Closing the Adventure Gap

Image by Chad Brown

As fall sets in across North America, I have noticed something most profound. After more than 20 years as a professional in the outdoor recreation industry, I’ve begun to see more people of color than ever before venturing out into the natural world. This is, of course, an anecdotal observation not based on numbers. But the depth and volume of stories and photographs posted to social media reveals to me that things have indeed changed.

I am both encouraged and inspired by the bold, exciting ways that black and brown men and women are expressing their love of the environment through playing in the wild. And though I believe there still exists a racial divide between those who spend time in nature and those who do not, I suspect that what I have called the Adventure Gap is slowly beginning to close.

Gulf War veteran and fly fishing professional Chad Brown has a passion for getting young people into the outdoors. Having experienced first hand the life-affirming benefits of spending time in nature, he wants to pass along to kids the importance of environmental stewardship as well as setting worthwhile goals toward seemingly impossible achievements. Many of the youths Brown serves are children of color, without the advantages of family traditions steeped in the values of environmental conservation. To put into perspective the physical challenges of outdoor recreation and the many adventures that will likely follow, Brown organized an ambitious trip to bring a group of kids from his neighborhood to the Alaskan wilderness for a few days of angling on the Kenai River.

“I’m all about thinking out of the box when it comes to connecting more inner city kids to the outdoors. And, of course, my balance to that is also using U.S. Veterans in that mix,” Brown said. “Going into the outdoors is one thing, but the idea of going to Alaska was to send a message. It’s more than just fishing. I want these kids to know they can do whatever they want to do, as long as they put their minds to it and line themselves up with the right people.”

“I want these kids to know they can do whatever they want to do, as long as they put their minds to it and line themselves up with the right people.”

Based in Portland, Oregon, Brown operates a business called Soul River. With skills in graphic design, he created a clothing line and offers classes that allow him to share his love of fly fishing. Having experienced post traumatic stress disorder after his time in the service overseas, Brown managed to resolve many of the difficulties he faced as a returning veteran through an intimate relationship with the outdoors. While fly fishing, he enjoys a special communion of mind and body in the wonders of nature. Today, with the help other service men and women, he works to provide role models and opportunities for many young people who face an increasingly urbanized existence with limited exposure to life outdoors. Brown aims to provide a worthwhile alternative to a lifestyle filled with negative options that limit kids’ ability to imagine something better: “Instead of saying no, let’s welcome the idea, even if it seems far-fetched,” he said. “You never know what the possibilities can be.”

I believe that because of the direct involvement of conscientious enthusiasts like Brown, the Adventure Gap is beginning to close. By sharing his experience and expertise, he’s helping to lead this new generation of young people beyond fear and apprehension to trying something different. As a person of color, Brown demonstrates that if someone who shares their background and upbringing can enjoy a lifestyle of fun and adventure in the outdoors, so can they.

The Adventure Gap is an unusual obstacle that I believe actually shrinks the more often it is confronted. Unlike a physical divide such as the Grand Canyon, that seems to loom larger and more beautiful every time we see it, the gap that separates people of color from the outdoors gets smaller and smaller whenever someone attempts to cross it. During the same week that Brown lead his young anglers over the Adventure Gap and into the wilds of Alaska, an international group of black adventurers trekked through the wonders of the Arizona desert to actually see the Grand Canyon.

The Nomadness Travel Tribe is a growing community of globetrotters whose 9,000 members have visited almost every country in world. With the expressed purpose of providing destination experiences for under-represented segments of the international travel market, Nomadness encourages its members to seek out unique domestic spots as well. Tribe member Jillian Gomes, who had visited the Grand Canyon on previous occasions, said she loves to see her friends marvel at this natural wonder: “We travel so much and we travel to get out of the country, but we never think about all the great things that we have in the U.S.,” said Gomes. “There are so many beautiful things to see. It’s so wonderful to appreciate all the amazing things right in your own backyard.”

“There are so many beautiful things to see. It’s so wonderful to appreciate all the amazing things right in your own backyard.”

Though some members of the Tribe might have worried about being among a relative few black folks to take in the view from the canyon rim, they quickly realized that their race would have little impact on their enjoyment of this beautiful scenic place. “I don’t think anyone got caught up in the fact that we were the only people of color,” Gomes said. “They were all just glad to be there.”

Racial disparities do indeed exist when it comes visiting national parks and other wilderness areas around the country. But with the right encouragement and support of trusted friends and mentors, more people of color will likely make a trip into the outdoors a priority.

“I’ve always wanted to go but I never had an opportunity,” said Alexandria Dotson, a Tribe member from Los Angeles. “So when I saw this trip, I thought ‘I just have to go!’ I knew the group was going to be great and the destination was going to be awesome.”
Now that she has visited the Grand Canyon, Dotson and other members of the Tribe are making plans to visit other national parks. “I can’t wait to go to Yosemite,” Dotson said. “I know that would be just amazing.”

Though we still have a long way to go, more and more African-Americans are making the leap across the Adventure Gap. Despite the strides that have been made over the last few years to build awareness within communities of color, however, there are still far too many people who believe that because of their race or socio-economic status, the outdoors is just not for them.

“I have kids that tell me that black folks just aren’t built to be outside,” an environmental educator from Minneapolis shared with me on Facebook. “As a white guy from a privileged background, what am I supposed to say to that?”

When young people grow up with the belief that camping is something that “only white people do,” we certainly have a hard job ahead of us. This belief is too often reinforced by popular culture in the media, as films, magazine ads, television commercials, and billboards fail to portray people of color as outdoor enthusiasts. But I believe that if we can proactively demonstrate that, despite all evidence to contrary, there are indeed black and brown folks that participate in these adventure activities, we can encourage more to do the same.

“I have kids that tell me that black folks just aren’t built to be outside. As a white guy from a privileged background, what am I supposed to say to that?”

Recently, a group of African-Americans made it to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Led by a group called Outdoor Afro, the team ascended the mountain in the hopes of having an exciting experience well outside of their comfort zone. “All the feedback I received and articles I read, I knew it was possible with proper training and the right gear,” said Viva Yeboah, a self-employed professional from Chicago and organizer of the climb.

Motivated by the prospects of achieving an ambitious goal, Yeboah and her team faced the Adventure Gap head on. Inspired as well by the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American members of the U.S. Cavalry who established the trail to the summit of Mount Whitney more than a century ago, the Outdoor Afro team knew they were following in the foot steps of a proud heritage.

“To know our people achieved that is an amazing feeling,” Yeboah said. “Being out in nature, you realize how adjustable your boundaries are. That they can be tested and pushed. I didn’t grow up the most outdoorsy person; my connection was with the daily walks with my mom. Beyond that, we did not camp, ski, garden, hike, etc. But she taught me to love and enjoy the beauty of nature. Living in Chicago and leading the Chicago chapter of Outdoor Afro has transformed me. This trip definitely expanded my comfort zone.”

I’ve watched with great interest as more people of color have exceeded even their own expectations of what is possible in the world of outdoor recreation. And as public awareness continues grow, it becomes critical to keep up our efforts toward greater diversity and inclusivity. But in order to do that, we need to make sure that everyone who goes out into the wild is made to feel welcome as an invited guest. As guides and role models, we can help to reduce the anxiety and uncertainty of those on the edge still too timid to take that first step. Working together, we can close the Adventure Gap.

By James Edward Mills

James is a freelance journalist who specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving, and practices of sustainable living. He has worked in the outdoor industry since 1989 as a guide, outfitter, independent sales representative, writer, and photographer. He is the author of the new book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.