Despite pandemic, a bevy of good outdoor news in 2020

Matt Johanson

For those of us who believe in positive thinking, 2020 put that philosophy to a test. One year saw enough bad news to fill a decade as wildfires broke records in California, racist violence set off nationwide protests, and COVID-19 ravaged the world.

But those searching for good news could still find plenty of it in our great outdoors, which gained new appreciation from many cut off from indoor activities and international travel.

California Outdoors Hall of Fame inducted five new members. They include hunter and outdoor journalist Terry Knight, rock climber Alex Honnold, fishing champion Kent Brown, angler, hunter and radio host Jim Brown, and the late Clarence King (1842-1901), a geologist, mountaineer and author.

Hans Florine, another member of the California Outdoors Hall of Fame, created a group called Do Hard Things to challenge people to push themselves, physically and otherwise. “We’re a community of people who do hard things and do new things so that our lives are better,” said Florine. Dozens of people are already participating through dhtchallenge.com and hundreds more get inspiration at instagram.com/dhtchallenge.

Danville soccer coach Joe Owen didn’t walk but ran up Mount Diablo (13 miles and 3,400 feet of climbing) every day in April to raise more than $4,000 for a local food bank.

Teacher Andy Padlo, Emmet Forde, Dasha Yurkevich and Julian Jordan pedaled 52 days to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and reach the Atlantic Ocean.

Four California cyclists biked from coast to coast on a journey of discovery. Three recent high school graduates and their slightly-older former teacher rode 3,614 miles, climbed 155,706 feet, averaged 69.5 miles a day and repaired 65 flat tires.

“Everyone we encountered was so kind to us and so welcoming. It showed me how we’re all just human. I would never trade the experience for anything,” said Dasha Yurkevich, 18. Experience their adventure at instagram.com/youthbikeamerica.

Dasa Yurkevich celebrates reaching New York and the end of a long journey.

Members of Fremont High School’s football team helped a wheelchair-bound climber summit Mission Peak. “May we all turn our dreams into reality and may we all be there to help each other out,” said coach Cedric Lousi.

Lia Ditton, 40, rowed alone from San Francisco to Hawaii in 86 days, breaking the world record by 13 days. “I was alone but rarely lonely,” she recalled. “My bird, fish and even shark visitors kept me fascinated, and I found joy in bringing these encounters alive for my followers through my blogs and videos.” She’s preparing for a 2021 trans-Pacific trip to Japan, which no one has done without assistance.

Thousands of firefighters risked life and limb to protect our forests and the public. Among them were Miwuk and Mexican firefighters who protected Sierra Nevada forests even though 19th Century American “settlers” violently drove their ancestors off their homes in these lands.

Mariposa Grove: Miwuk helped to protect Yosemite’s giant sequoias from wildfires – Photo: Matt Johanson

Three condor chicks survived the Dolan Fire in Big Sur. Rangers and wildlife volunteers rescued one from a nest directly in the fire’s path. Though the fire sadly killed other condors, these tough young birds and other survivors will help their population grow in the wild. Three mountain lion cubs orphaned by fires recovered at Oakland Zoo. The UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and California Department of Fish and Wildlife formed a partnership called Wildlife Defense Network to treat animals impacted by future fires.

Matthew and Arabella Adams, the five-year-old “Super Hiking Twins,” became the youngest known climbers to reach the summit of Mount Shasta. They had a little help from their parents. “They couldn’t wait to get to the top,” said father Shaun Adams.

California and Oregon revived a stalled effort to remove four dams on the Klamath River. This agreement aims to restore hundreds of miles of salmon habitat and access of the Karuk and Yurok tribes to their sacred sites. Officials and the Native American groups hope removal can start in 2023.

Civil rights activists created a Ride Against Racism which challenged cyclists to climb 50,000 feet on their bikes in 50 days. Twenty-six riders participated and raised money to support the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Washoe in the Lake Tahoe area. Read more about them at ridersagainstracism.org.

What’s more, California’s outdoors became a little more welcoming as a revived civil rights movement led to a map makeover. Jeff Davis Peak near Lake Tahoe, which honored the Confederates’ president, in July officially became Da-ek Dow Go-et Mountain. The Washoe Tribe proposed the new name, which the federal government approved. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has announced a name change after the ski area acknowledged the racism and sexism of the word “Squaw.” The resort plans to announce a new name next year. And Sequoia National Park removed references to slave-owning Robert Lee from ancient trees which Confederates had named for him.

If we expand our focus beyond the Sierra of California and Nevada, we would find far more uplifting stories than we could list, but let’s mention at least two. Colorado mountain climber Brittney Woodrum raised $85,000 for COVID-19 relief by climbing all 58 of peaks in her state at least 14,000 feet high. And Chris Nikic became the first athlete with Down syndrome to complete an Ironman Triathlon, finishing a Florida race in 16 hours and 46 minutes.

Public lands provided the setting for countless people to improve themselves and help others. Making this possible were thousands of rangers and staff who worked overtime to keep parks open during the pandemic, even as visitation sharply jumped. They deserve our thanks, as do all who stepped up to fight wildfires, racism and COVID-19 in 2020.


Matt Johanson is a San Francisco Bay Area-based reporter who writes the Mountain Matters column for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work.