(Photo: Courtesy The Venture Out Project)
The Daily Rally

Perry Cohen Looks into the Flames

Retreating from a wildfire during a backpacking trip inspired the nonprofit founder to share climate change’s impacts on nature with others

Courtesy The Venture Out Project

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Perry Cohen told his story to producer Caro Rolando for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.

We were on a hot, dusty trail at that point, and I’m just looking around thinking there’s nothing to stop a fire from getting us here. There’s no river, there’s no body of water, the wind isn’t turning. So if we don’t keep going, it could catch us.

I am in southern Vermont in a town called Halifax, and I grew up about 40 minutes east of here in Keene, New Hampshire.

I am the founder and executive director of the Venture Out Project. We lead outdoor adventure trips—backpacking, skiing, paddling—for queer and trans folks. We also run inclusion workshops for folks in the outdoor industry.

There was a trip I took in 2017 that really had a tremendous impact on me. Growing up on the East Coast, I’d done most of my adventures in the East, and a friend of mine who I worked with actually invited me to come backpacking in the Three Sisters Wilderness just outside of Bend, Oregon. I was thrilled.

We started our backpacking trip, and it was gorgeous and beautiful. The first night I remember we were camping by this gorgeous lake, and I woke up probably two hours after I fell asleep feeling like I was choking. I spent the whole night in and out of sleep, choking.

I woke up and saw my friend Travis, and said, “Did you have a hard time sleeping last night?” He was like, “Yeah, I don’t know what was going on.” We thought it was windy and dusty.

Then maybe an hour later we realized, Oh, it’s smoke.

Coming from the East coast, I hadn’t really been used to forest fires. I obviously knew they existed, but I hadn’t actually experienced one. We checked our phones. We still had service. There was no messaging, nothing in the Forest Service. So we’re like, OK, we’re fine to keep going. So we kept backpacking, and we came into this forest that was completely black.

The further we went in, the more depressing it started to be, and the more depressed we started to feel. But we’re like, Everything we read online, we had the most up to date beta on this, didn’t say anything about a fire. We touched the trees, and they were still warm.

But at this point, we didn’t see any smoke, so we kept going. We’re reading the trail description, looking for water and looking for these campsites that are supposed to be there, and they’re not. We’re still in this black forest where there’s no green at all. There’s not even any little sprouts growing out of the dead or anything.

We were still in this state of disbelief of like, Well, we just missed something. This can’t possibly be that fresh of a fire despite touching the tree and it still being hot. We were, I think, in a little bit of shell shock, of not expecting the land to look like it looked. It was bizarre, like it’s too tragic to accept. So our brains are making up all these excuses for why the obvious and logical conclusion to what we’re experiencing must not be right.

We spent that night, and again, we were just gagging and couldn’t sleep, and we were getting more and more depressed. This whole adventure had been about seeing these wildflowers, and late summer in the Three Sisters Wilderness, and the crystal clear waters, and we’re seeing none of it. So we got up the next morning, and we looked at each other and we’re like, We don’t know where this fire is. We don’t have any service. We haven’t seen a forest ranger. But we probably should get out of here.

We were on a hot, dusty trail at that point, and I’m just looking around thinking there’s nothing to stop a fire from getting us here. There’s no river, there’s no body of water, the wind isn’t turning. So if we don’t keep going, it could catch us.

You’re walking for your life. You just have to keep walking.

We walked so far that day that I quit being able to stop, because my feet hurt so bad when we would start up that I had to just not rest because I couldn’t. I was afraid that if I stopped one more time, I wouldn’t ever start hiking again. I think it was a 32-mile day that last day.

When we walked out, probably the last two miles were right at the edge of the Three Sisters Wilderness, and we had a view of Mount Jefferson. It was covered in wildflowers, and it was kind of wild to have this juxtaposition of this very black scorched earth next to these beautiful wild flowers and lush grass, and thinking about how, if given the chance, the earth really can and does heal itself, but we have to let it.

I’d had feelings of elation from being outside. You summit something, or you catch a wave, and you feel incredible and free and small in a really good way. But this was very different. This was like, Oh shit, like the world is burning.

I think if you live in a city you’ve never been outside, this all sounds very esoteric, and Yeah, yeah, yeah, so what? It doesn’t impact me. And then when you’re actually in it, and you see it being destroyed right in front of you, it’s profound.

That’s one of the things I think about a lot at Venture Out, is we don’t explicitly talk about turning people into environmentalists, or asking them to go out and do anything in the world. But we do highlight the magic that is the natural world, and the beauty of these places that we take people to. And my hope is that by experiencing these places and seeing how magical the world is, people will want to take some action.

Perry Cohen is the founder of the Venture Out Project, Base Camp at Beaver Falls, and Transhealth Northampton. He and his partner, Amy, and their four children make their home in the hills and trails of Western Massachusetts. You can learn more about Perry’s work by visiting

You can follow The Daily Rally on SpotifyApple PodcastsStitcher, or wherever you like to listen. Subscribe to our newsletter and nominate someone to be featured on the show.

Lead Photo: Courtesy The Venture Out Project

Trending on Outside Online