By: Philip Magistro
A few weeks ago I was passing through Pittsburgh and stopped by the Venture Outdoors office to say hello and see what was happening in the office these days. What a change from 15 years ago, when five of us occupied a space barely larger than the conference room!
My name is Phil Magistro. For a few years in the early 2000s I had the good fortune to help run the Pitt Outdoors Club just as the Western Pennsylvania Field Institute (now Venture Outdoors) got off the ground.
Our two organizations forged a strong relationship, providing volunteers for events in return for trip leader training and both pushing the same mission of getting people outside in the great wild areas in and around the city of Pittsburgh. During the summer of 2002, I worked as an intern in the old WPFI office downtown. Now that Venture Outdoors is fifteen years old, we thought it would be interesting to look back on some of the highlights of that season.
We had a small office downtown. I was living in Oakland and would wake up, drive to the Jail Trail parking lot and bike or skate into the office. We had a shower in the office, and I recall that pretty much everyone commuted mostly under human power. I worked directly for Sean Brady and was tasked first and foremost with the creation of a training manual for trip leaders. I drew heavily on Rick Curtis of Princeton University Outdoor Action, John Graham’s excellent book “Outdoor Leadership – Technique, Common Sense, and Self Confidence”, and the experience I had gained leading trips over the previous few years and through my first Wilderness First Responder and EMT classes.
Sean didn’t keep me cooped up in the office all summer though! We were running a huge variety of programs each week and Sean and I were often running logistics or leading those trips. We facilitated plant identification walks in the parks in Pittsburgh and were present for the emergence of Brood VIII of 17 year cicadas in the Laurel Highlands. I remember coming face-to-face with giant channel catfish while freshwater snorkeling in the Youghiogheny River. My parents signed up as participants and joined us for a weekend long canoe trip camping on wilderness islands in the Allegheny River where we fished and set herpetological seines to examine all sorts of amphibious and insect life from the river.
One highlight was running the weekly TriAnglers program at the Point. I was born in Pittsburgh and had long known that industrial contamination had wreaked havoc on the ecosystem in the mid-century, leaving the rivers mostly devoid of fish. We went to the Point weekly with fishing rods and a laptop tethered to a cell phone to help would-be anglers buy fishing licenses on the spot, set up a tank with a bubbler to show off the biodiversity teeming in the recovering river ecosystem right downtown. We would spend an hour or two helping tourists, kids, residents, and lunch-breakers in suits pull in nearly every species of gamefish Pennsylvania has to offer.
Though I only spent one summer working for Venture Outdoors, that experience helped me build a foundation of naturalism, professionalism, and enthusiasm for venturing out into the wild places no matter how small or close to home. Since then, I have gone on to recreate and guide in some of the most remote and beautiful wilderness areas in the world. Even so, I am constantly reminded of the incredible access Pittsburgh has to beautiful and interesting wilderness environments and adventures. I am grateful for my time there and thrilled to see that Venture Outdoors is helping facilitate the wilderness experience for so many people to this day. Keep up the great work!