The 20 participants stood in a circle, their bundled snow clothes and keen energy keeping them warm. Whirling snow fell from the sky dusting their hats and scarves. Fog obscured the surrounding mountains.
Other cross-country skiers passed by the group, towing sleds or getting towed by leashed dogs on their way to the links of the University of Montana Golf Course.
They spread out with outstretched arms, putting distance between one another, before Golden Yolk breakfast sandwiches and ski gear were handed out. They chatted with one another, some making new friends and others catching up with old ones.
They were all excited, but many were nervous too. For most of them this would be their first time cross-country skiing. Still everyone was eager to learn.
The group was with Here Montana, a BIPOC — Black/Indigenous/people of color — outdoors program run through the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department. The program is fairly new. Founder Alex Kim brought the idea to Parks and Rec at the end of 2019. Since then they’ve reached around 60 individuals.
While Missoula isn’t necessarily a hub for diversity, with just less than 12% of the population BIPOC, Kim was still disappointed to find almost nobody who looked like him enjoying Montana’s vast outdoors. According to the National Health Foundation, 70% of use in national forests, national wildlife refuges and national parks is by white people, though 40% of the nation’s population is non-white.
Kim made it his mission to bridge racial disparity in outdoor recreation by making it accessible to Missoula’s BIPOC community, through access to gear, information and community. To him it’s a way to enact racial justice.
The original plan was to bring everyone to Lubrecht Experimental Forest, but it had dumped snow overnight and roads were perilous. Luckily, the overnight snow storm also brought enough snow to Missoula to make skiing possible without leaving town.
From all over the world
Most people were new to cross-country skiing, though a few had gone before either with Here Montana’s 2020 cross-country ski outing or on their own. They were also from all over the place, some from Montana, others around the United States and a few from other countries.
Ka’aumoana Ahina is from Hawaii and came to Montana five years ago to attend the University of Montana. He’s now a senior and president of the Pacific Islanders Club. He started going on Here Montana outings around this time last year, on their first cross-country ski adventure. He’s gone on every outing since.
“I cannot stress how much this has changed a lot of our lives,” Ahina said. “'Because sometimes we just — we get cold. We get homesick. But then when we dress up, we get warm and we put on the skies and all of a sudden we're like, ‘We can do this.’”
With impeccable timing, volunteer ski instructor Kellie Carim came in on her skis after everyone had gone through the circle introducing themselves. Everyone applauded Carim, who had traversed the dangerous roads to Lubrecht before the location change was made, and still got in a lap of skiing before making her way to meet the group at the golf course.
“Cross-country skiing is my passion,” Carim told the crowd. “The only thing I maybe love more is my dog.”
Carim asked how many of them grew up in warmer climates devoid of snow. A majority of hands went up. She explained how her father is from India, and he had to get used to the cold when he moved to Minnesota, but that snow sports like cross-country skiing can teach people how to not hate winters.
Carim explained how skiing can feel like gliding when done right. It’s all about keeping balance in the core, and keeping knees bent. She said to think of it like you’re a dog with your tail tucked between your legs.
Then she showed everyone how to put their skis on. They spent a minute practicing balance with one foot lifted at a time, before trying their luck on the path.
“Anyone can walk on skis, but we’re going to glide today,” she said.
Carim started cross-country skiing when she was 14, which by Minnesota standards is pretty late, and she’s been hooked ever since. She came to Montana to study wildlife biology at UM and stayed after graduation.
“Living in the [Twin Cities], there was a lot of diversity there, and I never felt like I stood out,” Carim said. “And when I came to Montana, I kind of had this realization where it's like, ‘Oh, I don't think I stand out, but I'm pretty sure I do.’ And so to be able to have other people that look like me out on the trails, it's like, it makes it more inclusive. It makes it feel more accessible, and it makes it feel like I can be at home doing this.”
She believes that’s especially important for people new to Montana and the culture here, whether they’re from a larger city like her or even a different country.
Getting back up
A lot of people fell on the first practice lap. That didn’t deter anyone from getting back up and trying again.
Once everyone made it back to their starting point, Carim said, “circle up again, but give yourself a lot of space because we’re going to do some dramatic falling.”
Some people took her statement to heart and threw themselves back in a dramatic display. Carim explained how to get untangled and get back up with minimal effort. The first step. she said, is to roll on your back and stick your feet in the air. Then untangle your skis, roll onto your side with skis parallel and then onto your knees and stand up.
“It's so great to see so many different people from different backgrounds out here on skis, and so many people who haven't seen snow before or haven't been on skis before,” Carim said. “And it's something that I've been doing for such a long time that to be able to share, to be able to share this passion with other people and have them have fun on skis is so meaningful to me.”
Sisilia Kusumaningsin opted for more slow-and-steady. It was her first time on cross-country skis, though she has been on downhill skis once before. She said cross-country was less terrifying, because it was easier to control her speed. She’s gone out with Here Montana before on a rafting trip and has grown to love the outdoor adventures.
Kusumaningsin is from Indonesia and came to Montana to study education at the University of Montana on scholarship. She graduated last year and stayed in Missoula to teach her home language to military students in the Defense Critical Language and Culture program at UM. Each time she fell she’d let out a surprised yelp and then laugh good-naturedly before climbing back to her feet.
“It’s super fun because we did it with new people I haven’t met before,” she said.
After finishing the winding path, participants found themselves back at base camp, where Kim waited to greet them with his camera. Kim has a passion for photography, which is how he became aware of the BIPOC outdoors issue.
While in school for photojournalism he attempted to do a photo assignment of BIPOC people recreating, but he found only white people.
“I didn't see a lot of diversity,” Kim said. “I'm originally from Maryland and I'm a first generation Korean-American, so I just grew up around a lot of diversity.”
He decided that something had to be done about this problem, because in Montana the outdoors is one of the largest sources of revenue and a major reason why many choose to live here. Yet BIPOC people didn’t have the same presence. He decided not to wait for someone else to do it and went to Parks and Rec with the idea. Director Donna Gaukler was a receptive ear.
“Missoula Parks and Recreation has always been committed to ensuring that residents have fair and just access to parks and recreation facilities and services,” Gaukler stated in an email. “As we all learn more about moving from engagement and equality to equity, we have expanded programs that provide equity in opportunity.”
Gaukler also stated that Missoula Parks and Recreation is implementing initiatives like LGBTQ+ outreach, fully inclusive playgrounds and free checkout of adaptive recreation equipment. Recreation Program Manager Meg Whicher added in an email that some past Here Montana participants are now staff at parks and recreation leading outdoor adventures themselves.
“Residents know that Missoula Parks and Recreation is here to stay, ready to serve and residents have a say in their programs, parks, trails and open spaces,” Gaukler added. “We are committed to health, community, equity and environmental stewardship … always. Under Alex's leadership, Here Montana is an excellent example of how small efforts can make Missoula a better place to live, work and play … for ALL.”
Kim said there’s so much benefit to getting outdoors, from connecting to the place you live in to the mental health benefits of exercise and community, especially during the pandemic.
He hopes he can break down barriers. Many BIPOC people see outdoor recreation advertisements for expensive gear aimed at white people and don’t realize there are more affordable ways to recreate, he said.
“So a lot of the challenges that we came across was just making sure that people know that the outdoors is a safe place and that if they have the right equipment and the right knowledge that it can be accessible to them and that they don't necessarily need to depend on a program,” Kim said.
The National Health Foundation cited the erasure of Native American heritage in many public lands and the role of Jim Crow segregation laws that banned Black people from national parks as examples of systemic inequalities in outdoor access.
“When we begin to celebrate our differences, whether that's race or socioeconomics or genders or identities, that's when you can really begin to build community,” Kim said. “And so moving forward I think that it's important that we embrace each other and we embrace our differences.”
Back at the parking lot snow was still falling, but the temperature was rising. April Werle was one of the first to finish the route. Although part of her family comes from the Philippines, she grew up in Montana and had more familiarity with snow travel. She had grown accustomed to being the only person of color in the outdoors, so being part of a crowd was a pleasant experience.
“I think having a community where you feel like you have people who understand your experience is really important and that's something that I've been slowly building,” Werle, who grew up in a Filipino community in Helena, said. “And Alex built this and it's a really fast way to build that community and meet other people that have similar experiences as you.”
“We may be coming from different places and be of different color and ethnicity and backgrounds, but when we come together here, we are one, we are one community,” Ahina added. “We feel like we are blending in. We feel like you're included, and we can enjoy just like everyone else here.”
“I think right now, our focus is to grow within the outdoor recreation industry and community,” Kim said. “Because the outdoor recreation world is just a world where you can find joy and peace and fun times and good times, and escape from your hard realities, and find community and get out and sweat.”
The group is set to head out on another cross-country skiing adventure on Saturday, Feb. 27. For more information on Missoula Parks and Recreation and Here Montana and how to sign up, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Meg Whicher at (406)-721-PARK (7275).