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.”

Trip Leader Tuesday: Henry Adamson is here for the Mission

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

Henry Adamson has lead canoeing, rock climbing and mountain biking Saturday Challenges for Explore Austin since 2021.

Henry Adamson can take the heat of the lowlands – they grew up in Florida, hiking its swamps and kayaking through the mangroves with their father. It wasn’t until they were 25 that they discovered climbing. They’d taken an outdoor-education job in Hong Kong, where their coworkers taught them outdoor climbing skills on their off days.

“I used to travel and work as an ecotourism guide, outdoor educator and wilderness-therapy leader in other countries and states, so when I settled in Austin, I was looking for a position I was familiar with and found Explore Austin,” explained Henry, adding: “I was drawn to the fact that Explore Austin combines the outdoor-recreation aspect with conservation education and social-emotional learning.”

An Explore Austin Trip Leader since 2021, Henry has since added mountain biking to their rolodex, which has become their favorite Saturday Challenge to lead Explorers and Mentors on because “there is a steep growth curve with the activity in as little as a day – from Explorers and Mentors who have never mountain biked before and are hesitant, to zipping through the trail by the end of the day and wanting to go again.”

Henry learned to rock climb at 25 years old in Hong Kong, where they’d taken an outdoor-education job.

Henry also leads canoeing and rock-climbing Saturday Challenges. Now, a couple years into their tenure, they can truly appreciate both the long-term nature of Explore Austin’s six-year program and its unique pairing of mentorship with free outdoor adventure experiences for kids who would otherwise not have access.

“The other companies and organizations I have worked for serve clients or students for short periods, from one day to a few months, at most. It is neat that through Explore Austin, one can observe an extended period of personal development in the community. The relationships that evolve between the Mentors and Explorers is also special because generally there is more of an instructor-student dynamic with outdoor programs, and Explore Austin’s approach is more holistic and interpersonal.”

Henry has taken inspiration from the Explorer-Mentor relationship and credits the Mentors of the Lost Boys and Adventure Seekers teams in particular with smoothing the trail for these deep bonds to form. Said Henry:

Henry has loved outdoor adventure for as long as they can remember.

“They are both very supportive groups, which is a community culture facilitated by their Mentors. It is inspiring to see the Explorers hold each other up and empower one another. They also step up to tasks when something needs doing. It has impacted me as a Trip Leader because it is a reminder that Trip Leaders can also be an integral part of contributing to the culture and modeling leadership. All of the Mentors of the Adventure Seekers and the Lost Boys have advocated for their Explorers and made thoughtful decisions on behalf of the group. They inspire me to be a more conscientious leader.”

Henry worked as an ecotourism guide, outdoor educator and wilderness-therapy leader in other countries and states before settling in Austin.

Although the great outdoors has been a major part of Henry’s life for as long as they can remember, what keeps them returning to Explore Austin as a Trip Leader is its people who live out the program’s mission of empowering young people from economically disadvantaged communities:

“I keep coming back because I enjoy leading with my coworkers, the activities we provide, and seeing familiar faces year after year. I also believe in Explore Austin’s mission, and there is no other organization like it in Austin.”

Trip Leader Tuesday: Mollie Binion knows resilience

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

Trip Leader Mollie Binion has led paddling, mountain biking and backpacking trips for Explore Austin since 2016.

Mollie Binion knows resilience. She’s seen it in herself as a long-time paddler, mountain biker and backpacker, but also in Explore Austin’s youth since 2016. As a Trip Leader, she routinely guides EA’s Explorers and Mentors on Saturday Challenges during the school year and every June and July on Summer Wilderness Trips for miles down rivers and trails. She knows what she asks of these rising-seventh through twelfth graders isn’t easy – but she also knows the payoff.

“My friend, Holly Orr, introduced me to Explore Austin as a canoe guide,” said Mollie. “After learning about the program’s mission and goals, I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of. Getting to expose others to a hobby and sport that I hold dear was also exciting. If you can show others how to access parts of the outdoors that didn’t seem possible, it can be life changing.”

Mollie recalls leading her first-ever canoeing Summer Wilderness Trip. There was an Explorer who’d experienced a particularly difficult first few days and was distancing herself from the team. The symptoms?

“Not wanting to complete assigned job tasks and an impressive eye roll that spoke volumes,” said Mollie.

However, by the end of the third day, something had shifted.

“At the campfire that evening, she apologized to the whole group and took responsibility for not really being part of the team. She verbalized why she was struggling, and opened the floor to not only feedback, but that she wanted to do better and be part of the group.”

Right then, EA’s impact became tangible for Mollie.

Mollie’s (foreground) favorite Summer Wilderness Trip to lead is on the Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas.

“I think it took the week, the vulnerability that the outdoors makes us feel, and, most importantly, the feeling of safety and being supported for her to open up. The Explorers who had really been leaders that week were the first ones to speak up and tell her that they understood, and ask how they could support her. To watch the young group show that type of grace and understanding was profound.”

Mollie’s first canoe trip was when she was only three years old; she grew up exploring the Brazos and San Marcos rivers with her family. Paddling is her favorite outdoor skill to teach Explorers and Mentors, and maps to her favorite Summer Wilderness Trip to lead: Canoeing 50 miles down the Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas.

“The Buffalo River trip is great to lead, in my opinion, because the Explorers have started to hit their stride on these week-long trips and get to really enjoy the activity and their environment. You can start to see during campfires and downtime that the conversations have started to become really meaningful, and the bonds and relationships have grown closer.”

Declared America’s first national river by Congress in 1972, the Buffalo National River is truly special because of how much public land can be accessed along both banks of the river, thereby allowing Explore Austin’s multi-day Summer Wilderness Trip. Explorers and Mentors carry all camping gear with them in their canoes, setting up camp each night further downstream as they make their way to the take-out point.

Mollie is a Trip Leader for Explore Austin’s Saturday Challenges throughout the school year and for week-long Summer Wilderness Trips.

Explained Mollie, “Once we leave the vans behind we are on the river for five days, and on the last three days it’s very rare we see another soul on the river or banks. The river is clear and runs slow and steady. If we need to cool off we can float in the river alongside our canoes. It has a few challenging rapids that help keep it exciting and on our toes. We camp on large gravel bars that have amazing views of tall, rocky bluffs. At night, the fireflies light up the banks and bluffs like tiny blinking stars. We often see bald eagles and golden eagles the last couple of days – my record so far is six!”

Mollie prepares Explorers and Mentors for the challenge of the Buffalo River with Saturday Challenges that begin with canoeing on Lady Bird Lake in the heart of downtown Austin. Paddling to Barton Springs, Longhorn Dam and other picnic spots allows them to become familiar with the basic skills and safety protocols. Then, they graduate to moving water on the Colorado River:

“This is when it starts to get more exciting for the Mentors and Explorers. We get to go down river for a six-mile trip and have lunch along the way. The river isn’t busy and you really get a feeling of being in the wilderness. Our last Saturday Challenge, focused on canoeing, is one of my absolute favorites. We take a trip to San Marcos and get to play on the spring-fed San Marcos River. The river has crystal clear water where you can see the fish, turtles, wild rice and rocky bottom. We paddle down to Rio Vista Rapids, a man-made dam, have lunch, talk about different river features, and, if the weather is good, swim or paddle down some fun rapids.”

Mollie also enjoys leading Capstone trips – Summer Wilderness Trips for Explorers and Mentors entering their final year in the program. Distinctively, the Explorers play a big part in the planning and execution of their final summer trip, drawing on their experiences and skill sets acquired during their first five years in the program.

In addition to canoeing, Mollie is a Trip Leader for backpacking and mountain biking trips.

Mollie led her first Capstone last summer in California for a team that wanted a multi-skill trip incorporating paddling:

“We camped out in the Desolation Wilderness the first couple of days and then made our way to Emerald Bay State Park for canoeing and hiking. I had led this group of Explorers and Mentors on two other Summer Wilderness trips and had the privilege of watching them grow in many different areas; leadership, communication and problem-solving skills were just a few of them. It is hard to describe how meaningful the last few days are between the Mentors and Explorers, and getting to be a small part of it will always be something I am proud of and thankful for.”

This July, Mollie is leading the 2025 F.O.X. team mountain biking in Idaho Falls, which features stellar views of the Teton Range, part of the Rocky Mountains. They’ll visit the top-rated mountain-bike area in the Big Hole Mountains, with each day allowing Explorers and Mentors to experience different types of track and distances, elevation gains, and a variety of nature, from rugged snow-capped mountains to peaceful meadows, and from creeks and rivers to mixed aspen-and-pine forests.

Resilience, through all seasons – it can be uncommon to come across in everyday life, but out in the wilderness with Explore Austin’s teams, Mollie sees it regularly.

“My favorite, most common memories, are the ones when you can see that an Explorer or Mentor is almost defeated or frustrated and then the whole team comes alongside them and encourages and supports the person to be successful. At the ‘circle time’ in the evening, the person who overcame the challenge not only gives themselves a shoutout, but the whole team does as well.”

And Mollie can’t wait for another summer of memories.