Diversifying the Adirondacks, one whitewater rafting trip (or hike) at a time
Studies show that people who hike, paddle and ski in places like the Adirondacks are mostly white. A student program at SUNY Potsdam aims to close that racial gap and make the outdoors more welcoming for people of color.
For their latest trip, the group went whitewater rafting down through the Hudson River Gorge in the Adirondacks.
The sun is shining on the banks of the Indian River, where 30 students from SUNY Potsdam are decked out in black wet suits and snug-fitting red life jackets.
They’re getting ready to raft from the Indian to the Hudson River. I’m in a boat with four Black women from the Bonx.
Right before she climbs into a boat, Regine Tinsely, a senior at SUNY Potsdam studying early childhood education, says she’s excited about the day, but is worried about falling out of the boat and “being too far where they can’t reach me,” says Tinsley.
Tinsley and the three other students in her boat are well outside their comfort zones. They’ve never gone whitewater rafting before and none of them know how to swim. Still, they wade into the cool water and climb into the boat.
As we begin to paddle, the guide from the Adirondac Rafting Company, Chris Makowicki, gives a preview of the day.
“We’ll be going through the Hudson River Gorge Wilderness area, so it’s the deepest part of the Hudson,” Makowicki says. “It’s also the most narrow, so the water will funnel through that and we have a couple of class four sections.”
Class four rapids can be pretty intense, so this day is not going to be easy. Within a few minutes, the water starts to churn. Makowicki yells out for us to paddle forward three strokes and then forward two strokes.
Water sloshes into the boat. We drop down into another rapid. The boat lurches and in an instant one of the girls, Osiris Alvarez is knocked overboard.
We were told ahead of time that if we do fall in, we should keep our feet up and hold onto our paddle. Alvarez does both. Within seconds our guide grabs a hold of her and pulls her back in.
“Were you scared?” I ask her after she’s settled back in the boat.
“I was scared,” Alvarez says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, feet up, feet up,’ and then I felt him pushing me up. It happened so fast, but it was fun “ Alvarez is completely soaked, she’s just been pulled from a rapid and she’s smiling. The other girls are, too.
This moment is what today is all about– getting students of color outside, building up their confidence, and showing them they belong out here.
Clifton Harcum says for people of color, especially from the city, getting outside can often feel out of reach. Harcum grew up in Baltimore and is now the director of the Center for Diversity at SUNY Potsdam.
“I’m from the city. Never did any of this stuff, never had money to do any of this stuff, never thought that I belonged in a place like [this]. No, I’m just like them,” says Harcum.
Recent data from the National Park Service shows that just 6% of visitors to those parks are Black. Harcum feels that in the Adirondacks. He loves hiking, but says he’s often the only Black man out on the trail.
Harcum teamed up with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, the Wilderness Education Program, and Venture Outdoors to organize outings for students of color. Through the program, called ‘Live Now,’ he’s taken students ice fishing, sledding, and now whitewater rafting.
“This was just perfect,” says Harcum. “I got to hang out with people who look like me, I got to solve some of the issues in the Adirondacks and give our students some opportunities that they wouldn’t normally get in this region.”
Harcum says there’s still a lot of work to do the Adirondacks. Data shows that most people of visit the park are white, that’s despite being within a few hours’ drive of diverse cities like New York and Boston. Many people of color say they don’t feel welcome in the Adirondacks.
Jessica Semenyo says she’s had a great four years in the North Country and the Live Now program has had a lot to do with that.
“Coming here was one of the best decisions I personally have ever made because now I could tell people that I did this,” Semenyo says. “I’m excited to tell people that I went whitewater rafting or ice fishing or went on top of a mountain.”
Semenyo is a senior at SUNY Potsdam and is majoring in Community Health. She says these outdoor experiences have helped build up her confidence and show her what she’s capable of.
“I want to get more experience outside now because this is really fun,” says Semenyo. “It pushes me out of my comfort zone.”
As we wind our way down the Hudson, the girls start to paddle more in sync. We hit another big rapid and the boat is full of laughter.
Eventually, the river flattens out and by this point in the day, the sun is high in the sky. The girls cheer each other on to jump in. Fatima Kava plugs her nose and jumps in. When she’s ready to get out, the girls grab her life jacket and use their strength to pull Kava back into the boat.
These girls are now in control. They know what to do if someone falls out of the boat or chooses to jump in and needs help getting out of the water.
As we float down towards the pullout, I ask Kava, why she ultimately decided to come on this trip.
“I did it because my friends wanted to do it,” says Kava. “I was like, why not try it? I don’t think I’d ever get the opportunity to do it so let me just do it and if I do and if I like it I’ll probably do it more and more frequently.”
Kava says she was really nervous in the beginning and that there were moments that were pretty scary along the way, “but I would do it again,” says Kava. “I would do it again.”
That’s the goal, that these students here catch the outdoor bug, maybe even become the next generation of paddlers and hikers.