Their Stories

Explorers, their Mentors and Explorer Alums explain the impact the Explore Austin program has had on their lives.

Nature Empowers

Seventeen-year-old Explorer Elliott Merryman-Stewart, now in her fourth year of Explore Austin, has learned to face life’s challenges head on. Due to a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, Elliott’s muscles are weaker on one side of her body, making many day-to-day tasks difficult, let alone intensive outdoor-adventure activities in the Explore Austin program like rock climbing, canoeing and mountain biking. 

But she hasn’t let this stop her; in fact, from her patience and perseverance has come adaptation and growth, both on her part and Explore Austin’s.

When Elliott joined the program as a sixth grader, there wasn’t yet the breadth of adaptive measures in place for Explorers like her. With the guidance and expertise of the program’s professional Trip Leaders, each discipline has been adapted to enable Elliott’s participation.

“When I think of Elliott, I think about how quickly we learned to change our question from, ‘Do you want to try doing this?’ to, ‘How do you want to do this?’ Because we now know she’ll say yes to every activity and challenge.”

Katie Wilse, Mentor

Early on in the program, Elliott tackled rock climbing using a modified harness to ascend sheer cliff faces. The next year, she trained hard at Saturday Challenges in Central Texas to learn to canoe with an adapted paddle, all in preparation for paddling 50 miles down the Buffalo River in Arkansas during her team’s Summer Wilderness Trip. 

Elliott (center) and her teammates on their Summer Wilderness Trip in Idaho.

Emma Herzog, one of Elliott’s five Mentors, describes her as “fearless,” with a “never-give-up attitude that’s contagious. With a near-perfect attendance record with Explore Austin, she is a wonderful member of our team and brings humor, leadership skills and a positive attitude every time she attends an event. We would not be the team we are without her.”  

Most recently, Elliott and her team entered their mountain-biking year. Explore Austin initially borrowed a recumbent bike for Elliott to use during Saturday Challenges from Ghisallo Cycling Initiative, a nonprofit that helps people access the world by bicycle. 

Said Emma, “It was incredible to see Elliott’s skills on the recumbent bike improve with each passing month. Explore Austin did a great job of adding enhancements to the bike, like an electric motor that I like to refer to as ‘turbo power.’ This gave Elliott the flexibility to add some assistance as she peddled, if she wanted to.” 

Elliott ultimately saw the benefit this mode of transportation could bring to her day-to-day life – she lives only minutes away from school yet, due to her disability, was limited to taking a bus that took 20-plus minutes to get her there. As someone who tires from walking long distances, peddling to school with “turbo power” support would allow Elliott to get there efficiently and without exhausting herself. Seeing Elliott’s enthusiasm for biking and its potential to benefit her outside the program, Explore Austin worked with Ghisallo Cycling Initiative to get the recumbent bike permanently donated to her.

Elliott and her team capped their recent mountain-biking year with a weeklong Summer Wilderness Trip in Idaho where, said Emma, “Elliott was out on the trails with us every day. On the final optional bike day, she elected to ride the bike again over a nature scavenger hunt. This is just the most recent example of how Elliott takes every opportunity to participate in all that Explore Austin has to offer.”

While she’s never doubted herself, Elliott has accomplished more than she ever could have imagined through the Explore Austin program. She says that when she’s with her team in nature she feels peaceful and confident. Explore Austin has given her a place to push her limits, grow more self-assured and have a respite from everyday life. Trusting her Mentors and learning alongside her teammates, Elliott is ready to tackle any challenge – now and in the future.

Elliott’s Mentors are proud of her “never-give-up attitude.”

Nature Connects

Gemma Galván has felt the ripple effect of Explore Austin. Because the program only served boys at the time, she didn’t have the opportunity to be an Explorer like her brother, Rodolfo Galván; but over the course of his time in the program, Rodolfo shared his newfound love of the outdoors with his family, which Gemma gladly soaked up. 

Gemma and Rodolfo were born in Mexico and grew up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of east Austin under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, learning English in elementary school. Their father eventually moved back to Mexico to take care of his ailing parents while their mother remained in Austin as a single mother, supporting the family as a breadmaker. 

Brother and sister Rodolfo and Gemma.

“Though it may not be obvious, I owe so much to Explore Austin. Its efforts echo farther than you may ever be able to see. We are changing countless lives – one adventure at a time.”

Gemma Galván

Rodolfo, who has been an alum of the Explore Austin program since 2015, joined as a sixth grader, having never before camped, mountain biked, canoed or rock climbed. He’s now served on the Board of Directors since 2018.

Said Rodolfo, “My first Summer Wilderness Trip was hiking in Colorado. I wasn’t in the best shape of my life, and there was a peak we climbed that gave me a lot of trouble. This happened for a couple more years, but I stuck with the program. Eventually, I found myself at the front, leading the group. I found this new groove, and found so much beauty in everything we were doing.”

Gemma saw Rodolfo’s confidence and resiliency grow – both in the outdoors and otherwise – and came to understand that the outdoors is a space for everyone. Each year, her brother would come home from his Summer Wilderness Trips talking nonstop about his adventures. Descriptions of the “impossibly tall mountains he climbed and treacherous rivers where he white-water rafted” in landscapes he said “looked like paintings” piqued Gemma’s curiosity – she had to see what he was talking about for herself.

“I set off to Colorado as soon as I could. With $200 in my pocket, I drove 16 hours in my friend’s old, beat-up car. I had never driven in snow or put tire chains on a car, and I would soon learn how severely underdressed I was for the weather. But none of that crossed my mind.”

Gemma is now an avid adventurer who summits mountains, camps in extreme weather and has kayaked in Alaska. In addition to being inspired by Rodolfo’s love for nature, Gemma also saw – and herself felt – the impact of Rodolfo’s relationship with his Mentors in the Explore Austin program.

Said Rodolfo, “My relationship with my Mentors was much like a father-son relationship, especially because I didn’t have an active father figure for much of my adolescence. Some of my Mentors were leaders in the tech field, and I realized I wanted to pursue a computer-science degree in college, which they encouraged me to do.”

Today, Rodolfo is a software engineer with IBM and Gemma is a software development and operations senior team lead at Accenture. They balance work with time in nature and know the ripple effect of Explore Austin has only just begun in their lives – and beyond.

Rodolfo began the Explore Austin program as a sixth grader having never camped before.

Trip Leader Tuesday: Liya Scott expects the unexpected

This piece is the third in a 2023 summer series, “Trip Leader Tuesday,” that highlights the Trip Leaders who make Explore Austin’s programming possible.

When Liya Scott began as a Trip Leader with Explore Austin in 2021, she saw lots of rock walls in her future.

“I imagined I would be climbing all the time. I’ve since discovered that I quite enjoy canoe challenges. For Trip Leaders, there is quite a bit of planning and technical knowledge required in the preparation stage, which I enjoy. Once we arrive at the challenge site, it’s a joy to teach Explorers and Mentors and watch for those ‘lightbulb’ moments. The best part is finally getting on the water and feeling one with the river and nature.”

Coming up on her second anniversary with Explore Austin, Liya has grown accustomed to expecting the unexpected. Another of those moments? Translating her rock-climbing skills underground to cave exploration, one of her favorite memories to date.

Said Liya, “I got to join Trip Leader Kori for my first caving trip – it was such a unique experience! As a climber, it was so cool to use my climbing technique scrambling in the underground. I learned that life is different underground; animals breathe differently, and even rocks and things you might find underground change in appearance if exposed to outside air. The trip was definitely an unforgettable challenge.”

Liya discovered her passion for caving as a Trip Leader with Explore Austin. On a recent Saturday Challenge, she posed for a photo 30 feet below ground in Whirlpool Cave, Travis County.

Liya has been an “outdoorsy, adventurous gal” for as long as she can remember and feels it’s especially important for her to be involved with Explore Austin because, as a woman of color, she’s a direct role model for the program’s youth, 97% of whom identify as youth of color and 50% of whom are female.

“The best part is sharing this love of outdoor spaces with youth. Experiential education is powerful, especially in the context of outdoor recreation. As a woman of color, it’s important for me to be a presence in outdoor spaces to help reverse the stigma and historical trauma of my people,” Liya said.

At family gatherings, Liya’s work with Explore Austin is a conversation starter that continues to stoke her love of nature and her desire to preserve its beauty for future generations. She points out how Explore Austin’s programming differs from most outdoor adventure programs, including its emphasis on mentorship and social-emotional learning through time set aside for group discussion and for “solos,” periods of time alone in nature for self reflection:

“I like how social justice is tied into the mentorship and empowerment piece, and how Explore Austin puts value on debrief and discussion time. The concept behind the ‘solo’ on the Summer Wilderness Trips is really unique, too. These things are all important because we live in a society that does not understand the importance of taking time to slow down, process and practice moments of stillness. As you get older, these moments become more scarce if you don’t purposefully incorporate them into your life, and you won’t unless you are taught how to do it. I’m glad we get to teach this practice to youth.”

While Liya has led school-year Saturday Challenges for nearly two years, last month marked her first Summer Wilderness Trip. After working with the ‘26 Funky Cacti team all year, she co-led them (along with Trip Leader Karley Henson) on a weeklong canoe trip 45 miles down the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas. Said Liya:

“I’ve really enjoyed working with the high school girls this year. It’s neat to be able to relate to their experience in high school, and share insights I’ve gained in the life I’ve lived between high school and now. So many things have changed about middle school and high school since I was there, so hats off to students navigating sixth through twelfth grade – it’s not easy being a kid these days!”

Liya also connected with Funky Cacti’s Mentors over the last year – Annalise, Holly, Kate, Kelly and Patty – seeing how deeply they care for their Explorers, and that the sentiment is reciprocated. Getting to work with this team on Saturday Challenges made Liya confident that their Summer Wilderness Trip would be “a good combination of fun, adventure and challenge.”

Karley, Liya’s co-Trip Leader on the Buffalo River, said:

Liya during a Saturday Challenge with Explorers on Lady Bird Lake in downtown Austin.

“Leading with Liya is such a treat! She’s cool, collected and loads of fun. She’s also always on her game; she knows when to let things roll and when to step in to make things happen. I’d lead another trip with her in a heartbeat! Though we had lots of great moments in the field, my favorite was singing with her to Ray Charles’ ‘That’s How I Know’ on the drive home.”

Liya echoed Karley’s sentiments of co-leading, calling her first Summer Wilderness Trip a “10 out of 10 experience”:

“Our group had an absolute blast! The weather was incredibly reasonable, we avoided the severe storms that hit other areas of Arkansas, and the river was breathtakingly beautiful. Of all the wildlife sightings, my favorites were the blue heron (which we named Sharon), the alligator gar (seen from the bottom of the clear river) and a young bald eagle. I got to hear the song of the whip-poor-will bird for the first time, which was really special for me; they only sing at dawn or dusk. One misty morning, we even thought we saw a nutria gliding through the water! I especially valued the time we spent as a team sharing rose/bud/thorn moments, and encouraging one another after a long day. The Explorers and Mentors were really fun to be around.”

Though Funky Cacti’s Summer Wilderness Trip saw its share of technically challenging days on the water, Liya concludes: “We had a lot of fun together too. I like that Explore Austin cultivates moments where we learn together and have fun at the same time.”

2023 Summer Wilderness Trip Locations

We could not be more excited to announce the complete list of Explore Austin’s 2023 Summer Wilderness Trip locations. Our staff worked hard to scout trip locations that would afford our Explorers and Mentors a variety of environments for challenge, growth and fun. This summer, our Trip Leaders are guiding Explorers through six unique landscapes across the U.S., including Texas, New Mexico, Idaho, Arkansas and Utah.

In addition to becoming comfortable with new skills and physical challenges, Summer Wilderness Trips afford our Explorers the opportunity for social-emotional learning (SEL). Every day of the trip, Mentors facilitate SEL discussions to pave the way for Explorers to learn self-awareness and interpersonal skills to ultimately become a bonded team. These important “campfire discussions” allow Explorers to be unconditionally accepted just as they are while learning about themselves and their teammates.

And now, a look at our 2023 Summer Wilderness Trip locations!

Colorado Bend State Park, Texas

Colorado Bend State Park is home to rugged wilderness just two hours northwest of Austin. In mid June, our ‘29 Explorer teams and their Mentors learned the basics of camping, hiking, paddling and outdoor wilderness safety to get them started in the program, all while camping on the Colorado River. During their trip Explorers and Mentors had the opportunity to:

  • Swim in Spicewood Springs
  • Hike to Gorman Falls 
  • Hike to Gorman Cave along a canopy-covered river trail before exploring the cave
  • Learn canoeing and water safety while playing river games on the Colorado River 
  • Experience 30- to 60-minute “solos” where Explorers spend time alone in nature reflecting, which can include journaling, drawing or simply enjoying “alone time”

Learn more about Colorado Bend State Park, Texas.

Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico 

Our Explorers and Mentors will complete a backpacking loop in the Pecos Wilderness outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. They’ll camp in a high-elevation forested environment (cooler temps!), setting up base camp beside a remote alpine lake from which they’ll explore another two to three nearby lakes. They’ll also hike the Winsor Loop to Stewart Lake. Over the course of the week, teams will:

  • Hike 20-plus miles
  • Camp at 10,000-foot elevation
  • Complete one- to two-hour “solos” around the lake, allowing them time to reflect on their trip

Learn more about the Pecos Wilderness in the Santa Fe National Forest.

City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho

City of Rocks National Reserve is an internationally renowned spot among climbers. Boasting over 600 routes ranging from easy 5.6’s to difficult 5.14’s, its granite walls offer interesting routes for all levels of climbers. Our Explorers and Mentors will set up camp at the Twin Sisters Group Site before exploring the area to try out different crags (rock walls) each day. They’ll enjoy a morning climbing session, break for lunch, then have an afternoon session of more rock climbing or a fun swimming or exploring activity. During this trip Explorers and Mentors  will have the opportunity to enjoy:

  • Climbing games such as knot-tying races and an introduction to speed climbing 
  • Activities that Explorers get to help choose, such as a visit to Durfee Hot Springs or Caldron Linn Canyon Falls
  • Two- to three-hour “solos”

In addition to the younger teams heading to City of Rocks, the ‘24 Mafia Team chose rock climbing as their Capstone Trip (their final Summer Wilderness Trip with Explore Austin). The Explorers of ‘24 Mafia have had a hand in planning their trip all year and will also take on more involved leadership roles during the Summer Wilderness week including: 

  • Helping grocery shop and prepare meals independently
  • Designing the itinerary and daily schedules, deciding when to push themselves and when to take a rest day and enjoy nature
  • Diving deeper into our rock-climbing curriculum, including learning about gear management and taking turns leading lessons to explain basic concepts to their Mentors and Trip Leaders as a way to review what they’ve learned
  • Completing their longest “solos” yet – overnight

Learn more about City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho.

Buffalo National River, Arkansas 

The Buffalo National River flows freely for 135 miles and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. Teams will canoe 50 miles of this remote river, carrying all supplies with them as they camp along the banks and on sandbar islands en route. With four to six hours on the water each day, Explorers and Mentors will have plenty of time to soak in the cool waters and simply enjoy nature. In addition, teams will:

  • Receive lessons in hydrology, learning how to identify eddies, upstream and downstream Vs and eddy lines
  • Complete the Big Bottom Rapids whitewater section on one of the last days after the team scouts it out together and creates a plan of attack
  • Complete three- to five-hour “solos” (solos get progressively longer as teams get older)

Learn more about the Buffalo National River in Arkansas.

Idaho Falls, Teton Mountains Range, Idaho

Teams can expect stellar views of the Teton Mountains Range throughout this trip. They’ll visit the top-rated mountain biking area in the Big Hole Mountains: the Teton Connector route through Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Each day of the trip will allow Explorers and Mentors to experience elevation gains and varying distances, and different types of track and landscapes, from rugged snow-capped mountains and green meadows to creeks, rivers, and mixed aspen-and-pine forests.

In addition to mountain biking, teams will get to experience:

  • A soak in Heise Hot Springs
  • The 7NRanch Bike Park, which includes a wide array of beginner to advanced trails, pump and obstacle tracks and a teeter totter
  • A variety of campsites while enjoying biking day trips
  • Six- to eight-hour “solos”

Wasatch Mountains Range, Utah

Rugged terrain, crisp mountain air – the ’24 Hermanos team is backpacking the Wasatch Mountains Range, perhaps made most well known by the 2002 Winter Olympics which showcased its natural splendor to a global audience. The range stretches 160 miles from Utah’s northern border with Idaho to Central Utah. At the center of that corridor is Salt Lake City, where the team will fly in. 

This is the team’s Capstone Summer Wilderness Trip, so the ‘24 Hermanos Explorers have played a big role in planning their own adventure. After the first night, the Explorers will essentially “take over” the planning to select daily backpacking mileage and camping spots, and choose when to push themselves or take breaks. In addition to taking the lead for many trip logistics and completing overnight “solos,” the team plans to enjoy the following itinerary on their week-long backpacking trip:

  • Five straight days “off the grid”  – no signs of civilization!
  • Summiting Mount Timpanogos (elevation: 11,753 feet)
  • Taking routes with waterfalls and alpine lakes along the way

Learn more about the Wasatch Mountains Range, Utah.

We wish all of our Explorers and Mentors the best on their 2023 Summer Wilderness Trips!