THE LURE OF THE OUTDOORS

The Baltimore Sun

Marcus Asante is ready to set sail.

When the wind is at his back, he plans to pilot his boat Soukous (named for a jazzy type of African dance music that's similar to a rumba) out of the Inner Harbor and into open waters.

Founder of the 40-member Universal Sailing Club of Baltimore, Asante is one of an increasing number of African-Americans taking up sports such as sailing, hiking, biking and scuba diving.

Groups such as the Universal Sailing Club are making a big impact, according to Charles K. West, publisher of Black Outdoorsman magazine. West says that African-Americans represent the fastest-growing minority population in the United States that's involved in outdoor athletic activities.

West, whose quarterly publication is based in Columbia, notes that white-water rafting is particularly popular among blacks in the Southwest, and fishing is popular in the Southeast.

"We are trying to branch from this tradition of camping and fishing, into exposing more African-Americans to kayaking, skiing and diving," he says. Group adventures such as these foster an overall sense that wellness can be fun, several experts agreed, which is important because African-Americans are disproportionately affected by heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke and obesity, compared with the rest of the U.S. population.

"We are over four decades past victories of the civil rights movement, such as 1964's voting act. African-Americans have achieved parity - I can live where I want, go into any restaurant - yet there is some slipping backward when it comes to health issues," says Dr. Stephen Thomas, director of the Center for Minority Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

While many African-Americans are discovering that exercising together is more fun than alone, along the way they're also learning more about black history.

For instance, did you know:

Underwater Adventure Seekers of Washington, D.C., is America's oldest continuously operating scuba diving club and was founded by an African-American?

Iron Riders, a black regiment of U.S. soldiers in the late 1800s, were among America's first long-distance cyclists? They experimented to see whether bicycles could be used as a way to deploy military forces by riding from Missoula, Mont., to St. Louis.

Wye Island, where Frederick Douglass spent his childhood as a slave, is a day sail from Baltimore's Inner Harbor?

"Let's not forget that most African-Americans originally come from people who were part of agricultural societies. We are from the outdoors," West says. "Back then, however, it wasn't about adventure, but sustenance. So it is especially powerful for us to get back to the elements, and to experience the smell, feel and touch of natural places."

Here are a few ideas for adding a little adventure to a summer vacation.

Hiking

Marcia Fairweather of Fresco Adventures, a Silver Spring-based company, likes to use the phrase "Mother Nature wants YOU!" to encourage African-Americans to join her on outdoor excursions.

Some of Fresco Adventure's backpacking trips go as far afield as Costa Rica, Brazil and Africa; other treks take in local sites of early black history in Anne Arundel and Prince George'scounties.

"Sometimes I dream of putting together a series of trips to what were formerly African-American towns all across the United States," says Fairweather, who has several hikes throughout Maryland planned for this summer.

The key to her business success, Fairweather believes, is highlighting the social aspect of sports.

"On a lot of hikes, people just show up, hike and go home," says Fairweather, who estimates a third of her business comes from Baltimore. "I decided to add a picnic at the end, and soon word got around: 'Hey! They feed you at Fresco!' People began to see it as an opportunity not just to hike, but to make friends. When people find other African-Americans who like to do the same things, it makes them more comfortable."

That was Monica Purnell's experience. Purnell, a pharmaceutical representative who lives in Baltimore, went on a Mount Kilimanjaro hike in Tanzania last year, and enjoys hiking in Maryland, too.

"I am in the city all the time and you get tired of the dirt and grime," she says. "Oh, but outdoors! The wind, the cold, the hot - all that combined, and being in the forest. Wherever you hike it is beautiful. It is motivating and, at the same time, it's freeing."

Biking

"I can't quite put all my feelings into words, but to dip my bicycle wheels into the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile Bay, Ala., and try to imagine slave ships that came to these shores full of Africans ... ," says Mario Browne, a bicycling enthusiast from Pittsburgh.

Browne is one of a group of bicyclists who recently rode on the just-completed Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, an outreach to the African-American community that was jointly organized by Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), North America's largest bicycling organization, and the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Minority Health. The inaugural 48-day trip began in April and ended last month.

Starting in Alabama, the 2,058-mile route wends north through Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio - past documented locations of safe houses for blacks who took the route to escape from Southern slavery as early as 1830 - before ending at Owen Sound, in Ontario, Canada.

"As an African-American man, to make this journey was more than just a bike ride," Browne says. "I really felt I was uplifting history and a shared heritage."

There's another, shorter underground railroad journey planned for July 30 to Aug. 5, which begins in Buffalo, N.Y., and ends 273 miles later at Owens Sound.

"This celebratory seven-day event commemorates the freedom seekers' route to Canada, the final destination of many people fleeing slavery and recapture," according to the ACA Web site.

Sailing

"Part of the underground railroad was a maritime endeavor as well," says Asante. "Here around the Chesapeake Bay, we have a long history of black oystermen, black fishermen; folks whose work represented a type of freedom they weren't able to attain on land."

The Universal Sailing Club, Asante says, is a way to reclaim some of this history through recreation. In the past, Universal has hosted a Paul Cuffee Regatta in Worton Creek, named for a black shipbuilder and sailor from Massachusetts who, in the 18th and 19th centuries, transported free blacks from America back to Africa.

On Aug. 25 the club has plans to sponsor the Douglass-Myers Regatta, in honor of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Isaac Myers, who was an early organizer of unions for black tradesmen and longshoremen.

"Part of our mission is to develop African-American sailors, not just accommodate existing ones," Asante says.

A similarly welcoming atmosphere is present at the Seafarers Yacht Club of Annapolis, where Joe Amos is the rear commodore. This African-American club, formed nearly 30 years ago, arranges cruises around Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis, and is gearing up for its annual Summer Youth Program, held this year July 9 to 13.

"Our main thing is, we help underprivileged kids in Montgomery County," Amos says. "We introduce them to sailing and teach them things like how to tie knots. Actually, we've found children learn best by doing. We just take kids out on a cruise, and they soak it all in."

Scuba

Jose Jones, who founded the Underwater Adventure Seekers nearly half a century ago, is in his 70s and a retired professor of marine science at the University of the District of Columbia.

He has made more than 6,000 dives in close to 50 countries around the world. One diving location that has a special spot in his affections, and well as in the hearts of many African-American divers, is New Ground Reef off the Marquesa Keys, about 35 miles from Key West, Fla.

There lies the submerged remains of the Henrietta Marie, a British slave ship that sank in 1700 and which was commemorated in 1993 with an underwater plaque and monument placed by the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.

Michael Cottman is chairman of the NABS' Slave Ship Committee and regularly arranges what he calls "pilgrimage" scuba dives to New Ground Reef.

Cottman's book, The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie: An African-American's Spiritual Journey to Uncover a Sunken Slave Ship's Past (Crown, 1998), combines American, Caribbean and African history with scuba diving and underwater archaeology.

In some ways, the methodology of Cottman's book is similar to that of many of the new African-American travel groups. Adventure is the draw; historical awareness and greater health are the side effects.

"Are black folks getting more into scuba? Yes, but there is always a good-sized group of nondivers, maybe 30 percent, who attend our NABS excursions. They come for the surf, sun and to network," he says. "What we find, though, is that even of this group, by the end of the trip, quite a few of these people who didn't think they were interested have taken their first dive."

unisun@baltsun.com

GETTING STARTED

For more information about African-American outdoors activities, contact:

Underwater Adventure Seekers uasdivers.org Jose Jones 202-526-3404

Fresco Adventures -- Outdoor activities including hiking and white-water rafting frescoadventures.com Marcia Fairweather 301-352-5272

Adventure Cycling Association -- Underground Railroad Bicycle Route adventurecycling.org/ugrr 800-755-2453

National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS) nabsdivers.org 800-521-NABS

Universal Sailing Club (Baltimore) universalsailingclub.org Marcus Asante 410-578-1855

Seafarers Yacht Club of Annapolis seafarersyc.com Joe Amos 410-375-5770

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