Canoeing the Entire Mississippi River to Shatter Barriers (Cory Maria Dack, Canoe guide and inclusivity advocate)

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Cory Maria Dack Humans Outside podcast

Have you ever felt compelled to tackle a big journey outside? Big is always relative, but for this podcast guest it was really, really big — canoeing the Mississippi River from source to sea for over 130 days.

An indigenous Latina who was born in Ecuador, Cory Maria Dack worked with a pair of other women paddlers to make the journey and highlight the need to bridge equity gaps in the outdoors for women broadly, and women of color specifically. In this episode Cory Maria tells us about her adventure, what she learned on the journey, and why canoeing and spending time on the water is a meaningful and effective way to build equity in the outdoors.

Some of the good stuff:

[2:43] Cory Maria Dack’s favorite outdoor space
[3:30] How she became someone who likes to go outside
[5:04] Going from not outdoorsy to canoeing queen
[8:20] The power of people who believe in you
[11:38] Why the Mississippi trip
[15:30] Do not “conquer” the Mississippi River
[17:00] What she expected and what she got
[21:00] What happened when it got really, really cold
[25:04] What it’s like to finish that kind of journey (hint: it’s emotional)
[31:29] Why canoeing and water are great for inclusivity work
[37:47] How you can get involved
[39:36] Cory Maria’s favorite outdoor moment

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Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.

Amy Bushatz: No matter who you are or where you go, heading outside even for a few minutes is always worth it. I’m your host, Amy Bushatz, and here at Humans Outside, we’re using the Humans Outside 365 Challenge to build a life around spending time in nature while hearing from fascinating outdoor minded guests. As a journalist for 19 years, I’ve let curiosity be my guide. After my husband’s injuries from military service, we started looking for a better way to live. That’s why we moved sight unseen to Alaska to see if an outdoor focused life was the answer. Since September, 2017, I’ve personally spent at least 20 consecutive minutes outside every single day, no matter what, to explore how nature can change my life. Ready to hear from experts and outdoor lovers who make heading into nature just a part of who they are while we work to do the same, let’s go.

The Mississippi River stretches 2,350 miles from its headwaters in central Minnesota and down to the Gulf of Mexico. While preparing for this episode, I read that it’s quote possible to pedal the entire length without serious risk and very few hassles close quote. Reading that made me laugh. I think maybe that author and I have different definition of hassle. Corey Maria Dack set out on her journey as part of a project to bridge equity gaps in the outdoors, and in the process had a grand adventure that probably did include a few hassles despite that thing that I read.

An indigenous Latina who is born in Ecuador, she worked with a pair of other women paddlers to make the journey and highlight the need to bridge equity gaps in the outdoors for women broadly, and women of color specifically. Today, Cory is gonna tell us about her adventure, what she learned on the journey, and why canoeing and spending time on the water is a meaningful and effective way to build equity in the outdoors.

Cory welcome to Humans Outside.

Cory Maria Dack: Hello. Hello.

Amy Bushatz: Thank you so much for being here and for spending your afternoon with me. I just so appreciate when people give me and our listeners their time, so thank you.

Cory Maria Dack: I’m really excited to be here. This is gonna be fun.

Amy Bushatz: So if you could start by describing your favorite outdoor space. We like to imagine ourselves with our guests, wherever they love outside, just like we’re hanging out, having this conversation. Where are we with you today?

Cory Maria Dack: I am on the shoreline of Lake Superior which is the largest lake in the entire world, and she’s so powerful and so sacred, and I’m walking along the boardwalk looking towards Canal Park and the harbor and the lift bridge. And I just hear music in the streets and I smell good smelling food wafting across. And I’m on the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior because the north shore is really sacred and very rocky. And that’s where I try to go whenever I make it back home after whatever adventure I just finished.

Amy Bushatz: Awesome. Well, we’re excited to join you there for this conversation. So can you tell us about how you became someone who likes to go outside? Maybe give us just a picture of your outdoor story.

Cory Maria Dack: I actually did not grow up being the kind of kid who was super outdoorsy. Partly because my family didn’t have the resources to go on great camping adventures. I’d never been to a national park until adulthood. We didn’t have the time or the money or the resources to rent tents or canoes or anything like that. So growing up I was really into Broadway, musicals and theater and things like that. And I sort of stumbled into this career that I’m now heading into my 16th year of, because I liked working with kids. I ended up working at a summer camp when I was 21. And that was my first time ever going to any type of summer camp and working with youth is what drew me into the outdoors. It drew me into the outside and that is the tenant of how I spend my time outdoors to this day.

Amy Bushatz: That’s so exciting to have that bridge. And also I too appreciate a good Broadway musical um, probably you know all words to Phantom of the Opera still, it’s just, it’s become a part of my soul. Can’t Escape.

Cory Maria Dack: Phantom of the Opera was one of the first cassette tapes I bought for myself,

Amy Bushatz: But it’s so good. Yeah.

Cory Maria Dack: I know.

Amy Bushatz: It’s so good. Okay. Okay, so tell us about your Mississippi River Adventure. Why this adventure? Why this river? But if you didn’t grow up spending time outside, like how do you get from I’m going to be, now, I do summer camps and kid stuff too. I think I’ll just go paddle the entire Mississippi River in a canoe. Tell us about that.

Cory Maria Dack: Yeah. It was a 20 year journey. My first summer as a camp counselor, the kids would come and stay in a cabin and we’d do arts and crafts and play capture the flag and swim on the lake. And it was sort of my introduction to spending time outside. And that place called Camp Vermilion also had a tripping portion where canoe guides, so not just camp counselors, but also canoe guides would take people into the boundary waters canoe area wilderness.

So if no one’s heard of that, it is this incredibly sacred, beautiful, pristine million acres. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s 1 million acres of nature protected and preserved on the border of Minnesota and Canada. The Canadian side, Quetico is even larger. But you know, what are human made borders? It’s all the same beautiful, sacred land and waterways.

And we had canoe guides that would take people camping there for five days. So sleeping in tents and paddling and portaging all day. So portaging when you take your canoe or your packs and you put them on your back and you walk from a river to a lake or lake to lake. So the land, the little land path that you take to get to the next waterway. And I thought that those people were fools. I thought they were dangerous people. Like, why would you do something like that? You have to, what happens if there’s a storm? What happens if you can’t build a fire? What happens if you lose your map? And I thought I would never do something like that, that’s stupid.

And as soon as I thought that, I felt something. My stomach that said maybe you should look at this again, but someone who did not grow up going outside into that type of quote unquote wilderness, I was very green. You know what a great metaphor. I was very green and felt ill prepared. And I didn’t look like the other outdoorsy people with their like really fancy North Face, really expensive casual wear and the skills and experiences and stories that they’d gleaned from time with family and friends growing up.

And so I thought that maybe it wasn’t gonna be for me, but I had some incredible mentors in that community that said, Cory Maria, we can teach anyone to use a map and compass or stern, a canoe, or build a fire. What we can’t teach is how to build community and empower youth and make good judgment calls and spread joy, and those are the things you do best already. So you are already ready to be a canoe guide will teach you the technical skills. And that was the watershed moment in my whole entire life.

Amy Bushatz: That’s such a powerful thing to have somebody delineate those two different types of skills, right? They’ve identified for you things that are teachable and things that are innate in your spirit and who you are. And we often confuse those things and we block ourselves from having opportunities or having adventures or getting outside because we confuse the teachable things with the unteachable things. And sometimes this is just straight up skill. Like you can learn, you just need to take the time or have somebody who’s willing to do it for you

Cory Maria Dack: And someone who believes in you. Because different places that I’ve worked through would never have hired me because of my lack of experience. And that community, they really believed in me and they were willing to meet me where I was with all of my green baby skills.

I mean, the first time I stepped foot in the boundary waters, I was 24 years old. I’d never been on a canoe trip ever, and I was on a staff training trip to be a canoe guide for the whole summer. And everybody else had grown up going to the boundary water, so I was having some big imposter syndrome, deals and struggles that I was navigating. And that was, I think like a six or seven day training trip. And I cried every single day on it. Sometimes I cried cuz it was so beautiful, or I was laughing so hard. But most of the time I cried because I felt so wholly inadequate. And I thought, th this was a mistake. What were you thinking? But I, there’s something that was deeply rooted in me that felt I deserve the chance to learn. I deserved a chance to experience this beautiful place that everyone had been raving about the few years I’d been a camp counselor, and I thought it wasn’t fair that, that I should be denied this opportunity either by others or by myself with my internalized external impressions. I just, I felt like even though I hadn’t grown up with those experiences and I didn’t have the same money my coworkers had and didn’t have the same skillsets my coworkers had, that I still was a valuable person who was worthy of this experience. And that has wholly shaped how I move in natural spaces for the rest of my life to this day.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. So it strikes me there are three facets of what you’re saying. There’s other people’s expectations, for good or for evil. There’s your own expectations of yourself, and then there’s the outdoors, like the third partner here, and two of those could potentially be keeping you from participating, but it’s never the outdoors that does that. The opportunity is always there. If we can overcome through ourselves or through with partnership with other people or by removing the barriers we are putting up for other people, if we can overcome those things, the outdoors is just this beautiful, wonderful thing that is, they’re ready waiting and in and of itself always inclusive. That’s beautiful to me.

Cory Maria Dack: Excellent. Yes. Thank you so much. I think it’s so important, especially to this day, a lot of these wild, beautiful places, you don’t see a diverse group of people recreating, experiencing, healing, peace, and joy in these places. And so that’s a big thing I fight too, is making sure that everyone feels like they belong there. And maybe a person needs some help with resources and experiences, but everyone belongs. Everyone is welcome. And that was a big part of my Mississippi trip.

Amy Bushatz: Okay. So tell us about that Mississippi trip. Why did you choose to do that trip? What drew you to that adventure? There’s all sorts of rivers and adventures a person could do. Why that one? And yeah, just tell us about the trip.

Cory Maria Dack: Yeah. How did I go from crying every day in the boundary water since 16 years later, standing at Lake Itasca and looking at this beautiful trickle of water where we couldn’t even put our gear in our canoe yet, the water was so low. We had to walk our canoe the first mile or so and just looking at the water and thinking to myself I’m, I’m going all the way, going all the way. This water and I are in deep relationship.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah.

Cory Maria Dack: I had started after that first year of guiding, it ended up becoming a career. I ended up doing my master’s in outdoor rec and outdoor education and leadership development. And in 2018, I co-lead this really cool program called The River Semester, where it was like a study abroad program for college students, but instead of going to Ecuador or China, you spent the semester studying on the Mississippi River.

And that was myself, a co guide, two full-time professors and 15 college students. And we paddled together over the course of 100 days from Minneapolis, Minnesota, down to Cairo, Illinois, which is the great confluence. That’s where the Ohio River confluences or joins with the Mississippi, and just from that point on, you’re on the Lower River, which is a whole different machine.

But you can’t help when you’re on a hundred day canoe trip on the Mississippi thinking about what the rest of the river looks like. So from where we left off, there’s still almost a thousand miles to the sea. And we started Minneapolis, so I think that’s 500 miles maybe from the headwaters to Minneapolis. We’ll have to fact check that. But there’s a lot of the Mississippi I hadn’t seen.

And I had in this career that I had stumbled into, that I had paddled into, I had heard of people, paddling sources sea. But I really wanted to make sure that if I were to undertake such a thing that there would be a message with it. One of healing and getting back in touch with nature and water and land and bridging equity gaps through representation in other things. I didn’t, I didn’t just wanna be a cool person doing a cool thing. Because I’d frankly seen a lot of white people do this in a very kind of manifest destiny way. We’re gonna conquer the river, we’re gonna crush miles, we’re gonna beat the wind. And all of that felt really gross to me. So this little seed of a thought, kind of like I planted it in 2018 and let it percolate for a number of years, always kind of centering that if I were to do something like this I’d want it to be bigger than just me.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. Yeah, because you’re right, we do have, we tend to look at going out and doing something as conquering it and instead of being in concert with it, and I, it mentioned in the introduction that funny thing I, well, I thought it was funny thing I read about it’s,

Cory Maria Dack: I did too. I loved it.

Amy Bushatz: Low hassle. I was like, what? None of this sounds low hassle. It’s like all hassle.

Cory Maria Dack: Honestly. Honestly. Who wrote that and I would love to sit down and have a little chat.

Amy Bushatz: But When you are looking at something from a conquering it standpoint, you think about it in terms of low or big hassle right off the bat. Like how hard is conquering this gonna be? But when you’re thinking about doing something in unison with it, you come at it with an attitude of, I don’t know, almost generosity, maybe like looking at what you’re doing as being generous to you, not you being generous to it and that we are going to do this together. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Cory Maria Dack: Absolutely, and I’ve said this many times, and I will say it many more times, the Mississippi River is not a thing to be conquered. She is a living, breathing, vibrant thing that you ask for safe passage and you hope that she grants it to you. And the only thing that you may or may not have to conquer is yourself, what you’re dealing with on the inside. And you hope that she allows you to pass safely as you work out whatever it is needed to work out in your own heart and mind.

Amy Bushatz: Mm-hmm. I feel that when I am spending time in the mountains, I think it’s a very, it’s like an innately American thing to say, I’m gonna go conquer this mountain today, but I never, I’m not sure I ever really mean that. What I mean is I’m gonna conquer myself while I’m going up this mountain. And I know that the mountain is the boss. And to think that the mountain is not the boss is a mistake because the mountain is always the boss. And so the hot second, you’re like I’m the boss of this mountain, that mountain will show you that you are not the boss of the mountain. And it will show that in the weather or in now you have a sprained ankle or whatever. And I know that I must be there in partnership with the land or I’m going to be sad cause I’m not gonna like, there is no conquering it. It’s bigger than me and it will show me my place very quickly.

Cory Maria Dack: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Amy Bushatz: So what did you expect or to experience or to find while you were doing the river and do, going from source to sea? And did that end up happening? Did you find what you expected to find?

Cory Maria Dack: I knew and expected that the trip would be really hard. And it definitely was. It was, It was one of the most beautiful and wonderful things that I’ve done in my life. Ever. And I guess I was maybe a third of the way through the river, and I was talking to my dad, who’s my favorite person in the world, and he always had some wise wisdom to give to me, especially in a time of need. And he said, Cory Maria, this will be an exclamation point on the rest of your life. I know Dads, Brian Dack ladies and gentlemen, dads the man, the myth, the legend.

And he’s right. Because I know that a great adventure like this is something that will continue to teach me for the rest of my life and I’ll get to bring it with me for the rest of my life.

Just like that first ever trip in the boundary waters. When I’m faced with something that seems impassable, impossible. I think Cory, you became a canoe guide with no experience, with far fewer of the privileges than many people in your position had. And you did it, you, you overcame a lot of external and internalized oppressions. You believed in yourself. You were gentle with yourself. You loved yourself. If you can do that, you can believe in yourself and be gentle with yourself and love yourself through this too.

And so I took that first canoe trip with me on this long adventure.

The one thing that I was hoping dearly to avoid was a winter canoe trip. We left at the end of August because my first paddle partner and I were guiding all summer and we needed to save up money to go on this adventure. So we left on at the end of August. Many people tried to leave in May or June. The late leavers often leave in July. But even so, we were still originally going to finish by Christmas. So you would get far enough south that you wouldn’t be spanked by winter, and that is just not what happened? I, this was a brutal winter trip. I, I do not recommend to anyone to through paddle the Mississippi in the winter. It was at times, terrible and it was kind of my greatest fear.

But uh, a lot of things happened that were quite unplanned that made me lose weeks and weeks on this trip. And things that you can’t foresee, and that’s okay. It’s like, you know things are gonna happen that you can’t foresee. And then things that happened that you couldn’t foresee were like, oh my gosh, I never foresaw this.

Yes. And so, so, you know how adventures go. But winter was so truly, literally at times painful. But there was this weird almost relief because I had a really lovely start and a really gentle autumn. So I was 50% hopeful, 50% anxious. Are we going fast enough? How long will autumn last? Winter’s coming. Winter’s coming.

And when winter finally hit and she did with all her fury, I was distraught, but there was a weird small part of me that felt relieved well, you’re in it now, Cory Maria, you are, you’re in winter. Your first, your worst fear came true and there’s nothing you can do but quit or keep going. And every day I chose to keep going.

Amy Bushatz: Hmm. Mm-hmm. I saw that you hit that there was like ice that came in and you had to whoa, tell us about that.

Cory Maria Dack: When I say that the trip took 134 days, I don’t count a couple different times where we had to get off the water unexpectedly for a long period of time. And one such time was a 10 day period over Christmas. And many people might remember there was this really awful cold snap that hit the whole like, people were cold in Florida. I thought people never got cold in Florida.

Amy Bushatz: People get easily cold in Florida, but this was like legitimately reasonably cold in Florida. I do remember this. Yes.

Cory Maria Dack: Right. Exactly, and I mean like I’m from northern Minnesota, you’re up, in Alaska. Like we know cold, but we’re also not trying to play on the water when it’s that cold, and it got down to 25 below.

Amy Bushatz: Oh my gosh.

Cory Maria Dack: You know, It got down to 25 below Fahrenheit and that’s deadly, you know when you’re paddling in the summer, if you get wet, or heavens forbid you tip, that could potentially be fun if, you know we are not gonna get hit by a barge or something, it could be like, oh, cooling and refreshing. But in the winter the risks increase exponentially and so getting wet or tipping could kill you. And we didn’t have wet suits, let alone dry suits, and so we had to get off the water for about 10 days. And when we finally got back on the water, cuz all of a sudden the weather changed. She said, okay, you can get back on the water. All the ice from up in like Iowa had flown down and just choked the Mississippi.

And my sacred friend and paddle partner Sarah, she and I were standing just below the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi. And the Ohio was wide open, cuz at that point it’s much bigger than the Miss. But where we were standing, where they confluenced in all of the Mississippi above was just choked with ice. And we watched a tow with a bunch of barges on it, trying to push and break through the ice. And we said we choose life. And so we had to wait another couple of days before we could get back on that water. I’m not trying to dodge ice flows while I’m dodging barges.

Amy Bushatz: No. And okay. My, OK, I have very cold hands. My hands gets very cold. One of the reasons I don’t love paddling even in the summer is because my hands get so cold. So I can only imagine when you’re dealing with very cold weather because like your arms are moving. If you think about, listeners think about canoeing or paddling, like your arms are moving but your fingers aren’t moving. They’re stationary on the paddle, and so your warmth is limited to like gloves and then hopefully bending your arm. And that creates some circulation, but whew chilly. So.

Cory Maria Dack: Truly. I can confirm that paddling when it’s 17 degrees Fahrenheit is, it’s brutal. It’s painful. It hurts. I think it would be different if I had been hiking somewhere and using my whole body and swinging my hands and my arms and my fingers in a different way, because like you said, although you’re using your arms, your fingers were so cold and the frigid water. Which it was even colder, the air was even colder than the water. But the frigid water was just like, sucking the heat through my feet, through my boats, through our canoe into the river. And there were times when I cried. I cry, paddle, I call it cradling. It’s an experience. I, there were times when it was really painful and then we would pull over and at that point we were far enough north on the river that there were still towns alongside the river. So we’d hiked a gas station, tried to buy some more hand warmers. Or just go to a gas station and warm up. But it was, it was brutal. It was a sucker fest.

Amy Bushatz: But you made it, you finished the river, you got to the end. So tell us like you finished, what day did that happen? How was that?

Cory Maria Dack: March 5th, Sunday, March 5th was when we got to the Gulf of Mexico. And the Army Corps of Engineers counts river miles backwards from Lake Itasca, all the way down to Cairo, Illinois, and then that’s River Miles zero, and then it starts over again from Cairo, Illinois down to the sea.

So that’s about 950 miles from Cairo. It’s about, I think 1300, I think 1342.1 miles from Lake.

Amy Bushatz: Who’s counting?

Cory Maria Dack: Who’s counting? I counted every day. Counting, counting backwards to mile zero. And then when you get all the way to lower river mile zero, so you have the upper river and you have the lower river. Lower river mile zero there is something called the Head of Passes, which sounds very like fantastical like, are we in Narnia? Are we at Hogwarts? It’s the Head of Passes, and you get there and the Mississippi, in the Delta, forks into three and the Southwest pass- do not take the Southwest pass. That’s where all the Ocean Liners. Baton Rouge to the ocean and the port of New Orleans there in between, incredibly dangerous in terms of traffic. What did that quote say? Like a hassle bit of a hassle, one might say. But they have never like, they’ve never had to get out of the way of oncoming barge traffic or ocean liners that can’t see you and those folks come up the Southwest Pass and it’s 22 miles. It’s really narrow. It’s very deadly. So paddlers do not go there. We take the middle passage, the South pass, and so from river mile zero, then it’s another 12 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

And on my last night, on our last night, at that point, Sarah and I had another canoe of friends with us, which was great for camaraderie and for safety. The last night on the trip, we made it to River Mile Zero around sunset and then the next day we made it to the Gulf of Mexico.

And both were incredible experiences. But what kind of surprised me is that I felt more emotional at River Mile Zero, I think for a number of reasons, including when I made it to the ocean, I think it was just, I was in the state of awe, in the true meaning of the word. Awesome. Just in awe. Is this one, is this happening? Did we make it? I left like what? Seven months ago? Are we here now? And also the power of the ocean. Sarah and I went way past one of the last breakers and the swells, you just feel the ocean rocking on like the world’s most gigantic waterbed. And you were about to flee, but the swells and the roll of the ocean were awesome and a little bit scary.

And then for river mile zero the day before, the evening before, there is a paddler’s notebook that is, strapped on to that beacon tower to that mile marker. And you can climb up there to sign it. Now, this doesn’t come up in canoeing very often, but I am like pretty substantially afraid of heights. A lot of people don’t know that just because I’m usually on water. It’s not a secret. I talk about it openly. And the climb up to that blasted little paddle book that there was no way I wasn’t going to sign that paddler’s book. Was incredibly harrowing. Did I technically do stuff that was way more dangerous the prior 133 days? Absolutely. But your mind, your mind decides what’s gonna make you cry.

And so I climbed up there with Sarah and then our friend’s son was there and our fourth friend Bea was down in one of the canoes and she had a drone, and she got these incredible, incredible shots of us climbing and seeing the delta and these huge ocean liners going by us. But at the beginning of this footage, you see a very unflattering shot of me having a maybe almost a panic attack and I don’t look pretty or sexy or brave at all. But you know what? We’re gonna keep it in the movie because it’s really real. And I’m not gonna shy away from the moments where I don’t look super cool.

Amy Bushatz: Real life. That’s so cool.

Cory Maria Dack: Keeping it real.

Amy Bushatz: That’s, I love it.

Cory Maria Dack: But I think my fear of heights unlocked. A bigger cry inside of me. So I definitely cried while I was doing that because I was so scared. And I’m a very healthy crier. We live, laugh, love crying. I recommend every person, human, every human needs to do more crying. I think the world would be a better place if we just let ourselves cry, whether or not we’re alone or publicly. I think people should cry publicly more too. Honestly. That’s my stance and so I was gonna like cry whenever I needed to, no matter when, cause I’m a healthy crier. But that fear of heights unlocked a deeper cry. And so it’s like I started crying because like that was scary and I didn’t like it.

And then I turned around and I saw the river. And especially for me being from northern Minnesota and she starts in northern Minnesota, I just was already crying and I see this river who, which is gigantic at this point, and I know she goes all the way home and then I just wept and I’m so glad that I did.

Amy Bushatz: Hey Humans, just a quick break to remind you that if you wanna build your own outdoor habit, the Humans Outside 365 Challenge is a great way to get started. Cool and exclusive Challenge swag, including a finisher, metal, and decal is waiting for you. All you need to do is visit Don’t get left out. Go to to learn more now. Okay, back to the show.

The outdoor space is full of people tackling issues that are really important to them through their conservation connection to culture, on and on. You are passionate about equity and inclusivity in the outdoors, and your work is focused on addressing that through this adventure and work through a program called Canoemobile, which is just the best name I’ve ever heard.

So maybe you can start by describing to listeners why equity and inclusion in the outdoors is an issue about which you are passionate and why it’s something you feel especially drawn to. Just sort of stage set for us on this issue.

Cory Maria Dack: Nature is our greatest source of healing. And when we get back to nature, we get back to ourselves in ways that are unparalleled. And the way society is set up through capitalism and racism and colonialism and all the other big isms that hurt us, and all of them are bedfellows, all of them are very connected.

There are all these barriers that humans have created that only allow certain demographics of humans to receive this healing from nature. And specifically, we think of native people, first Nation peoples, indigenous folks. They were the original caretakers and stewards of nature and colonizers sent them out, pushed them out of these sacred lands, sent them to concentration camps, and with that cut off deep knowledge of how to be in relation with the earth, with the water, with all of this healing. And now when you go to a national park, or even more so, these more quote unquote rugged wilderness areas, which even the word wilderness has a lot of problematic connotations. Where did that word come from? You often only see affluent able- bodied white folks. And there’s nothing wrong with that demographic accessing nature. But there’s a lot wrong if that’s the only demographic that can access nature because of barriers that colonizers have put between humans and healing and nature. And so being an indigenous Latina, I’m an indigenous Latina, I’m a fat- bodied person, I’m a transracial adoptee, I’m an immigrant. I am a woman. I come from many identities and demographics that historically have had a really hard time accessing nature because of barriers that modern day society have put up. And so I wanted this journey, to help break those barriers. And one of the easiest ways you can knock down those barriers is through representation.

I think about how little Cory Maria, I would’ve loved to see a fat brown woman doing stuff in the wilderness. I had zero role models of that. And maybe if I had seen that, I would’ve stumbled onto this career path a little more conventionally. And I mean, my path is my path and I have no regrets. But I really wanted to be an example for the youth out there that are lacking those role models, the way I lack them when I was young.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah, so you are actively working in this space. I mentioned canoemobile, and you can tell us more about that, but also creating a path to this space, through your representation by simply being out there and taking this Mississippi adventure and showing that you are here and you belong. It’s not nature that kept you out. It’s the conventions and walls that people have put around it. And you can be here too, and so can everybody else.

Cory Maria Dack: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s sometimes just seeing someone else doing it is all someone needs to feel safe and trying.

And so many of these systems are so related. Fat phobia is just another form of ableism and I found a nonprofit that really fights ableism directly called Wilderness Inquiry. And I’ve been guiding for them. They were founded in 1978 to help folks with disabilities get into nature. And from there a program called Canoemobile was born where people thought who else has a hard time accessing nature? Not just folks with disabilities, but folks without financial means there’s not enough black, brown, indigenous, immigrant, queer kids, trans kids, trans and queer and brown families. Those populations aren’t being represented. So Canoemobile is a program where we have six giant north canoes that you could put 10 people in and a trailer full of like a couple hundred paddles and life jackets and safety gear and adaptive inclusive gear for folks with disabilities.

And we go city to city, kind of like a rock band going on tour across the whole country. I just finished a national tour with six other incredible women. It was an all female rig, which was really cool. The seven of us lived out of this van and like a rock band, we went city to city all over the country. But instead of playing a concert in a different city every night, we took kids canoeing in different cities every week.

Amy Bushatz: So why is the water the place to do this? What is it about the water that makes this work?

Cory Maria Dack: Canoeing is inherently a partnership. A partnership activity. And whether or not people realize it, we are helping reform partnerships to the water and the land when we’re in a canoe. So what better way to do that with another person? It’s kind of met it like a partnership to build upon a partnership. And if you, for example, have a disability or you have simply just less skills or experience in canoeing If you wanna get in a boat with 10 other people, now you’ve got a community of people who can help you paddle. It’s not all on you to figure this out. It’s very communal. Even if it’s a regular tandem canoe with just two people, or sometimes three people, you’re working with someone else.

And that humans were made for connection. Right. Humans were made to ask for help and to receive it, and we’ve forgotten how to ask and receive help, I think. And when you’re on the water and you’re partnered with someone in a canoe, you have to learn real fast how to access those skills again.

Amy Bushatz: How can listeners get involved in this work and what you’re doing and then maybe just beyond Canoemobile and beyond your specific efforts, how can they support creating these spaces for decolonization, if you will, in the outdoors?

Cory Maria Dack: I think finding organizations that are just dedicated to helping people get outside is a great way to start. Especially if you wanna go outside and you feel like you don’t have enough experience or you don’t know if you have the right gear, there are groups out there that it brings them great joy to help someone get outside. Those groups help bring a more diverse group of people to nature, and that inherently decolonize the space by diversifying the people who have access to beautiful, wonderful healing nature. And there’s lots of specified like in the Twin Cities, we have a really, so the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Minnesota, we have a really cool group called Bipoc Outdoors Twin Cities which is a safe space for people of color. And there’s queer and trans outdoors groups. There’s outdoors groups for folks with disabilities. And you can find any flavor of group to that whatever speaks to you, whatever calls to you. And there’s also some that are just like general groups. Anybody come anytime. And I think that’s a great way to start. And it’s so communal, which I think is getting back to native teachings like indigenous wisdoms. You know, the original caretakers of these lands, they always lived in communities and dependent on one another. And so spending time outdoors with other people is hearkening back to that.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. Beautiful. Earlier you described for us your favorite outdoor space where we’re hanging out, having this chat. Can you give us your favorite outdoor memory maybe to walk us out- a moment outside that you just love to go back to and think about? Maybe like when I close my eyes, the moment is what I think of when I am there. You know? I don’t know. Call it a happy space. Where are you and what are you doing?

Cory Maria Dack: I always have remembered when I was really young, I believe I was like three years old, and I live with my dad when I’m not an adventure outside of Duluth, like out in the woods. And I remember being really little and my dad coming home from work and I was just playing with my toys very young. And it was nighttime. And my dad said, Cory Maria, let’s go look at the stars. I just remember him scooping me up and walking outside and just seeing it was probably my first memory of the Milky Way. Just like a thousand diamonds drew across the blanket. And I think about that moment a lot because it was deeply, deeply peaceful. I was with my very favorite person, and I’ve always been such a night owl, like I love. Darkness gets such a bad rap, like scary, evil, bad, but so much of darkness is just, it’s merely the opposite of light. Right? It’s just its own type of beauty, and power and peace and gentleness, and that memory really embodies that to me.

Amy Bushatz: That’s beautiful. Cory, thank you so much for joining us on Humans Outside today, sharing your adventure, sharing your passion with us. It’s been a pleasure to hear your story. Thank you.

Cory Maria Dack: Thank you so much. This has been really, really fun.

Amy Bushatz: Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode of Humans Outside. Help me out by leaving a five star rating or review wherever you get your podcasts. It really does help other listeners find the podcast too. Now, go get outside. Until next time, we’ll see you out there.

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