If there’s one thing you should know about learning how to cross-country ski, it’s that falling is a guarantee. Out on the groomed ski track, the prospect of sliding around on skinny sticks strapped to your feet can be overwhelming, even discouraging. But if you’re hanging out with Kindling Collective(Opens in a new window), a queer-centered outdoor organization based in Portland, Maine (Wabanaki Confederacy Territory), being a beginner can be a whole lot of fun.
That’s exactly how the organization's first event in January 2023 went, when more than 30 people learned to cross-country ski together. Even skiers at the back of the pack had big smiles.
“A lot of people were telling us, I've always wanted to do this but I never felt like I had the group that I could learn in,” says Eva Fury, co-founder of Kindling Collective. “Learning something as an adult is intimidating in and of itself, and then layer on any kind of marginalized identity. That anxiety of meeting new people or feeling like you look stupid in a group is intimidating.”
Fury alongside Hallie Herz—they are business partners as well as spouses—kicked around the idea for a year and then officially launched Kindling Collective in October 2022 to make outdoor activities like backpacking, camping and skiing more accessible to the queer community.
Fury comes from a public health and nonprofit background focused on racial and gender justice, and they’ve spent more than 20 years playing and coaching competitive ultimate frisbee. Herz brings their experience working as a school teacher and backcountry wilderness guide, having led trips for organizations like The Venture Out Project.
Not only are they providing spaces for fellow queer people to connect with one another and the natural world meaningfully, joyfully and safely, they’re also reducing barriers for the LGBTQ+ community to access gear, knowledge and skills needed to recreate outdoors.
Kindling Collective is one of more than 25 outdoor gear libraries across the country serving historically marginalized communities and collaborating together as members of the Outdoors Empowered Network. The network supports the infrastructure that youth-centered and community-led groups need to provide outdoor gear and educational programming.
The doors to the collective’s gear library opened in June 2023, perfectly timed with Pride Month. Housed in the basement of the Equality Community Center, racks of backpacks, sleeping bags, tents and more gear enclose the cozy and bright room. One wall is pink, the opposite wall is yellow and queer art decorates the space above their desk. And more gear is on its way—like camp pillows—as they determine the community’s needs and their own capacity for lending.
Outdoor equipment is expensive and confusing, and many people have historically been denied access. But at Kindling Collective, Fury says, “anyone can access the gear library as long as you are also down with the idea of centering queer people's experience in outdoor spaces.”
The cost structure is tiered for economic justice: an individual monthly membership starts at $5. A user logs in to the collective’s online system to borrow gear, from the bigger items like packs and camp cots to the smaller necessities like water filters and lanterns. They would then pick up the items at the gear library and be asked to return the items at a determined date.
The gear offering also feeds the collective’s classes, trips, and events. Recent workshops include Queer Intro to Whitewater, a weekend workshop in June co-hosted with Packraft Maine to introduce participants to the joy of paddling whitewater. And recent events include Queer Hike + Hang, an evening of walking around Mackworth Island and building community.
Safety is in numbers and knowledge. It’s always top of mind that on any trip, someone could encounter unwelcoming or even hostile strangers. “When we talk about safety in outdoor spaces, training really centers around climate and nature and animals,” Fury says “But we also always want to be considering what are human risk factors?”
Over the past year—and in only a few months of operating the gear library—they’ve already sparked collaborations, such as with Paige Emerson of Chubby Hiker Reviews(Opens in a new window), who has led several hikes for the group. They’ve also teamed up with Inclusive Ski Touring at Mt. Abram, Maine Gear Share in Brunswick and Confluence Collective, which teaches fly fishing to underserved audiences.
They’re hoping these collaborations can also influence change in gear design and encourage brands to reconsider designing equipment for outfitting more bodies and identities. A chest strap might fit differently on a trans man than it does on a cis man, for example.
Even more ideas are percolating for Herz and Fury. They’ve set aside drop-in hours for folks to ask questions about gear and trips, but they’re bouncing around ideas for themed meetups to capture even more attention—like talking specifically about winter hiking or canoe packing.
Ultimately, educating and equipping their community leads to more people spending time in nature and therefore caring about the earth, which is imperative for growing stewards.
“Our experiences in nature are spiritual grounding and connective,” Fury says. “Kindling Collective is a space where more people have the capacity to care for and build relationships with the planet.”
Interested in building a gear library program in your community? Learn more about the Outdoors Empowered Network on their website(Opens in a new window), where you can become a member or a supporter.
Words by Amelia Arvesen. Images via Kindling Collective