Wanderers Welcome: Tracking winter wildlife at Upper Saco Valley Land Trust with Outdoor Afro’s ‘Frozen Chosen’

Crunch. Crack. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Crack. Crunch. Crunch. The traction-spiked hiking boots shuffled at a potato chip chewing cadence. Oddly melodic as the animal tracking morning picked up pace. A warning from Outdoor Afro volunteer leader Mardi Fuller, 44, as she guided the March 2 New Hampshire winter experience: “Don’t consider moving to New England if you’re not a fan of winter,” the four-year leader said. “We have plenty of it throughout the year.” Winter sports to coincide as well: ice climbing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, and mountaineering. All offered through Fuller’s Outdoor Afro Boston network. Community participants who sign up with Fuller are guaranteed innovative nature adventures with the diehard hiker. Sustainably and safely. During January 2021, Fuller became the first-known Black person to scale all 48 New Hampshire peaks – 4,000-footers – in the winter. See. In good hiking hands.

Annually, Outdoor Afro’s Northeast Region arranges area opportunities for cold-weather outings that help beat the “winter blues.” Recasting shorter days into celebrated, snowy moments with brand-new friends. “I’m a multitasker,” said Fuller. “The simple action of walking in the snow allows me to settle down and get into this meditative mind frame.” That Saturday, she exercised this form of nature medicine with three network frequenters – Xander Bennett, Keenan Augustus, and Thai Koenig (left to right in the above image with Fuller flanking the far right side). Better known as “The Frozen Chosen.” Together, the four toured the Chain of Ponds Community Forest Conservation Project. This soon-to-acquire property of Conway, New Hampshire’s Upper Saco Valley Land Trust blankets 625 acres. The land trust’s goal is to raise $1.3 million from local foundations, state grant makers, and individual contributions by November 2024 to purchase and permanently conserve the landscape.

Aerial view of Upper Saco Valley Land Trust’s Chain of Ponds. Photo by Joe Klementovich.

Chain of Ponds covers an ecologically significant glacial trough valley in neighboring Madison, New Hampshire. Connected to its forestland and inland waters, the project features headwaters of Pequawket Brook and Silver Lake’s North Inlet. The valley itself includes roughly 110 acres of wetlands; 25 acres of cliff and talus slopes; glacial eskers; surface waters and wetlands; 300 acres of mapped aquifers; and approximately 4 miles of surface water frontage along several streams and ponds. A peerless outdoor playground. Once the purchase completes, the public can access newer sites for biking, paddling, hunting (white tail deer, ruffed grouse, and small game like rabbits), fishing (Eastern brook trout and pickerel), and winter hiking. And only 3 minutes away from Madison Elementary School, experiential learning abounds. Mike Morin, 43, served as the land trust’s conservation director and assured that Chain of Ponds would become a nature backyard to a lot of local families.

The 20-year land conservationist added: “This site will provide interpretative education, allow us to implement better forest health management practices back into the community, and continue to expand our mission that already includes conserving other forestlands, popular recreation areas, and working farmland.” The land trust developed in 2000 as a grassroots initiative to preserve land for community enjoyment and education. Specifically in the watershed of the upper Saco River in both Maine and New Hampshire. The following year it gained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Within a decade, the land trust preserved 38 land projects, doubling that number by 2019. To date, the trust has conserved more than 12,000 acres in its 11-town service area. Steadily advocating for local agriculture and water quality concerns as part of its mission work. Back at the Chain of Ponds site, the Frozen Chosen breathed in the 40-degree air (unseasonably warm for Northern New Hampshire in early March when 20 degrees is more likely) and trudged along an abandoned rail corridor.

Outdoor Afro community participants Xander Bennett (front) and Keenan Augustus make it a habit to join Fuller’s Northeast network activities during the winter months. Photo by Joe Klementovich.

The track once carried traveling skiers from Boston to North Conway, said Morin. Part of the early 20th-century history of Gilded Age hotels like the Omni Mount Washington Resort and the beginning of the ski industry. A train stop to the left of the track brought the Outdoor Afro group to a beaver lodge on Cranberry Bog. Each whipped out their animal track pocket guides provided by the land trust’s Community Steward Carissa Milliman, 39. The former educator equipped the day’s guests with New Hampshire Fish and Game Department wildlife literature. “With this piece of land being so accessible, Chain of Ponds is a great place to connect with nature and find stillness,” said Milliman. Nothing matched the track patterns listed. The group tactfully circled and observed the conical-shaped beaver home. Then moved on. Two more ponds ahead: Blue Ponds and Mack Pond.

Chemical engineer Keenan Augustus, 31, advanced with excitement in his eyes. “You know,” he said with every microspiked step, “these types of activities with Outdoor Afro help me get back to our roots. Black people have always been travelers, explorers, and navigators.” Cold-weather comrade Xander Bennett nodded in agreement. Augustus has participated in Northeast network activities for almost two years now while Bennett entered his first year in 2024. Bennett’s introduction to Outdoor Afro started with an ice climbing event with Fuller earlier this year. Then, uphill skiing. “I previously approached the outdoors from individual activities,” said Bennett. “Mardi and Outdoor Afro have helped me gain the courage to get in this space through group experiences.” The win-win: learning new skills with folks who feel like family.

In Outdoor Afro’s ‘Year of Innovation,” its volunteer leaders offer original network outings that range from animal tracking and foraging to mountaineering and snowshoeing. Photos by Joe Klementovich.

The Chain of Ponds camp took a break bankside for hot tea, snack bars, and more fellowshipping. Sharing favorable reactions to the property. Flashbacking to previous network fun. Already making new Outdoor Afro activity plans. The youngest of the Frozen Chosen, Thai Koenig, 24, dusted snow off her hiking pants, gathered her belongings, and started to lead the band back to the site entrance. But, wait! A scat IDing moment presented itself mid-trip. Was it a red fox? Bobcat? Coyote that traveled their route? The four couldn’t really figure it out from their wildlife scat cards. The majority leaned toward the red fox. Good guesses. “It’s so important to build community like Outdoor Afro does,” said Koenig, all smiles. “Our network is always happy. Mardi makes me feel comfortable and safe while trying something new.”

ABOUT OUTDOOR AFRO: Outdoor Afro is a national not-for-profit organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. What started as a kitchen table blog by Founder and CEO Rue Mapp in 2009 has since grown into a cutting-edge nationwide organization. Outdoor Afro’s U.S. networks include nearly 100-plus volunteer leaders who guide nature activities in up to 60 cities with network participation reaching 60,000 people annually. Outdoor Afro reconnects Black people to the outdoors through outdoor education, recreation, and conservation. Connect with @outdoorafro on social and visit outdoorafro.org to follow our year-round nature narratives.