Bikepacking is Changing Navajo Youths’ Lives

I first met Janessa (15), Jodessa (13) and Jaron Segay (20) November 2020 in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Wanting to support Dzil Ta’ah Adventures owners, Jon Yazzie and Nadine Johnson, and their Navajo Youth Bikepacking Program, we invited these first three participants on a Four Corners Guides bikerafting course to cap off their season of learning to bikepack.

The kids didn’t talk much, and Jaron busied himself setting up camp for all of them or otherwise prepping their bikes and gear. The girls rode on borrowed bikes until dark night one, and fished for catfish with beef jerky night two. And when we first set out on Lake Powell, the three of them giggled and spun their rafts in circles for the first few miles before settling into a paddling rhythm. Since that trip, I’ve watched the kids blossom into full-fledged competitive mountain bikers. Based on their hard work, ability to take care of their own gear and confidence riding bikes, they’ve been chosen to participate in various bike- or adventure-related programs. I recently chatted with Janessa, Jaron and their mom, Jessica, to talk about how the Youth Bikepacking Program has changed their lives.

The Segays: Biking is a Family Affair

Jessica teaches 9th grade Algebra 1 at Chinle high school. She’s educated children for 23 years. At the start of the school year, she gave a presentation on bikepacking to her students. Kids on the reservation, she says, want to play college basketball or baseball.

“You rarely hear of anyone on the Navajo Nation who ride or race bikes,” she says. “But the Youth Bikepacking Program opened a lot of doors for them. They come back from trips with all these stories, and they’ve learned so much. And having positive male figures in their lives is something they really needed. They get that from Jon and also their male coaches at Diné Comp.”

Plus, they never sit still. “I always joke with them they’ll have to find spouses that ride bikes because they won’t be able to be with someone who is just going to sit at home and not do anything!”

Their hard work has paid off. All three now ride for the Dinétah Composite National Mountain Bike NICA Team, which competes in the Arizona Interscholastic Cycling League and is operated by Silver Stallion Bicycle & Coffee Works. They’ve traveled to Arkansas and Washington for races, attended training camps in Durango, Colo., and traveled to Whistler, Canada, to ride serious downhill terrain.

But It All Started With Bikepacking!

But it all started with the Youth Bikepacking Program and “Uncle” Jon Yazzie, Jessica explains. Jon first built a bike for Jaron to take to Eastern Arizona College so he could get around. But then the pandemic hit, and Jaron’s and the other kids’ schooling went online and their sports teams stopped meeting. The kids were mostly stuck at home, all five of them and mom. Jon stepped in to fill the activity void.

“After Jon built my first bike, he wanted to take me out to his trails so I could get a feel for mountain biking,” Jaron explains. “And from there I started like going on my own path and doing jumps and riding downhill stuff.” Bikes hooked him immediately.

And then the girls started borrowing Jaron’s bike.

“What inspired me to start riding was bikes could take me anywhere,” says Janessa. “I saw Jaron riding, and I wanted to start.” It also gave her more freedom to just be outdoors.

So when Jon invited them to train as youth mentors for his Navajo Youth Bikepacking Program, using Jon and Nadine’s extra bikes, all agreed. On October 4, 2020, they embarked on the first of many overnights.

“None of the kids had camped in the backcountry before learning to bikepack,” Jessica explains. So Jon took them on an easy ride just a few miles from his house so he could teach them basic riding and gear packing skills.

“It was a good opportunity for them to be able to get out of the house and do things again,” Jessica says. The interest in bikepacking quickly morphed into joining Dine Comp and the entire family, including Jessica and her two youngest kids, acquired and regularly started riding bikes.

“It’s a lot [of time and money invested], but they love it,” Jessica says. “And to be able to watch them do these crazy things on their bikes. It’s scary. I’m often like, ‘Oh my God, be careful.’ My heart pounds when they race because you can only see the start and end of the race. They go out in the trees. They go out on the trail. You don’t see them for 20 minutes to an hour. But it has really helped them.”

“Biking is in a whole different world, and it can open you up to new opportunities,” explains Jaron. The kids are fit from riding all the time, and they all know basic bike maintenance. Jaron can even take apart and put together an entire bike on his own. Plus, they are always trying new things, whether traveling out of the country or, for Jaron, working for Four Corners Guides for a season.

Just Be Happy

But most importantly, says Jessica, riding bikes just makes them happy.

The adrenaline rush is addictive, Jaron adds. “After a really good downhill or after a long climb, I just have a big smile on my face.” Plus, he’s become a part of a community he loves. When he meets other cyclists he loves talking bikes.

And Janessa just feels relaxed and calm while riding, whether jumping or riding fast downhill. “I can go outside, get away from homework and see new trails.”

Mostly she’s not afraid because she’s very comfortable on a bike.

“They have been able to do big rides with celebrity riders, and they fit right in because they had the confidence to be on bikes,” adds Jon. “They have the confidence to be outside. They can get out in tent or go camping at races or on their own because they have experience to do those things.”

And being comfortable on a bike has translated to more confidence with other things in life. Janessa feels she’s a better runner now because she’s working different types of muscles. Plus, she was invited to participate in a youth program summer 2022, where she practiced leadership skills and honed her rafting and camping skills. One day, she says, maybe she’ll guide bikepacking for Dzil Ta’ah Adventures.

For Jodessa, riding bikes gives her a sense of control and competence. “I like to have control of the bike on steep terrain and while going fast,” she says. Plus, she enjoys being really good at something.

“It’s awesome that she’s so good at it,” Jessica adds. “That’s what I keep telling her. I tell her, ‘Man, you are going places!’”

And it all started with bikepacking, she adds. “Jon is really doing a good thing with this program. I wish more parents could see how it opens a lot of doors for youth, gives them opportunities to learn, not just riding a bike, but also about different places. Jon teaches them stories of the Navajolands and Navajo history.”

And sure the kids get scared sometimes, she says. “Jaron was really nervous about going packrafting because he doesn’t know how to swim. But I reminded him he’d be wearing a life jacket. And once he was on the river, with the bike on the boat, and in control, well he learned a lot. They’re at an age where they’re learning so much. When they come back and tell me stories about how they had to do this or that, I’m like, ‘Hey you guys have really learned a lot!’ It would be great for other kids to enjoy that opportunity.”

And that’s Jon and Nadine’s goal for the fall. They hope to spread the word about how positively the program impacted the Segay kids. And they plan on inviting Jodessa, Janessa and Jaron to join them on the next youth bikepacking adventures as mentors for the kids. The pandemic put a big damper on recruitment. But Jon hopes it picks up as word gets out about the benefits of bikepacking and the fact that any kids participating can access to the Dzil Ta’ah Gear Library. The library has camping and bikepacking gear, plus some bikes. Dehydrated food is also available for those who need it.

“When we met the kids for bikerafting at Hite, Utah, the kids were quiet and just learning how to set up bikes,” Jon recalls. “Now they’re going to be in this article. They and their mother are on Instagram all the time talking about all their accomplishments. And they’re riding everywhere. They’re going places, and they’ve got smiles on their faces.”

Advice From the Experts

So you think your kids might want to try bikepacking? We hope so! Here’s some advice from the experts…

“Step out of your comfort zones and try something new,” says Jon Yazzie. “If you don’t like it, you can go back to playing Nintendo.” But you might surprise yourself.

On the other hand, be sure to not rush into things, adds Jaron. “Take it slow. You don’t always have to go hard the first time.” Then, once you get used to riding, he adds, go big (like he does). After all, as Janessa says, crashing isn’t so bad. “It’s kind of fun.”

And, if you really do get into riding bikes, whether racing or bikepacking, Janessa adds, it’s really important to understand your bike and know how to maintain it.

Jessica agrees. “If you’re spending thousands of dollars you want to make sure their bikes are maintained just like a vehicle. You don’t want something to break or wear out, and then all of a sudden what would have cost $50 to fix now costs hundreds to replace! I’ve learned the hard way. So take care of your bikes!”

Likewise, take care of your brains by always wearing a helmet. And, as her kids are now doing, have your kids wear elbow and knee pads if they’re hurtling down enduro courses.

Finally, Jessica suggests parents learn about the different types of bikes available. “I always thought there was just one kind of bike, one that you pedal! You should also learn about the different terrain your kids ride so you can get the right bike for their needs.”

And, of course, go ride with them!