska, there was a lot of snow it was very cold. I knew about polar bears. I just had this picture of (the) Ice Age, but with people.”

Landing in Anchorage, his new home, the first thing he saw was the Chugach mountain range.

For a kid from Nebraska, it was the first time he’d ever seen a mountain.

At that moment, Duir began think about starting to explore the outdoors.

After graduating high school, he got that opportunity through a kayaking expedition in the Prince William Sound.

Immediately, Duir found his calling.

“Oh yeah, I was hooked for sure,” Duir said. “They definitely had me hooked. They reeled me in.”

“A lot of people don’t understand that this is our public lands. It is for everyone,” Duir said. “It should be for everyone. I want to get rid of these misconceptions that the outdoors is for a particular audience. There are different ways to explore our outdoors — going hiking, backpacking or fishing with your family and friends.”

Duir wants to help communities find ways to connect to the outdoors that work for them.

“I know Alaska Native communities they live off the land,” Duir said. “We have Hmong communities that like to go fishing. I think it’s really figuring out what the community needs are and how people enjoy their public lands. How they like to be outdoors. Then creating a way to do that.”

Duir knows he’s still learning.

“This program has really opened my eyes to different things that are happening in the state of Alaska and why the voices of people in rural communities are important and they should be at the table,” Duir said. “I want to be able to help with that experience.”

Duir will graduate next year with a degree in elementary education. He used to want to be a teacher in a big city — like Chicago or Oakland — but he’s changed his mind. He wants to work in rural Alaska and give back to the place he’s called home for a decade.

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Zoe Sobel is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk based in Unalaska. As a high schooler in Portland, Maine, Zoë Sobel got her first taste of public radio at NPR’s easternmost station. From there, she moved to Boston where she studied at Wellesley College and worked at WBUR, covering sports for Only A Game and the trial of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.