Brighter horizons for men of color meeting outdoors

DULUTH – Whether a late-fall snow blows sideways or Lake Superior gales race up the shore, come Sunday mornings, one group of guys here is determined to get outdoors.

Tight-knit, they are men of color from the area who’ve met weekly for about three years. Nature wasn’t part of the equation at first. Instead they’d find a conference room or maybe the lobby of someone’s condo. The meetup has been a sounding board, a time to share creative or family pursuits. But time, too, to vent their outrage and their concerns about social injustices at home or anywhere.

In the past 1½ years, the group has evolved. The setting is outdoors and, members say, they’re reaping the benefits. Their experience has been a healthy boost for mind and body. A major share of the credit goes to one of the members, Dudley Edmondson, who has pushed the group to get into the wild more often.

Edmondson wants that for more Black and brown people, to see them comfortable in places that are predominantly white. Nature is his source of well-being and he believes it can be for others, too. As a Black person and a nature photographer and filmmaker, Edmondson said the fellowship matters on many levels.

“I am an advocate for nature,” he said. “I am an advocate for cultural and ethnic diversity in the out of doors. That for me is the best combination of everything.”

One of their first outings was a swim in the Lester River. “Pure joy,” recalled Edmondson, 58. They’ve also fished and sat down around campfires. And they’ve hiked, mountain biked, or occasionally cobbled together breakfast from a cookstove if it works out. Sometimes the group swells into the double digits. Easy informality and spontaneity are its hallmarks.

Edmondson is soft-spoken and thoughtful. On a recent Sunday morning, he was a Buddha in LaCrosse boots as he and a crew prepared to hike the Bagley Nature Area trails on the backside of the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. Several inches of snow had fallen overnight and angry gusts stirred at times in an open parking lot. Yet the tall, snow-showered pines that soon enveloped the group were idyllic, inviting and just maybe, Edmondson believes, a gateway to something greater for all of them: resilience, possibility and belonging.

Overcoming barriers

Edmondson is spending time these days on an exhibit scheduled to open next year at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona. He is producing images and videos for four short seasonal films, with water the focus of each.

On a recent weekday, he basked in the isolation he anticipated at a favorite spot, Boulder Lake, about 20 miles north of Duluth. His peace can be traced back to his boyhood in a Columbus, Ohio, suburb, where the outdoors was his escape at times from stresses at home, in part a byproduct of racial prejudice, he said. As he grew he stretched his boundaries, frequently visiting national refuges and state forests along the East Coast to camp and feed his growing interest in birding.

In 1989, Edmondson moved to Duluth, drawn to Minnesota’s natural beauty and the opportunity to document it through a lens. He began working on pocket field guides with Minnesota photographer and author Stan Tekiela. Their work took them to public lands across the United States.

Edmondson was wowed by the landscape in national parks in the West, but also by what they were missing.

“That got me to thinking, how did we get here?” he said. “How did we get to this point where our public lands and our green spaces were just devoid of people of color, and why is that?”

Inspired, Edmondson began to document the lives of people of color who were out there. What was the genesis? Why did they love it as much as he had from a young age? Was it family tradition, like the hunting and fishing legacies that thrive in Minnesota? His book in 2006, “The Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places,” found some answers.

Edmondson interviewed park rangers, scientists and conservationists. Outdoors role models sparked by reasons personal and universal. Whether they developed from life on a farm or felt a deep ancestral pull or perhaps some inner voice, their stories underscored that connections to nature are endemic regardless of skin color, Edmondson said.

Edmondson also learned what has kept many on the outdoors sidelines: a fear for their safety. The origins of those alarms are culturally complex, he believes, and understandable in the context of systemic racism. He explores the topic in presentations he gives around the U.S. about race and public land.

‘On guard’ outside

Some of these fears might be unwarranted, Edmondson acknowledges. Still, there are “less threatening” barriers that are commonplace, he said, giving an example of a person of color who visits a busy national park packed with white people, camping, hiking and watching wildlife.

“That’s 500 chances that something is going to ruin your day, and that level of stress is just too high for most people,” he said. “I’ve been going outside for four decades or more, and I still have that kind of anxiety when I go to places that are chock-full of white people.

“You just never know where it’s going to come from. It’s unsettling, and it’s stressful. It makes you on guard that whole time you are in that space. You may get out of there, and no one stares at you or asks you a stupid question, or calls the police because they think you are breaking into a vehicle that happens to be your own. The possibilities are unlimited.”

National Park visits topped 327 million in 2019. Data collected by National Park Service site surveys a year earlier showed about 5% of visitors are Asian, less than 5% are Latino, and less than 2% are African American. In Minnesota, upward of 10 million people visit state parks and recreation areas each year. A survey by parks managers last done in 2017 found visits by people who identified as races or ethnicities other than white rose from 3.1% in 2012 to 5.1%. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s population of people of color increased by 20% from 2010 to 2016, according to Census Bureau data.

While Edmondson has experienced suspicious questions and stares, he tries for equanimity.

“The vast majority are not going to give you any trouble in terms of something that is going to ruin your day,” he said.

Edmondson suggests people of color get out but get away from the crowds.

“I park and I go in the opposite direction of everybody else. That’s how I deal with it,” he said, recounting his time earlier that day at Boulder Lake, where he walked a gravel road and then a deer path, in solitude, before coming to a beautiful little cove.

“It was remote. I tell people to go to find a place where there is no one,” he said.

‘Culture of space’

Still, Sundays are about reclaiming space. Reducing barriers, real and imagined. Creating more outdoor role models. The Bagley trails had an eclectic mix on Nov. 15.

Daniel Oyinloye is a musician and filmmaker in Duluth, who with Edmondson and a few others helped the Sunday gatherings take root. Fellow artist and rapper Jeremy “JayGee” Gardner of Cloquet was there, too.

John Staine, who brought his 3-year-old son, Zander Marshall-Staine, to Bagley, is a St. Louis County property assessor. Educators abound: Glenn Simmons Jr. is a UMD biomedical professor in the thick of COVID-19-related testing strategies. Steffan Spencer, an assistant professor of African history, teaches there, too, as does Rudy Perrault, the college’s director of orchestras. Sumair Sheikh is an instructional coach in Cloquet public schools, working with teachers and administrators on culturally relevant curriculum.

Oyinloye said the friends have been transformed by the time together outdoors while they also transform “the culture of space.” Most Americans would say that outdoor space is neutral territory, that it belongs to everyone. But history says otherwise, and Edmondson’s observations on public land confirm it.

The nation’s record of segregation was about confining Black people to space. All these years later, in northern Minnesota, the Sunday group is a counter to that destructive legacy of segregation, and of confining people of color to certain spaces and dictating where they could and couldn’t eat, drink, travel and congregate.

“Space is very conscious for us,” Oyinloye said. “Oftentimes you are thinking, ‘This is not a space for me.’ Not that it isn’t, but because of the culture of the space, you don’t feel like you fit in. … We have to put ourselves in spaces that we can own.”

Before the Bagley hike, Simmons sat in the tailgate of his Honda Element, stuffed with gear — and his two boys, Kayin, 8, and Kai, 2, whom he regularly brings. Like Oyinloye, he said such gatherings have built courage and grit in the group that extends beyond Sundays. “We developed our own cache,” Simmons said.

Staine sees a parallel in the winter parkas and boots he’s collected and in the experiences and friendships he’s collected as the Sunday group looks to attract others as it did him last July. “If [people of color] don’t keep that sense of community, it’ll just be lost” in places where their numbers are few, he said.

To Edmondson, a sense of equity in the outdoors fits a larger narrative in a nation becoming more diverse and in an environment that can use all the stewards it can get. Stepping foot on the Bagley trails, with his friends, is a statement for them about what matters. The outdoors matters. A place in the outdoors for people of color matters. Feelings of belonging and peace beyond the wild matter.

“I’m trying to expand other people’s horizons about nature but also just expand the number of people who feel comfortable in the out of doors,” he said. “So I can say, let’s jump in the car and let’s go here and let’s go there, and there is no hesitation like there was in the beginning.”