Chris Kilgour ’13 slips into nature clichés much in the same way one might encounter a spiderweb on a hiking trail: realizing after it’s too late to avoid it and laughing it off with the lighthearted acceptance of the inevitable. He also never fails to acknowledge them when they arise, a habit that reveals Kilgour’s acute attention to details that could otherwise go unnoticed.
It’s a skill that’s been honed by his love of nature and that comes in handy when fostering that love in others through his work with Color in the Outdoors (CITO), an outdoors adventure organization that promotes diversity, accessibility, and inclusivity in natural spaces.
“We’re not only celebrating the green of the leaves and the blue of the sky and the turquoise of the water and all of the other wonderful, poetic phrases I could use to describe outdoor space,” Kilgour says. “More importantly, we’re celebrating the humans that are sharing that space and being able to create a safe and brave space for folks.”
Although his career in gathering groups for outdoor excursions spans 20 years, Kilgour’s heart was caught in the cobweb of the natural world at a young age. Growing up in Madison with two educator parents meant that summers off were for exploring outside.
“I was fortunate enough throughout my life to always be near, surrounded by, and in collaboration with people who also shared either that passion for the outdoors or that wonderment and sense of inquiry about outdoor spaces; how we all, as creatures of the world, interact; and how that relationship really is an important one,” Kilgour says.
He also recognized in these spaces a lack of faces that resembled his own and a very narrow and exclusive notion of what an outdoorsperson might look like.
“I remember trying to get my friends to come out, to go hiking, to go do these things, and then I started to hear the common response in many cases, which is, ‘Well, we don’t do that.’ ” Kilgour says. The implied we, as Kilgour understood it, was people of color. “That sparked my drive to say, ‘Well, ‘we’ do do that because I’m one of the ‘we.’ ”
That youthful tenacity has not been lost over time, and he uses it still in encouraging diverse groups of people to join him in everything from camping workshops and canoeing to ice fishing and caving.
“It is always a mutual teaching and learning experience when you’re outdoors,” Kilgour says. “You’re learning something about yourself, and nature is teaching you something, and if you give yourself the opportunity to slow down just enough to pay attention to what you’re looking at, your viewpoint will shift.”
A deepened appreciation for the outdoors is only one of the many intangible gems one can take away from a CITO experience. In addition to offering workshops, excursions, and opportunities for outdoor skill-building for all ability levels, CITO is intentional in starting conversations about who is welcome in natural spaces, who feels welcome there, and how to reach communities that are explicitly or implicitly excluded from them.
“We’re often taught, even in English class, to talk about all the different who, what, when, where, hows. When it comes to outdoor spaces, those aforementioned things are talked about, but [not] the why. Why should people be outdoors? And why aren’t these various groups or individuals outdoors?” Kilgour says.
Barriers to outdoor spaces vary by individual, another important detail to which Kilgour pays careful heed but that he says is frequently overlooked in large-scale conversations that are quick to essentialize groups. Lack of accessibility could mean not having the proper gear to partake safely, or it could mean having to navigate unsafe areas to reach the nearest natural spaces. Inclusivity can be complicated by both cold reception from other outdoorspeople and generational beliefs about exclusion from outdoor spaces that are rooted in historical methods of oppression.
“Not only is there a continued need for representation in spaces, but there’s also a continued need for advocacy, and [the combination of] those two things — being present as an act of defiance — is an incredibly important thing.”
According to Kilgour, in addition to providing gear and instruction, CITO champions compassion, understanding, and a recognition of unique lived experiences as productive starting points for folks seeking to overcome their obstacles and find safe and brave space in the natural world.
“The only way you’re really going to evoke sustainable and positive and impactful change is to do it from the inside, and [CITO] is making some change on the inside while being outside,” Kilgour says.
However, he notes that the onus of finding ease in the outdoors should not fall on those who feel unwelcome but on those who already enjoy such privileges.
“For those of you that do have access, for those of you that do have the privilege and have these resources, it is extremely important to share, to engage, and to not just say, ‘If we build it, they will come,’ but to actually say, ‘Hey, here’s this great thing that I’ve really enjoyed, and I want other people to have it and share it. What can I do to help?’ ”
One of the safe spaces CITO has established for participants is its property just north of Madison. The land is an old, 1900s iron mine that has been reclaimed by Mother Nature and is now stewarded by one of her most loyal fans. On a quiet day, you can probably find Kilgour clearing garlic mustard and buckthorn from the property’s three miles of trails or fishing on a pond stocked with panfish and bass — but he’ll always make the time to host anyone looking to get outside.
“I turn into a five-year-old kid. I mean, I’m one step shy of having my mittens clipped together on my sleeves,” Kilgour says of his evergreen* enthusiasm for the natural world. “I do have mittens that do that, but that’s another story.”
*We make no apologies for our nature clichés, either.
This story was originally published in the March 2022 issue of Badger Vibes. Learn more about this monthly newsletter from WAA, and sign up for the mailing list.