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Adventure With Purpose: Meet Julia Oleksiak

By The Cairn Project

Ambassador Julia Oleksiak is prepping to head out on an urban-to-wild adventure from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park – learn more and support her campaign here! Get to know Julia and learn about her work to promote sustainability and access!

You work in the outdoor industry with Leave No Trace. What’s it like to meld personal and professional passions, and how did you arrive to this set of roles? 

While I was completing my undergraduate degree in Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at Colorado State University, a professor introduced me to the idea of working for Leave No Trace. Once I found out there was an organization focused on education and minimizing our impacts in the outdoors, I added it to the list of dream places to work. Many times the fact that dream is now a reality forces me to take a step back, because really it has been a bit of a wild ride getting to this point. Since graduating in 2015, I have had six different seasonal jobs and been unemployed two separate times. My jobs have ranged from small-scale farming in Italy, to managing volunteers at Yosemite National Park, to perhaps most impactful for my personal journey, spending two summers with two different organizations focused on providing outdoor opportunities for youth in Denver (shoutout to Environmental Learning for Kids and CityWild).

Throughout all of these various experiences, my love of both practicing and inspiring stewardship was a common thread, and so I kept checking back at Leave No Trace. In July of 2018, I was hired to first work specifically on our youth education curriculum and now have expanded to work with various parks and protected area partners as well. I have always been grounded in the fact that I need to work towards a cause I feel strongly about, and Leave No Trace is a great melding of both my personal and professional passions!

Part of the inspiration of your upcoming urban-to-wilderness thruhike from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park is to highlight the issue barriers to access for those who lack transportation. What has driven you to focus this trip on this issue? 

Working with Environmental Learning for Kids and CityWild has definitely impacted how I see my role in the outdoor industry evolving into one focusing more on issues surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors—including lack of transportation as a barrier. My experiences of consistently providing transportation to and from programming at both organizations, exposed me to the ways a lack of transportation (not having access to a car/ability to get a driver’s license, parents/guardians not able to take time off work to drive, not having the funds to spend on gas, etc) served as a barrier to youth. Living about 1.5 hours away from one of the most well known national parks, many of them had never had the opportunity to actually step foot in it.

As far as wanting to highlight that barriers to access exist in general, through my various jobs, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with incredible, passionate folks working hard to make the outdoors more accessible for all different types of communities. I wanted to use this platform to meaningfully contribute to that work, both by raising money to support young womxn in the outdoors, as well as to disrupt some of the common narratives about how easy it is to “just get outside.” It takes digging a bit deeper into some of the pretty unpleasant history of the US and the ‘creation’ of the places we call our public lands today to realize not everyone has the same access to or feels welcome in these spaces in the same ways. 

Julia and some of the Environmental Learning for Kids crew.

This will be your first ‘city hike’ adventure! Tell us about the process of preparing for something that you’ve never done before. What are some of the unique challenges that you anticipate?

This will be my first ‘city hike’ adventure as well as my first thru-hike so I am both excited and nervous at the same time! I think more of my process has been mentally preparing than physically preparing, although I have definitely been trying to up the distances I walk each day. I currently live in Boulder and so every time I drive Highway 36, I take a moment to mentally picture what it will look like and feel like to walk that entire distance instead of just hopping in my car. I think the fact I’ve never done it before also leaves space for a bit of naivité, but I have been trying to balance that with information gathering to set some more realistic expectations for myself!

Some of the challenges I anticipate/nerves I have leading up to the hike aren’t necessarily unique to an urban setting: the weather, distance hiked each day, safety, where to stop for the night, etc. However, the fact it’s a ‘city hike’ make some of those things look a bit different than what I’m used to, like will it be 100 degrees when I begin in August (I don’t do well in the heat); how many miles can I realistically do in a day, multiple days in a row, with the added impact of being mostly on asphalt; will I be safe along my route with cars driving by, etc. 

As an Ambassador to The Cairn Project, you’re joining a team of women who are catalyzing their outdoor passion into a force that passes this opportunity on to the next generation. How and when did your connection to the outdoors blossom, and who were the people in your life who helped to make that happen?

It’s hard for me to exactly pinpoint when my connection to the outdoors became a focal point in my life. My parents immigrated to the US from Poland so I remember many a summer spent back in rural Poland exploring the fields around my grandmas house, picking sweet peas out of the garden, making terrariums for snails and watching the red poppies sway in the wind by the train tracks. In the states, a lot of our family vacations consisted of road tripping and camping at various KOAs around the country, seeing different national parks along the way.

Most recently, a more ‘outdoor industry’ type relationship formed while I was in college. There, I was surrounded by all of the gear, new types of outdoor activities that I had never been exposed to, the concept of “Leave No Trace,” and the stoke culture oftentimes found in these spaces. All of these experiences helped to make my connection to the outdoors blossom into what it is today, and I have my family and friends, Polish heritage, and really the fact that my parents landed in Colorado of all places to thank for helping make that happen!