Opening the Outdoors

People, Recreation By Pete Marshall

Kaohly Her steers to the next portage with Pa Der Vang in bow, in a canoe in the Boundary Waters.
Kaohly Her steers to the next portage with Pa Der Vang in bow. Photo: Lee Vue

Lee Vue’s work to make the outdoors more inclusive and accessible

On the first day of the canoe trip, it didn’t take long for Kaohly Her — a State Representative from St. Paul and a leader in the Hmong-American community — to become frustrated. Not used to steering, she had been placed in the stern and tasked with keeping the canoe straight. 

There was no time to practice. Right off the bat, she had to do something she couldn’t.

It was a new skill — and not an easy one. The constant zigzagging, which sometimes resulted in paddling twice the distance to get from point A to point B, was beyond frustrating, not to mention exhausting.

So much that portaging was a relief.

At the same time, Kaohly was struck by the beauty of the surrounding environment and joy of traveling with a group of close friends. “I was being tested in ways that pushed my physical, psychological and emotional limits,” she says. “Putting myself in this situation, in such a gorgeous setting, was very moving, incredibly powerful.”

Kaohly and her friends, seven Hmong women, were taking their first extended canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. The women had outdoor experience, but this trip into the Boundary Waters was a leap for everyone.

The idea for the trip had been inspired by their close friend, Ilean Her, a prominent community leader and University of Minnesota Board Regent. For years, they had all wanted to do a Boundary Waters trip together. Tragically, before this could happen, Ilean passed away due to complications from COVID-19 in May, 2021. In the wake of Ilean’s passing, her friends decided to take the trip as a way to honor and celebrate their adventurous late friend.

But they weren’t sure where to start. They needed someone with experience.

Through mutual friends, they were connected with Lee Vue, a board member for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and a highly experienced wilderness traveler who has been taking Boundary Waters trips since she was 13 years old.

Along with her extensive experience, Lee is dedicated to introducing people to the outdoors, particularly people of color.

“Lee was amazing. She took on a bunch of women who had no experience, put all the food and gear together, and did everything else. She wasn’t just our guide, she was our babysitter, counselor, coach, healer and inspiration!” says Kaohly, who added that everyone faced different challenges while on trail and were pushed in different ways. Those hardships turned into confidence. By the end of their four-day trip, they were talking about the next challenge, motivated to return and try a longer route with more difficult portages.

The Hmong women’s crew sets their sights on a new lake. From left, May Hang, MayKao Hang, Nou Yang, Pa Der Vang, Kaohly Her, Mai Nhia Xiong-Chan, Cate Thao. Photo by Lee Vue
The Hmong women’s crew sets their sights on a new lake. From left, May Hang, MayKao Hang, Nou Yang, Pa Der Vang, Kaohly Her, Mai Nhia Xiong-Chan, Cate Thao. Photo by Lee Vue

“Even if you have experience and are in shape, a Boundary Waters trip can be a struggle,” says Lee, who has seen firsthand how the wilderness can both challenge and transform people. “But that’s how confidence is formed, and it doesn’t take long for people to experience a breakthrough that leads them to seek out even greater challenges and explore more possibilities.”

Lee Vue has worked tirelessly to make the outdoors more inclusive. As a first-generation daughter of Hmong refugees, Lee has been canoeing since she was a teenager and knows how being the only person of color can be isolating in these settings. Public lands may be open to all, but financial barriers, the perception that the outdoor activities are only something for white people, and not having a person who can introduce them to the outdoors or mentor them, prevent many people of color from accessing and enjoying nature.

Though such roadblocks exist, Lee believes that these challenges can be surmounted, and that people from all backgrounds can connect with nature in a way that transcends differences.

Her current work to prepare, teach and encourage BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) to get out and enjoy the outdoors, really kicked in during the summer of 2020, during the pandemic. On a Facebook group she belonged to, BIPOC Outdoors Twin Cities, Lee saw a post asking if someone could teach paddling skills to groups of beginners. Lee was quick to volunteer, excited to share her love of paddling and to spark people’s relationship with the outdoors and the natural world.

A young woman and man paddling yellow kayaks on the Mississippi River with a bridge in the background. 
Photo courtesy of Mississippi Park Connection
Learning to paddle at one of Lee Vue’s classes. Photo courtesy of Mississippi Park Connection

Not having gear is a hurdle for anyone looking to get into paddling. The kayaks they used were provided through support from Saint Paul Parks and Rec and Mississippi Parks Connection (MPC) via the Paddle Share program. As the first-of- its-kind kayak sharing program, it works like bike sharing programs in many cities, and allows people to easily rent and use kayaks to paddle the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities.

In collaboration with Saint Paul Parks and Rec and MPC, locations for paddling sessions were selected in areas that were easy for people to access and feel safe — an ideal setting for those who were curious and desired to paddle, but may have been uncomfortable being on water.

Many participants had never been in a kayak. They had voluntarily stepped out of their comfort zone, didn’t know how to swim or know the first thing about how to get into a boat or how to hold a paddle.

There were also cultural dynamics, and Lee spent time during each session to acknowledge the land they were on and what it meant to come from a disenfranchised community or a community of color. These discussions moved from social to environmental topics, such as water quality and watersheds, and the importance of caring for the environment.

That is, learning to paddle is about more than the mechanics of paddling.

“Everyone comes with different sets of experiences, expectations and what they want to get out of the experience. The important thing is to meet people where they are and work with them at whatever skill or comfort level they are at,” says Lee. “This is a way to really build the confidence and community that will push them further and open new possibilities.”

Over the course of multiple sessions each month, participants became more comfortable and developed skills that led to a greater challenge: paddling on the Mississippi, a large body of water with various challenges such as current, wind and boats.

Bionca Davis looking joyful holding up her arms in the sunshine.
Bionca Davis arrives at her campsite before enjoying the perfect evening after a day on trail. Photo by Lee Vue

In addition to on-the-water trainings, Lee gave several online and in-person presentations on how to prepare for a Boundary Waters trip, which included portaging workshops. One of the attendees was Bionca Davis, who had moved to Minnesota for work in 2015. She met several friends through outdoor adventure classes and groups such as Outdoor Afro, a nationwide organization committed to inspiring Black people to connect with nature and the outdoors.

People she met kept telling Bionca about the Boundary Waters and how pristine, wild and spectacular it was. As intriguing as the BWCA sounded, it was also intimidating,

“It seemed like it was a place for experts, where you needed to have a lot of outdoor skills and equipment,” Bionca says. Through conversations with Lee, as well as attending several workshops, Bionca and her friend Esther began planning a Boundary Waters trip. Lee provided them with guidance, including an Excel sheet of everything they would need for the four-day trip they took over the Memorial Day weekend.

Though Bionca had camped in State Parks and hiked throughout Minnesota, the quiet and peace she experienced in the Boundary Waters was new, and wholly relaxing. Even with rain, hail, thunder and being hyper-aware of bears in the area, Bionca says, “I felt like I belonged out there as much as any of the most experienced people.”

For Lee, one of the greatest rewards is seeing participants like Bionca take it to the next level. Several of the people she mentored, who had no outdoor experience a year before, are now talking about thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

“Through the community that forms around learning these skills, people develop a sense that if they can do this, they can do anything. In a way, learning to paddle becomes a gateway to other possibilities,” Lee says.

Ultimately, Lee hopes the participants become leaders and mentors. She has led sessions where people who were once newbies teach certain techniques. Her hope is that they go on to run workshops of their own and introduce more people of color to the wilderness experience.

In the long run, Lee sees her work as helping to form a community of people who love the outdoors, who are aware of the importance of clean water and open spaces, and who can bring new energy and perspectives to the wilderness experience.

“It’s not just that they’ll have cool outdoor adventures. They’ll join boards, become advocates and really transform this space, change norms.”

It’s a process of change that will make the Boundary Waters — and more broadly, the wilderness — a truly accessible and inclusive space for all.

Pete Marshall is the communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

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