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As the founder and executive director of Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT), Kyle Macdonald coordinates the project with the same flexibility and patience he brings to the planning and execution of a major backcountry trip.
Macdonald first began exploring the outdoors during his youth in the Northeastern United States. His experience with family camping and ski trips inspired him to work with the Appalachian Mountain Club, beginning in 1993. For five seasons there, he worked in backcountry facilities and led both adult and youth trips in the White Mountains of Maine and New Hampshire.
Later, his love of youth and the outdoors took him all over the country: from UC Berkeley's Cal Adventures program to ropes course trainings in Connecticut, canoeing retreats in Mississippi and camping skills training in Louisiana. After working with urban youth in Boston, Detroit, and New Orleans, Kyle decided to take his skills to the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area's proximity to wilderness made it a perfect place for Kyle to pursue his dream "to create opportunities for urban youth to experience wilderness firsthand."
Macdonald started BAWT in 1999 with the help of Earth Island Institute, later learning that his project followed right in the footsteps of EII's own founder, David Brower, who used to take Bay Area residents to the Sierra Nevada on what he called "high trips." BAWT officially joined with Earth Island in January; in April Macdonald found a pile of boxes in the lobby, full of donated gear from REI; in May the first program hit the trail.
BAWT's model differs from that of most outdoor leadership programs; in fact, only one other organization in the country, the Youth Opportunities Program of the Appalachian Mountain Club, has a similar structure. Rather than leading trips with youth themselves in a "direct service" model, the team at BAWT trains local youth agency staff – ranging from Girl Scout leaders to gang violence prevention staff, science teachers, and neighborhood organizers – and provides them with gear so that they can lead the youth they serve.
"I had one trip, taking inner city Philadelphia kids to the White Mountains in New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail," remembers Macdonald. "It was a great trip, everything went right - they were challenged but they pulled through, and came out of it feeling really accomplished and bonded.
"And then I had to give them each a hug and say, 'Well, I hope this helps you in your life. Good luck.' And I felt like there was something wrong with that, something missing." The missing element was continuity. With BAWT's model of training guides rather than running trips directly, the people who lead the kids out into the wilderness will be there when they get back - to ask them what they thought, and to process their experience. Then those leaders can begin planning their next trip together.
These days BAWT is expanding in two directions: first by teaming up with Crissy Field Center and the Presidio Trust in the Camping in the Presidio Project, and second by setting its sights on new horizons. Macdonald would like to see the BAWT model replicated in local chapters across the country, each attuned to the area's needs and opportunities. In the meantime, Camping in the Presidio is bringing urban wilderness experiences even closer to home. As the only National Park within major metropolitan boundaries, Golden Gate National Parks preserve provides a unique opportunity to youth who might not otherwise have access to an overnight camping trip.
What's the next step for Macdonald and BAWT? A name change seems to be in order. "'Bay Area Wilderness Training' sort of limits us to one place," he says. "Phoenix doesn't really have a 'Bay Area.'" And when asked if he misses working with kids directly, Macdonald says, "Of course. But the people I do get to work with are amazing – they're committed to youth, which puts them in a class by themselves, and they like the outdoors. So that makes it alright."