Finding a Path in 2020: Blackpacking with Outdoor Afro Leaders

By Chaya Harris

What do Outdoor Afro Leaders do with the challenges we face in 2020? We make a way.

In the fall, I found out that six of our Leaders near Washington, DC were planning a backpacking trip in the Otter Creek Wilderness in West Virginia. I had not seen them in person this year since our annual Leadership Training was virtual, and my local trails have been pretty crowded, so I invited myself along.

Our team of seven – Antonio, China, Jessica, Monette, Ray, Scott, and I – started our Zooms and planning documents, first deciding on where we wanted to go and considering safety precautions, including our own Covid-19 protocol. Using vague maps we found online, we narrowed down an area and had a few routes in mind, depending on how we felt as a group during the trek. As we learned more about the creek crossings, likelihood of a mudfest and the start of bear hunting season, we dug a little deeper and found our new friends, Purple Lizard. They’ve published two detailed maps of the Monongahela National Forest and provided a lot more info about trailheads and parking.

Another part of our risk management is preparing for our psychological safety, too. With more people wielding flags as symbols of hate all over the country, we knew what to expect to see on our drive, and with local hunters likely to be out, we were also prepared for the who. Even though this was not part of our official training, all Outdoor Afro events provide ongoing fortification so we’re able to connect and uplift each other in nature. Also, Mike and Justine with Purple Lizard informed us about a friendly town for strong coffee!

We organized our gear, resolving that it was best for everyone to bring their own of everything, even though it meant a bit more weight in our packs. Although we agreed not to share food, one of the best parts of backpacking, we stored meals from Backpacker’s Pantry that we looked forward to as we settled into camp for the night.

“Under overcast Friday morning skies, we set out in our cars through northern Virginia into the deep western hills, buzzing with the excitement of actually being together and heading into  the backcountry.” 

Perhaps from being indoors more, our curiosity about outside was piqued, asking each other about the weather and fog in relation to the wildfires, and discussing the potential conflicts of coal mining and wind turbines for the residents, in between singing along to the road-deejay’s hits.

About four hours later, we all met at the trailhead near the small town of Thomas on Massawomeck Indigenous land. As with any of our trainings, we had a long greeting full of joy and gratitude in seeing each other and hearing that our loved ones are healthy. We checked our packs, some of us still weighing whether that extra fleece or instant camera was worth carrying, and checked our outfits, seeing how we could coordinate on the trails. We even had an opening circle, setting our intentions for our three day, two night hike.

Immediately after the parking lot, we crossed a wooden bridge over the Dry Fork River, where we peered down and marveled at the evidence of passing time: symmetrical grooves in the river rocks from glaciers and changes in the tree density and heights showing a second-growth forest. The path narrowed quickly with lush bushes and trees, short inclines and quick boulder scrambles along Otter Creek. We paused often for Monette to take pictures of the fungi, for China to wander along the water’s edge, and for Antonio to assess backup campsites.

At every stop or fallen tree we had to navigate, I spent extra time petting the velvety moss! We shrieked while crossing the chilly creek, but you could hear ooohs and aaahs in between.

An Outdoor Afro Leader climbs over a fallen tree on a muddy ledge

After the creek crossing, I left on my sandals as we continued our hike instead of changing back into my Keen boots.

The overgrowth was even thicker, with large rhododendrons limiting us to single file and just a few feet of visibility, and it was easy to lose the trail if we didn’t stay toget her. Then came the mud and steep ledges. Frustrated, I asked, “Do y’all think the trail will be like this the whole way?”

Scott replied, “I don’t think about it.” I laughed, thinking that makes perfect sense. I shifted my thoughts to the squishy mud oozing around my feet, feeling appreciative that I get to choose physical discomfort, and various footwear in doing so.

“About six or seven miles from the parking lot, we made camp that evening along the Otter Creek River. Settling in felt like such a relief, not just to be done hiking for the day, but to have clear options and being able to focus on the now. Some of us reflected by the river quietly, and I whispered Rue’s reminder, “Nature never closes.” 

We had sufficient space to spread out, and worked pretty independently in setting up tents, filtering water, building a fire and preparing dinner. I had endless questions for Antonio about his lightweight pack – just 18 pounds! We teased each other with you packed it, you take it to avoid the shared responsibility of bear bags and bear canisters, putting off the task until we put the fire out.

In the morning, we had a leisurely start after oats, eggs or almond butter and jelly bagels, brushing our teeth and moisturizing, and making sure our campsite looked untouched. We thanked Mother Nature for providing the space, and warmed up with a few yoga moves. We were back to negotiating the same skinny, muddy overgrown trail, but something was different.

Our laughs felt lighter, our discussions more substantial and our encouragement for each other flowed. I know it’s cheesy, but as the sun came out, so did we.

Throughout the day, Jessica stayed at the helm of navigating the map, but we made more decisions as a group, figuring out which trails to follow and traversing more streams. We decided on a loop that took us up a ridge along a steeper section with endless pines, oaks and a few birches. We called out trail hazards so nobody walked into (another) tree, and held poles or lent a hand when needed. When we encountered more mud, this time close to our knees, we shimmied along the sides pushing through the undergrowth.

China literally had Scott’s back, grabbing his arm as he started to fall to prevent a mud bath! 

Sunset came quickly that evening, and we pitched our tents in two areas about 20 yards apart as there are just a couple of sites along that trail segment. We moved quickly, helping each other with rainflys, collectively gathering wood and maintaining a hearty fire, and sharing items like sleeping bag liners so we could all have a comfortable night’s sleep. Although we debated the best cartoons like Rugrats or Hey Arnold, we easily cooperated for tasks like hanging a bear bag. Under patches of stars, we were all smiles sampling a crème brulee.

The next day, we were up and heading out early to cover the last 8 miles or so of our adventure. We had an easy but quick pace as we made our way winding down the ridge, crossing a small stream and coming out to hillside with vivid grass, fall wildflowers and downed trees.

I twisted under one of the trees, behind Antonio and Scott, chatting about our much anticipated dinner, when Jessica yelled, “Snake!”

I pushed Scott out the way and took off.

Jessica, China, Monette and Ray admired the black Eastern diamondback beauty, taking photos as it warned us with a gentle rattle and finding a way around the tree that still left a wide berth. I kept thinking about how close we were and I didn’t even see it! We resumed down the trail, a teammate called out a hole and I screamed, still shook from the snake. Thinking back, nobody laughed at me – well not a lot – and Antonio thoughtfully walked a bit faster and talked to me about his fears to help me calm down. When I finally swallowed my stomach, we noted how the animals around us just want to be left alone.

As we made it to the north part of our loop, the trail flattened out under the canopy and became a bit rockier on the approach to crossing Otter Creek again. We heard hunting dogs in the distance, and saw a few truckfuls on a short hilly road. When we arrived at the stream, we did our water crossing dance of looking for a path without getting too wet, determining whether we should change out of our boots and then stepping carefully across, savoring the last chill of our journey.

Two white guys, decked out in camo gear and carrying more guns that I could quickly count, holding six dogs on leashes bounded out of the forest swiftly across the creek. We said hello with no response. If I had been alone, I would have been on edge as I finished hiking, but being with my team was a firm reminder that we belong there.

Sooner than expected, we were back at the bridge, strutting in a fashion show and heading to our vehicles for a long departure, which included celebratory Oreos and a closing circle. While we have a renewed appreciation for each other and sharper skills to continue leading our communities, I want to remember that we made a way through connecting with each other and relying on what’s inside to navigate the unknown.