Sleep In The Dirt

Building a Youth Mentorship Program During a Pandemic

Sponsorship and Non-Profit
Photo: by Steve “Doom” Fassbinder. Jon Yazzie paddles a packraft stacked with a deconstructed bike and the rest of his gear, also called bikerafting.

Dzil ta’ah Adventures, a veteran, Navajo-owned, adventure company founded by Jon Yazzie, showed up on our radar this past year through a mutual friend and adventure photographer, Steve “Doom” Fassbinder and his partner Lizzy Scully of Four Corners Guides.

Yazzie’s adventure company focuses on sustainable tourism to generate revenue, but includes a mission to build a bikepacking community on the Navajo reservation, starting with getting the Navajo youth involved. When Doom contacted Big Agnes regarding the Navajo Youth Bikepack Series, we jumped at the chance to help however we could. In his words, Yazzie shares how the program prevailed through an unpredictable year and his hope for the future of the Navajo youth.

Photo by: Steve “Doom” Fassbinder. Two bikes rest idle on their sides, framing a unique igneous protrusion in the vast desert landscape.

Like Riding a Bike

“In late 2019, we pursued our passion project by submitting a total of eight tourism packages to the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department and all were approved for 2020. We were stoked.

Six tours would start right out of our driveway in Kayenta, AZ and the two others would require shuttles to Grand Falls and the Little Colorado River confluence on the western part of the reservation.

Immediately after setting up our webpage, we booked a tour. This was exciting and as we became more visible, more people started showing interest, including local youth.”

Photo by: Steve “Doom” Fassbinder. Jon Yazzie, covered neck to nose, despite the desert heat.

Enter COVID

“Then, a few months into 2020, a town 20 miles from our location became a hot spot for COVID-19 – the same month we were slated to run our first tour. Soon after, numerous towns were being impacted by the virus.

Navajo people were being sent to metropolitan hospitals off the reservation, as our Indian Health Service hospitals were not equipped for handing extremely sick people, due to lack of intensive care units. Navajo people were dying, including our own relatives.

The Navajo Nation administration enacted strict stay-at-home orders. We cancelled more tours as tourism was deemed non-essential. Soon our aspirations fell from our grasp.

In time we witnessed that mitigation measures, like lock downs and mask mandates were working. By early September of 2020, the Nation was experiencing no new cases of COVID while the rest of the world was in its second wave. New Navajo Nation executive orders allowed for more freedoms including getting outside locally and small gatherings of five.

We still could not run any tours, so rather than sit in vain again, we decided to reach out to a few youth organizations on the reservation that were promoting bikes and offered to help them learn to bikepack. Since we did not have much gear to lend, we put a cap of three participants at a time. We attended a few of their bike and maintenance clinics, did a few presentations and managed to recruit six participants in total from the NICA affiliated Dine Composite race team.”

Photo by: Steve “Doom” Fassbinder. Jodessa, one of the three youth participants in the Dzil Ta’ah Youth Bike Pack Series, pushes her bike through a muddy body of water, up to the shore, just steps away.

All Hands on Deck

“We reached out to a few friends, including Doom and Lizzy, for help with our lack of gear and extra bicycles to accommodate six prospective adventure riders. With everyone’s generous help, plus monetary donations, we soon had enough sleeping bags and bike gear for our six new recruits. We set dates with the Dine Comp team and were ready to roll. We had three trips on our calendar that included a bikeraft trip with Four Corners Guides.

Photo by: Steve “Doom” Fassbinder. Lizzy Scully of Four Corners Guides, navigates the waters in her packraft. The fleet was loaned to the group from her own guide company, located in Mancos, CO.

A few days prior to our first foray, the Navajo Nation reimposed restrictions as our COVID numbers started to increase. The executive orders allowing small groups and exercise within a certain distance from our homesteads, remained in effect. That brought our participant list down to three, and including my partner Nadine and I, we could still continue as planned while adhering to those laws.

After careful consideration, we decided to continue with our project, but instead, creating a mentorship program by running one group of two sisters and their brother. All three are from the one household. Both sisters, Dine Comp racers and their brother a NICA level 1 coach. With their mother, we all came to an agreement that we would do everything in our power to mitigate COVID by staying isolated for the length of our bikepack series, as not to jeopardize our health. This would be a total of six weeks of limiting our circle before we finished up with Four Corners Guides for the bikeraft finale.”

Photo by: Steve “Doom” Fassbinder. The Dzil Ta’ah Youth Bike Pack Series started with a small group in 2020, but have plans to grow and evolve in the coming years, post pandemic.

The Ride Must Go On

“In total, we completed five bikepacking trips on the reservation; one with our six-year-old granddaughter to help us establish an easy to moderate route, one with the Dine Comp coaches to help them become adventure leaders and the three with our mentor team.

Our hope is to continue working with the Dine Comp group when COVID restrictions lift, but now we have those three siblings to help us with mentoring their teammates for the next youth series. Upon completion, we will follow up with other organizations on the reservation that have expressed interest in the program, and in learning to bikepack, while using this mentorship model.

We hope to light a fire in each of the youth organizations in and around our communities and see them flourish from there.”

Photo by: Steve “Doom” Fassbinder. Jon Yazzie checks the pressure of his raft, while three others continue to rig their gear on the shore.

About the Author:

Jon Yazzie is a full-blooded Navajo from the Navajo reservation in Kayenta, Arizona. His clans are Near the Mountain and Zuni-Edgewater. Yazzie is an aspiring adventure cyclist, former mountain bike racer, and lover of the outdoors. He works as a school administrator and his passions include running meaningful tours, creating routes and helping build a sustainable biking community on the reservation. Follow Jon Yazzie and Dzil Ta’ah Adventures on Instagram @dziltaahadventures.

 

Comments (11)

11 responses

  1. Phillip Salvador

    This is an inpiring story, and a reat example of an organization working to help its youth become strong and resilient in the face of challenging and changig obstacles.

  2. Dave Grossman

    So cool! Jon is such a great leader. Thank you to Big Agnes for your support with gear and such a great newsletter/blog about their program. I am super happy I am a Big A customer!

  3. floyd redmon

    Congratulations! What a wonderful program to get Kids out into the natural world. Sign them up to be future leaders.

  4. Jessica Begay

    Thank you Jon and Nadine. Also, to all the sponsors that made these trips possible. My kids were the youth mentors in the program and as their mother, I am so proud of them. They have learned so much about bike packing and when they come home, their stories are nonstop. The smiles on their faces of their adventures is what every parent needs to see. My hope is that more youth continue to have this opportunity, because it provides them with many life skills and also gives them time to enjoy the outdoors and see how beautiful our land is. I am beyond grateful for my kids to be youth mentors.

  5. Jesse Maloney (Go Time!)

    I love that you were able to troubleshoot routes with small numbers. This will set up the know how for the bigger groups to come. I’m glad to see the younger generation learning stewardship through adventure. It’s such a good combo. I hope the best for you and your efforts.

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