Let’s start with the basics. Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Todd Elsworth and the main thing that I enjoy the most is being Violet’s dad. More and more what I am known for. She is awesome. I am a single dad and I bring her everywhere I can. So that is job number one.
Job number two is I am co-executive director and co-founder of Recreation Northwest and I share that responsibility with April. We just modified our titles to reflect the collaboration of what we do.
So what do I do? I fulfill the mission of the organization. It is the best thing because it ends in play. It is an extension of who I am just as the Traverse is extension of what I like to do: causing people to come together, creating community, having fun, and having a positive influence on the community.
Traverse is probably what Recreation Northwest is most known for.
Yes. That is our signature event.
But you do other events right?
Yes. We do Quest Adventure Races.
Which is a little bit harder race?
Quest races came to be through Brent Molsberry, an adventure racer.
Brent started Island Quest out the San Juans. He was working out there as a kayak guide and tour guide. He participated in a multiday race. He is an amazing person and adventure athlete. His physical abilities are demonstrated in that he has won the Seattle Firefighter Stair Climbing Challenge five times. He is always in the top ten every time he does it. There are teams in Montana where this is all they train to do. He doesn’t train he just plays a lot. He’s tough and super nice.
We are about to celebrate Recreation Northwest’s anniversary in January. When we started I reached out to Brent and said hey we are starting this non-profit to manage our races why don’t you consider coming under our umbrella. There are also things that I think we can offer to help you grow this.
And so Island Quest came under Recreation Northwest’s umbrella and then, working with him, expanded the idea of what adventure racing is.
Our main objective is to host the National Adventure Racing Championship here someday.
Our strategy to make that happen is to make sure that we have an adventure race team. A team is a lot of people. When you go to a race you bring a smaller group of people who represent the larger team. So Brent has been recruiting people. We have people on the team who have been racing together for years. Brent’s fiance is also on the team. They are travelling the country and the world doing this now trying to make a name our team as a way to get on the bigger radar.
We added Kulshan Quest. It ran for two years, we took a year off last year and it is coming back this year in May. Our intent with the races and the team is to build the respect, the notoriety and trust of the Adventure Racing Association to be able to host Nationals here.
We are also part of a network of races. Krank Events down in Seattle and another adventure race group in Bend. That’s why we call it the Cascadia Adventure Race series. We have been working with the director of USARA for years trying to get this together. That’s kind of our little secret thing because Brent, he is the director and founder of that. But we support him with administrative stuff, sponsorship stuff, website and all that.
Adventure racing is a Swedish sport. Another Swedish sport that we have just been introduced to that we are taking on and adding to the list this year the day after Kulshan Quest is Bellingham Swim Run which is not a duathlon but run, swim, run, swim—up at Lake Padden.
There will be teams, and you have to stay with your partner the whole time. This is a Sweden based thing. In those races in Sweden people tie themselves together and they tow each other along. One might be a stronger runner while the other is a stronger swimmer. There are paddles and wetsuits and all kinds of crazy stuff. In Sweden they are swimming across fiords and running up mountains.
But we are starting small at Lake Padden. I hope it is not a secret but I think that Brent’s goal is that it eventually ends up in the Chuckanut Mountains. It’s pretty fun to have in our portfolio.
That’s as far as events and races go.
On the historical side of things the Olympia Traverse ran for five years. We did a traverse in Winthrop for a year—that was the first year of Recreation Northwest. Into that series we also added North Bend. He managed the other three and someone else just bought a race down there that was very similar and we said hey, look instead of you starting from scratch why don’t you become part of our series and we will help you with all this other stuff? He did that for a year and figured out that that wasn’t the best idea for his life. He had a full-time day job.
There was more to it than he realized?
Yeah. I hosted Traverse for years with a day job.
Then we founded Recreation Northwest we also started the Bellingham kids traverse and have done that for three years but we are discontinuing that next year.
Are you sad about that?
I’m not sad because we are doing it for the right reasons. It was logical and we talked through it. We did recognize today as we told some of our key staff, we contract people to do work for us, and they are kind of saddened by it. And our board is kind of saddened, but we had already gone through the emotional stuff. So it we realized that oh, we still need that little bit of empathy. My daughter does it. She did it solo last year. As we were going through the decision making process I asked Violet, “Do you want to do the Kids Traverse next year?” and she said, “Yeah, I am excited about it!”
That happens sometimes when you are out in front of the decision making. You have done your morning already and you are ready now it’s time to just do the hard thing. But nobody else around you has gone through that process yet.
Yeah. That’s where getting that story is delicate. Different people hear different parts of the story.
Our decision was based on looking at the programs that we want for the future. We want to continue to work on recreation economy, advocacy and get into parkscriptions. We are working on that where health care providers are recommending outdoor activity for people.
With that and the expo, and work that I am doing in Fairhaven we have the opportunity to get people out more than just one day a year. The Kids Traverse was great, but it was a twenty minute event.
So it’s been exciting for us looking at the evolution of where our effort and energy goes—into what events and programs.
What’s it like to work on implementing parkscriptions? Is it lots of face-to-face interactions with healthcare professionals and getting them to understand the benefits of it?
April is leading this whole endeavor but I can speak to the work that she’s done.
There are two big parts of the puzzle—the health care providers, and online database of trails and parks that the healthcare providers will point to. We are working in both of these worlds.
We have someone on our team who works for Whatcom County Health who has been going and talking with healthcare providers to see what their needs are.
We are working with our pilot program in Family Care Network because we knew someone there and have a good sense of who their staff are and they are on board to pilot this with us. That will be our first step.
We have been getting such positive responses from people in the healthcare world. They are saying, “Can we get involved in this?” We even have a friend in the mental health care world saying, “What about me? Can I get involved in this?”
That’s great! I would expect that you would have to do lots of recruiting for a program like that but they are coming to you. They already buy into the benefits.
Right. And I wouldn’t say that all do, but so many people in this community have this lifestyle. Why would they not want their patients to have this lifestyle?
The response has been so strong and positive and providers keep popping up and jumping on board.
We do have a strategy to spread not only geographically but also in discipline.
The other side of it is working with the city and county to get all of the GPS data. We have an intern from the health department who went and did a bunch of data collection around parks and trails. The challenge is that right now Bellingham has disparate maps and information. We will continue to do that to create one unified resource.
Chuck Kitterman of Square One Maps makes our maps for us. He has a staff member who is a GPS data expert—they are a part of our team. We also have some folks working for us in the technical advising field who helped us make an RFP, select a vendor, build a platform—all that stuff.
Sure. Those kinds of projects get so complex and that is why there is no unified trail map of the county.
Because who is going to lead that. That’s crazy.
How can you get from here to the interurban trail? There is a way but it is not mapped.
Yeah. The focus of this project is to enable healthcare providers to give their patients access to the trails.
But we are going to have access to this for our own adventures.
So what’s a day in the life of a co-executive director like?
It’s never the same thing. No day is ever the same.
Is that exciting or stressful?
It’s good. That is how I like to live my life. I really like to have fun working and I do that by finding challenging projects. That’s part of what keeps us going—taking on challenges and making it happen. We don’t take the easy way which often takes more time and effort but it is worth it to do A work.
It’s a lot of communication. That’s the biggest thing—phone calls, meetings, you know asking people for money in different ways shapes and forms. That’s the reality. Whether I am selling a sponsorship, selling a booth, asking for donations I am keeping this alive.
I’m sure when you get a day off you go play. What are your favorite places to go play in Bellingham?
All over. I like to mix it up.
I like to go ride my mountain bike. I like to ride all my bikes. I just did a greenways tour and rode up through Whatcom Falls Park. I love to explore and find new little places and gems. I love being on the water. I love being next to the water. I love being in the woods and I love playing in the snow.
I do a lot of stuff by myself. I enjoy that time because there is so much social time in what I do. As my daughter can attest it is hard to go out in my public and not talk to anyone—stay on task. But I do love that. I am a social person but when I do get that time by myself I go lose myself in the woods or on the water.
What is the thing that people most often misunderstand about the work that you do?
Well, that I just play on the time and don’t really work.
Right. You work at a place called Recreation with “fun” in the mission statement.
And I don’t post pictures of myself on Facebook just talking on the phone, working. Who wants to see that. Here I am working. On a Friday. It’s snowing out and I’d really rather be skiing around town.
My job is to help people have fun.
For a while now I have been a tourism writer for Bellingham and Whatcom county tourism. I write bi-weekly blog stories for them on outdoor recreation. That’s a lot of fun. It keeps me outside and keeps me writing and playing.
That’s become a big industry. I think our community’s awareness of the economic impact of outdoor recreation is due in large part to the work that you guys do. Are other communities awake to it the way that we have been? It seems to be a unique feature of this community.
Here’s what’s happening from a larger perspective. We as Recreation Northwest in Whatcom County are at the forefront of what’s been happening Washington State. Our timing on this was very fortunate.
We started exploring how to go about doing a study like this. Then we learned that Washington State was doing a study about the impacts of recreation on the state level. So we came along, and as soon as the firm was selected, April got in touch asking what are you guys doing for Whatcom County?
While all this initial stuff was happening on the state level, Whatcom was right there as the only county with a study like ours at the county level. Now that our county is done it’s been on other counties’ radars because we’ve been telling them.
Senator Ranker, who represents us here in the 40th district, and Governor Inslee have been thinking about the recreation economy for a long time. The latest development at the state level is that the Governor’s office has hired a policy advisor on this issue. That happened early this year. And he’s coming to our Outdoor Recreation Summit to be the keynote speaker.
We are just the third state in the country (behind Utah and Colorado) to hire a policy advisor on the recreation economy. We three states are leading the country on this issue. More and more states around the country are looking to follow our model.
Since we’ve been studying the whole industry, we’ve come to better understand its size and scope. Senator Ranker likes to point out that it should be getting the benefit of tax incentives that we extend to Boeing and Microsoft, but because we’ve never seen it in a unified way before, we’ve never realized it.
It’s been a really interesting movement for us to be riding along with.
I imagine that the Recreation Economy is harder to study because there are so many smaller players. Other industries are more centralized and recreation seems to be very decentralized—lots of one and two person operations. Which is not a reason that we shouldn’t do it, just that it’s harder.
In our study is was very difficult to get the data because there is not a category for “recreation business,” so that’s the Department of Commerce catching up to where we are moving as a country and identifying that as a sector.
Because it’s not quite tourism . . .
Right. Tourism is a subset of recreation.
Which, when the tourism people saw our numbers they were blown away. It gave us a chance to explain, you guys are just a part of this industry. Also included is manufacturing, service, events, apparel.
And a lot of this stuff is new to us too. So back to “day in the life,” a lot of it is just figuring this stuff out.
I started Traverse 15 years ago, and I’ve been putting on events ever since then. But it’s fun to do some of these new things too.