Diversify the Adirondacks, one rafting (or hike) descent at a time

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Going out for a hike or a paddle isn’t just fun, it’s good for you. Being in the woods and in the mountains builds confidence and leadership skills and it’s great exercise.

But there is a racial divide between those who reap these benefits. Studies show that the people who hike, stand up paddleboard and ski in places like the Adirondacks are mostly white.

A student program at SUNY Potsdam aims to bridge this gap and make the outdoors more welcoming to people of color. On their last trip, the group rafted the Hudson River Gorge in the Adirondacks.

Emilie RusselDiversify the Adirondacks, one rafting (or hike) descent at a time

Jessica Semenyo, senior at SUNY Potsdam, grew up in Ghana and now lives in the Bronx. Photo: Emily Russell

The sun is shining on the banks of the Indian River. I am here with about 30 students from SUNY Potsdam. We have black wetsuits and tight fitting red life jackets.

We are getting ready to go rafting from the Indian to the Hudson River. I’m on a boat with four black women from the Bronx.

Just before getting on the boat, I check with Regine Tinsely and ask her how she is feeling. “I’m pretty excited about it, really excited, ”Tinsely said. She is in her final year at SUNY Potsdam studying early childhood education.

I ask him if there is anything that worries him. “Fall off the boat,” she said. “Being too far away where they can’t reach me. That’s about it.”

Regine Tinsley and Fatima Kava were among two seniors from SUNY Potsdam to raft down the Hudson River.  Photo: Emily Russell

Regine Tinsley and Fatima Kava were among two seniors from SUNY Potsdam to raft down the Hudson River. Photo: Emily Russell

Tinsley and these girls are way outside their comfort zone. They have never done white water rafting before and none of them can swim. Still, they wade through the cool water and get on the boat.

As we begin to paddle, our guide from Adirondac Rafting Company, Chris Makowicki, gives us an overview of the day.

“We will pass through the wilderness of the Hudson River Gorge, so this is the deepest part of the Hudson,” says Makowicki. “It’s also the narrowest, so the water will go through that and we have some class four sections.”

Class 4 rapids can be quite intense so this day is not going to be easy for us, In a few minutes, the water begins to bubble. Makowicki shouts at us to advance three blows and then to advance two blows.

The Indian Lake-based Adirondac Rafting Company guided the rafting trip through the Hudson River Gorge.  Photo: Emily Russell

The Indian Lake-based Adirondac Rafting Company guided the rafting trip through the Hudson River Gorge. Photo: Emily Russell

Water rushes into the boat. We descend into another rapid. The boat rocks and in an instant one of the girls, Osiris Alvarez is knocked down.

We were told in advance that if we did fall we had to keep our feet in the air and hold our paddle. Alvarez does both. In seconds, our guide grabs her and brings her back inside.

“Were you scared?” I ask her after she has settled back into the boat.

“I was scared,” Alvarez says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, feet in the air, feet up,” then I felt him push me up. It happened so fast, but it was fun ” Alvarez is completely drenched, she just got pulled off a quick and she smiles. The other girls too.

The pupils help each other to get back into the boat.  Photo: Emily Russell

The pupils help each other to get back into the boat. Photo: Emily Russell

This is the moment that it is today to bring out the students of color, to strengthen their self-confidence and to show them that they have their place here.

Clifton Harcum says that for people of color, especially in the city, going outside can often seem out of reach. Harcum grew up in Baltimore and is now director of the Center for Diversity at SUNY Potsdam.

“I am from the city. I never did any of that, I never had any money to do any of that, I never thought I belonged to a place like [this]. No, I’m like them, ”said Harcum.

Recent data from the National Park Service shows that only 6% of visitors to these parks are black. Harcum feels it in the Adirondacks. He loves hiking, but says he’s often the only black man on the trail.

SUNY Potsdam's “Live Now” program aims to introduce more students of color to outdoor opportunities.  Photo: Emily Russell

SUNY Potsdam’s “Live Now” program aims to introduce more students of color to outdoor opportunities. Photo: Emily Russell

Harcum therefore joined forces with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, the Wilderness Education Program and Venture Outdoors organize outings for students of color. As part of the program, called “Live Now,” he has brought students ice fishing, sledding and now whitewater rafting.

“It was just perfect,” said Harcum. “I was able to spend time with people like me, I was able to solve some of the problems in the Adirondacks and give our students opportunities that they would not normally have in this region.”

Harcum says there is still a lot of work to do to make the Adirondacks. Data shows that most of the people who visit the park are white, despite being within a few hours’ drive of various cities like New York and Boston. Many people of color say they don’t feel welcome in the Adirondacks.

Jessica Semenyo says she had a great four years in the North Country and that the Live Now program is a big part of it.

“Coming here was one of the best decisions I personally ever made because now I could tell people that I had done this,” Semenyo says. “I am delighted to tell people that I have done white water rafting or ice fishing or a mountain.”

Semenyo is a senior at SUNY Potsdam and specializes in community health. She says these outdoor experiences have helped her gain self-confidence and show her what she’s capable of.

“I want to get more outside experience now because it’s really fun,” says Semenyo. “It pushes me out of my comfort zone. “

The students climbed a rock in the river and jumped into the water.  Photo: Emily Russell

The students climbed a rock in the river and jumped into the water. Photo: Emily Russell

As we descend the Hudson, the girls begin to paddle in a more synchronized fashion. We hit another big fast and the boat is full of laughs.

Eventually the river flattens out and at this point in the day the sun is high in the sky. The girls encourage each other to jump in. Fatima Kava stops her nose and jumps in. When she’s ready to go 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 off the boat or chooses to jump in and needs help getting out of the water.

Osiris Alvarez and Fatima Kava rafting the Hudson River Gorge in the Adirondacks.  Photo: Emily Russell

Osiris Alvarez and Fatima Kava rafting the Hudson River Gorge in the Adirondacks. Photo: Emily Russell

As we descend to the sofa bed, I ask Kava why she finally decided to go on this trip.

“I did it because my friends wanted to do it,” Kava says. “I was like, why don’t you try it? I don’t think I would ever get a chance to do it, so let me do it and if I do and if I like it, I probably will. more and more frequently.

Kava says she was really nervous at first and there were some pretty scary moments along the way, “But I would do it again,” Kava says. “I would do it again.”

That’s the goal, for these students here to catch the outdoors bug, and maybe even become the next generation of paddlers and hikers.


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