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Young Alaskan blazing the trail for diversity in the great outdoors

By Sierra Starks Photojournalist: Rick Rysso - 2:02 PM August 25, 2016

A short climb from Rendezvous Peak, where the trail plateaus into ridgeline, 21-year-old Reth Duir’s reaction to Arctic Valley’s mountainous views is one of awe.

“I feel like I’m on top of the world,” Duir says, gazing at the town of Eagle River below.

It’s his first hike up the Rendezvous Peak Trail, which is peculiar considering there isn’t much Duir hasn’t done in the way of outdoor activities.

reth duir arctic youth arctic valley

But that wasn’t always the case.

“I was definitely terrified,” said Duir of his previous attitude toward the great outdoors. “I just thought of worst things that could happen. I thought about bears, I thought about drowning in the water.”

All that changed at 17 years old on a kayaking trip to Prince William Sound through Chugach Children’s Forest, a partnership led by Alaska Geographic and the U.S. Forest Service.

“Before that, I hadn’t been camping, hadn’t done any hikes or anything like that related to outdoor recreation,” said Duir, who says the trip was a watershed moment. “And that sort of took away the fear I had or any misconceptions I had about people who go outside.”

What turned fear into possibility, he says, were the people exploring next to him, who came from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

“Just really seeing the diversity within the trip, just seeing them pursue the outdoors as well made me feel even more comfortable,” said Duir, whose parents left Sudan for America as refugees.

Since then, he’s checked outdoor adventures off his list, left and right — from building a mile of trail near Spencer Glacier to pack rafting and backpacking across Alaska.

As the National Parks Service celebrates 100 years and looks forward to another centennial, the future of public lands across the nation will soon be in the hands of young people like Duir. Giving them a voice and getting them engaged have become a priority for the U.S. Department of Interior, with a group of Alaskans called the Arctic Youth Ambassadors.

Duir brings a unique perspective in his role as Arctic Youth Ambassador, along with the other college and high school students who share his title. His newfound passion for “connecting youth to the environment and how he sees that connecting to these other issues that are affecting the Arctic,” was a key factor in getting elected to the program, says Elisabeth Gustafson, who works with Duir at Alaska Geographic.

“It’s elevating Arctic youth voices about a range of topics,” Gustafson says of the ambassador program.

Duir represents not only a younger demographic but one that’s more culturally inclusive, she adds.

“One of the things Alaska Geographic recognizes is that there’s a crisis of diversity in public lands, and that the vast majority of public lands’ employees and public lands’ visitors are white,” said Gustafson. “Diverse students will tell us when they want to do something outdoors is that they don’t see it as a place for them because they don’t see people who look like them doing these things outdoors, going out in kayaks, or in REI catalogs or whatever.”

Duir now works to connect Anchorage’s diverse student population with the land he’s come to love.

His message to them comes from experience: “The outdoors are not for a certain demographic, you know. It’s for everyone to use.”

Contact Sierra Starks at sstarks@ktva.com and on Facebook and Twitter, @SStarksKTVA

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