ADK’s first Black Summit Steward encourages people of color to explore Adirondack trails
By Cloey Callahan, Times Union
She grew up in the Town of Newburgh and by high school had joined her high school’s cross-country team, kickstarting her journey and connection with the outdoors.
Now, Klarisse Torriente is cementing her love of nature in a role she assumed last summer, as the first Black Summit Steward for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). She hopes to encourage other BIPOC to enjoy the outdoors.
“It was the access to having friends who in their spare time could be in the outdoors,” said Torriente, who is now Albany based and the Diversion Manager at Joseph’s House and Shelter in Troy. “All of these friends were white. I was the only person of color on my cross-country team at that time.”
Stewards educate the public about alpine ecosystems, maintain trails above treeline, and perform scientific research, and have either a volunteer or professional role (Torriente is a volunteer). The ADK’s steward program was established in 1989 as a collaboration between ADK, the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
People of color are not often in leadership positions when it comes to outdoor recreation. At least 79 percent of full-time permanent employees of National Park Service (NPS) are white, while African Americans represent just under 7 percent and Latinos make up 5.6 percent of the NPS’ permanent full-time workforce.
Data from the National Park Service shows that 6 percent of visitors to its parks are Black, although Black Americans comprise more than 12 percent of the population. One study proposes different explanations for the low numbers of minorities visiting national parks, including differing cultural priorities and geographic proximity to the outdoors.
“I heard these stereotypes my whole life because I am Black,” said Torriente. “It took me being out there for me to ask, ‘Where did this come from? Why does the idea that Black people don’t hike or don’t swim exist?’”
Making the outdoors more inclusive
Torriente set out to understand how Black Americans experience nature, and says our country’s history of racism is one reason why people of color shy from being in the outdoors.
“With [the history of] lynching, there is the fear of going out in the woods because you don’t know if you’re going to come back,” said Torriente.
Current events don’t dispel that fear. In New York City’s Central Park, a white woman called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black bird watcher and New York City Audubon Society board member, after he asked her to leash her dog. In 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was shot while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood.
A historic wealth gap that makes access to transportation and equipment harder for Black Americans is another hurdle. Most hikes aren’t reachable by public transit and require a car. Camping or more extensive hiking calls for gear that isn’t always cheap.
But a number of efforts and organizations are trying to right the imbalance and make wild places more welcoming to Black Americans. Groups like Outdoor Afro, which was founded in 2009 with a mission to create a community of African Americans who like to explore the outdoors and has an Albany/Upstate New York chapter, bring together people of color exploring the outdoors.
In December 2019, the Adirondack Diversity Initiative hired its first director, Nicole Hylton-Patterson of the Bronx, to help make the Adirondack region a more inclusive place for residents and visitors.
At SUNY Potsdam, a new program called “Live Now” encourages BIPOC students to explore the Adirondacks. The program hosts different recreational trips from hiking to white water rafting to cross country skiing this winter.
“A lot of people come up here [from New York City] and they aren’t familiar with the region,” said Clifton Harcum, director of the Center of Diversity at SUNY Potsdam. “I thought it would be good for our students to explore the region, get out of their comfort zone and learn things about themselves.”
Harcum said the hope of the program, which is done in collaboration with Adirondack Diversity Initiative, the Wilderness Education Program, and Venture Outdoors, will give students of color an interest in the outdoors.
“A lot of the students who get involved really appreciate it because they’ve never done a lot of these things,” said Harcum.
‘Everyone should have access to this joy’
Torriente, who is looking to do the same through her work with the Adirondack Mountain Club and beyond, has also discovered that her interest in hiking isn’t intergenerational. She introduced her parents, who lived in the Bronx, to the notion of spending time in the outdoors.
“I remember going to Lake Minnewaska, which was only 30 minutes away, but my parents are both from the city and they didn’t know what it was,” said Torriente. “They didn’t go to state parks. [They didn’t have] that accessibility in their youth.”
She recently enjoyed a trek in the Catskills with her father, a Black man of Cuban descent who is largely unfamiliar with hiking, and she was able to point out to him different trees, plants and birds.
“I was trying to spend more time with myself in nature, and I’d have some not-so-great experiences with other hikers,” said Torriente, who, for example, was stopped by another hiker who tried to convince her to turn around, assuming she wasn’t capable of completing the hike. “It made me think, ‘Why is it like this? … Why am I not seeing more people of color out here?’”
In her experience, when she did see other people of color, they were with a partner or in a group of people.
“Anyone can be out here – and we need everyone to be out here if we want to protect and conserve nature,” said Torriente.
Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director, Michael Barrett, agrees.
“It’s not just about enjoying the incredible recreational opportunities public lands and waters offer, which benefit both our physical and mental health, but the ability to have access to clean air and water, and to connect with nature,” said Barrett via email. “However, barriers exist that reduce access for many, which frustrates the diverse enjoyment of outdoor spaces.”
Torriente has several hikes under her belt in the Adirondacks region, including Sleeping Beauty Hike, Buck Mountain, Black Mountain, Great Sacandaga Lake and Indian Lake. She also started tackling the high peaks in the Catskills during the pandemic. Last October, she summitted the MacIntyre Mountains in the high peaks region in the Adirondacks by herself.
“Everyone should have access to this joy,” said Torriente. “Nature is inherently healing.”
As a Summit Steward, Torriente has the opportunity to continue to educate hikers. She has helped teach hikers how to identify and protect alpine vegetation that has been around since the glaciers. Additionally, she has helped teach people safe hiking and camping practices in an effort to mitigate harm and create connections between humans and the land.
But Torriente does not just want to help Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) feel comfortable enjoying nature. “I want other people to do it, too,” she said.
The Summit Steward season runs between Memorial Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day. When it runs again next year, she hopes to continue to diversify the program. One idea she has is to provide housing to traveling stewards or offer a discount with local mountaineering shops to defray some of the expenses.
“I’m the first, but I don’t want to be the last. I hope next year, I’m not the only [BIPOC] person in the room for the Summit Stewart program.”— Klarisse Torriente
For now, she encourages others to bring their friends along for outdoor recreation, whether it be for a hike or swimming. Other ways the 100-year-old organization is increasing efforts to facilitate access for underrepresented groups including tackling transportation inequities by offering online school programming, introducing urban youth to the outdoors through local park hikes and increasing diversity in programs like the one Torriente is a part of.
“The Adirondacks, Catskills and preserving the Hudson River and ensuring we have clean energy is so far [removed] for a lot of humans if they’re BIPOC or low income,” said Torriente. “Knowing I can bring my family for free if I just have gas money and can walk around and enjoy myself, that could be a start for a lot of humans.”
Editor’s note: This first appeared in the Times Union.