As anyone who's recently been on a trail in the Pacific Northwest can attest, hiking, backpacking, and camping in Oregon and Washington are more popular than ever. But as trailheads within driving distance of Portland become crammed with a very specific kind of hiker—day-trippers with selfie sticks and still-creased Patagonia gear—something else is becoming evident: America's outdoor recreation is white.
"According to a 2013 report by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, 9.6 million people visited Oregon's National Forests between 2006 and 2009, and of those visitors, 97 percent were white. Within the Portland metro area, 86 percent of visitors to day-use areas are white; 1 percent are African American," wrote Santi Elijah Holley in a 2016 Mercury profile of Outdoor Afro, a group that aims to make it easier for African Americans to experience the outdoors. "These statistics are not unique to Portland or the Pacific Northwest. The National Park Service reports that African Americans make up only seven percent of people taking advantage of the nation's parks. Our national parks are not reflecting our national character."
Our Trails Too—a half-hour documentary screening tonight at the Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium—takes a look at how statistics like those could change. The film's focus is on Mercy Shammah, a queer African American woman from Portland and the founder of Wild Diversity, a nonprofit working to create outdoor experiences that are more inclusive to groups that've traditionally been left out of the culture and industry of outdoor recreation—particularly LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color. As Our Trails Too shows, feeling welcome in the outdoors—and making others feel welcome in the outdoors—isn't always easy. After Shammah, in preparation for starting Wild Diversity, enrolls in a 50-day "Outdoor Educator" course with the Northwest Outward Bound School, her enthusiasm for is somewhat... dampened. ("After that 50 days," Shammah says in the film, "I hated the outdoors.")
Thankfully, Shammah's appreciation for the outdoors endured, and Our Trails Too follows her as she later leads a group of queer and POC hikers to Serene Lake in the Mt. Hood National Forest—a group that, in the process, reflects on what nature means to them, what nature could mean for others, and why making wilderness more accessible to more people could not only improve outdoor culture and industry but strengthen peoples' stewardship and respect for the land.
Tagging along on both the Serene Lake backpacking trip and Shammah's less-than-ideal time with Outward Bound near Central Oregon's Smith Rock, Our Trails Too director Liz Haan and cinematographer Emilia Quinton create not only a strong profile of the dedicated Shammah, but they also snag some fantastic sights from around Oregon. (It's a nature doc. Pretty pictures of lakes and trees are legally required.) The result is a quick but effective look at how to challenge the stereotypes of those who enjoy the outdoors—and how, with persistence and passion, everybody on the trails can benefit as a result.
Our Trails Too screens Wed May 29 at 7:30 pm at the Northwest Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (free admission), followed by shorts from young filmmakers in the youth documentary program produced by HER.