Rikeem Sholes jokes that when he decided to study marine biology, he hadn’t realized he’d have to be outside so much.
He grew up in New Orleans in a Black family that wasn’t the outdoorsy type, and it was his job that led him to find happiness in nature. Since 2017 his work as a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has brought him to the Pacific Northwest, where Oregon’s landscape deepened his appreciation for the outdoors. But he noticed something was missing: people of color.
“I want to see any people of color go outside. I get really excited when other African Americans come out,” says Sholes, 36, who enjoys climbing with friends or spending time at Powell’s City of Books when he’s not working. He points out that it isn’t just about experiencing the outdoors but also being seen within it. “Not only being there and taking up that space but also letting other people know that we’re taking up that space.”
Looking for a Reprieve
Sholes knew he wasn’t alone when he found online groups with BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) looking to go on hikes and climbs together. He now helps run two Facebook groups: Portland POC Hikes, which he started more than three years ago, and PDX Climbers of Color, where he organizes trips for people to see Oregon’s natural beauty and to see themselves living among it. He became an administrator of that group shortly after it started a few years ago.
The number of people of color spending leisure time outdoors has steadily increased in recent years. The Outdoor Foundation, as part of the Outdoor Industry Association, conducts an annual survey on how many people head outdoors and participate in outside activities in the United States. The group’s 2019 report shows that, on average, 26% of folks heading outside are people of color, compared to 20% in 2010.
With hundreds of members in both Facebook groups, Sholes has led about 20 hikes and more climbs than he can count. “People have really been enjoying just having a space for people of color to get together,” Sholes says. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter marches, Sholes has noticed that many in these groups are searching for a small reprieve. “Because everybody is so disjointed, so separated right now, to just have a space outside allows them to come together.”
Learning and Keeping Safe
On the hikes he leads — which have included close-in urban areas like Tryon Creek State Park in Portland — Sholes puts his education to use. “Since I’m a biologist, I do throw some kind of nerdy science things in there,” he says. He likes to pepper the hikes with interesting facts about streams they might cross, or to identify plants and trees. “I like to think that people like learning a little bit about being outside.” His background and knowledge helps put novice hikers at ease. Even in a group setting, those who are unfamiliar with natural landscapes might have fears of an unknown. Sholes laughs when he says he’s had to tell some beginner hikers, “No, there are no bears in Forest Park.”
Sholes has been met with overwhelming positive feedback, with hikers thanking him for taking the time not just to create the events and plan out the hikes, but especially for making safety a priority on their hikes. He urges hikers to dress appropriately for the weather and terrain and be courteous when sharing the trail. He also urges people to always stick to the trail to avoid getting lost as well as keep from contributing to erosion.
Mental Health Mondays
Even for an avid hiker like Sholes, he understands that it can be tough to get motivated to head out when the gray, drizzly clouds begin to blanket across Oregon. But he says it is especially important to head outdoors during this time when we want to hunker down inside.
“When you nest in the winter like that, that’s the time when you’re most likely to feel alone and just get inside your own feelings,” Sholes says, recognizing how mental health can be impacted more during the wintry months.
Expert studies in recent years have shown that being outside in nature brings very real changes in a person’s health — which is why Oregon’s natural spaces offer a simple prescription for mindfulness and restoration any time of year. “Being out in nature does have some very definite impacts on the human brain, and at the same time, that results in improvements in one’s behavior and mental health,” says Dr. Philip Wu, a retired pediatrician from Kaiser Permanente in Oregon.
Sholes mentions how, especially within many communities of color, mental health is not a subject often openly discussed, and being outside might be a way to help with stressors. He’s throwing around the idea of having check-ins with the Facebook group like “Mental Health Mondays,” so members can share how they’re getting through the winter. And if someone wants to go on a hike, he says, “Hey, if you want to, check in and go on a hike with me. Even if it’s just one person, I’ll go out with you. I need to get out of the house.”
Sholes knows all too well how spendy it can get for outdoor gear, and that it can be a barrier for people who want to begin exploring the outdoors. Over the summer, an outdoor enthusiast began to crowdfund to put together “Camping Kits for BIPOC” and partnered with Portland’s Next Adventure shop to assemble and distribute the kits. Next Adventure is a good spot to begin searching for discounted gear in their bargain basement. They also rent gear to people who want to try things out before spending more to own it. If you’re thinking ahead, shopping off-season is a great way to save too. Winter hiking essentials include good rain gear and layers that breathe but still keep you warm. For those who are looking for a more strenuous hike: Hiking boots and spikes, poles, and snowshoes would be helpful — check out snowshoe rentals at many outdoor outfitters, including REI.