When he was growing up, Rikeem Sholes’ knowledge of the great outdoors was as flat as his TV screen.
“I didn’t get out at all,” Sholes said. “I didn’t start going outside until my early 20s — about the time I started working as a biologist.”
Monitoring hatchery fish along the Columbia River may seem an unlikely career for a Black kid from inner-city New Orleans, but public television documentaries about the wonders of underwater life motivated Sholes.
“PBS was my jam,” he said with a chuckle. “I watched so much educational TV because it was always so fascinating. Especially all these aquatic things. You’re always finding out about something weird.”
What TV naturalist David Attenborough once did for Sholes, Sholes now strives to do for other people of color in Vancouver and Portland: whet their appetites for outdoor exploration and recreation. Even though he’s working toward his doctorate in biology at Washington State University Vancouver on top of his full-time job as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, Sholes carves out time on evenings and weekends to lead hiking and rock-climbing outings for people who look like him.
His recreation leadership recently landed him on a panel of Black leaders convened by the Washington State Parks Foundation who discussed with Gov. Jay Inslee how to increase diversity in outdoor recreation.
Teaching lifelong city dwellers the joy of nature is Sholes’ labor of love, but it requires confronting a long, hard history of discrimination and fear, he said.
“People who have access learn about hiking and camping when they are kids,” he said. “But people who grow up like me and who look like me, they may not have a chance to learn. They may not even think they belong.
“We really need to do something about all that,” Sholes said. “We need to get past all those cultural hurdles.”
Even if the young Sholes had felt called to befriend the great outdoors, he said, there was nowhere nearby to go. New Orleans sits on drained, reclaimed swampland, and getting anywhere truly green requires long treks out of town. Sholes said he didn’t have that opportunity.
Sholes’ scientific pursuits landed him in the Pacific Northwest.
“All the different things in my life started lining up here,” Sholes, 38, said.
He scored a job as a fish biologist with the Vancouver office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017. More recently, he attended a Juneteenth bike ride in Portland where he happened to bump into a scientist who teaches at WSU Vancouver. She connected Sholes with fellow faculty member Dr. Allison Coffin, a neuroscientist working on the sensory systems of salmon.
Within weeks, Sholes said, he’d been accepted into the graduate biology program at WSU Vancouver, where his academic research dovetails nicely with his work for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. They’re both focused on salmon hearing and the growth of salmon ears.
Yes, salmon have ears. (“It’s the most common question I get when I give talks,” Sholes said.) But hatchery salmon don’t hear as well as wild salmon nor is their “spidey sense” as well honed, he said. As a result, hatchery salmon waste much energy struggling and swimming erratically on their way back upstream from the ocean, Sholes said.
“Wild fish tend to have more developed neurological systems,” he said.
Hatchery fish — fed on a schedule, facing no threats and swimming in circles all day — have less.
“We’re spending millions sending these hatchery fish to the ocean, hoping they’ll come back to us, but they can’t hear well,” he said. “My research focuses on what part of the hatchery system causes this and how can we mitigate it?”
To finance his doctoral studies, Sholes applied for and won a prestigious Tillman Scholarship, named for Pat Tillman, a pro football player who enlisted in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was killed while serving in Afghanistan. The scholarship is aimed at exceptional veterans and other service members with leadership potential, according to the Tillman Foundation.
The Tillman Foundation has a corporate fan and partner in the Kettle Heroes company of Tempe, Ariz., which celebrates Tillman’s “everyday heroes” on its packaging. That’s how Sholes’ face wound up on bags of Kettle Heroes popcorn that can’t be bought in this area.
“They sent me a case of it,” he said. “My mom’s super happy about it. She was able to go buy some. You have to go on the website to buy it or see where it’s being sold.”
But because he’s trying to shed a few pandemic pounds, Sholes admitted, he doesn’t chow down on his free popcorn much.
“Each pack is 700 calories,” he said.
He did get one bag framed, however.
Throughout his academic and professional journey, Sholes could count on one hand all his colleagues who have been people of color. He’s used to that, he said.
“Nine out of 10 times, we’re focused on science and that’s all,” he said.
But occasionally — especially when doing rural fieldwork — Sholes knows he’s making first impressions on “people who have never interacted with a Black person before,” he said.
“There’s a complexity I need to deal with that my white co-workers just aren’t going to face,” he said. “I hope I’m opening doors in the life sciences. I’m looking forward to a time when Black people don’t feel so isolated in science.”
The same goes for isolated Black outdoor enthusiasts, Sholes said. Having learned to love hiking and appreciate nature on the job, Sholes started seeking connections with other outdoorsy people of color in this area.
But that’s not easy. Vancouver’s population is just 2.2 percent Black and 78.1 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, while Portland’s population is 5.9 percent Black and 75.3 percent white.
Despite all that, Sholes said, he loves this area and can’t think of anywhere he’d rather be.
“If you can find 80 percent of what you’re looking for, you can work on the other 20 percent,” he said. “For me, the other 20 percent is diversity.”
Sholes wants to encourage people of color to get comfortable with forms of recreation that ought to belong to everyone but are mostly associated with white people who have plenty of leisure time.
Joy and fear
Sholes signed up for a climbing class at The Source gym in downtown Vancouver. He also plugged into private, online affinity groups like PDX Climbers of Color and Portland POC Hikes. He has won grants to purchase recreation equipment and launch equipment libraries.
“I’ve gained a joy for being out in nature,” Sholes said. “But a lot of people I meet who look like me don’t think the outdoors are accessible, (think) it costs too much, or they feel afraid to go out there alone.”
That fear has a long history that’s grounded in racism, Sholes said.
“Being outside — in the Black community that used to be a large part of our culture,” he said. “Harkening back to slavery and post slavery when so many Blacks were sharecroppers, we lived off the land.
“Then came a time when there was so much violence toward Black people in the South and other places, it became dangerous to be outdoors. Black people started migrating toward cities and finding safety in numbers. If you got caught outside alone, there was a good chance something would happen.
“Those things persist from generation to generation,” he said. “I can talk to a random Black person today and ask, ‘Why don’t you feel comfortable outside?’ The answer is you can’t put a name to it, but you’ve been warned enough.”
Now, Sholes leads recreational groups and the occasional student group on hikes and climbs all around the region and in the Columbia River Gorge. On a recent Thursday night, he hosted a group of climbing newbies at The Circuit in Portland where they tried bouldering. That’s a form of freestyle clambering between outcroppings without harnesses or ropes.
“Bouldering is an intimidating sport,” Sholes said.
It requires trust in climbing partners you may have never met before and a beginner’s willingness to make a fool of yourself. That can be especially awkward and intimidating for minority people who feel on display and judged.
“Your first time, you’re going to suck,” Sholes said with a laugh. “People of color can feel like they’re in a fishbowl. They’re representing a whole race while sucking at it.”
That’s exactly why private groups like his exist to provide a friendly sense of safety and encouragement, he said.
“For the next couple of hours,” Sholes tells every group he leads, “we’re just going to try stuff.” Then they go out for food or drinks, but not before snapping a group photo that commemorates the happy occasion and invites others to join too.
While Sholes can’t always socialize afterward because of his doctoral studies, he said he knows his hiking and climbing groups are the basis of many valuable new friendships.
“A lot of people will find their crew through this group,” he said. “Nothing makes me happier than that.”