23 Aug A Tale of Two Emails
More than a year ago I received a disappointing message via email. I had recently published an article in National Geographic Travel about an experience I shared guiding a group of Black and Latino outdoor leaders from Detroit and Grand Rapids Michigan on their first ice climbing trip. Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic, with the support of grant funding from the National Society and Patagonia, I put together a modest expedition to visit the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along the frozen cliffs of Lake Superior.
The purpose of this project was to remove the financial and cultural barriers that too often prevent people of color from venturing out into the great outdoors, particularly in our national parks. I wanted to create a safe and supportive environment where folks from these underrepresented communities might have a fun and rewarding experience doing something they have never done before. Our intention was to provide these leaders with practical skills training so that they could return their urban neighborhoods and perhaps create similar opportunities closer to home.
More than a few readers of National Geographic objected to the very idea of intentionally taking people of color into the outdoors. One person in particular had this to say.
“I look at your articles and writing. Almost exclusively Black. BlackLivesMatter and so on. Diversity. Inclusion. Blah blah blah. On and on. I think this is a reflection of your indoctrination and yourself, not of anyone else. Certainly not of anyone I know or in my community. I wouldn’t think twice about the race of someone I passed while hiking the Appalachian trail. Nor can I imagine any of my friends being so pitiful they would whine about “outdoors” or hiking for “people of color”. Of course, my friends are not “African” Americans. Nor are you. They are Americans. And that’s it. But you need that extra cushion. You need that excuse for failure that others don’t have. Honestly, I cannot imagine living a day in your life, seeing through your eyes. It truly must be pitiful to live that life. I feel sorry for you. Just know that you are projecting yourself and your own feelings of race into your articles. Yet, you aren’t held back by anything in this country other than your own mind. How sad.”
I can’t recall in my 55 years of life ever being thought of as “pitiful”. Truthfully, I wish that creating safe spaces for people of color in the outdoors was indeed unnecessary. I suppose in principle I agree with so many NatGeo readers who “aren’t racist” but wish that we could all just get along by pretending that racial disparities are a thing of the past. Certainly, there are no legal limitations that prohibit Black and brown folks from going outside, but that doesn’t mean there are no racially inspired barriers that impede access to public land. Though I have personally experienced few, if any, direct obstacles as a Black man to my visiting and spending time in our national parks, I know that there are indeed those who have. And even if it is a matter of misconception, to a person who feels unwelcome, what they perceive as a roadblock can be manifest as reality. If we are truly serious about making the outdoors accessible to everyone, we must do what we can to remove those perceptions whenever possible.
Earlier this month I had the great privilege of sharing a presentation at the Environment For the Americas Conference in Washington D.C. Supported by the United States Department of Interior and the National Park Service, this annual meeting brings together the many interns who had spent their summers working at monuments, memorials and natural heritage sites around the country. My keynote was part of the three day event between DOI Secretary Deborah Haaland and NPS Director Chuck Sams (no pressure). As part of the Mosaics In Science and Latino Heritage Internship programs, more than 50 young men and women, who identify as people of color, gathered in our nation’s capital to share their experiences in service to the preservation and protection of public land.
(Photograph above: National Park Service Director Chuck Sams in front of the Department of Interior Building in Washington D.C. with members the Mosaics In Science and Latino Heritage Internship programs)
I have to admit that I was completely blown away the impressive caliber of these dedicated first-year professionals. Though most have yet to graduate from college, each of them seemed utterly resolved to the prospects of devoting the next several years of their lives to jobs in the myriad bureaus of federal land management, National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, etc. Hoping to score positions ranging from foresters and park rangers to naturalists and historians, everyone there appeared to be absolutely certain in their decisions to serve. Surrounded by so much selfless ambition I felt more than a bit intimidated by the notion that as I gave my talk, they were all looking to me for inspiration.
Toward the end of my remarks, I shared a few PowerPoint slides with images from our recent fly-fishing trip the Gates of the Arctic National Park. Back in July I traveled with 5 other Black environmental leaders to produce a film on our journey into the wilds of Alaska. One young man, an avid angler who had also read my book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, was prompted to write me this note in an email.
“I’ve never met another person of color who was passionate about fly fishing before and meeting you (plus several other Mosaics fly fishing fans) really brought the message of The Adventure Gap home to me. I’ve never been part of the fly-fishing community before, but while trading fly tying tips and fishing locations with some of the other interns, I realized how something I’ve always considered to be a solo pursuit can actually bring people together. I’ve never really thought of pursuing a career in the outdoor industry as a viable option for myself, and I really appreciate how our brief conversation let me shift my perspective a bit. The Mosaics program is truly amazing, but sometimes I forget that there are other career options besides a permanent federal position. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts or advice about ways to integrate a love of outdoor recreation into a career. I know that my three great passions of fly fishing, falconry, and birding are activities that have historically been dominated in the US by white men, and I’ve been so excited to see several new organizations and clubs promoting diversity on the water or in the field! I know I’ll keep fly fishing for the rest of my life, but I’m also curious about ways to take my passion even further and consider ways to share my love of healthy streams, gorgeous fish, and homemade flies with a wider audience.”Not to sell myself short, but any of the success I have enjoyed over last three decades of my career in the outdoor recreation industry I owe to the support and encouragement of many good friends and mentors. Nothing I have achieved as a writer or photographer would be possible without the guidance of kind people who have shared with me their love and excitement for the outdoors. Without a clear path of education, training and professional experience to suggest to any young person just starting out, all I can recommend is to adopt an attitude of generosity that inspires a willingness to give back to your community.
“The best advice I can give you is to share your passion with others,” I replied. “Whenever possible, try to help those around you to have the same experiences you want to create for yourself. As it happens, I’m leading a BIPOC fly-fishing retreat this weekend to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I managed to get a bunch of gear donated for our participants as well as some grant funding to cover our expenses and a modest financial compensation for myself and my co-leader. Chances are there are folks in your community who could learn from your experience and expertise. Just look for opportunities to welcome others into the world you want to build for yourself.”
I’ll be heading back to the U.P. with a few of the same folks who came along on our ice climbing trip in the winter of 2021. On the invitation of my old friend Bill Thompson owner of Downwind Sports in Marquette, Michigan, our trip was put together by Grand Rapids community organizer Alice Jasper. With far fewer restrictions since the Pandemic, our health care considerations will hopefully be limited to negative Covid tests, thorough hand-washing, and excellent personal hygiene. We’ll also continue to create a safe space for our participants to experience fly-fishing on their public lands for the first time.There is really no point in arguing with haters online over the real or perceived presence of racial disparities in the accessibility of outdoor recreation. The two emails I received demonstrate the diametrically opposed points of view that frame the cultural debate, but there is little be served in taking sides. All that matters is that we create opportunities to provide role models in the field that represent the breath of our population so that everyone can see that they have a place in nature. It is my intention to establish a learning community in which everyone in our group can be made to feel supported and encouraged to succeed. I think it’s important to take into consideration the concerns and apprehensions of newcomers to any unfamiliar environment. Because if it is our purpose to encourage them to have a good time, to share their experience with others and perhaps one day return, it is these positive encounters with the natural world that will inspire them to love it. And as we hope to inspire more people from communities across humanity to become stewards of our public land, the things they love most are those they are likely to protect.
The U.P. Fly Fishing Expedition is made possible thanks to the support of the Sierra Club’s Detroit Outdoors Program and the Our Wild America Campaign . Special thanks to our gear sponsors Orvis, Patagonia, Fulling Mill, Outdoor Research and Yeti