Hiking and History: Honoring the Legacies of Port Chicago and John Muir

A foggy morning turned into a beautiful afternoon for a late November hike up Mount Wanda at the John Muir National Historic site.  Twenty-five outdoor afros and Cody the dog were treated to an enjoyable afternoon of history, community, and smiles.

Before we began our hike, Raphael Allen, Park Ranger at Rosie the Riveter/ World War II Home Front National Historical Park, welcomed everyone and provided a thorough presentation on African American of History Port Chicago. Ranger Raphael explained that Port Chicago, visible from the summit of Mount Wanda, was the site of a deadly explosion on July 17, 1944.

320 men, including 202 African American men, were killed due to unsafe conditions at the port. Following the explosion, 50 African American men were charged and tried for mutiny for refusing to report back to work. According to Ranger Raphael, this injustice caused African Americans to organize and to whisper among themselves  “Thurgood’s Coming” in reference to NAACP lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s involvement in the case. Ranger Raphael concluded his presentation by distributing trading cards to Outdoor Afro hikers and emphasizing the national park’s commitment to ensuring that Port Chicago is not forgotten.


With Port Chicago on our minds, we began our ascent up Mount Wanda.

Everyone settled into their own pace, with faster hikers taking the lead and the others keeping a moderate pace.  While the beginning of the hike was mostly shady and cool, the sun broke through the trees to warm us up as we got to our midway point.
Outdoor Afro Leader Cliff Sorrell pointed out the different trees on the hike including fragrant California Bay Trees and various oak trees, including the coast live oak and the blue oak trees. Cliff explained that you can tell the difference between the trees by noticing their leaves.
Several outdoor afros noted that we were joined on our hike by different bird species, including turkey vultures, Downy Woodpeckers, and a hummingbird.  We also discussed the legacy of John Muir and his significant role in ensuring that we can continue to enjoy national parks like Mount Wanda and Yosemite.

Outdoor Afros Carmen and Toure were the first to reach Mount Wanda’s summit.

As other members joined us, Outdoor Afro Leader Zoë Polk pointed out the location of Port Chicago.  She asked members to think about what the landscape looked like in 1944 and to think about the different reasons African Americans joined the Navy during that time. Zoë referenced Professor Robert Allen’s celebrated work, Port Chicago Mutiny, and noted that some of the men were outdoor afros of their time, joining the navy out of a sense of adventure and longing to experience the world’s natural beauty. She also asked hikers to contemplate what outdoor recreation activities the men of Port Chicago participated in, given that they had little ability to travel to Oakland, San Francisco, or other bay area culture centers for entertainment. Hikers took a minute to contemplate this history and the beautiful surrounding landscape before descending Mount Wanda.
We finished the afternoon by stopping by the John Muir House. The wonderful staff at the visitor center screened Into Forgetfulness, a short documentary film about the Port Chicago disaster and legal battle. The staff also led tours of John Muir’s house.
The Outdoor Afro leadership team celebrates all of the kind folks who joined us on Mount Wanda and looks forward to seeing everyone again at the next meet up!
For more information about honoring the legacy of Port Chicago, connect with the Friends of Port Chicago.

Cayman and John Muir

What Happened to the Stars?

Outdoor Afro contributor, Roger Porter reflects on how the night sky in his old Oakland neighborhood has changed, and the key role stars played for runaway slaves and in African antiquity.
There are theories that credit ancient Egyptian advanced knowledge of astronomy for helping to create the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of the Seven Wonders, and known for 3,800 years as the tallest man-made structure in the world. It is said that the Egyptians were able to accomplish this feat by aligning the corners of the massive stone structure with the burning stars that served as the chief architect for the project.
When I was a little boy my family used to live on 90th Avenue in deep East Oakland, CA. There were eight of us: my brother, sister, mother, uncle, aunty, two cousins, and I living in an old pink two-story house. Even though the pink paint was peeling, the structure was falling apart, and we lived in the middle of a notorious ghetto, I still consider the years that I spent there to be the most joyous of my life.

Oakland, CA

Summertime was the best.
I remember going to the corner store and buying 10 cent Otter Pops and Jolly Ranchers, water balloon fights, cold pineapple Crush sodas, and young girls playing double-dutch.
I also remember going out on the porch at night, looking straight up into the open expanse and having my older cousin extend his fingers to the sky and point out every constellation.
“That’s Orion’s Belt right there! Oooh and you see that? That’s the Big Dipper.”

night sky

There would be shooting stars, twinkling stars, and little stars right next to stars that looked huge by comparison. But today, when I look up in the night sky above Oakland, there only seem to be a few points of scattered light.
It is said the reason for this may be light pollution—which basically means that all the new street lights and traffic signals that have been installed over the past 25 years, in addition to all the new light bulbs burning in all the newer homes, produce a tremendous accumulative glow that prevents people in an urban metropolis from seeing the stars.
It makes me wonder how runaway slaves might find their way under this new sky with so many the stars blanketed in man-made light?  What would those brave souls who followed the North Star for  hundreds of miles do if they knew that their descendants wouldn’t even be able to see the very thing that guided them to freedom?
It saddens me that the once electric, urban summer sky now seems blank and generic. I miss the constellations; that old house in East Oakland, and youthful  innocence. I suppose it should make me feel a little better knowing that even though I can’t see the stars they are still there—but it doesn’t. For if we cannot see them then they are as good as gone.

Roger Porter is a writer and educator from Oakland, CA USA whose first book, “The Souls of Hood Folk,” is available at lulu.com. He has a degree in English from UC Berkeley and an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. He describes himself as “An average everyday man from East Oakland who writes about average everyday hood life.”

Spotted on Sunday – The Mapp Family Goes Kayaking

On the eve of autumn, and grayer Bay Area skies, my kids and I decided to head out to Lake Merritt in Oakland, California to paddle around its famous Wildlife sanctuary.

According the Oakland Park and Rec website, Lake Merritt originally resided as a wide, tidal estuary (salt water marsh) that was known as the Laguna Peralta. So this “lake” actually formed where several creeks empty into the San Francisco Bay. Back when the Ohlone Indians (the area’s original inhabitants) fished, hunted, and gathered food along its shores, it was surrounded by 1,000 acres of wetlands. The area has remained since a sanctuary and stop-over for thousands of migratory birds.

Today my family came equipped with binoculars, a bird guide, and lots of energy to move our kayaks around almost the entire 3-mile perimeter. We were rewarded immediately with stunning views of wildlife – a highlight was spotting a pair of elegant California Least Turns flying against a green Oakland hillside in the distance.

Jack Wolf

In 1915 organized feedings of the wildlife began at Lake Merritt, and it is every Oaklander’s childhood memory to have gone to “feed the ducks” with bags of day old bread scraps.  Today, you can purchase the sustainable option of birdseed in the ecology center to share with the variety of hungry birds along the shore, such as egrets, herons, Canada goose, and many other species of water fowl.
After getting our $20 deposit back, the total cost of our mid-day excursion was an affordable $24 for both kayaks for the hour. Compare this to the cost of a trip to the movies in exchange for priceless memories. My youngest said over and over while sitting behind me in the kayak, “this is so relaxing and fun Momma,” — he could not have spoken a more perfect truth.
Want to rent a sailboat, kayak, or paddle boat at Lake Merrit? Click Here
View the rest of our pictures!
Where do you like to go kayaking? What is your childhood memory of interacting with wildlife?

Featured Outdoor Afro: Robert Alexander

Robert Alexander became passionate about the outdoors during his youth in Oakland, California. Outdoor Afro recently spoke with Robert  to discuss his evolving commitment to outdoor recreation.

Robert and fellow diver

Tell us more about how your participation in outdoor activities began?
I have an affinity for water. I jumped into a pool of water at age two with all my clothes on, and my mother had to jump in and save my life! She got me into swimming lessons that same summer, and I was swimming laps by the age of five. I became a lifeguard when I was eighteen and worked for various local pools, and eventually became an Aquatics Director for an organization. To this day,  I thank my mother for exposing me to many different activities during my youth. She made sure I was an active member within the Oakland Parks and Recreation scene, and I was involved with the local Arts Center where we did things like act in plays, make ceramics, cook, and do carpentry and photography.

What is your favorite outdoor recreation activity?

My favorite outdoor activity is camping because I love to breathe clean fresh air. I also love wildlife and hiking. I like the camaraderie you build when you are on a camping trip with others — from pitching a tent, to cooking food and starting a fire. These are essentially team building experiences that effortlessly create a bond, and I love it!

Do your friends and family join you in your outdoor pursuits?

My friends and I recently took a trip to Lake Tahoe, Nevada. It took a lot of convincing for some folks because many of them had never even seen snow before! Outdoor activities like water rafting I have tried with some friends, but not all as many cannot swim.

If you had one recommendation for someone who wanted to start participating in outdoor recreation as an adult, what is the most important advice you have for them?
The advice I would give them is to take the chance because you never know — you might fall in love with a particular activity. Most people don’t try things because of fear or they think they might be unsuccessful. I tell those people, “you never know until you try!” Another thing I might tell someone, which I know sounds cliché, is: “you only live once!” But seriously, do not wait until you are 90 years old and talk about what you COULD HAVE DONE. Live life NOW!

We know you recently received your SCUBA certification, what is the next outdoor milestone you hope to reach?
I want to become a better skier. I love the snow but it can be expensive. I am a beginner, but every time I go I improve, and this motivates me. I want to try as many things as I can because I have no limits. Sky diving will definitely be something I try in the future, but one thing at a time!

It’s Summertime: Where are the Children?

Each 1970’s and early 80’s summer in Oakland, California meant freedom. Summer meant my friends and I left our houses as early as we could, and dreaded the sight of flickering street lamps in the evening. We sometimes spent an entire day riding our bikes to the nearest convenience store 5 miles away, or roaming the neighborhood by roller skate or “tennis” shoe.
We had little knowledge or regard for the true meaning of property lines or value. Undeveloped spaces (like our infamous Dead End of the block) were claimed exclusively for our play, and divided based on gender or age. The Dead End’s low, knotted Oak trees provided the site for ongoing construction, as we used pilfered wood and nails from our garages to create hidden perches. It was our secret haven. And a house in our neighborhood was appraised by us kids on the basis of how steep of a smooth driveway it had to facilitate the fastest bike decent onto the sidewalk. And there were rumors of haunted houses we dared each other to peek into.

Except for the exceptionally shy of us we thought our parents were social bores, and thankfully, they omitted themselves from our play and never hauled us to distant playgrounds to make fast friendships with strange kids. We neighborhood kiddos sometimes got along famously; other times we did not. Feelings got hurt but were quickly repaired. Sometimes our fuss would come to blows, but almost as soon as the melee was over we forgot about the disagreement and became friends again, and the friendship cycle would resume the next day. The kids from my neighborhood reminisce on these memories to this day.

My family now lives in one of the safest communities in the Bay Area, but rarely are children of any age outside at play here in the summer without the watchful eyes and hovering presence of self-aware parents. They dutifully dole out a pre-set limit of Popsicles per child– so no chasing down the ice cream man for these tender tykes!

Today, allowing a child to go outside to play in front of one’s home can raise eyebrows of neighboring parents and authorities as a signal of parental neglect. But under such close supervision in the name of safety from the 6 o’clock news boogie man, our kids are more likely to play behind closed doors in front of a computer game, even on warm summer days — and they are getting chubbier for it. Even more, kids both rich and poor are increasingly enrolled in tidy, structured day activities that even if set outdoors, constantly monitor and entertain to make sure everyone plays nice, safe, and learns something about a selected theme.

While I certainly want my kids to learn cool stuff and be OK, I also want them to develop skills to cope with life when life ain’t so organized. And I am concerned about how well some kids (especially my own) will be prepared as adults to cope with life’s unplanned consequences with only conceptual tools. Will a lack of independent, self guided play affect my kid’s ability to be imaginative, resolve conflict, or take personal responsibility for herself when she grows up?

I understand that the idea of children playing independently for hours, while claiming wild or urban spaces, might be a nail-biter for some — or perceived as an excuse to lazy parent for others. But I think it is an idea worth revisiting that might revive some critical ways kids can mature and be healthy in the summer through play.

There are about three more weeks before this summer vacation is over — prime time for kids to get out and play.

Why not let them?

Photo Courtesy of:


How did an Oakland girl like me come to love getting her camp on anyway? Pt. 3

After getting married and starting a family of my own, camping took on a new meaning. For just a short drive and little money, I found camping was one of the most economical ways my new family could take a vacation. During these years I collected essential camping gear, like our first family-sized tent and propane stove from local garage sales and eBay — my family still uses these items today.
But as my family grew, so did the effort of camping. Thus the city of Oakland’s Feather River family camp, situated about two- hundred miles north, became a very attractive option for us. For about $75 per day back then, our family could camp at their beautiful developed site where: three delicious meals a day were prepared (and announced with the toll of a bell), a kind nurse dispensed an endless supply of band-aids, platform tents and cots were already set up, and a refreshingly cool swimming hole was observed by attentive lifeguards. Another bonus of family camp, were the many fun, organized activities and special relationships we developed with the other Oakland families we joined each summer.
Now my children (ages 12, 7, and 6) love the outdoors and every February they begin humming camp songs around the house and double check with me to make sure we are registered for the upcoming summer season!
Aside from our annual Family Camp, we also venture out on local hikes or family bike rides at least monthly. My eldest son is a Boy Scout and he is now developing outdoor skills and going on camping trips with his peers just as I did at his age. I recognize that the fun my kids have now in the natural world is the foundation for a love and engagement with nature that lasts a lifetime and is likely to be shared with their own children.
I still do enjoy tent camping sometimes, but I find that as I approach the big Four-O, I more frequently choose to balance comfort with my outdoor fun — nights of sleeping on just a tarp under the stars have passed me by. I now fantasize often about a future of creeping along the highways in a well-equipped RV, enjoying each state of the Americas, one campground at a time.
Catch-up!: Part 1, Part 2

How did an Oakland girl like me come to love getting her camp on anyway? Pt. 2

Part 1
So every other weekend, until I became a teen, was spent in the country. And while I now see the value of my time there, I distinctly recall lots of boredom in an era that pre-dated ubiquitous cable TV, video, and phone technology. But boredom was what actually propelled me and my playmates to invent games, songs, and dances against the backdrop of the country during the day. Nights were often spent around a large fireplace with family members; swapping tales, playing board games, or a producing “talent shows” for the adult’s amusement.
Back in Oakland, I received a more formal outdoor education with the Girl Scouts and loved our frequent retreats to the many local parks and youth camps. However, as a too-cute-for-the-woods teen, I abandoned my commitment to outdoor activities and did not reconnect with the natural world until I was a young adult living in San Francisco.
In the City, parking limitations and aggressive ticketing practices made owning a car impractical. So bicycling became my primary form of transportation and at the same time my outdoorsy room mates introduced me to extended bike treks to camp or to hike along the coast. I even tried out mountaineering for the first time with Outward Bound (see title photo), where I learned the fundamentals of mountain climbing and the life lesson to “trust my feet”.
Part 3

Local Redwood Forests

Cooling off and calming down with the family (or your honey) could not be easier this summer than taking a stroll in a shady, local Redwood grove, where temperatures can dip 10-15 degrees lower than their nearby urban centers. Our local Redwood beauties have been around for hundreds of years and are now protected to ensure their survival and service to the local ecology. Their austere presence is found amazingly close and accessible from the craze of metropolitan life.
In the valley just beyond the Oakland Hills is Redwood Park, which is a part of the East Bay Regional Parks District. Trails are paved and mostly flat for walking or casual bike riding. There is also a fantastic play structure as well as reservable spots for parties.
Across the bay in Marin County is the stunning Muir Woods, which is a designated monument of the National Parks Service and named after conservationalist John Muir. Here, you’ll likely run into people from all over the world who come to take in the breathtaking diversity of local fauna. Look for the “Cathedral”, a tight cluster of trees noted for inspiring people to lower their voices as though they were in church!
What to bring: money for parking, some food/snacks, water, and comfortable shoes with good traction

Feather River Camping

Some people feel that the hard work of camping doesn’t translate into a real vacation, especially if you have young children. I want to point families to Oakland’s Feather River Family Camp, which has been around for about 80 years. The camp is situated in the Plumas National Forest located 5 hours away by car, north of the bay, and outside the darling town of Quincy.
Yes, tarp sleeping and outdoor food preparation can be tough, especially for parents. And while I want people to get outdoors, they need not be martyrs for it. Feather River Family Camp does all the hard work for you. There are platform tents with cots (so no pitching!), or cabins with electricity, and a dining room that produces hot, delicious, all-you-can eat food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Each morning, small children can go to the “Tot-Lot” for childcare until lunch while older kids can do hikes or crafts.
There are theme weeks throughout the summer season and this year, they have added an African Dance theme week with dance instruction each day and night. In addition, there are regularly scheduled outings off site, or you can stay and cool off in the swimming hole. What I like most are the relationships my family developeds with other families as we all return year after year. We have already signed up for Folk Dance Week and will overlap with the African Dance week for a couple days. Registration is per day and is less expensive for more then 5 days or Oakland residents. Overall, it’s a terrific value and a lot of fun. Hope to see you this summer!

Bicycling in the Bay Area

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where the weather is a reliable average of 65 degrees year-round and there are trails and paths with sweeping views just minutes away from wherever you live.

If you are thinking about riding a real bike in the Bay Area, instead of a stationary bike at the gym, try riding with the Oakland Yellow Jackets. Their first ride of the season is this Saturday! The first ride is traditionally a completely flat 10-mile ride that starts at Lake Merritt, goes to Alameda then heads back to The Lake where a potluck awaits! You can also join the club for only $30 for the year for guided rides that are planned at least once per week.
I love the Yellow Jackets because you don’t need an expensive bike and fancy gear to ride with them. They also organize group rides based on ability and stamina, so you can ride an easy flat ride if you’re a beginner or take on a more challenging ride if you’re a stud.
Check them out!