Between a car breakdown, sickness, and travel for out of state events, we were happy to be able to make it out on Saturday to the inaugural Refuge Outdoor Festival in Carnation, WA from September 28 - 30, 2018. A festival whose tagline was "To Explore and Celebrate Nature, Diversity, and Life", it was developed by Chevon Powell and Golden Bricks Events with and for people of color in the outdoor community. We met Chevon a few months back when she was kind enough to sit down for an AdventShorts interview about her experience in the outdoors, and her motivation for creating the festival. We're white. We know. We'll get to that.
Speaking concretely, the 2018 Refuge Outdoor Festival was a gathering of (primarily) people of color from around the country who are interested in the outdoors enough to pay money and take a bunch of time to go camping with other like-minded people of color.
It was camping, concerts, silent discos, hiking, service projects, presentations, hanging out by a river, and a series of conversations.
And it was genuinely diverse: we met people whose backgrounds were Columbian, Mexican, African, African-American, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Caucasian, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and almost definitely more. Straight, queer, male, female, non-binary, and almost definitely more.
More abstractly, it was a rare experience - an “outdoorsy” event that was specifically for people of color. For reasons that might be obvious from the photo in the top right of this blog, it was a first experience for me in this kind of environment.
It’s worth us taking a minute to write about for a lot of reasons.
One is to signal boost. Chevon Powell, the organizer, told us that the one thing she wanted us to pass on from the weekend is that it will happen again. Please stop reading right now to follow them on their various social media, so you’ll get the updates.
I'll wait here...
Okay, welcome back!
As Caucasians at Refuge, we were along primarily to learn and listen, but a big direct takeaway from participants was that we should talk to our people about the things that came up during the weekend. While there are plenty of people of color in our audience, it’s more likely, if you’re reading this, that you’re white like me. So, here you have it.
In 2005, shortly after moving to Seattle, Angel and I attended a training for an AIDS organization called Multifaith Works, which recruited volunteers from communities of faith to partner with (primarily) people who needed support due to issues related to HIV/AIDS.
At the training, we participated in the activity described on this page as "Crossing the Line". In short, everyone got together in a circle, and was cued to take a step towards the center, identifying themselves publicly if they'd had a range of experiences, or identified with a range of statements. This was a training on diversity, so many of the cues were related to race, class, sexuality, and other identifiers that tend to divide us. "I have made a racist joke", "I have been pulled over because of my race", "I have used a homophobic slur", etc. The activity cuts both ways - so participants are asked to identify both when they've experienced some form of discrimination, and when they have been the perpetrators themselves.
The activity is relatively standard at anti-racism and diversity trainings, but for me, it was the first time I'd identified many of those parts of myself publicly. Having been raised in a small, conservative, white rural community, it had only been a few years prior that I'd decided (stated roughly) that it was okay to be gay, and I was just at the beginning of the process of wrestling consciously with issues of bias, discrimination, race, class and sexuality. So, stepping into the circle was painful every time, because of what it forced me to admit to myself, and to the people in the room. To this day, it's one of the most viscerally uncomfortable experiences of my life.
(If you're interested in more information on the resource, check out the Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege, created by the University of Southern California's online MSW program.)
I thought about that activity yesterday when I read the recent National Geographic article that's been circulating, where they own up to the fact that for the bulk of their history, much of their work ranged from covertly to overtly racist. While that idea isn't news to anyone whose parents kept around old issues, publishing the article felt a lot like National Geographic publicly stepping into the circle. It wasn't coerced by scandal, it wasn't self-hating or guilty - it was just a statement: "We've been racist, and we're trying to do better".
America needs to come together around this anti-BS movement. It's good to see the outdoor industry becoming a part of it.
A lot has been happening in our lives in recent weeks - we've been on the road for events, and for my mom's wedding in Las Vegas, and this week's podcast on Mental Health and the Outdoors focuses on two themes that are among the most important in my life, as a psychiatric nurse and of course partner with Angel on this outdoor adventure business.
But like so much of the country, a lot of my energy in the last few weeks has been going towards a topic that's only peripherally connected to all of that - the proper societal response to America's gun problem following the Parkland shooting
If you haven't watched student Emma Gonzalez's speech after the shooting, just do it. I'm embedding it here to make it easy.
We're on our way to Calgary after spending last weekend in Squamish, which makes me think: for an American these days, going to Canada is surreal, and a little bit painful.
The two countries have always been similar enough that the border crossing is normally a bit Twilight Zone-ish. It's like you're in the same place, but different. You recognize the McDonald's, but what's with all of the Tim Horton's and A&W's? The landscape looks similar, but how'd all of the public parks get so nice? The accent is familiar, but something's off. And how come everyone seems so polite and healthy?
But since November 9th, 2016, things seem particularly weird. Since about that date, life in America has seemed problematic as Hell. Anger, fear, anxiety, disillusionment, disbelief. They're just part of the standard American emotional landscape these days. Hate, political conflict, overanalyzation and catastrophizing, it's just what's happening below the 49th Parallel, with some new outrage tweeted daily.
But cross the thin line into Canada, and strangely, everything is fine. People's concerns barely involve reality show presidents or fake news. It's like my life was in America, circa 2014. Just people living their lives, mildly politically aware, but not particularly stressed.
When complaining about this to Canadian friends, it's a pretty standard response for them to suggest we just move north. And I'll admit that every time we cross the border, I daydream about finding work and sticking around. We're both nurses, it would be so easy. So much less government assault on our deeply held values. A more just society. So much wilderness there, so many beautiful places to explore: we'd never run out. It could be a beautiful life: the Canadian Dream.
On our way to Calgary, we're also midway into a trip through some of the most beautiful parts of the American West. I'm writing this from a cafe in Missoula, Montana, in fact, killing a rainy stretch in between a spectacular couple of days of hiking and camping in the strange mix of desert, lake and river that is the Grand Coulee area of Northeastern Washington, and another spectacular couple of days we plan to spend in Glacier National Park.
And every time we've ventured into the wilderness - on this trip, and throughout the year - I've dreaded coming back. The trips have taken various forms: paddling, trailrunning, hiking, backpacking. But every time we've experienced a sort of high - a reminder of how much there is to love about America, and a renewed sense of home here.
Then, we'll get in the car and start driving. We'll hit the highway, and the passenger will check their phone. And the high is immediately over, because look at what the Hell happened in America while we were gone. Today's no different. Tomorrow likely won't be either.
Like Canada, dreams of disappearing into the Wilderness - or at least moving away from the city to a place where we could ignore problematic social realities - pop up every time we head out of cell phone range.
But there's also a thing in the US, where the break from the anger comes not just from retreating into the wilderness or taking trips to bizzarro lands where all of our outrages don't matter. It also comes from interacting with other Americans. Not all of them, but most.
In my mundane little life in Seattle, it comes from working with my peers on the psych unit, and patients and families. People taking the nightmare scenarios you see on the news, and doing the messy, impossible work of trying to figure out how to cope with them and move forward. These are the people who live with the consequences of cuts to government funding for mental health services, drug treatment, and the social safety net, and with the personal consequences of violence and abuse. Interacting with people in that world isn't "inspiring". It's heartbreaking and infuriating in it's own right, because it's almost always true that we could be doing better by them. But what it is, is evidence that people can, and will, get through a lot. It's a trigger for resolve, and a reminder that resolve is as American a trait as any.
And traveling around the country, it's experiences like visiting Soap Lake, WA - an out of the way small town in the Eastern part of the state that's been trying to be a tourist destination for years but has mainly just succeeded in being weird. The Pacific Crest Trail connects a string of such places from Mexico to Canada, so we felt at home there immediately. Following a series of historical accidents that couldn't have been predicted, the main cultural representations there are American farmer, Hispanic immigrant, burned out hippy, and Russian/Ukranian medical tourist. The kindest face in town on our visit was the old lady who speaks no English at the "European Food and Deli" next to the gas station next to the downtown that's hibernating for the winter (or more). The best deal was the $5 homemade borscht. The weirdness was beautiful, and distinct evidence that America is, even in unexpected places, the cultural melting pot that it sells itself as to the world.
Those kinds of experiences are reminders that the country we live in isn't just the thing that's an outrage at the moment. It's a place we love.
Thinking about America in that light, the idea of not coming back once we get to Canada again in a couple of days feels analogous to a thought about trading out a spouse you love in the middle of a serious fight. It's appealing to think that you could end a painful conflict with a sweeping decision, but it ultimately doesn't address the problem. The problem isn't that you don't love them, or want to be with someone else. The problem is that you want them to be different: maybe better, or maybe just more like you.
And the idea of moving away, into the wilderness or away from the city, feels analogous to proposing divorce in the same context. It's giving up at a time when you should be getting to work.
Isn't it true, after all, that people change precisely because other people that care about them stay committed when they're acting shitty? Countries too: if you believe in social progress at all, you have to think that it's only come through the commitment of people who recognize problems and figure out how to fix them.
There are of course relationships where she should've left the guy years ago, and so maybe for a lot of people America is more like the abusive family member that you grew up with and don't have a choice but to deal with. But in any case, travel along the border in times like these is more thought provoking than it has been in the past: a reminder of the things we hope for from our country, I guess, but also a forced reflection on the things we already value about it, a reminder of what we're fighting for.
And it's pretty likely that when we get up to Canada again in a couple of days, someone will ask if we want to stay. The answer, in part, will be yes, but the more complete answer will be that no, while we understand the appeal of the Canadian Dream, the US is a place we love, and the place we'll keep working on.
Stories and inspiration
One of the reasons we organize storytelling events for the outdoor community is that we know that even small exposure to new ideas can trigger major new adventure paths.
For instance, a few months ago, Angel and I were at a bookstore in Seattle, and I stumbled on a book in the local section by David Ellingson, called Paddle Pilgrim: Kayaking the Erie Canal and Hudson River to the Statue of Liberty. I neither bought nor read the book, but I really should at this point, because it set off a series of events that led to our recent mini-epic paddle of the lower Hudson.
As thru-hikers, trail runners and international backpackers, we're generally happiest on extended adventures of the type where you can settle into the rhythm of living outside, and can start to forget, at least for a while, that life is anything but exploration. I happened on the book at a time when we had just bought a foldable Oru Kayak and were learning to use it, and when we'd just finished a year and a half of thru-hiking and backpacking in Latin America and were looking for something new. When I flipped through the book I thought, "Hmm. Kayak touring? I wonder if we could pull this off in these Oru's?" When an opportunity arose to visit the East Coast a couple of months later, we found ourselves putting in at Albany to recreate the part of the "Paddle Pilgrim" experience, spending a week and a half trying to make our way to NYC by way of the Hudson.
We'd planned to tackle about 150 miles of the Lower Hudson, which is all a part of the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail - a national water trail - which means that there are camping or hotel accommodations and launches at least every 15 miles on both sides of the river, and in most cases more frequently than that. Campsites and boat racks could have been more abundant and accessible, but otherwise the logistics of planning this trip were straightforward. There were plenty of places to get water, to resupply food, or to pop off the river for a shower and a night in a hotel. Things are set up there for long distance paddling, and we found that it was a challenge that we as fit people, but relatively inexperienced paddlers, could take on confidently and safely.
Beyond "Paddle Pilgrim", there are a few online articles about people who've taken this trip, but we didn't meet any one else doing even sections while we were out, and several locals told us they'd never heard of anyone doing the whole trip. Even being early in the season, that was surprising due to the ease of access and logistics, the availability of comprehensive maps and even a guidebook, the proximity to one of the largest concentrations of people in the world, and the fact that the river is fairly perfectly set up for such a trip.
Our approach was to apply the lessons we've learned thru-hiking to an extended kayaking trip: pack as light as possible, embrace your inner dirtbag, chill out, and look out for both type 2 and type 1 fun: work hard while enjoying it as much as you can.
This was our first extended paddling trip, so didn't want to get ourselves in over our head, but we did want to see what our Oru Kayaks were capable of. Oru is a relatively new company with an innovative concept - a highly functional but lightweight origami-esque folding kayak that you can toss on your back and take to places that a normal kayak wouldn't easily go: two miles up trail to a mountain lake, for instance, or (in our case) the checked baggage carousel on an airplane and the luggage compartment of a Greyhound bus. We wanted to be as self-contained and human powered as we could be, and do it on the cheap without car rentals or paid boat transportation.
Hudson River People
We tend to like our adventures with a side of community, so we planned this trip to be social from the start. Angel had been coordinating with folks in the Hudson Valley for several months to organize the first East Coast Boldly Went storytelling event in Athens - a small town where we could paddle right to the venue (the Athens Riverside Diner - as classic an American diner as you're likely to find) and hear some stories from locals about life on the river. She's also set up get-togethers with folks in New York City connected with OutdoorFest and Mappy Hour, like-minded organizations that bring people together in the outdoor community in inspiring ways.
But what we found was that meeting cool people came naturally. Before we even started, we crashed in Albany with Alan Wechsler, a guy we met randomly through the Warm Showers bike-touring website, who we found out was both a serious all-around outdoorsman and an award-winning journalist who writes primarily about the outdoors. He ended up coming to the event in Athens with his girlfriend, and with Darryl McGrath, a serious birder and the author of the book Flight Paths about the successful efforts of a few female biologists to bring both Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles back from the brink of extinction.
Beyond those personal connections, people along the river seemed universally interested in what we were doing, and offered us important advice like which bushes to stash our kayaks in when we were spending the night in town, and where to find the local breweries. On one occasion when we were lugging our packs up a hill, a guy mistook us for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and offered us a ride to the trailhead at Bear Mountain. (Thru-hikers can't escape trail magic even if they try.) West Coast rumors of East Coast rudeness are greatly exaggerated.
For its access to history and quaint small towns, the lower Hudson is a sort of poor American paddler's version of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. There are towns, I'd say on average, every 10 miles along the river, and history is everywhere - from the giant manors, light houses, and literal castles dotting the river, to the ruins of ice houses where the frozen Hudson was broken up, stored and shipped down river, to the islands seemingly made entirely of the bricks that were produced to construct New York City.
Most of the towns are quaint maritime villages, but you get a range of experiences from a place like Coxsackie that is almost a ghost town to Beacon, which is a bustling arts community full of NYC refugees. In general the community along the Hudson is vibrant, and a highlight was wandering by accident into a Spring Festival in Highland, across the river from Poughkeepsie, where we gorged on street food and local beer while we waited on our laundry to dry at the local laudromat.
Outdoor adventure on an industrial river
One of the things I love about paddling is that it allows you to easily get out of the controlled environment of the city into the heart of nature without much travel time. On a windy day in Seattle, we can throw our kayaks on Puget Sound and go from urban safety into a harrowing, life-threatening encounter with mother nature in a matter of minutes. And so, despite the fact that the Hudson is a relatively populated river, living on the water for a week and a half felt like a real outdoor experience, where wind, storms, and the tidal nature of the river were the primary challenges we had to contend with on a daily basis.
If you're not from the area, the Hudson itself is probably not exactly what you think: it has a reputation as a highly polluted waterway, and in places around the city it still has issues. But while the river is still impacted by its industrial history, NY has engaged in massive cleanup efforts in recent years, and our experience was characterized more by pretty tidal estuaries, abundant bird life, jumping fish, pleasant state parks, and rural villages than visible pollution. Nowadays, it's safe to swim in most places, even if we weren't taking our drinking water from the river. The Hudson didn't feel particularly busy either, despite some reports we'd heard. It is an active shipping channel, but above NYC large ships were relatively uncommon - we probably saw 1 - 2 per day - and beyond a few smaller boats we frequently had the river mostly to ourselves.
It's a common saying that the Hudson behaves more like an ocean than a river, and while I think this is a bit of an exaggeration (conditions, when choppy, were very similar to our home base on Lake Washington in Seattle), a sea kayak would have been the ideal tool for the job. Our 12 foot, folding, lightweight and rudderless boats were functional overall, but I would compare the experience to bike touring with a commuter: you can make it work, but there will be times when you wish you had a beefier model. In our case this was typically in high winds, when tailwinds led to tracking problems and headwinds slowed down our lightweight boats more than they might have heavier ones. Our most nerve-wracking experience was during a river crossing at a wide point in high winds, when the river was whitecapping. We intentionally steered relatively close by some stationary smaller fishing boats so we'd have aid in case we capsized, and they cheered for us while we navigated some pretty gnarly chop. In the end our boats contributed to our decision to cut our trip about 30 miles short at Croton-on-Hudson when high winds were predicted and we didn't want to contend with tough conditions along with the increased large ship traffic near NYC. But beyond one fluke, but nearly catastrophic hole punched in my boat 4 miles into the trip (Gorilla Tape works miracles), the Oru's were what we expected them to be: light, functional, and fun, and pretty darn good for an affordable boat you can pack up, throw on your back, and cart around the city when you're done. And you can't really beat the cool factor.
Here's to hoping the trip becomes famous
There's nothing quite like the experience of discovering a hidden gem, and it's strange that a paddle down a river that fronts possibly the most famous city in the world would seem like that, but because we didn't come across anyone else doing the same thing, this trip really did. 150 mile paddling trips might not be everyone's thing, but the fact that NYC sits at the end of a really fantastic one suggests to me that there's significant economic and adventure potential for the Hudson that hasn't yet been realized. It's a world-class paddling experience hidden in plain sight. To me, it's a water trip that captures a similar magic to the Camino de Santiago, or the Appalachian Trail, and an outdoor experience that was full of natural beauty, culture, and history.
And we're of course all about helping people get outside, so if you have questions about our trip, logistics, gear, or if you want to repeat it, please, contact us!
Today abruptly marks the end. We weren't planning it that way, but winds are predicted to be high the next 2 days and paddling into high winds means difficult and dangerous water conditions. It's hard to make forward progress when the wind is pushing you back, but of bigger concern to us are the waves that are generated by the wind and the wakes from the boat traffic are made more ferocious.
We want to finish strong and without a capsize, so we're exiting the river at Croton, about 30 miles upriver from our anticipated end point at The Battery in Manhattan, NY.
Today, on one of our final rest breaks, I looked out over the Hudson, and reflected over the experiences of the past 10 days--battling 100 degree days, fighting winds and waves, bandit camping, huddling in the tent through a thunder and lightning storm, fearing another hole in a kayak or that the patch on the current foot long hole wouldn't hold. As I reflected I thought about how it all seems like a small memory already, and that I wish I would have taken more time to reflect on the journey along the way.
So much of energies and efforts on multiday adventures go toward logistical planning and as I reflected, I remember that this is true for life in general. Thinking about where you're going, how you're going to get there, how long will it take, how much food will I need? Where will I camp? Details that are important in execution but that cloud the experience when you're in it. This is true of all of my multiday adventures and it is true for life too.
Today, I found myself wishing that I had experienced it all more. Felt the exhaustion deeper, the happiness higher, the company of new friends more, and so on. I wondered if I would feel this way one day when looking back on life and knowing death was right around the corner.
But really, this adventure played out just perfectly, and I am thankful to have shared another multiday trip, this time a new-to-me adventure type, paddling, with my main adventure squeeze. I am also happy to have made a choice to live with intention and create space to reflect and feel ways about life that I don't regret. Creating these life microcosms through multi-day adventures also reminds me, and now you because you've read this far, to feel deeper all the time and reflect upon our circumstances more regularly to be sure that we are carving out a meaningful life.
So, what's your next multiday adventure going to be? And how do you reassure yourself that you're living the life you want that is fulfilling and that, one day, when reaching the end, you don't wish you had taken the time to feel deeper? Or if you're not living that life, can you? Post your thoughts and tips below.
On day 1, within 2 hours of setting off on our journey, we spotted a huge barge coming up the river. It was moving with enough speed that it had a wave coming up in front of the boat.
We saw some sandy beach to the right, and we thought it would be convenient to pull off. We got our boats to shore, pulled them just out of the water onto the beach. I videoed the barge going by. It looked like it was moving so slow.
After shutting down the video, I watched as the wake started to creep toward shore from the boat. I didn't know exactly what Tim was doing, but I saw that the wave was coming up to shore pretty big. I pulled my boat back, and I yelled to Tim to "Grab your boat! Grab your boat!"
I hadn't realize that Tim had taken a shoe off because there are some really nasty thorny nuts that are laying around on the beach that uncomfortably poke straight through shoes. Tim had taken his shoe off to try to pull one of those out. Which meant that he wasn't able to grab his boat.
I watched as his boat smashed into a log on the side of the beach going straight through the side of his kayak, and I heard the terrible crunching sound of a boat that was getting broken. I had to grab my boat again because the wave was so big that it had crept up to the point where I had pulled my boat out of the water and still swept it down the beach. So I chased after my boat all-the-while with scenarios of a broken boat running through my head.
I got back to Tim, and he was squatting down on the beach holding his head in his hands. It was not funny at the time. Tim went to quick work repairing the boat with the gorilla tape and gorilla superglue that we had packed. Thankfully we had packed them because Tim had researched a little and knew that was what we would need in the case a field repair would be required. I thought that was really unlikely, but here we were on day one, just two hours into our trip, doing a field repair. Suddenly not so unlikely, and I was feeling thankful Tim is the prepared one.
The patch continues to hold and we're on day three now. We contacted Oru Kayak who told us the best way to repair this was "good ol' duct tape."
We'll see how it goes! We really want to paddle all the way to New York City and as long as the patch holds, we think we'll make it. The paddling and scenery is nice btw.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.