I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York where an unspoken hierarchy of sports exist. Basketball, soccer, and football stand at the top. As you move down the totem pole you get volleyball and tennis. Water sports fall somewhere toward the bottom. There are many reasons why water sports may not have the same allure. For one, it’s easier to play a traditional sport, the gear is readily available and there’s always someone on the block who’s willing to coach you through the basics. That’s not the case for something like kayaking.
A combination of lacking the accessibility to equipment or instructors and the financial demand prohibit most kids in urban areas from participating—or even knowing it’s an option. On top of that, consider the geographic makeup of Manhattan and the neighboring boroughs and the vast use of public transit over personal transportation. Accessing bodies of water from most places can be difficult via public transportation. From Brooklyn, for example, it requires several buses and trains just to get to a pier or boathouse, which often becomes a hassle for people from the inner city.
And then there’s fear.
Fear holds such a tight grip on many people who may otherwise be interested in kayaking and whitewater rafting. Something as natural as swimming to many, can feel like a death sentence to others. Not too long ago, my fear of drowning had prevented me from completely embracing water sports. I used to cling to my life jacket if I thought there was the slightest chance I could fall into the water. Luckily for me, my love for adventure was stronger than my distrust of my swimming capabilities. Kayaking gave me the opportunity to feel a sense of safety in the water, while at the same time allowing me to explore the outdoors in a different way.
I remember how magical my first kayaking experience felt, despite my complete unpreparedness. On a whim, I put on a pink floral dress with gold strappy sandals, rounded up my friends, and headed to the Manhattan Pier. I never considered I might get wet. So, I never questioned if I was wearing the proper clothing. I was just excited to give kayaking a try. Eventually, I realized I would get wet and had a ball splashing my friends with my paddle throughout the day. Seeing the skyline from the Hudson and being able to enjoy the experience with my friends created a lasting memory and made me want to continue kayaking.
Following that initial day splashing in the Hudson, I soon found a place with the Hudson River Riders, which provides inner-city youth access to the river and offers free kayaking lessons during the summer. Located in Yonkers, the fourth-most populous city in the state of New York, the boathouse creates a safe haven for youth around the city. By providing access to the Hudson River, they hope to increase diversity in water sports such as kayaking. That’s how I met Chevaughn, the Director of the Hudson River Riders Boat Club. For some, he may seem an “unconventional” kayaker because of his textured locs and brown skin, but once you see him on the water, his love for kayaking is undeniable.
Through the Hudson River Rivers, I found a community of ‘unconventional’ kayakers. Like Chevaughn, Davin, Kori and I share darker skin tones and afro-textured hair—traits rarely associated with or represented in paddlesports. But to me, that’s part of the beauty of sports and nature, your looks don’t dictate your skills or level of desire to learn and explore.
Fast forward to a mild September afternoon. I met up with Chevaughn, Kori and Davin at the boathouse. We paddled out on the Hudson to take a break from our busy city lives. Luscious trees lined the banks at the boat launch. As the sun started to set, we paddled farther away from the shore, the scenery and atmosphere becoming more and more industrial. As factories spewed billowy clouds of steam all around us, I looked forward to paddling in a different landscape over the weekend.
From its headwaters in the Adirondack Mountains, the Hudson River flows 315 miles until it drains into the Atlantic Ocean at New York Harbor. Our weekend plan was to leave our urban roots and explore the wilderness origins of this same river in Upstate New York. I was ecstatic to embark on a new journey as my passion for exploring the outdoors and adventure is like no other.
The drive from Yonkers to the Adirondacks took approximately four-and-a-half-hours, and fall was the perfect season to do it. Each mile on route 87 exuded vibrant fall foliage—reds, oranges, greens, yellows, even a purple tree was in the mix.
As the miles ticked by, my thoughts wandered beyond the asphalt and scenic views to the emotions that this past year had conjured up. I couldn’t help but think about the Covid-19 pandemic and how it transformed reality as we knew it. The pandemic drastically changed our routines and lifestyle—some positively and others negatively.
One positive was the surge of people interested in the outdoors. Bike shops sold out everywhere; paddleboards and kayaks became a hot commodity. In a way, this pandemic brought us back to nature. Back to exploring and being curious about things in our own backyards. And to my surprise, white people weren’t the only ones rushing outside. The parks and trails and waterways also became an outlet for many people of color, which was not really the case prior to the pandemic. I started to see more people who looked like me on the trails and participating in other outdoor activities.
As I got closer to our campsite, the reception on my phone began to dwindle—a telltale sign of how far from the city I had driven. When I finally parked my car, I hoped I was at the right place. All of my calls and texts had failed to go through. But soon, I recognized the kayak strapped to a car and when Scott stepped out of the car, I sighed with relief.
Kori, Chevaughn and Davin soon pulled into the campsite, too, and the weekend could officially begin. We wanted to pitch our tents and set up camp before the sun set. Most of our tents went up seamlessly. However, it was Davin’s first time putting up a tent on his own and, boy, was that a spectacle. I watched as he pulled each tent pole out, his face scrunched in confusion. I remember having a similar reaction the first time I tried to assemble a tent. Despite his enthusiasm and determination, Davin couldn’t insert the poles into the corresponding flaps. Kori and I offered to help, as we attempted without success to hold back our laughter. The experience and hilarity of the moment brought us closer as a group.
Hunting (and chopping) firewood was our next to-do. After we had gathered a bundle, Chevaughn taught us the proper technique for splitting wood with an axe. To split the wood directly in half requires the perfect combination of precision, strength, and technique. Kori and I had never done this before, and I can’t say we ever found the precision-strength-technique sweet spot. But with a little trial and error, we had enough wood to start a blazing fire and our bellies rumbled.
Chevaughn had designated himself the chef of the trip and with that, he brought his Jamaican-styled cuisine to the Adirondacks. We filled our plates with smoked fish and potatoes, which really hit the spot after traveling and setting up camp. As we cleared the table, the stars began to shine treating us to an unfiltered view, something that’s nearly impossible to see in Brooklyn. So, before heading into my tent, I nestled down in my camp chair and soaked in the awe and silence of the beautiful night sky.
Birds chirping and the sun shining through my tent—nature’s alarm clock at its best—woke me earlier than I would have had I been at home. I didn’t complain though, my mind and body wanted to explore. I walked across the street to watch the sunrise above the golden and Edenic green trees. Rise and shine, I thought, today is going to be a great day. I relaxed for a short peaceful meditation then returned to camp to have breakfast with everyone.
The early morning dew formed a thick layer of fog, the thickest fog I’d ever experienced. We piled into Chevaughn’s car. The sun began to burn off the fog as we got closer to the put in.
We met up with our guide, Siobhan—ironically pronounced the same as Chevaughn—and as a team, we inflated and carried the raft to the river. Siobhan briefed us on some commonly used terminology and commands that she would use throughout the day. As we prepared to set off on our adventure, we ran into other paddlers who wished us luck on our voyage. Having only my Yonkers paddling community to reference, I didn’t know what to expect from other boaters. But the people we ran into that morning were kind and shared an adventurous spirit, much like the paddlers back in Yonkers, despite our obvious phenotypical differences.
The beauty of the Adirondacks and the explosions of colors stunned all of us. By pure luck, we caught the foliage at its peak, which was an unexpected treasure. Fall foliage is about as predictable as the weather. None of us had ever seen foliage as vibrant as we saw in the Adirondacks. In the city, concrete and industry tend to blur the seasons together into a muted palette. But in the Adirondacks, I felt like we were part of a vibrant painting. The most magical part was when the golden leaves began to fall. It looked like glitter fluttering down to the river.
The rapids were my favorite part, hands down. But at one point during the day, we pulled up to a large boulder towering over the river. We all agreed to jump off. One by one we hopped off the boat and started to climb the rock. With little to grip on to, it was difficult to climb but we all made it to the top. We haggled over who would go first. And we exchanged stories about our most frightening jumps to hype ourselves up. I didn’t want to be first or last, so I sandwiched myself in between Kori and Davin. Chevaughn jumped, striking a Superman pose midair and from there we all took the leap. The water was surprisingly refreshing as we swam back to the raft.
As morning turned to afternoon, the rapids became fewer and less energetic until the river was nice and calm. We couldn’t have asked for a better day. Compared to my first time whitewater rafting, it was even more exhilarating this time around.
Thanks to Scott’s impeccable planning, our camp was just across the street from the takeout. We changed into comfy, dry clothes and prepared for our last feast: steak, fish, multicolored carrots, potatoes and broccoli. Let me tell you there were no leftovers in sight—rafting was hard work! We infused elements of our Caribbean culture, okra and jerk seasoning, into the menu creating a decadent aroma. In a cheesy way, our colorful and diverse meal represented our adventure: a beautiful day where different cultures came together for our united love of the outdoors.
As the night continued, we shifted the party from the wooden table to the campfire. With the fire crackling a background tune, we created an open space for our cultures and ethnic backgrounds—Haitian, South African, Jamaican and American—to mingle. We shared our life experiences, which had similarities and differences. And as the night grew dark, we all grew and learned something new from each other. We are more similar than the media displays, and we all have an appreciation for life, love, and adventure.
Sun shining from ear to ear
As our paddles brush the surface of the clear waters
The sky whispers words of gratitude
Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Sophia Eugene is an outdoor enthusiast who loves adventure and trying new things.