Immediately after breakfast, our little group sat discussing what would happen next. A steady rain had been falling since late the night before and the prospects of the hike we had planned appeared grim. Holding up my iPad I showed everyone an image of the local weather radar map.
“As can see there’s a bit of window opening up,” I said pointing to a clear spot in a mass of swirling colors ranging from yellow/orange to deep red. “If we start now, we should be OK for a little while, but I’m pretty sure eventually we’re going to get wet.”
An uncertain silence settled over everyone as we each quietly weighed our options. Finally, the youngest member of the crew shared his thoughts. “I think we should just go,” said 12-year-old Cornell Davidson. “That’s why we’re here.”
The National Forest Foundation asked me to develop a storytelling project on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion on our public land as part of the “It’s All Yours Campaign. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. But the travel restrictions of the COVID-19 Pandemic added more than a few logistical challenges to a project that was already going to be a bit complicated. Air transportation to a remote national forest location near the Rocky Mountains in Colorado or the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest would have been difficult at best. The natural alternative was to simply stay close to home. Though I have traveled throughout much of the wooded backcountry of Northern Wisconsin, I had never before made a concerted effort to explore the vast area around the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest , a hours’ drive from where I live in Madison. And what better way to see this amazing wilderness than to walk along the Ice Age National Scenic Hiking Trail.
Actually, the biggest obstacle to the successful completion of this project was how to assemble a group of enthusiastic participants. My goal was to introduce both the forest and the trail to a community of people who we seldom see enjoying these beautiful tracts of public land. Nationally, Black Americans represent 13.1 percent of the United States population, but among visitors to national parks and forests our numbers include only between 2 and 7 percent of recreational users across the country. And in a state like Wisconsin, whose residents are mostly White, rates of participation in activities like camping and hiking within communities of color are lower still. This begs the question. How could I possibly create an authentic and worthwhile experience for this under-represented group of people, who may have never ventured into the outdoors before?
Ironically the global pandemic seemed to have created a unique opportunity to do just that. For more than seven months, people of color have been disproportionately impacted by infections of the New Coronavirus. In Wisconsin, of the more than 1,294 deaths that have occurred, 19 percent have been Black men and women, despite being only 6.1 percent of the population.
This horrible disease has put into sharp relief the deep disparities of health and wellness within the Black community. Many of the same medical conditions that disproportionately impact people of color, like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, leave this population vulnerable to a variety of different ailments, including the Coronavirus. However, a new study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research reveals that even a short time spent in the outdoors can reduce emotional stress, lower heart rates, and blood pressure, and provide a sense of physical wellbeing. I believe that if precautions can be taken to minimize exposure to the virus, through limited public engagement, physical distancing, the wearing of face masks, and persistent hand sanitizing, it is possible to create a safe and healthy environment where a group of conscientious individuals can enjoy a restful retreat into the natural world.
At the Rebalanced Life Wellness Association Perry specializes in efforts to improve the health outcomes of Black men in Southern Wisconsin. In the city of Madison, he provides basic monitoring and education services to encourage positive lifestyle choices including a healthy diet and regular physical exercise. Having taken part in his community programs to introduce local men of color to recreational running and cycling, I figured that he would be the perfect person with whom to partner on creating a hiking trip for Black men.
“You need to know though,” he told me. “Not many of them would be interested in camping.”
With the support of a small grant from the National Forest Foundation and the Schlecht Family Foundation, we were able to provide lodging, food, and transportation for 9 participants. We stayed at a modest motel in the town of Rib Lake, Wisconsin, which just happens to lie directly in the path of the Ice Age Trail on the edge of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The group consisted of three fathers and their sons, Perry and my friend Christopher Kilgour, an educator at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a life-long outdoor enthusiast. Everyone had a private room with a close family member with no contact with the motel staff. Kilgour and I prepare meals for everyone in a large, well-ventilated kitchen. And in a central meeting area, we were able to provide the group with basic skills training in hiking safely through the woods. The idea was to give these men and their sons an opportunity to experience the outdoors in ways that they might not have been able to before.
“I remember my maternal grandfather was a boy scout leader in the 1930s and 40s at a time when scouting wasn’t for us,” said Darryl Davidson, a public health professional from Milwaukee. “He used to have to get the books and materials from the library or church groups and not let the other leaders know he was black.”
Today Davison’s son Cornell is a boy scout working toward a merit badge in hiking. Our little outing through the Northwoods of Wisconsin gave this young man the chance to make some progress on his goal during the pandemic when limited travel and home confinement has made getting outside difficult. Despite the rain, he was perhaps more excited than any of us to start walking.
A little before 11AM we boarded our passenger van and drove about 10 miles to a trailhead just off a county road near a farm field. Though the rain continued to fall, a thick canopy of trees overhead offered a good amount of protection that made for a very pleasant walk. At a steady pace, we hiked along the trail, watching for the flash of yellow markers every 50 feet or so. The path was more than a little muddy and sodden in some spots that threaten to suck our shoes right off our feet. On our eight-mile round trip, there were stream crossings here and there but for the most part, the way was flat and easy. It was a good time for everyone, especially as many of us had been cooped up indoors or putting in long hours at worksites during the pandemic.
“I’ve got young kids at home and I’m on the job 12 hours a day, six days a week,” said Selwyn Skinner-Roy, an automobile mechanic. “It’s been a great trip. I really, really needed this.”
The main purpose of our experience in the woods was to demonstrate how accessible the forest can be. When I give a public talk I am often asked: “What can we do to encourage more people of color to experience the outdoors?” The exact answer to that question certainly varies from one community to the next. But in general, by removing many of the barriers to access we were able to create a pleasant, safe, stress-free environment that can give each participant the opportunity to relax and truly enjoy themselves. With the support of knowledgeable leaders and just a little bit of guidance, it is possible to show the people we most want to reach that they can create similar experiences for themselves and perhaps in the future bring their family and friends with them.
“I never really knew the menu of things to do,” said Norman Davis. “Now that I have a better idea, I’d like to try something like this again.”
At its core, the Black Men Northwoods Retreat was meant to give all those involved a much-needed escape from the ever-present stresses of the COVID-19 Pandemic. But it is also our intention to reveal the healing power of the natural environment for those members of our community who need it most. From their time spent in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, it is our hope that they and others with relatively limited access to nature will find solace and comfort in the green spaces all around them. I also hope that those who are interested in creating similar opportunities will realize that by making these experiences fun, safe, and socially relevant to the people they aim to serve, we can effectively work to shrink the divide between those who spend time in nature for recreation and those who don’t. It’s possible that each participant will come away from events like this one eager to discover the natural areas not too far from their homes. And with a little luck, they may even become environmental advocates to one day work to protect the public land they have come to love.