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Latino Outdoors event connects families with Sonoma County's open spaces

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POMO CANYON — They left their warm beds, their electronic gadgetry and, in at least one case, a fear of snakes behind to brave a night outdoors — the call of nature overpowering the din of noisy, city life.

For some of the more than 60 participants — residents of the North Bay and nearby — the group campout in a redwood canyon near the Sonoma Coast was a first-time adventure. They learned to set up loaner tents and slept on the ground in borrowed bags.

Others had some limited experience with camping, fostering new family traditions from a desire to have their children learn about the world around them.

For organizers, this second annual trip to Pomo Canyon State Park was part of a larger national movement to connect Latinos with the natural world and open spaces — enough so that the campers want to help protect them in return.

Organized by Latino Outdoors, a budding online networking group developed to bring Latino communities together for hikes, campouts and other outdoor activities, the goal was to get those who might not otherwise do so to experience nature.

Alicia Cruz, the group’s Bay Area coordinator, said Latino immigrants are not exposed to America’s natural wonders as often as Anglo-Americans, partly due to language, cultural and socio-economic barriers.

“Latino communities may not have the same access,” she said, adding that many immigrant families are focused almost entirely on life’s most essential tasks: work and raising families. “Whatever money there is is for gas or food.”

Transportation can also impede Latinos’ use of county, state and national recreation areas, she said. Cruz said it’s not uncommon for many Latinos in the Bay Area to seldom venture outside their urban environments, even with so many open spaces within close proximity.

“What we’re trying to do is institutionalize outings like this, and do more of them and more often,” said April Reza, bilingual outreach coordinator for Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, a nonprofit group that sponsored the event with Latino Outdoors, providing tents, sleeping bags and outdoor kitchen gear for communal meals.

Stewards volunteers also provided environmental lessons that included basic outdoor ethics, introducing concepts like “treading lightly” and “playing your part” to keep the environment clean.

Getting more Latinos to explore public spaces is part of a larger effort by Latino Outdoors to diversify the conservation movement, members said.

But “you kind of have to establish that connection first” — a sense of ownership, said Maribel Sierra of Oakland, a group ambassador.

Those attending the weekend campout at Pomo Canyon, which was closed to the general public due to state budget cuts three years ago, included four families from a healthy lifestyles parent club in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood.

Eleven other families tried to sign up, but the event filled up so quickly they were left out, said Alejandrina Sarmiento-Jarquin, who attended with her husband and three children.

The best part of the event, Sarmiento-Jarquin said, “is the opportunity to get away from all the noise, breathe fresh air, have a place to walk.”

“It’s fun,” said her daughter Daisy Jarquin, 7. “You learn to survive in the wild, and you have fun.”

Bilingual staff at the campout led group activities, like a nature walk along nearby Willow Creek where campers learned about salmon runs and watershed restoration. Participants also made plaster animal prints and watched a demonstration of how traditional Native American tepee is erected.

Stewards volunteer Bill Nay, known to some as Father Nature, provided an introduction to sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwoods all around.

There was a campfire and marshmallow roasting at night, and a hike to Shell Beach to look forward to Sunday.

“I like it because I like to be out in nature,” said Juan Garcia, 37, of Santa Rosa, who attended the weekend campout with his wife and three children. “It’s so different. I like to listen for the sounds of the animals.”

The event provided a first-time camping experience for Laura Contreras of Santa Rosa, her husband and their two at-first reluctant sons, ages 8 and 13.

“For us, it’s amazing,” said Contreras, who had long wanted to camp with her family but found the prospect of acquiring all new equipment daunting.

Having the family together in the open air was refreshing for everyone, she and her husband, Alfredo Merlo, said.

“All of the time: work, work, work,” Merlo said. “It’s too much stress. Here, it’s very relaxing.”

Their son, Jonathan Merlo, 8, munched on a snack and talked of learning about redwood trees and salmon.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “It’s more freedom outside, and you can learn about nature.”

Cruz, 35, spent her childhood in Mexico City before moving to Marin County and vividly recalled her first campout at the age of 10, at fifth-grade camp.

It wasn’t an activity she ever thought she’d choose, but Saturday night, campers hiked up a hill to see the sun go down and watch day turn to night. They were told to look up and start counting stars, and as she watched the sky darken to black, more and more sparkling stars appeared above her, opening her eyes and changing her view about the outdoors, she said.

Sarmiento-Jarquin said her early life in a small mountain village in Oaxaca, Mexico, was practically like camping, so rural and humble was her home. She grew up walking in the mountains and wanted her three children to experience something of what that was like, she said.

“It’s important they learn about nature,” said Garcia, whose eldest child, Lupita, 8, busily poured soupy plaster from a plastic bag into animal print molds.

“One reason I like camping is you get to tell stories instead of watching TV,” she said.

First-time camper Adrian Hernandez, 35, of Hercules, who came to the park with a friend from his Petaluma church, gazed around at an open meadow, the mountain above it and redwood forest to the right and left.

“In your normal life, you always think about what you will do tomorrow, what you will do at work,” Hernandez said. “Right now, I’m not thinking about that.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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