At Camp Skate Wild, Youth Find Nature Through Skateboarding
How one uniquely Californian outdoor program teaches teens wilderness skills and outdoor education—and rare camaraderie amid a pandemic
Forty miles away from any reliable cell service, a group of teenagers squat around a campfire. Aside from the waivers signed and a safety talk at the start of the evening, you’d be hard-pressed to tell we were in the midst of a pandemic—and that’s the point. Skate Wild has brought this small bubble of high schoolers together for a slice of far-from-the-norm normalcy during a chaotic summer, and to teach them wilderness survival skills. And skateboarding.
It may seem an odd pairing, outdoor education and skateboarding, until you recognize that both require a similar set of personal traits: confidence, self-reliance, and the urge to push oneself beyond fear. I’ve joined them here at my own behest—somewhat selfishly as means to get into the woods and escape a pandemic-surging Los Angeles, but mostly because everyone on this trip is looking for those same things. An escape. Camaraderie. Discovery.
"Wilderness survival skills and skateboarding... an odd pairing until you recognize that both require a similar set of characteristics: confidence, self-reliance, and the urge to push oneself beyond fear."
For most, this is their longest proper camping trip to date, and first away from parents. They are nervous about the absence of plumbing and homesickness. Though those feelings quickly abate. Here, they’re treated as adults. They learn to set up tents, asking for help when needed, and join forces in collecting firewood.
They start to understand the rhythm of camping. The leisurely pace at which the days pass. The ability to take each day as it comes, and change plans as wanted. The campers wake up every morning with remarks on how well they slept. I’ve been a car camper for some years now, and yet I rarely stop to catalog the joys of it. These high schoolers’ newfound respect for this temporary life in the woods reminds me not to take it for granted. I may intrinsically know what I love about camping, yet seldom find myself being so aware of those reasons. The most restful nights. Simple sandwiches elevated to Michelin-quality meals, likely because sustenance is so much more tied to survival here (even in the relative comfort of car camping). The scent of cedar. Of dirt.
Tomorrow, we’ll drive to Hume Lake skatepark, a shabby set of ramps set against a backdrop of conifers and resort-style cabins of a Christian summer retreat. Skate Wild itself harbors no religious affiliations, but a skatepark in the middle of the woods is hard to come by. Typically the organization holds its summer programs at the YMCA Skate Camp, a summer camp run on private land in Sequoia National Park. But this is no typical summer.
Skate Wild’s director Todd Larson found a blessing in the YMCA camp shutting down for 2020: for the first time, he could run the programs wherever he wanted. The result was various weeklong trips scattered across California’s wilderness. Two in Tahoe, one in Mammoth, and two in Sequoia. Each trip brought together a different group of kids, aged 13-17, from across the state, mostly young men. This final trip is unique. Four girls and a boy climb out of the van at the campsite—the most women Skate Wild has ever had on a trip. One even flew across the country from Maryland to attend. The group represents the exciting, and relatiely recent, shift in skateboarding's male-dominated demographics. Perhaps too, for the outdoors.
The attendees have discovered Skate Wild either through its sponsors (who help provide scholarships for some attendees), the YMCA Skate Camp, social media, word-of-mouth, or some combination thereof. The organization's Instagram account features short videos of professional skaters and Skate Wild instructors skating down striking rock features and natural obstacles—unusual terrain for the average skater. It feels uniquely Californian: where once surfers found joy in riding concrete waves, skaters have found novelty in granite ones.
Todd acknowledges that growing up, the Boy Scouts felt a bit too rigid and rule-oriented. So he wanted to build something that would allow teens to learn in an environment that treated them with more respect, and allowed for more flexibility. At Skate Wild there is no set curriculum, and therefore every program is a bit different. Each group collectively decides what they want to focus on every day.
As we spend the afternoon at Hume Lake the girls have started bonding—they talk about getting cowboy hats (calling themselves “The Yeehaw Girls”), and cheer one another on on their skateboards. It’s a beautiful thing to witness, especially knowing that life as they know it is upended. Online school, uncertain horizons. At least this upending is fun.
I watch them skate down grassy hills on custom “dirt boards," breeze blowing through their hair, laughing wildly with recent-strangers-turned-friends. I’d forgotten what it is to be a teenage girl: paradoxically caught between feeling the strongest and most self-conscious person on the planet.
"It feels uniquely Californian: where once surfers found joy in riding concrete waves, skaters have found novelty in granite ones."
At first, you might think these young women shy. Then you see them, board-in-hand, approaching the concrete skatepark we drove another hour to find. Surrounded by locals, they have a focus that at 29 I still can’t muster. They effortlessly weave around the park. Serenity, one of the youngest of the group at fourteen, is determined to ollie over her first obstacle: a ride-on rail meant to teach new skaters how to grind (and herein lies one of my favorite things about skateboarding: repurposing of surroundings to challenge oneself). If you’ve never stepped on a skateboard before, such a thing might appear simple. Skateboarding is predominantly mental, however.
The body is resolute in protecting itself, and leaning forward when every instinct is screaming to lean back is no easy feat. After multiple attempts, she throws her hands up in defiance, questioning her approach, reminding herself that she can do this. The other girls echo her sentiments. They shout encouragement. A few minutes pass, then thirty. Across the park, I finally hear my other favorite thing about skateboarding: shrieks of pure joy, relief, and pride. The whole park lights up as Serenity beams from ear to ear. She pushed herself for this win––after trying over and over and over she finally landed the ollie over the rail. Later, Todd tells me that a local from the park reached out to him on Instagram about this specific moment, about how awesome it was to have them in the park and see Serenity come out victorious in the battle against herself.
"Their hand-carved utensils won’t last forever, but they’ll carry these woods with them for the rest of their lives."
Back at the campsite the next morning we huddle around the fire with the group leaders, learning how to carve wooden spoons from cedar planks. There isn’t much talk of pandemic, or politics. The general unease I’ve felt over the past several months dissipates. Todd and the other mentors pull coals from the fire to place at the end of a piece of wood and burn out a spoon bowl. Minutes turn to hours as we focus on our task. We each create our own islands while carving, peels of wooden waves circling in the dirt around us. I start to develop a blister the size of a dime on my thumb that bothers me the rest of the week, but in the moment there is only attention on the craft.
Therein lies the overlap between making a spoon and skateboarding: there is only the now (my third favorite thing about skateboarding: its unrelenting demand to be alive and focused in the moment). Carving is oddly meditative and restorative. The rest of the week it’s a common sight to see at least one person, knife or sandpaper in hand, refining their handmade spoon.
The days are packed with sequoia groves, skateparks, watering holes, and wilderness skills. Each small step is celebrated. A week isn’t a long time. But I can recall singular weeks of my life that have shaped me. Most of them revolve around new experiences, and meeting new people––escapes from the ordinary. This week was anything but ordinary. By the end of the trip, I’ve heard every single camper say the same thing: I don’t want to go home. Their hand-carved utensils won’t last forever, but they’ll carry these woods with them for the rest of their lives.