Canadian eco-explorer talks about his recent Lake Ontario paddling adventure.
words :: Colin Field.
In June 2020, when Mario Rigby set out from Hamilton to kayak the length of Lake Ontario, it wasn’t really what he planned on doing this summer. Just like the rest of the world, COVID-19 completely disrupted his plans. He was scheduled to hike the Auyuittuq Trail on Baffin Island.
“We were going to do a short film about that,” he says. “The trail was to get some cool visuals, but the real story would come from the locals on how climate change is affecting their communities.”
Rigby, a Torontonian, is a member of the prestigious Explorers Club and a fellow at The Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He’s a full-time explorer and has previously cycled across Canada and walked the entire length of the African continent.
But he’d never camped or hiked until he started training for the African expedition, and he’d never been in a sit-in kayak until he set off from Hamilton.
He flipped over a half-dozen times, sometimes swimming and dragging his boat to shore, other times self-rescuing. Depending on weather, he’d paddle anywhere from 20 to 50 kilometres a day, staying in hotels, guest houses or just wild camping on the shoreline.
He steered a wide berth around the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, about a kilometre offshore in fairly wavy conditions. But he was pleasantly surprised at how clean Lake Ontario looked.
“I did a walk from Toronto to Montreal before and that took me 14 days,” he says. “I saw a lot more garbage on that trip. But along Lake Ontario, I saw very little. The worst you’ll see is a plastic wrapper, maybe a bottle along the shore, but never a pile-up, never an area that was full of garbage. I was really surprised.”
Paddling Lake Ontario for At-Risk Youth
Rigby’s expeditions are as much about the environment as they are about social justice.
“I think you can’t have environmental justice without social justice. The two are intertwined together. That’s why I advocate for both.”
The Lake Ontario trip was a fundraiser for MyStand, a program dedicated to providing mentorship to at-risk youth. Being a person of colour Rigby understands the prejudices that minorities can face. His foray into the outdoor industry hasn’t been easy.
“Looking for sponsors in 2015 for the Africa expedition was pretty much impossible. I reached out to hundreds of people: magazines, organizations, clothing companies. Every single one of them essentially laughed at me,” he says. “They were laughing because I didn’t look like a quintessential explorer. And maybe my message was quite different; I’m not trying to be the first or the best or the fastest. I feel like this is a very Western point of view of what is successful. You have to be the ultimate at everything. I don’t think that’s true. The new definition of an explorer needs some revision.”
Elitism in Outdoor Sport
Slowly, over time and with more experience, sponsors have started coming on board. Western Union sponsored him after the Africa trip and made a film about him, which in turn attracted more sponsors. But it was still just a pat on the back, maybe a free pair of socks. He continued to reach out, but was continually told he wasn’t what they were looking for.
“I’m not trying to be the first or the best or the fastest. I feel like this is a very Western point of view of what is successful….The new definition of an explorer needs some revision.”
“Outdoor companies seem to be more on the racist side because they want to keep their families, their bros together. And they have a certain look. Like rock climbing has to be this way, spelunking has to be that way. It’s absolutely not true. There’s elitism and it’s very evident in just the way people speak. You could go to a Kenyan who might have a world record for running. You could talk to him about cross-country and he might not know what you’re talking about. It’s not important for him to say those words.
He says, ‘Yeah, I go for a long run.’ We judge people when they don’t know the full names for certain things, or that they’re not paying high prices for outdoor gear. Those kinds of things bother me because I come from a background where I couldn’t afford gear like that, it was completely out of reach. When I look at the price tags of jackets, I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I think someone that comes into that outdoor space with a different angle isn’t taken seriously. Every single human being belongs in the outdoor space. To think a small group of people hold the title of outdoor experts to me is the most ridiculous thing in the world.”
Paddling to Reach the Masses
And in Rigby’s mind, excluding anyone from the outdoors is a problem. “I always say that if you have more inclusion and diversity in the outdoors, then the more people are interested in helping the outdoors. To me, it’s the biggest conundrum. You see organizations and companies focus their marketing on a very small group of select individuals. But all your eco messages or green messages are only going to reach a small percentage of the population. Why not reach out to the masses? The only way to do that is to understand other cultures and the only way to do that is to bring them on board. If we don’t involve the entire population, people won’t want to take care of the earth. If people can’t experience what nature has to offer, of course they’re not going to be interested. ”
Changing Perceptions of BIPOC in the Outdoors
With expeditions like the Lake Ontario paddling trip, Rigby hopes to change the perception of people of colour in the outdoors. After 20 days, he completed the 355-kilometre paddle from Hamilton to the Thousand Islands. And for now, the world seems to be paying attention; sponsorships are bombarding his inbox.
“The response has been pretty intense,” he says. “I have to manage a team just for inbound requests. We’ve got stuff coming to us, we’re vetting them all. We’re trying to get paid and make sure that we have the right relationship with people. A lot of the stuff I do is about eco adventures and I want to make sure that the companies fit in along those lines.”
So what’s next for Mario? More adventures and more fighting for social and ecological justice.
“There are definitely expeditions in the near future that I have planned,” he says. “One of them is retracing the West African slave trade. I’ll find out where my DNA comes from and start out in Africa, and retrace the route that started the West African slave trade to America. It’ll be solo and human- or wind-powered.”