WHY WE EXPLORE
Hint: Not just because it's fun
By Michael Brune
Photo by Lori Eanes
Ninety-six nattily attired men and women left San Francisco in 1901 and set out for the Sierra Nevada on the first official Sierra Club outing—or "high trip," as it was then called. More than a century later, we're still out exploring wild places every day—though usually not so well dressed.
As my kids will tell you, hiking and camping are big fun. Yet since that very first outing, the Sierra Club has harbored an ulterior motive for getting as many folks as possible outdoors. Words and images are powerful tools for persuading people to advocate for wild places, but nothing touches someone more deeply than personal experience. Think of the first time you saw the Grand Canyon and you'll know exactly what I mean.
Illustration by Gracia Lam
The original Club outings sound like they were a cross between an Outward Bound trip and Burning Man, with scores—sometimes hundreds—of delirious city slickers on a giant campout filled with hiking, fishing, mountain climbing, and elaborate evening entertainments. As the Club has grown and evolved, so too has our Outings program. We no longer descend on the wilderness en masse; instead local Club chapters and groups organize thousands of dayhikes, bike rides, and paddling trips all over the country. Our national outings still include plenty of volunteer-led trips to the Sierra backcountry, but you can also explore from the Alaskan tundra to the bioluminescent bays of Puerto Rico, from Scottish glens to the snows of Kilimanjaro.
Our Outings program isn't just a sideline. The Club's motto is "Explore, enjoy, and protect the planet," and without "explore," many of our greatest conservation achievements would never have happened. The late Dr. Edgar Wayburn, one of the 20th century's most successful wilderness advocates, originally joined the Sierra Club in 1939 because he wanted to go on a burro trip to the Sierra. Four decades later, his wife, Peggy, talked him into taking a two-week excursion to what was then known as Mt. McKinley National Park, a trip that served as his inspiration for securing federal protection for 104 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. Prior to seeing it for himself, he'd never given Alaska much thought.
We've also come to understand that humans need nature a lot more than nature needs us. Depriving someone of access to it is like withholding an essential nutrient. Incredibly, many city kids grow up within a few miles of mountains, forests, and even oceans without ever experiencing them firsthand. In 1971, some volunteers from the San Francisco Bay Chapter set out to remedy that. The effort went national, and today the Club's Inner City Outings program enables 13,000 young people each year to participate in 900 outdoor adventures and service trips. Escaping from the city for the first time is often life changing for these kids; some grow up to become volunteer trip leaders themselves because they want to help others have the same experience.
Humans need nature a lot more than nature needs us.
It's not just kids who can profit by getting out in nature. The Club works with the National Military Family Association's Operation Purple Camp to help the families of deployed military personnel go to camps and retreats. Our Military Families and Veterans Initiative offers deeply discounted or free expeditions during which service members and veterans can find adventure, camaraderie, and a chance to de-stress. "The outdoors is a great place to live in the moment and not spend time dwelling on the past," says program director Stacy Bare, himself a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
With the end of the Iraq War, soldiers are returning home to join the 2.3 million veterans who have served there and in Afghanistan. For many, the transition will be tough. The Sierra Club hopes to help them, as Bare says, "enjoy the freedom of the land they defended." That's reason enough for us to protect the land that they—and so many others—enjoy.
Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.