River Warriors: Adam Edwards

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Adam Edwards finds delight in doing hard things, physically uncomfortable things. On his 33rd birthday, he celebrated by hiking and running 33 miles. Once, we goaded each other into training for our first marathon with only six weeks to do so. We trained in the Pacific Northwest winter and raced in 84-degree humid Bahamian weather. Knowing Adam was ahead, I fought through tears and cramps to finally collapse across the finish line where his uncles and a sea of Junkanoo dancers immediately swept us up in celebration.

Adam is the first person in his family to be born in the United States. Born in Florida, he grew up around water, swimming in the ocean. Later, when his family moved to Michigan, he embraced the Great Lakes. Going to high school in Arizona meant time in the desert.

When he moved to Oregon for college, he reconnected with the ocean. “Surfing was the first sport I picked up when I moved to Oregon, I was stoked to be living near a beach again. One of my co-workers and I went out and took surf lessons.” He then started surfing every chance he got, early morning before class, or after working the morning shift at the YMCA.

And then he learned to kayak. “My college roomie worked in the outdoor program and convinced me to join,” he explains. “Then she took me rafting one New Year’s Day and I was hooked.” He has since worked as a raft guide, stand-up paddleboard instructor and has taught kayak and paddling skills in Oregon and Talkeetna, Alaska. Today, kayaking is Adam’s main outdoor outlet, though he now spends his days working as an arborist.

Adam sips his coffee and drives along happily behind the wheel of a newly acquired high top Astro van conversion. Bumper stickers like “Boof + Destroy” and “Nobody cares how high you run the Little White” adorn the back.

As we drive to White Salmon, WA, the radio is consumed with news. The U.S. is currently erupting in protests over the killings of Black Americans, most recently Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. They represent the continuing legacy of decades of inequity for Black Americans. While many try to answer questions that feel new and impossible, the pressure to explain is immense, the conversations exhausting.

I’ve been investigating questions of race, identity politics, and culture for over a decade. It’s what I studied in undergrad and the focus of my documentary work. As the U.S. learns it can no longer avoid talking about race and privilege, I wonder how we learn to have these conversations. Specifically, I wonder how people learn to be comfortable with the discomfort.

In speaking with many Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) friends who spend time engaged in outdoor activities, I think sometimes the answer is: somewhat reluctantly. BIPOC folks in majority white spaces are often asked to speak for their entire communities. Like Adam, who increasingly finds himself in a place where he’s asked to speak on issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). I wanted to know how he feels about stepping into this position. So I ask, “Do you feel like people see you as the Black kayaker?”

After a pause he replies, “I think people remember me because of a combination of my reputation and my skin color. People know who I am because I’m ‘the Black Guy.’ When I was starting out it helped. I stuck out and I also paddled A LOT.” Just like his six-week marathon-training plan, when Adam was learning to kayak and actively trying to get better, he paddled almost every day. “I had a lot of exposure, tenacity, and determination to get better,” he says. “And I paddled with anyone and everyone that wanted to paddle hard stuff and wanted to get better.”

His ragtag group of paddlers did eventually improve. “People have said to me, ‘I’m impressed with how far you’ve come, you’re very resilient and you’ve walked away from stuff that would have made other people not want to stay in the sport.’ I used to swim a lot,” he explains.

“Do you feel resistance to being seen as the black kayaker?” I ask. He chews on the next thought before explaining, “When I cared about my reputation [as a kayaker] more, I felt like if I was going to be the black kayaker I needed to be much more skilled than I am. I didn’t want people to say, ‘there’s a black boater, he’s not that great at kayaking.’”

When you’re one of the few people who look like you in a given space, the weight you carry in everything you do is heavy. Although, at times there can be some positive aspects of that weight. Sometimes you can be an inspiration.

A couple of years ago, Adam and a group of buddies pulled into a gas station after leaving a river in the Columbia Gorge. He was driving his van, Beatrix, with four boats strapped on top. Another Black man who had walked into the gas station approached Adam.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like that,” the man said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I always see people on rivers,” he said. While he’d seen countless people headed to the river and boating by, he explained he’d never seen a Black kayaker before. “I gave him my info in case he ever wanted to come out,” Adam said. “It made me feel like maybe seeing me out there could matter.”

When we talk about the many barriers to getting more BIPOC paddlers into the sport, he says, “The conversation gets weird for me. I want there to be more people of color in whitewater kayaking but it’s a legacy sport. Meaning, as a new paddler, someone has to introduce you to kayaking and literally hold your hand as you decide if you even want to stay in the sport. If you choose to stay, you have to decide how much you want to bite off.” He means you can stick to laps on your local runs and riffles or commit to higher consequence rivers.

And, as Adam points out, finding and introducing new people to the sport if they aren’t in the pipeline to a legacy of kayaking takes a lot of ‘activation energy.’ The onus really has to be on individuals to invite people into the sport and spend time introducing them to it. Or, you have to have access to an entry-level program. “Kayaking, in the US, is a very middle-class, white male sport; it costs a couple thousand dollars to get into, you have to have a car; you have to be within a few hours of a runnable river with consistent flows,” Adam explains.

“It’s very life expensive,” he explains. “That’s a lot to ask of people on both sides, the person showing you and the person trying to learn. [But] that’s also why it can make for some really great relationships.”

I sometimes equate the discomfort we experience in sport to the discomfort we experience in learning how to talk about hard topics like race and equity. As we drive, it strikes me that paddlers should have a lot of capacity for the discomfort of this conversation, they understand how to withstand discomfort and maintain calm and focus to achieve the task at hand.

As I prod further about the social and cultural barriers to access, he says, “I think the conversation often becomes overwhelming because of all the moving parts that in my opinions have to be addressed: socioeconomic, history, education, prejudices on an individual level and systemic level,” he says. “Addressing all of that at once requires a lot of mental gymnastics and openness. People have to address their own privileges and biases and that’s a lot for people to think about.” Adam empathetically thinks through all of the layers, you can tell he’s thought about them often.

I’m unsatisfied with the idea that the barriers are too much, so I dig further. “Does it matter if the sport changes?” I ask.

“I think it does matter because it will bring a lot of new perspectives. I think for the longevity and the optics of the sport, acknowledging that more than just white people do it, and can do it, matters,” he says.

Photo: Priscilla Macy

Even when we head to the outdoors, to the rivers, to the trails, we take the weight of the world with us. I ask Adam if he feels equipped to be answering all the questions about DEI he’s more recently being asked to answer.

“Yes and no,” he responds.

“My experience directly talking about race, equity, inclusion has only really been in the last few years. I’ve felt a lot of pushback internally. I ask myself, Why is this my thing to talk about? Why do I have to talk about it? Am I going to be able to do anything about it? And externally people say, You’re just drumming up your skin tone for notoriety You’re not really black anyways, you’re too privileged to be suffering the things you’re talking about.

“People think that when you grow up surrounded by white culture, you don’t know what it means to be Black,” he says.

As a kid, Adam was surrounded by multiethnic groups of friends—Philipinos, African and Eastern Europeans, Latinx and Caribbean. “There has always been a lot of code-switching. When I got into rafting and kayaking, my friends were all white and the things I liked to do were all white. The clients, the participants, the instructors—all white. I went from code-switching all the time to kind of staying one thing. It was fun, but I didn’t know how to get other POC involved.”

Adam credits his upbringing for the tools he has to handle the difficult conversations and situations. Like a car full of white guys belting out the N-word as they sing gangster rap. When those micro-aggressions happen, he has always opted to say something or question why an assumption is being made—or simply change the station.

“My family’s core principals were, Always leave an interaction better than you entered it and Make the grass greener. My parents also taught us some white people are just not going to like you and not going to give you an opportunity and you have to be vocal and speak up for yourself. Don’t rely on them but don’t fixate on them either.” He learned a combination of compassion and hard truths about the way the world would treat him.

His Bahamian family tried very hard to assimilate into American culture, fully buying into the American dream. But the dream was tainted “To feel like we are being told we are not American because we are black,” Adam says, “is really fucking… annoying to say the least. We’re told America is a melting pot, but then when we try to be part of the American mainstream, we’re told we are other.”

In 2018, Adam started writing for a blog called Melanin Base Camp, which focuses on BIPOC experiences in the outdoors. “Starting to confront my own anxiety about my experience through writing was a good entry point for me. Now I’m more pointed about it. The community both challenges and supports us to push ourselves and our concept of our voice and power.”

We talk about how the conversation has changed for Adam. “The past few years of being in community with POC in the outdoors, I realized that the communal experience and history that we share takes away a level of unease I have when I’m the only black person. When its seven dudes pulling out of a Wal-Mart parking lot with kayaks strapped on top and boxes of beer in the back and a cop follows me out of the parking lot, no one else realizes why I’m sketched out.”

Photo: Priscilla Macy

While the world churns and people scramble for answers, we head to the river because we know it’s a ‘marathon not a sprint.’ We grow weary of the conversations, which often require recounting negative experiences. I ask Adam if he has any pride about being Black in the outdoors. I am looking to remember the joy.

“I like who I am and I like who I’ve become. I hope the sport becomes more diverse. When I meet someone older than me who is black that has been out there longer than me, I get excited,” he says. “It means somebody else did it first and even if I’m worried about legacy, there is a shared legacy there. While I guess I am a bit reluctant to be known as this ‘social justice paddler,’ I made this decision and I’m working my way through it and I’m trying to do my best.

As we pull up to the river, I think about how lucky we are to get to choose to do hard things—that is privilege. For many paddlers, with only the weekend to sneak away to the water, the idea of complicating free time to talk about social justice and equity is a choice. For Adam, the conversation is thrust on him because of the color of his skin.

His friends arrive and unpack their boats and he heads off. I’m grateful to be reminded that he has a good team. As protests erupt from Welches, Oregon to Taiwan in support of the Black Lives Matters movement, it’s encouraging to see more people using their privilege and choosing to engage in hard conversations that might lead us to greater equity in all of the places where we live, learn, work and play.

Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Faith Briggs is a documentary film producer and outdoor enthusiast with a focus on diversity and representation. This summer, she and Adam partnered with NRS’s Just Add Water campaign to help breakdown the barriers to the outdoors. A shorter version of this profile first appeared in Kayak Session’s #75 Fall Issue.