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How a Wildlife Tour Showed Local Students their Place in a New Way

It’s not uncommon to live in a place and not experience everything it has to offer. For many, there are simply too many things to see and do in their place — imagine what it would be like to try to see and do everything in New York City or London. For others, it’s finding the time to explore outside of daily routines and agendas. And for some, it simply comes down to access — they just can’t reach the destinations to see and do things in their place. Here in Jackson Hole, our town is fairly small — one could likely make a stop at every building within a few weeks — and yet our place, this valley and it’s National Parks, is immense. There are many people living, learning and working here who have never stepped foot in the wild places that surround the area. So how does a community like Jackson Hole connect its residents — the very people who make the place what it is — to the destinations that make it special? It’s a question we imagine many a Chamber of Commerce trying to answer and one that our very own Director of Wildlife Expeditions, Patrick Leary, was also asking himself earlier this year. 

“Every year we [Wildlife Expeditions] connect visitors from all over the world to the destinations and the wildlife here in the Jackson Hole valley that make it so grand. We’ve been wanting to do the same for our own community for a while now, not only to create a new opportunity for residents living here who have never experienced our wild places, but to connect our guides to the mission of our organization in a more concrete way. As a non-profit, our guides know that 100% of our profit goes to supporting youth education, but when they’re guiding trips week after week for visitors who are only spending a short amount of time here, that connection can get lost in the woods a little bit. Exploring ways to engage our community, especially its young people, in a new way was something we felt could be a win-win for all parties.”

So, in early October, Leary and his team agreed that they would partner with a local organization to give local students and their families the opportunity to experience the wild places of Jackson Hole in a whole new way, completely free of charge.

Activate. Engage. Empower.

With a little luck and the right timing, a partner manifested for the experience in local non-profit, Coombs Outdoors. As an organization already driven to empower children and young people through outdoor recreation, joining forces with Wildlife Expeditions was a “no-brainer,” said Coombs Outdoors’ Program Manager, Maggie Shipley. “We had talked with Patrick almost a year prior about doing this program but due to timing and funding, it wasn’t able to come to fruition. When Patrick reached back out this year we were so excited to finally make it happen for our students and families…most of whom don’t have access to the same opportunities in the Park as their peers.” Founded in 2012, Coombs Outdoors’ vision has always been to create “a world in which all kids are able to reap the benefits of the great outdoors, regardless of socio-economic, racial or cultural barriers.” At first, that meant enrolling children from low-income families in Teton County in the Snow King Mountain Sports School, providing ski rentals, ski instruction and lift tickets; however, over the years, the organization has grown beyond the ski slopes to include outdoor activities like hiking, rock climbing and kayaking, as well as opportunities in leadership, mentoring and community internships. 

“More than financial barriers, we often see that there is a cultural barrier to outdoor recreation opportunities here in the Valley. Through the activities we offer and the mentorship we provide we’re really empowering local kids and families [to] explore their place and get excited about recreating outside,” says Shipley.

The Experience

Within three weeks of Shipley and Leary’s phone call, a group of local students and their families were out on their first-ever wildlife tour right outside their backyard. They got up close to moose watching two bulls and a mother and calf in a creek bed. They watched bison at Mormon Row, one of the most iconic views of the Tetons and one that many of the families had never seen. They crossed through the gates of Grand Teton National Park to watch elk and even had some time to explore the Visitor Center. 

“One of the best moments of the day was right after we crossed through the Park gates. We pulled over into a pullout and our guide started setting up spotting scopes telling everyone there were hundreds of elk in the field right in front of us. None of us could see anything but when we started looking into the scopes and we saw how many were out there the excitement in the group started buzzing. We even got to see some of the bucks sparring! The kids were so excited to look through the spotting scopes and see the wildlife up close,” Shipley reflected.

What started with a student saying, ‘We live here. Why are we on a tour?” ended with excitement, newfound appreciation for the wildlife most had never? seen before and enthusiasm for more experiences like the one they just had. “We’d love to do it with more families,” said Shipley. Well, it’s our hope to make it happen!

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