A Hiker’s Journey

By Guest Author: Clifton Harcum - Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program Coordinator at SUNY Potsdam
Monday, August 17, 2020

Clifton Harcum is from Baltimore City and lived in the state of Maryland for over 34 years studying and working in Higher Education. In one of his careers, he was responsible for leading students on outdoor excursions. That’s what got him interested in camping, kayaking, and walking trails. He moved to the North Country two years ago and recently has taken on a new challenge - hiking mountains in the Adirondacks. For a variety of reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic inspired Clifton to start the Saranac 6er challenge, and experience the challenges and beauty of the mountains surrounding his community. We welcome Clifton to share his journey to becoming a “hiker” in the Adirondacks.

Originally when I moved to the North Country, I resided in Watertown. I had wonderful colleagues who understood my desire to experience the full North Country way of life. This meant introducing me to local campsites, trails, and whitewater rafting locations. It was an eye-opening experience. My love of the outdoors and the surrounding areas was amplified throughout those experiences.

After camping and hiking almost every week, I began to desire more. I wanted more challenge and to explore the region more. My colleagues recommended that I visit the Adirondacks. They said “you would love it there,” but the three-hour drive dissuaded my decision to make the trip.

As time passed, I longed to immerse myself in the outdoor lifestyle. Then, I accepted a job offer in the Town of Potsdam and began residing in the Tri-Lakes region. This is when I fell in love with the Adirondacks. Living in the Adirondacks, the harsh winters, amazing spring and summer weather and beautiful views took my breath away. Every day has felt like a retreat/vacation.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. One thing clearly stood out to me, the importance of being healthy to prevent being immobilized if you became infected with the virus. I found that spending time outdoors was a way that I could maintain good health and cope with the stress of the pandemic. I started jogging and walking miles, but that began to bore me so I decided to jog various trails. I remembered my colleagues in Watertown talking to me about the mountains in the Adirondacks so I decided to give it a try. I believe the first mountain I hiked was Baker, followed up by Haystack. That’s when my love and addiction to hiking mountains set in.

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What the Adirondacks Have Given Me

Spending time hiking in the Adirondack mountains has taught me so much about myself and the region. I gained such an appreciation of nature and the people who maintain the Adirondack forest. Hiking the Adirondacks has taught me about courage, resilience, patience, and camaraderie. I never thought that something like hiking mountains would teach me so much. These past few months have changed my life. I'm more confident, fearless, and more open-minded to others. Climbing thousands of feet above sea level and meeting strangers from all over the world shows how connected we really are as people. It takes a special kind of person to traverse the harsh conditions of many of these trails. While on the trails people provide encouragement, advice as well as the collective joy of reaching the summits and their stories of the decent. For me, it’s a special community for lovers of the challenge of the outdoors. I feel privileged that I am now one of its members.

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However, one of my fears, beyond wild animals and getting hurt and stranded, are running into people who may want to hurt me. When I go out on the trails, the thought in the back of mind is that something could happen to me. I’ve hiked 18 mountains so far and have not seen one other Black person. I’m not saying that Black people aren’t hiking but I haven’t seen one. When I’m hiking the trails at times some people get startled, sometimes I get stares, but I haven’t had any bad experiences with people. Most people have been friendly and helpful. I do worry that being out there alone at times that I could run into someone who has unpleasant feelings about Black people and could potentially try to hurt me.

But this is the land of the free and I don’t believe in limiting my freedom due to fear. I feel that I should access and have access to whatever this country has to offer. I know these fears I have are shared with many in my community and honestly, I don’t blame them. Whenever I go out to hike my family worries about me, especially with the political and racial climate right now. I think getting more people of color out into the woods is only possible if people feel safe. 

Taking on the Challenge

Despite these challenges, I’ve hiked over 18 mountains since the pandemic. My biggest achievement as of today was completing the Saranac 6er challenge. That has to be one of the proudest moments in my life. I originally didn’t set out to be involved in the challenge, on a hike one day someone mentioned it to me, and I realized that I already completed three of the six hikes. I had already completed Ampersand, Baker, and Haystack. When I was made aware of the remaining three, I completed Scarface, St. Regis, and McKenzie shortly after. Ringing the 6er challenge bell located in downtown Saranac Lake with my family present was very fulfilling. My son, who hiked several mountains with me and my fiancé who witnessed my journey felt so good. The excitement of the unknown and overcoming my fears made the experience one that I would never forget.

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For anyone that is thinking about challenging yourself and beginning a hiking journey in the Adirondacks, there are a few things you should consider. Be aware of your fitness level, the challenge of the hike, and bring water. Hiking mountains at times is strenuous on the body as well as your mind. You have to go into it with the mindset that you may encounter situations that you may have never faced before. This means to plan ahead, and enjoy the hike! The Adirondack forest is beautiful and if you can move past your fears it can be a very rewarding and fulling experience.

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Clifton Harcum is the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Program Coordinator at SUNY Potsdam. He lives in Saranac Lake New York with his family and is on the Adirondack Diversity initiative core team. 

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