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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.