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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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