In Michigan, making the outdoors more accessible to people of color

As a working mother with four children, Tepfirah Rushdan seldom has time to get away. In addition to caring for her kids, she’s the co-director of Keep Growing Detroit, inspiring young people to care about conservation and developing urban ecology programs such as vacant land remediation, community gardening, and climate change resiliency research.

But over a weekend in early March, Rushdan joined eight fellow environmental activists from Detroit and Grand Rapids for an outdoor adventure in an out-of-the-way part of their home state. With funds and resources provided by a consortium of donors, Rushdan and this assembly of mostly Black and brown folks were able to trade the responsibilities of jobs and families for the wonders of ice climbing along the shores of Lake Superior on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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“I’m basically a farmer, and that means I’ve got a really busy schedule,” Rushdan says. “It’s not often that I can just leave and go someplace without having to worry about work or my kids. That’s why this trip really meant a lot to me.”

It’s not uncommon for working people in urban areas to have limited access to the outdoors. People of color, in particular, are impacted by disparities in income and time off for recreation, especially if it requires driving long distances or specialized skills and equipment. As those making up the largest percentage of essential workers in service jobs that can’t be done remotely, Blacks and Latinos across America have been most directly affected by the pandemic. Michigan was no exception. 

An adventure in northern Michigan

Bordered by Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, the St. Mary River, and the Wisconsin state line, the Upper Peninsula (or U.P., as it’s commonly known) is home to the deep woods of Hiawatha National Forest, as well as the towering escarpments of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. In addition to more than 1,700 miles of continuous Great Lakes shoreline, the region has some 4,300 inland lakes and 12,000 miles of free-flowing streams.

(Here’s how national parks are working to fight racism.)

In the winter months, with temperatures sometimes dipping well below 0º Fahrenheit, all of that freshwater freezes solid. In many areas along the cliffs that overlook Lake Superior, sheer walls of ice form vertical columns that seem as dense and permanent as white marble. 

Several of the most prominent features can be found at Pictured Rocks. Easily accessible by car, even during the coldest months of the year, the destination offers a series of hiking trails to explore the colorful sandstone formations of Chapel Rock and Miners Castle. Along the picturesque headlands, visitors can view the remains of ancient shipwrecks and the towering lighthouse at AuSable Point.

The retreat participants headed straight for the frozen expanses that yield just enough for sharpened crampons and ice tools to take hold. These walls often attract intrepid adventurers who ascend to heights of 50 feet or more. But for those in search of a much-needed break from the pressures of their urban lives, ice climbing on frozen waterfalls offered an opportunity to see this remarkable landscape from a different perspective.

“For me it was just the views,” Rushdan says. “I don’t get to see a lake like that from so high up. And the ice! It was amazing. But it wasn’t the ice climbing that got me excited as much as just being out there and hanging with people and just having a good time.”

Building bonds in nature

The long Michigan winter, compounded by “safer at home” restrictions imposed by city and state legislators in response to the pandemic, had taken a toll on the spirits of almost every resident of the Great Lakes State. In 2020 the nationwide social unrest that followed the deaths of Black citizens including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery added to the tensions of life in America, especially in urban areas.

For the group who escaped to Pictured Rocks, the natural stillness of frozen water seemed to offer a calming experience. In the company of others who share a passion for the conservation of natural spaces, the travelers created a community of mutual support while enjoying the environment they strive to project.

(Discover how being in nature affects your brain.)

The participants, all either fully vaccinated or with a negative COVID-19 test result, stayed in a large AirBnB rental house, where they could spread out and eat meals without having to risk restaurants. During the climbing excursions, guides and gear provided by local shop Down Wind Sports enabled everyone to scale the ice with little fear of falls or injury.

“This opportunity was truly wonderful, and it brought me so much joy to see some of that community building come to fruition,” says Alice Jasper, a public service advocate based in Grand Rapids. “It was really great just to be in the presence of people who share my lived experience.”

That experience includes being part of a community disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In Michigan, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services reports that rates of infection and fatality have been particularly severe among Black and Hispanic residents. “African Americans represent nearly 14 percent of the state’s population,” the department’s website states, “yet they represent 40 percent of the deaths from coronavirus.”

Making the outdoors accessible to all

But those who lack the disposable income, leisure time, and cultural exposure to outdoor adventure are even less likely to visit the national parks and public recreation areas to which they are entitled. Small investments of basic necessities to leaders of under-represented communities can help reduce the disparities of access to the outdoors. 

(Life after the “Green Book’’: What is the future for Black travelers in America?)

“This trip has given me the confidence I need to do things like this closer to home,” says Sergio Cira-Reyes, an organizer for Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant services organization; the Latino Community Coalition; and Latino Outdoors, a national group that encourages connections to nature. “I may not be able to do something big like this. But now that I know a few of the things that need to get done, definitely we can do things outside in Grand Rapids.”

As the pandemic appears to loosen its grip, people from all walks of life are flocking back to the great outdoors. With a little encouragement, guidance, and support, those whose circumstances make getting outside difficult can find a safe and accessible pathway through the most formidable landscapes—even walls of ice.

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