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.”