On the deep human need to be outside

The isolation of COVID-19 has made the outdoors even more important.

  • Shortly after the closure of the University of Washington’s campus cherry blossoms in March during the coronavirus outbreak, groups of Seattleites are out visiting them, albeit in small and socially-distanced groups.

  • In late March, a woman relaxes by herself on an extraordinary sunny day at Judkins Park in Seattle.

  • Two days after the beginning of Washington State’s official stay-at-home order, students and others were still visiting the University of Washington’s cherry blossoms.

  • In early April, athletes were still out in force at Judkins skatepark in Seattle. Though the skaters were naturally socially-distanced to some extent, they ended up clustered waiting for their drops, and crashing into each other as they took photos.

  • Windblader Bobby Johnston, who works for Slingshot Kites, in a parking lot along the Columbia River in Hood River, Oregon. “I love Hood River. I love being able to kite and ski in the same day. I can wingblade here [in this parking lot] right now because of the pandemic, but normally during spring it's full of cars.”

  • The weekend after statewide beach closures in Oregon due to the pandemic in April, locals are found cycling or walking along the boardwalks in Seaside. Seaside is normally a busy tourist town, especially on sunny weekends in spring and summer.

  • A family cycles down an empty boardwalk the tourist town of Seaside, Oregon, in early April, after the beaches are closed.

  • Families with private homes along the beach in West Seattle revel in the good weather with bonfires and small get-togethers. Still a few days before Washington’s official stay-at-home order, the beaches were crowded and groups still sizable.

  • Kyle and Mafer, two adventurers that are living out of their van, stop for the evening to make a campfire and some maté tea near Stanley, Idaho, in late April. Mafer, from Ecuador, found herself stuck by her country’s sudden border closure as the pandemic coronavirus began, and has been traveling with Kyle across the western U.S,, finding remote climbing areas and more.

  • In late March, just a few days prior to the offical Washington State stay-at-home order, people in mostly small groups flocked to beaches and parks in West Seattle, taking advantage of unseasonably warm dry weather.

  • Gasworks Park in Seattle, on a warm spring evening in early April, has its share of walkers and small individual groups scattered throughout. The park is typically packed with boat traffic and people gathered to watch the city skyline at sunset.

  • A closed playground area on the beach at Seaside, Oregon, on April 9. Even locals are disallowed access due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 after packed beaches the previous weekend.

  • Surf kayaker Chris Welch, packing a retro Wold Ski from the 80s, at Westport beach, Washington, during the pandemic in April. “I hope people are able to get back in touch with nature right now. I see a lot of overemphasis on work here in America,” says Welch. “It’s a real draw to me, anywhere nature is in charge.”

  • Windsurfer Kelsey Cardwell, in Hood River, Oregon, after a surf session. “It’s about finding that balance between staying safe and making smart decisions about where you put yourself. We’re four adults living together; I know everyone is fearful about where our jobs will be impacted by this, trying to make smart decisions about our mental health through all this.”

  • Windsurfers from Hood River, Oregon, find a way to get out and catch the wind during Oregon’s lockdown in April. Says Kelsey Cardwell, “[Windsurfing] is one of the few activities we can do without being near other people. We want to set a good example for everyone else – we don’t want to flaunt access to the outdoors. That’s why we’re not getting outside nearly as much as we otherwise would.”

  • Lila Danielle dances in the surf at Cannon Beach, Oregon. “I can’t not dance. If I sit inside, it’s not the best way to be emotionally and mentally healthy,” says Danielle. “If I can move what I feel inside through me, I feel much better.”


This story was produced in collaboration with Outside Magazine.

Even as states throughout the West relax their stay-at-home orders, this spring will long be remembered as a moment of separation from friends, families, and community. But while the pandemic forced isolation, it helped create new values and connections, including for people aching to get outside.

Photographer and Seattle resident Kiliii Yuyan was one of them. In April, he hit the road — with his protective gear in place and a plan to maintain social distance — in an effort to document how people were getting out there. What he found speaks to this unique moment, creating new ways to think about what being outside really means. Most people were doing their part to control the pandemic: beaches were nearly empty, and playgrounds devoid of raucous children. Sunshine and warm weather tempted some residents to take walks or bike rides, while others hopped on their skateboards, surfboards or windsurfers. Most were conscientious in maintaining social distance.

Yuyan’s work demonstrates a deep human need to be outside, to do things, and it demonstrates why prolonged isolation orders will be challenged in the months ahead. Of the need to get outside, Lila Danielle, a lone dancer on Oregon’s Cannon Beach, told Yuyan: “I can’t not dance. If I sit inside, it’s not the best way to be emotionally and mentally healthy. If I can move what I feel inside through me, I feel much better. The natural beauty here calls me. It brings me peace.” –Roberto (Bear) Guerra

Photographer Kiliii Yuyan uncovers the hidden stories of polar regions, wilderness and Indigenous communities. Informed by ancestry that is both Nanai (Siberian Native) and Chinese-American, he explores the the human relationship to the natural world from different cultural perspectives. Kiliii is an award-winning feature contributor to National Geographic Magazine and other publications. You can find his work at kiliii.com and on Instagram at @kiliiiyuyan.

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