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Pandemic pivot

Recreation Northwest executive director Todd Elsworth looks over Chuckanut Bay at Woodstock Farm.

Events-based nonprofit shifts focus to outdoor recreation and nature education

Story and photos by Ian Haupt

If you sign up for one of Recreation Northwest’s Nature Immersion courses at Fairhaven Park, at some point, while strolling the 18th Street Connector Trail – built by the nonprofit organization – you’ll come upon a large, darkly-painted wooden gate. On the other side of the gate everything seems a little calmer, clearer, serene.

The gate, influenced by the Japanese Torii style, symbolizes the transition from the mundane to the sacred, and Recreation Northwest executive director Todd Elsworth’s goal for the organization’s future.

Most people know Recreation Northwest as the past organizers of fun, salmon-themed races, like the Bellingham Traverse, Northwest Traverse Multi-Sport Series and Quest Adventure Races. While others might know them from events like the Recreation Northwest EXPO that would fill up the Bellingham Cruise Terminal with outdoor recreation businesses, clubs and nonprofits. All of which took last year off — who knows why.

But, even before the pandemic, Elsworth was taking the organization in a different direction. The organization started its Parkscriptions progam in 2019 that focused on highlighting the mental, emotional and community health benefits of nature, a philosophy the new outdoor recreation and nature education programs are built on.

“We are excited that the time has finally come to reengage with the public in a safe manner as we enter summer outdoors,” Elsworth said. “Over the course of the past year, we have witnessed resounding recognition for the value that the outdoors holds and the healing powers nature provides.”

While all outdoor activity provides respite, the Nature Immersion courses might be the best example of this idea in practice. Community health professional Elizabeth Nelson, director of programs and previous Parkscriptions program manager, will teach attendees how to use their five senses to connect to nature, reconnect with themselves and their place in the community.

“People will learn methods for mindfulness in nature, essential outdoor recreation skills, and familiarity with the landscape,” Nelson said. “As stewards of our public lands we will also demonstrate how to recreate responsibly, leave no trace, and show respect for others as we enjoy our public parks, open space and waterways.”

The Japanese Torii style gate at Fairhaven Park. It symbolizes the transition from the mundane to the sacred.

These new programs, oriented around small groups of six to 12 people, will offer a variety of beginning and intermediate level classes and tours of curated outdoor educational experiences. Adventures and park tours will be available by foot, bike and paddleboard. Along with Fairhaven Park, Recreation Northwest will center its classes around Bellingham public parks Woodstock Farm and the Sehome Hill Arboretum.

Looking even further ahead, Elsworth has his sights set on Woodstock Farm. Often seeming like an unused Shangri-La as it’s hidden off of Chuckanut Drive, the farm can be rented out for weddings or other events. But Elsworth would like to see it as an outdoor center.

“I can just see it,” he says, pointing at what was the cook’s house. “We’d have someone here to greet visitors, whether it was for the day or an overnight stay.” That’s the dream for Elsworth, having people come to stay at the farm and take classes during the day – an outdoor sanctuary.

Elsworth and Recreation Northwest have the full support of the parks department to use the farm for their visits and tours.

City Parks and Recreation Department director Nicole Oliver said in a press release Bellingham Parks is proud to be working with Recreation Northwest and community partners to activate Woodstock Farm. “The property is one of the best kept secrets of our local parks,” she said. “Creating the opportunities to provide public access to the park, and education people about the benefits of nature, essential outdoors skills and trail etiquette fills a great gap in our community. More people in the park leads to deeper engagement and care for the property and of the historic buildings at the site.”

But turning the historic site into an outdoor nature reserve might take a couple years. One step at a time. For now, they will be escorting visitors to and from and around these city parks that really need to not just be seen but felt. x