A Hike in the Forest

Sunlight spilled in the forest, highlighting the trees craning their necks to reach the golden god.

Songs flirted in the air, the melody sung by a rose-breasted grosbec, the rhythm set by a woodpecker. More voices joined the chorus, warbling a lullaby of life.

I stopped, spread my arms wide, raised my head to the sky. I wanted to dance, to celebrate the joy of life.

Common sense won. A Black woman shaking her backside, and dreadlocks, to her own inner music in the woods, could be a runaway. From the asylum. Or a voodoo priestess awakening the ancient spirits. In either case, she was up to no good.

Damn the double–consciousness. This sense of ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.’ Limiting one’s activity to fit convention. Just in case…

A shadow flickered in the corner of my eye. My smile was as wide as the ocean as a deer pranced by. I bowed my head and thanked the ancient ones for this gift of life.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Birding While Black

The flock of birdwatchers meandered along the trail in the meadows. Suddenly they stopped. Binoculars raised, the group scanned the copse of trees on the left. Someone softly called out a yellow warbler. The birders drifted along, stopping and starting when a new bird was seen or heard.

There was a rare bird among the birders. Me. A Black woman participating in an activity that is almost exclusively white. I raised my binoculars too and spotted the great blue heron flitting above the tree line. A turkey vulture did lazy circles high in the blue-less sky.

Outdoor recreation is a racialized hobby. Whites do it. Blacks don’t. Birding fits that general pattern as almost ninety per cent of birders are non-Black. In general, birdwatchers are middle-aged, have high income and education, and appeals to slightly more women than men.

It does not cost much to start off as a birder. It’s enough to borrow a field guide to local birds from the library. And that’s it. If one gets hooked, the next real cost is buying your own book and a pair of binoculars. For about $100 one is now set up as birder. That’s about the same costs of buying a pair of sexy sandals or running shoes. Cost is not a barrier to birdwatching as it is to so many other outdoor recreation activities.

Skill is not a barrier either. I can confidently identify about thirty birds, starting with the common ones that I see daily in the city streets such as gulls, pigeons and starlings. In the large ponds in the parks it’s the swan, Canada geese and the squawking red-wing black birds. The more one stands still, look, and listen, the more birds seems to be flying, perching or hopping about.

Race is a factor in birding. A scan of the ornithological clubs in Toronto has lots of images of birds. And of white people. The human images do not get more colourful in the USA or in Britain. So why don’t Black people get into birding?

For a start we never see ourselves in birding ads, books and magazines. This creates two problems. The first is a negative feedback loop, as if you don’t see or know someone like yourself, doing an activity you are less likely to try it. Second, the birding media – just like the rest of the outdoor recreation folks – has created a visual apartheid implying that Black people are not wanted in that space, as they are always absent from it.

I always feel a little self-conscious when out alone on a birding walk. Really, I do not want to join another nerd club!  Wearing hiking boots, a safari hat, and with binoculars dangling from around my neck, people do wander what I am up to. I am out looking at birds, but sometimes you see strange things in the parks. A birder told me to be careful once. She had seen a flasher in the bushes. And it was not a bird.

In birding groups, my racial radar is always turned on. As the sole Black person in the group, I am half waiting for a question on where am I really from, are my dreadlocks real hair or a negative comment about ‘them.’ It’s not paranoia, it’s simply the reality of my Black experience.

I met another Black woman on a birding hike. Two of us. That is as rare as a phoenix. Dr. Drew Lanham is an African American ornithologist. In his experience, he expects to meet a fellow Black birder once every two decades or so. When I first read his statistics, I thought he was simply wrong. Then I reflected on my experience dabbling in birding. He was right.

Birding organizations can start a revolution. Simply putting Black people their ads will catch everyone’s attention. Birding – cheap, easy and done in the city – could be a gateway to getting people of colour into the conservation and environmental movements. Black birders want to fly too.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Spring Hike in Algonquin Park

“Free the nipple. That’s what we should call our movement,” he said, removing his t-shirt. The other men stripped too. The topless trio posed on the bridge as we snapped their photograph. Laughter rumbled in my belly.

The spring sun was so hot that most of us hiked in short-sleeves. Yet snow crunched under our crampons. In the sunlight it was already melting, but in the shade we hiked on thick sheets of white ice. We were on the Track and Tower trail, an easy hike in Algonquin Park. Part of it ran along an abandoned railway bed from the 1950s when passenger trains chugged through the park.

The trail was like a clear tunnel in the forest. On either side a wall of pine trees provided dark and shade. Maple and birch trees intermixed among the evergreens. They were still naked, their leaf buds peeking out, getting ready for their spring show.

Snow and ice covered the lakes and most of the marshes. Vast sheets of whiteness stretched in all directions. It looked as smooth as an enormous ice rink, where giants could skate to the end of the horizon.

Like love, the snow was not always solid. Every few yards one foot plunged calf-deep into the pale treachery. Sometimes it came up wet. Under the white blanket, spring’s melt-water was slowly eating away at winter’s stronghold.

In Toronto, four hours to the south, spring had already flaunted her finest greenery. Some forty members of my outdoors club had left the city on our annual spring hiking trip to Algonquin Park.

Half the group turned back on the trail after lunch. We continued for another hour or so. Our return route went up and down hills and valleys, clad in long patches of ice. Icers and poles were essential for keeping the balance as we scrambled over winter’s fading glory. I had no poles. My muscles grumbled at the extra work.

At last we reached the trail head in the parking lot. A moose drank the salty water from the ditch at the side of the highway. He looked healthy – his coat was smooth and patchless – though a skinny from the long winter.

The antlers, covered in  luxurious velvet-like hairs, were about a foot long, and grew out of the side of his head. In a few months they would be a magnificent multi-branched crown, used to brag to the moose world that this male was ready, healthy and in the mood to mate.

Female moose liked size. Male moose saw the antlers and thought twice about challenging the stud. But they had no choice – if they wanted the girl they had to fight to get her. Winner took all. Losers hoped they would be bigger next year. If they did not die in the battle.

The next day we went up the Beaver Trail, just across the road from the Wolf Den hostel. The dirt road was mostly used by hunters and fishermen who had lodges scattered along its length.

The trail ran uphill. My muscles were swearing so much that I had to take many breaks. We climbed up some 400 feet onto a ridge overlooking Beaver Lake. The trail ran close to the edge of the cliff. I kept away from it as my fear of heights kicked in. The view was fantastic – the ant-sized homes were mere dark spots in the vastness of the wilderness.

The climb down was just as hard due to the ice patches. We went slowly. We were not sure which patch of the snow would give out, plunging a foot down and possible twisting it on who-knows-what obstacles hidden under the layer of white duplicity.

After lunch, bellies full, but soul still hungry for nature, four of us went to Ragged Falls. The cascades were magnificent – the spring runoff had increased the volume of the river by about ten-fold. It crashed over steep, sharp rocks on its way to join another river some fifty feet below.

The roar of the falls was too much for me. I wandered away to a quiet pool above the cataracts. The signs warned it was not a swimming hole – the powerful and hidden currents would drag anyone over the edge.

The head of the waterfall was narrow. In the middle was a rock island. I remembered, in the summer clambering over to it for a better view from the top of the falls.  Today I did not – too much ice and not enough confidence.

The men scrambled over. From the bank I saw a woman in a bikini, on the rocks. The men said she was one of a trio of women, sunning and drinking beer. They were locals and the spot was a favourite for relaxing.

Too soon the weekend trip was over. My soul was refreshed. We would be back in a few months, this time for our annual autumn hike in Algonquin Park.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Hiking in the Hills of Jamaica

“I want to go hiking up in the hills,” I said.

“Oh my. What do you want to do that for?” said my cousin.

“Because it’s there. Because I like hills. Because the Maroons used the trails to escape slavery.”

“That’s work my girl. You’re on vacation. Why not just relax yourself by the beach? Watch the waves. Swim a little. Relax.”

“I am relax, but the hills are calling me.”

“So you want to walk in the hot, hot sun, just to get to the top of the hill? And then you walk back down again? My girl I won’t be doing that with you. No mam, I walk enough already. I’m not going to hot up myself and sweat up myself. That’s not fun.”

“It is for me. Who can come with me?”

“You best book a tourist trip. I’ll ask Mr. Thomas to check out the details.”

“I don’t want to do it that way. When I go hiking in Canada I am the only Black person in the group. I’m in Jamaica, I want to hike with a Jamaican group.”

“The only one I can think of is those English people them. After forty years in England they come back to Jamaica a bit different. Some say mad. They are the ones you see walking up and down in the hot sun for exercise. You know what they say about mad dogs and English men. Add the women too in Jamaica.”

“Come with me just for a bit. We won’t go far.”

“I’ll come only if we take a taxi drive. You can feast your eyes and your clothes won’t get sweaty. Better yet, let’s just go to the beach. That’s how we Jamaicans relax.”

Sailing on a Half Moon

Walking the American Border

I am thinking of taking up a new hobby. It’s called wall-walking. I want to hike along the main walls in the world, built to separate communities. Imagine being outdoors, face warmed by the sun, dreadlocks quivering in the breeze. Open skies. The wall pointing the way ahead. One could not possibly get lost, as the wall is always there.

I have hiked along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Built by the Romans some 2,000 years ago, to the north were the barbarians and to the south was civilization. The wall snaked over the tree-less, scrub-covered moors. Up close it was solid, massive stone blocks cemented into place. From a distance it was a mere ribbon of beige, fighting not to disappear into the earth.

Hadrian’s Wall worked for a while. Until the barbarians breached it. Freedom fighters will fight. No wall is high enough to contain their hunger to be rid of conquerors. Even the ones offering improvements such as wine, roads and hot baths.

My next wall-walking stop would be the Great Wall of China. The mother of all walls, meanders some 21,000 kilometres over the land. This wall failed too. The Mongols jumped over it with their horses. Genghis Khan built an empire, stretching from Asia to Europe, beyond the length of the wall. The wall became the trade route for ideas, news, silk and spices.

I can still see the Berlin Wall falling, in my mind’s eye. Bats and hammers smashing the symbol of a divided country. I can hear the cheers as Germans waltzed in the streets. The wall had failed. I want to see the remnants of it, kept as a souvenir.

Who builds the walls has the most to fear. The enclosures may have started as a symbol of their power, but ended as a relic of their impotence.

Closer to home, I will have to trek along the newest wall in the world. Trump’s Wall. It will be built along the USA-Mexican border. It will slither over some 3,000 kilometres of desserts, mountains and rivers. The wall is ‘to make America great again,’ by keeping the Mexicans out. Some 150 years ago, the border was further north. The USA states of Texas, Arizona and California were all part of Mexico.

All the long walls failed in history. Why should Trump’s Wall be any different?

Sailing on a Half Moon

In The Woods, In The Night

‘Follow the North Star.’ It sounds so simple but I was having trouble finding the North Star. I looked up at the thousands blinking overhead. It was up there, somewhere. I am sure Harriet Tubman was not thinking of ‘twinkle, twinkle little star,’ when she had to find the North Star. Her life depended on it.

I found the Big Dipper, looked across from it to find the Little Dipper. The last star in its handle was Polaris or the North Star. I was on a hike with my outdoor club in Killbear Provincial Park. We followed the paved road down to the lake. The fat moon snagged in a tree as its cool silvery light spilled on to the road. The forest itself was pitch black. The trees, like fears, seemed bigger in the night.

Headlights were turned on. Sometimes the lights reflected off the eyes of creatures in the forest. Breathe slowly. Deeply. The big eyes must be deer.

How did Harriet feel in the woods at night? She must have been comfortable – after all she lead about twenty hikes through the wilderness. Some of her hikers were terrified. They were walking away from the only world they had ever known, into the unknown. Leaving slavery behind; and their family and friends. The fugitives travelled at night, navigating by moonlight and starlight.

A few wanted to go back home. Tubman never lost a passenger on her Underground Railroad trek. She gave them a simple choice: keep walking, or I will shoot you.

The dark wrapped itself like a blanket over our hiking group. Crackle. Snap. That must be a branch falling. A very big one. The two stragglers quickly caught up with the rest us. Thud. My ears perked up waiting for another sound or for a scream. My heart did gymnastics.

The bear bells seems to jingle louder in the dark. The bells are supposed to warn the bruins that humans are near. Some hikers believe they work, some do not. I found their sound comforting in the night. Tubman was not so afraid of bears. The real predators in the woods were the slave catchers.

Small yellow eyes glowed in the dark as we walked. Wolves hunt at night. The thought popped into my head. They hunt in packs looking for the weakest and sickest moose or deer in the herd. I reminded myself that only in fairytales do wolves attack humans. The amber eyes were probably squirrels, maybe even chipmunks. My heart refused to stop doing flips.

We reached the lake. The water shimmered in the moonlight reflecting a thousand stars from above. The black patches in the distance were the islands. They seemed to be moving towards us, simply because the wind was playing with the clouds and the shadows. The murky shapes on the shore were logs bobbing in the water, not creatures from the cool, inky lagoon.

Our night hike was short – an hour long, about five kilometres. Harriet Tubman bush-wacked about 30 kilometres each night, walking for about six hours. The North Star glittered up high. It guided the fugitives from slavery in the USA to freedom in Canada.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Mushroom Pickers in the Woods

“Are you sure you know what you are doing?” I said.

The woman looked at me the way one looks at a human turd, found in the middle of the trail. Bent over she dug at the roots of a tree. Her hiking boots were caked in mud. It was odd as the trail was dry and leafy.

“I’ve been picking mushrooms for thirty years in my country,” she said. She continued to stuff what looked like a mound of brown leaves into a large plastic bag. It was almost full.

“But this is Canada. The mushrooms are different here. They might look the same but you never know.”

“I do know. These are perfect. I pick them every year.”

She mumbled something to her friend. Her accent sounded Russian.

“Get a bag. I’ll show you which ones to pick,” she said.

“No thanks. Mushrooms can be deadly. Besides we are not supposed to pick any plants on the trail.”

Her look was enough to wither a grape. I left the two women and continued the hike.

We were on a fifteen kilometre trek along the Bruce Trail. Some fifty members of the hiking club were strung out along the route. The fast hikers were probably waiting for the rest of the slow pokes, the mushroom pickers and the photographers to catch up. The sweep was behind us. He would hurry the pickers along. I hoped he would tell them off too. We are supposed to take nothing but photographs from the trail.

Mushrooms seems to be popping everywhere I looked – from high on the tree trunks, rotting branches and out of the ground. I could reliably identify only one species in the wild – the giant puffballs, big and white as a football. They are lovely dipped in egg and batter, then deep fried. So I am told. I have yet to try them.

A friend used to go mushroom hunting in the woods. For magic mushrooms. She said they gave a pleasant high. She only ate them when others were around, just in case she had a bad trip.

One woman had a reaction to mushrooms. She was a botany student, specializing in studying mushrooms. One day she was out in her parents’ garden and picked some small ones. They were beige, flecked with orange and brown spots.  She double checked her reference guide to make sure they were the right species and edible. She stir-fried them in butter with onions, a little salt and pepper.

She was still at the table, the treat half eaten when her parents came home from work. Their daughter was as cold as an iceberg.

I love mushrooms, especially the oyster and shitake. Mine always come clearly labelled from the supermarket. Hunting for truffles in the woods sound like a lovely way to spend an autumn afternoon. I would go for the walk and the fresh air. And leave the mushrooms alone. I will take no chances.

Sailing on a Half Moon