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Love and fear in the wilderness

People of color, underrepresented in Adirondack backcountry, speak of beauty tainted by racism

Four outdoorspeople of color participate in a forum about their experiences hiking and exploring, and the reasons why Black people may feel unwelcome in the Adirondack woods. Clockwise from top left are Aaron Mair, Michael DeJesus, Benita Law-Diao and Chris Fernando. (Screenshot)

It is Labor Day weekend, one of the most popular times of the year for hiking in the Adirondacks, and the backcountry will likely be filled with people from all over, looking to enjoy the outdoors in the midst of a global pandemic.

Statistically, very few of them will be people of color.

In an Aug. 6 forum on recreation, part of the “Black Experience in the Adirondacks” series hosted by the Adirondack Experience museum and Adirondack Diversity Initiative, four outdoorspeople of color discussed why, and spoke with regret over the lack of racial diversity in the woods.

A 2017 study conducted for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism estimated that 96.1% of all visitors to Essex County were white, as were 94.2% of all visitors to Franklin County and 96.8% of all visitors to Hamilton County.

That does not represent New York’s or America’s demographic makeup. The U.S. Census Bureau shows this state is 55% “white alone, not Hispanic or Latino” and that the U.S. is 60%.

So what is keeping more people of color from coming to explore, play and learn in the wilderness here? There are many reasons, according to those speaking in the forum, but at the core is fear — a fear rooted in a long history of violence, personal experiences with racism and a near-constant flow of cautionary tales being reported in the media, locally and nationally.

A transformative view

While the speakers said the vast majority of their Adirondack experiences have been positive, one bad or scary experience can taint future interaction or discourage some from returning.

Though each speaker had a story of being treated differently or with hostility in the woods, they said their love of the outdoors is bigger than other people’s bigotry.

“For me, I have an arrogance about me,” said Benita Law-Diao, a licensed dietitian/nutritionist and avid hiker. “My family asks me, ‘Why would you go to New Hampshire, Maine or Vermont?’ Because I have every right to be there.”

The stories and personal accounts the presenters spoke of depicted experiencing the wilderness as moving, inspirational, even spiritual. Law-Diao, who lives in New York’s Capital Region, spoke of how her heart lifts when she makes the drive to the Adirondacks, where she has worked and recreated for years.

She recalled taking a group of women, all former prison inmates, up for a hike on Sleeping Beauty Mountain, on the east side of Lake George, after they had seen photos of her North Country adventures.

She guided them through the common rookie hiker mistakes: eating too much food early, lighting up a smoke on the trail and believing descending hikers when they said they were “almost there.”

She figured this would be no big deal for the women, as Sleeping Beauty is a relatively small mountain, until they reached the peak and were met with the view.

“When we got to the summit, these women cried,” Law-Diao said. “They had never done anything like this. They had a sense of achievement. … This is why I do this.”

Michael DeJesus, an adventurous outdoorsman whose wife works for the state Department of Conservation, said he brought a group of kids on a camping trip last year and took them up Baxter Mountain in the town of Keene. He said he was told one of the boys mostly stayed indoors, playing video games.

When they got to the summit, DeJesus said, the kid was struck with the unique vastness of the view.

“He said, ‘I feel so free,'” DeJesus said.

He said this was one of the best moments of his life, and reinforced his belief that he has a responsibility to introduce others to the wilderness.

They said for many Black people, growing up and living in an urban environment is the norm. However, they said it was not always this way.

“A lot of folks feel that people of color enjoying the outdoors is a new thing,” said Aaron Mair, former president of the Sierra Club. “Many African-Americans are one or two generations from having free access to the outdoors.”

He said many of their families lived in the rural South but were driven out by racism.

Several speakers framed their travels as reconnecting with the land.

“But we still have that old struggle that terrorized our ancestors out of the South,” Mair said.

Danger still exists

Several speakers mentioned seeing Confederate flags and bumper stickers while driving around the North Country.

Clifton Harcum, a diversity coordinator for SUNY Potsdam who did not participate in the forum, said later that a Confederate flag in the North has a single, clear message. It makes Black people feel like they could be a target, he said. In the backcountry, these messages stay in the back of his mind.

Harcum, who moved to the area in the spring, has quickly acclimated himself to the High Peaks, climbing 21 mountains to date. His progress briefly halted, he said, when racist graffiti, including racist slurs, was found on a popular walking path in Saranac Lake.

“It stopped me for several weeks,” Harcum said. “But I had to make my own internal decision not to allow something like that to stop me from enjoying where I live.

“But it has made me more aware that there are people in the community who feel that way about me, which I didn’t feel prior to that. That’s a big difference on my comfort level.”

Mair mentioned a recent report of an off-duty police officer from Cohoes at his second home in Elizabethtown. This officer allegedly made a false report to State Police about getting in a gunfight with a group of Black youths who were walking around on the road outside his lakeside house. According to a report in the Times Union of Albany, he said he believed they were Antifa, or left-wing radical activists. When State Police responded, they said, the officer, Sean McKown, appeared to be drunk. McKown later told them he shot his gun into a tree stump and that the youths didn’t display or fire a gun. State Police descibed his statements as inconsistent, but no charges were filed, and he was allowed to retire rather than face disciplinary charges. State Police reopened the case this week.

“Their lives were at risk,” Mair said of the Black youths.

Mair himself was involved in a well-publicized incident of backcountry racism in 2016, when he was being interviewed and photographed about being president of the Sierra Club. People floating by on the Schroon River yelled racial slurs at Mair and a female Black photographer after arguing with him about environmental issues.

Law-Diao said she never thought she had to worry about being Black in the Adirondacks. However, she said through her job as a state Department of Health dietician — in which she traveled to 23 counties, including Essex, Franklin and Clinton — she had several “interesting encounters” with people who treated her differently.

In one case, a neighbor called police on her as she looked for the entrance to a food pantry at a church. In another, she arrived early to meet a nun, and a priest questioned what she was doing in the neighborhood.

“He just kept interrogating me,” Law-Diao said. “He really felt I didn’t need to be in the neighborhood, and I really think it was because of my color.”

Chris Fernando, a voracious hiker who has summitted the 46 High Peaks in both summer and winter, said nature is inviting and that everyone he meets on the trails is friendly and welcoming. But he rarely goes into town. He said this is out of a concern that he will be unwelcome or seen as “less than.”

He described a more solitary experience in his excursions, spending time with his adventure crew or himself.

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A follow-up article on this forum, focusing on attendees’ ideas and hopes for the future, will appear in Tuesday’s Enterprise.

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