Venturing Outdoors: How I Learned to Appreciate Nature by Working at Kayak Pittsburgh

By: Alexander Downing

Since August 2014 I’ve worked as an attendant at Kayak Pittsburgh’s North Park location. This means I’m one of the smiling faces in the green shirts pushing boats into the water and handing out PFDs and paddles. It also means I get to look out on the beautiful North Park Lake for hours on end. As it turns out, that’s been the most memorable part of the job and the catalyst for a change in how I view nature.

As a kid, the primary role nature played in my life was as the location for sports. The outdoors was where I went to play Little League baseball, shoot hoops, and start pickup football games. It was defined by baseball fields and asphalt courts – manmade additions to the natural surroundings. There may have been woods and streams and hills all around, but for the first decade and a half of my outdoor activities these were out of bounds, both literally and figuratively.

As much as my father – an avid hiker and outdoorsman – tried to get me interested in real nature, I was more concerned with the monuments of organized athletics. While I don’t regret my passion for sports and the influence they’ve had on my life, I wish I had realized sooner that the great outdoors has so much more to offer than the diamonds and rectangles I was so used to.

One instance stands out in my memory as a prime example of my ignorance towards nature’s beauty. I was dragged on a hiking trip in the Pocono Mountains with my family. It followed a path that began in the woods with very little to see besides trees and an occasional bird or deer. Complaining the entire time, I dragged my feet and stared at the ground in the most juvenile manner possible before we emerged upon a stream with roaring rapids and a waterfall. I was so concerned with making sure everyone knew I’d rather be throwing or hitting a ball that I never expected to be blown away by the end of this journey. (Of course, I couldn’t admit this at the time. After all, it’s just some water and rocks, I don’t see what the big deal is. I’m so bored. Can we go home now?)

Which brings me to the lake.

By the time I started working at North Park, I was finishing up my very last season of baseball and all those pickup games and blacktop shootarounds were being replaced by college applications and study sessions. I spent most of my time on the docks playing games on my phone, bored senseless just like on that Pocono trail.

But over the next few summers I began to look around at the lake and the woods. I opened my eyes to the innate beauty of it all, the curved shoreline replacing straight basepaths, the fish and herons replacing hoops and balls. I didn’t lose my love for all things sports – I still hope to work in marketing or PR for a sports team or agency someday – but I gained an understanding that they aren’t all that nature has to offer. I took kayaks and paddleboards out by myself to enjoy my surroundings in all their splendor. I no longer loathed the idea of walking through nature when a car would be faster or more efficient. I even went on a few short hikes during vacations in Iceland and Ohio.

I still struggle to go out of my way to take in the beauty of nature – whether by avoiding a hike because it seems like too much work or choosing a Pirates game over a paddle on the river – but I can say with confidence that I recognize that beauty better than I did before my days on the docks. As this summer comes to a close and I leave the lake again, likely for the last time as an attendant, I find that this evolution may have been the most valuable product of my years working for Venture Outdoors, and for that I am grateful.

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  • Why Do You Volunteer?

    January 23, 2018

    By: Sara Cardamone

    Whether Trip Leaders, interns, or event volunteers, we have many dedicated individuals working alongside us. We appreciate all of our volunteers and we couldn’t do it without them!

    For today’s blog, we asked the question, “Why do you volunteer with Venture Outdoors?”. Here are some of their answers:

    “Why do I volunteer for Venture Outdoors? Mostly for my eight-year-old daughter. I want Mollie to know that women can be bold and adventurous and just as cool and daring as men. We can hike and kayak and swim and geocache.

     » Read more about: Why Do You Volunteer?  »

  • Getting to Know Our Staff: 14 Questions with… Vanessa Bashur

    January 16, 2018

    There’s a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into planning your favorite outdoors adventures! Learn about those who work inside to get you outside.This week we’ll be interviewing Vanessa, our Kayak Pittsburgh Director.Vanessa Blog 2

    1. Briefly tell us about your background: where did you grow up, where did you go to school, and what brought you to Venture Outdoors?

    I grew up in Dayton, Ohio and received my Bachelor of Science degree in Earth Sciences with a concentration in Geography & Mineralogy from Montana State University in 2005. I have been with Venture Outdoors for 5+ years and currently serve as our Kayak Pittsburgh Director.

     » Read more about: Getting to Know Our Staff: 14 Questions with… Vanessa Bashur  »

  • Safe Routes to Parks

    January 9, 2018

    By Kevin Hurley, Trip Leader Specialist

    A few weeks ago I had the exciting opportunity to work with two of my favorite groups located in the Hill District: The Jeron X. Grayson Community Center (JXGCC), with 6th to 8th graders, and the Center That C.A.R.E.S. (CTC), with 3rd to 5th graders. I was excited to see them as always, but this time we were going to do something pretty important. We were going to work with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and audit the routes with their program called the “Safe Routes to Parks” initiative. At CTC we worked with Gavin White and provided the children with chalk to mark areas that they deemed unsafe on the way to the park.

     » Read more about: Safe Routes to Parks  »

  • Best Boot Forward

    January 2, 2018

    By: Grace Groeger

    Venture Outdoors is fortunate to have many outstanding volunteers. This year we wanted to find a new way to say thank you to our exemplary volunteers and show how valued they are to not only the Venture Outdoors staff but to our Members as well. We came up with the Best Boot Forward Award. The Venture Outdoors community had the opportunity to nominate one volunteer they believe stands out above the rest, someone who is always putting his/her Best Boot Forward. Our FIRST EVER Best Boot Forward Award goes to SHEILA STAGNITTA!


    Sheila grew up just outside the Pittsburgh area in the Mon Valley.

     » Read more about: Best Boot Forward  »

  • Getting To Know Our Staff: 12 Questions with Ian Brown

    December 12, 2017

    There’s a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into planning your favorite outdoor adventures! Our staff questionnaire series allows you to learn about those who work inside to get you outside.This week we’ve interviewed Ian Brown, our new Program Director.

    1. Briefly tell us about your background: where did you grow up, where did you go to school, and what brought you to Venture Outdoors? 

    Ian Brown Blog 1I grew up in Chillicothe, Ohio, located in the foothills of Southern Ohio. For those who don’t know, Chillicothe is home to the outdoor drama Tecumseh and was Ohio’s First Capital.  

     » Read more about: Getting To Know Our Staff: 12 Questions with Ian Brown  »

Kayak Pittsburgh

Sunset Paddle

Thank you for another great season!
We’ll see you on the water in 2018!


Featured Outing

Volunteers Are Vital

Annual Volunteer Meeting
Sunday, January 28
4 – 7 PM

All current and prospective volunteers are encouraged to attend our Annual Volunteer Meeting! The meeting will include presentations on the Venture Outdoors and plan for 2018 and a chance to meet and socialize with other volunteers. Dinner will be served. RSVP is requested by January 24.