The Lure Of The Outdoors

An increasing number of African-Americans are being drawn to adventures of the great outdoors

June 03, 2007|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Marcus Asante is ready to set sail.

When the wind is at his back, he plans to pilot his boat Soukous (named for a jazzy type of African dance music that's similar to a rumba) out of the Inner Harbor and into open waters.

Founder of the 40-member Universal Sailing Club of Baltimore, Asante is one of an increasing number of African-Americans taking up sports such as sailing, hiking, biking and scuba diving.

Groups such as the Universal Sailing Club are making a big impact, according to Charles K. West, publisher of Black Outdoorsman magazine. West says that African-Americans represent the fastest-growing minority population in the United States that's involved in outdoor athletic activities.

West, whose quarterly publication is based in Columbia, notes that white-water rafting is particularly popular among blacks in the Southwest, and fishing is popular in the Southeast.

"We are trying to branch from this tradition of camping and fishing, into exposing more African-Americans to kayaking, skiing and diving," he says. Group adventures such as these foster an overall sense that wellness can be fun, several experts agreed, which is important because African-Americans are disproportionately affected by heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke and obesity, compared with the rest of the U.S. population.

"We are over four decades past victories of the civil rights movement, such as 1964's voting act. African-Americans have achieved parity - I can live where I want, go into any restaurant - yet there is some slipping backward when it comes to health issues," says Dr. Stephen Thomas, director of the Center for Minority Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

While many African-Americans are discovering that exercising together is more fun than alone, along the way they're also learning more about black history.

For instance, did you know:

Underwater Adventure Seekers of Washington, D.C., is America's oldest continuously operating scuba diving club and was founded by an African-American?

Iron Riders, a black regiment of U.S. soldiers in the late 1800s, were among America's first long-distance cyclists? They experimented to see whether bicycles could be used as a way to deploy military forces by riding from Missoula, Mont., to St. Louis.

Wye Island, where Frederick Douglass spent his childhood as a slave, is a day sail from Baltimore's Inner Harbor?

"Let's not forget that most African-Americans originally come from people who were part of agricultural societies. We are from the outdoors," West says. "Back then, however, it wasn't about adventure, but sustenance. So it is especially powerful for us to get back to the elements, and to experience the smell, feel and touch of natural places."

Here are a few ideas for adding a little adventure to a summer vacation.


Marcia Fairweather of Fresco Adventures, a Silver Spring-based company, likes to use the phrase "Mother Nature wants YOU!" to encourage African-Americans to join her on outdoor excursions.

Some of Fresco Adventure's backpacking trips go as far afield as Costa Rica, Brazil and Africa; other treks take in local sites of early black history in Anne Arundel and Prince George'scounties.

"Sometimes I dream of putting together a series of trips to what were formerly African-American towns all across the United States," says Fairweather, who has several hikes throughout Maryland planned for this summer.

The key to her business success, Fairweather believes, is highlighting the social aspect of sports.

"On a lot of hikes, people just show up, hike and go home," says Fairweather, who estimates a third of her business comes from Baltimore. "I decided to add a picnic at the end, and soon word got around: `Hey! They feed you at Fresco!' People began to see it as an opportunity not just to hike, but to make friends. When people find other African-Americans who like to do the same things, it makes them more comfortable."

That was Monica Purnell's experience. Purnell, a pharmaceutical representative who lives in Baltimore, went on a Mount Kilimanjaro hike in Tanzania last year, and enjoys hiking in Maryland, too.

"I am in the city all the time and you get tired of the dirt and grime," she says. "Oh, but outdoors! The wind, the cold, the hot - all that combined, and being in the forest. Wherever you hike it is beautiful. It is motivating and, at the same time, it's freeing."


"I can't quite put all my feelings into words, but to dip my bicycle wheels into the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile Bay, Ala., and try to imagine slave ships that came to these shores full of Africans ... ," says Mario Browne, a bicycling enthusiast from Pittsburgh.

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