By Brandon Loomis
Peggie Allen has seen “the look” that some white people make when they see a Black woman such as her at a mountain or lakeside resort.
It’s a quizzical look, she said, and it says, “What in the world are you doing here?”
Sometimes they even ask out loud, when she’s enjoying the Sagamore’s views on Lake George or Whiteface Mountain’s ski slopes near Lake Placid.
It’s one of the reasons she prefers to visit the park and other outdoorsy destinations with a group of friends.
“It’s a Black-person-in-America thing,” she said, and it’s especially pronounced in places like the Adirondacks – ruggedly beautiful landscapes often stereotypically viewed as the domain of white adventurers. The park belongs to all New Yorkers, though, and all have a stake in protecting it for future enjoyment.
That’s why there’s a group called Outdoor Afro, and it’s why Allen, from Troy, joined an Outdoor Afro canoe trip this month to gaze at loons and savor Little Clear Pond’s peaceful waters.
“There’s definitely comfort in numbers,” Allen said, and then asked whether white people would be comfortable skiing or hiking if they saw only Black people at their destinations. “It takes a lot to be the only person of color.”
Outdoor Afro is a national network of trained outings leaders whose goals are to connect Black people to the outdoors, protect the outdoors and “reimagine Blackness in the outdoors” by exploring Black contributions. From New York’s Capital Region, Benita Law-Diao organizes trips into the Adirondacks, including the Little Clear Pond outing.
“I love the Adirondacks,” said Law-Diao, who has been visiting routinely for decades. When she moved to the Albany area and discovered the nearby mountains, she couldn’t believe her luck – but also couldn’t find people to come with her. “People of color thought I was crazy.”
Like Allen, she has experienced looks and questions when she ventures into the Adirondacks, including, “How did you find it?” she said, as if her questioner might be thinking: “We’re trying to keep it to ourselves.” Often, she said, people assume she’s unprepared for a hike, without asking about her experience or preparations.
She found her “family” of like-minded people when she trained with Outdoor Afro. A half-dozen New Yorkers followed her on the July canoe outing, joined by naturalists from the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation. They observed loons on both Little Clear Pond and Little Green Pond, near Paul Smiths, and learned about how acid rain and mercury from power plant smokestacks had harmed the population until the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments set off a comeback.
Connecting diverse citizens to nature is part of Law-Diao’s mission, because she wants all New Yorkers to consider their role in protecting their forests, their waters, their air — their park.
“If people are exposed to these spaces and grow to love these spaces,” she said, “then they’ll want to protect these spaces. If they’re cut off from them, how do you expect them to want to protect the Adirondacks or the Catskills or the Berkshires or any of these spaces around us?”
During their outing, the group viewed one loon on its nest and paddled among others that dove on one side of them and popped up on their other to call for their partners. The canoeists floated under a tall white pine where a bald eagle perched, and they looked up to the fire tower on St. Regis Mountain.
Paddlers said the calm waters soothed them, and gave them a new appreciation for their state’s wildlands.
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Yusuph Njie traveled from Schenectady for the occasion. On the drive up, he passed mountains and ponds along state Route 73 that he recognized from his previous drives through the park for his work delivering medical supplies to Malone and other North Country towns. The paddling trip was his first time slowing down to enjoy the Adirondacks, but likely not his last.
“I love it,” he said at day’s end. “It’s relaxing.”
And then, he said the thing Law-Diao and her friends at Outdoor Afro hope to inspire every participant to repeat.
“I’m coming back.”
louis curth says
Finding our “Adirondack comfort zone” is a discovery story about nature that goes all the way back to William H. H. Murray and beyond. It should be no surprise to anyone that black people are rediscovering the wonders of nature in greater numbers just as white people have in past centuries.
The benefits of an organization like Outdoor Afro are manyfold. They are introducing black people to nature, much as the NYS licensed guide program has done ever since the program was revised in the 1980s for the protection and nurture of a largely white clientele. The “comfort zone” benefits from these partnerships will also help the Adirondack region to rise above “the look” and adapt successfully to the diverse America that our future economy will depend upon.
As diversity among outdoor users grows, many more people of color will also join the ranks of those who advocate for the continued protection of our beautiful Adirondack environment, and their support will be very welcome indeed.
Vanessa B says
This is a good article, many kudos. I also wish it wasn’t “news” that non-white people enjoy nature.
And to connect the theme a bit, I also think it’s the Explorer’s responsibility to speak more directly to the issues that cause some non-white people to be uncomfortable in the Adirondacks. This article is about racism without mentioning that word as far as I can see. Why would white people find people of color out of place in the first place? Is it a non-white person’s job to publicize their discomfort so we can figure out what’s going on?
Whereas, again local media is uselessly churning its wheels over the “debate” re the confederate flag because it appeared in a July 4th parade in Ticonderoga. (A parade that was apparently attended by a certain “nice guy hiker” state senator who has been given lots of free publicity in this same publication. I don’t mean to necessary imply that the politician in question endorses the confederate flag, but then again, as far as I’m aware, no one has ever thought to ask him what he thinks about race and racism in his community, so I don’t know his views.)
It is important that a publication that gets clicks from reporting on issues related to race be realistic, respectful and thoughtful about its own editorial approach. Is there really “neutrality” when we’re talking about racism? As respectfully as I can say this, I am not sure the Explorer is comfortable with the answer to that question.
louis curth says
The racism of both political parties is irrefutable. Therefore, the neutrality of racism is a sad and shameful reality to be faced by all of us. We can either look this fact squarely in the eye and try to do better, or we can look away in uncomfortable silence, just as many of our elected north country Republicans continue to do in response to the lies and twisted fantasies spun by their leaders.
If the arc of history truly does bend toward justice, then we must give credit to Brandon Loomis, Melissa Hart and their associates, and to other journalists like them, who persevere to bring us thought provoking articles involving racism, misogyny, poverty, environment, and much, much more. Their efforts help us all to better understand the racial and class inequalities that threaten America’s freedom and democracy, and endanger that precious legacy for ALL of America’s children.
Sailboat Scotty says
Great story! Much needed discussion.