By Jeisanelly Hernandez, Adirondack Diversity Initiative Fellow

As an Upstate Institute Research Fellow this summer I worked with the Adirondack Diversity Initiative (ADI), a program of the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA). ADI’s mission is to create an Adirondack Park and North Country region that are welcoming, safe, and inclusive for everyone. ADI works towards this by creating tools and strategies that diminish the impact of systemic racism in the Adirondack region. With my work this summer, some of the best ways I could help accomplish these goals were through being educated about the area and learning about the different experiences of visitors to the Adirondacks through community-based research.

My summer started off with an exciting first few weeks. I explored the Adirondacks and learned about their rich history with the support of my ADI advisor, Pete Nelson. On my first day, Pete took me on a hike up Cascade Mountain (one of the 46 High Peaks). During this hike, he told me about a town called Ironville, “the birthplace of the electric age.” Naturally, this title would make any good physicist question this proclamation, but it’s true. The birth of the Electric Age in the United States was right here in the Adirondacks. Allen Penfield and Joseph Henry built an electromagnetic separator in 1831, which was the first industrial use of electricity in history. After hearing about Penfield and Henry’s work, Thomas and Emily Davenport developed and built the first electric car in 1834. This is just one of the many cool bits of history I have learned about the area.

Throughout the first few weeks, we also focused on the concept of Wilderness in the Adirondacks. Wilderness is originally a colonial, rich, white concept that promoted the idea that the outdoors was something pristine and untouched. It was an escape from the urban environment, from work, from other people, and a privilege that anyone non-white, non-rich, and non-male didn’t have access to. With the long Indigenous history here in the Park, these ideas of the outdoors are just not true. However, some of these values are still carried today in how people define what Wilderness is and how people go about trying to protect and enjoy their time in the Park. A large part of my research with ADI was influenced by how these ideas of Wilderness differ between people today.

My research with ADI is centered on people’s Wilderness values, experiences, and outdoor motivations while enjoying their preferred outdoor activities. Throughout the summer I’ve been working closely with Pete, crafting the survey, meeting with different organizations in the Adirondack Park, and getting New York State approval of the survey. From International Review Board approval, to insurance mix-ups, and being trained as a Trailhead Steward to be able to conduct the survey — I can say this has definitely been the most involvement I have ever had in a research project. The anonymous 14-question survey finally got approved by the second week of July and asks visitors about their hiker experience, their connection with nature on trails, visitor sense of safety, how visitors were able to find information about the trails/hikes, their different reasons for wanting to spend time outside, and some demographic information. We were able to collect a total of around 150 survey responses by the end of the summer. The data is now being analyzed, and I am excited to see some of the outcomes from it. 

Some of my biggest takeaways from this experience include how to curate a living research project, lots of people skills (I had to learn how to be a people person at 7:00 a.m. every weekend for the trailhead stewarding and surveying), and how to support and foster a sense of community with one’s work. As an astrophysics major at Colgate University, this is really far from what most of my peers are doing this summer. I would usually be in a lab running calculations and reading research papers on a certain physics topic, but I wanted to try something different this summer. 

What mainly drew me to the ADI project is my interest in the outdoors and activism. I participate in the Outdoor Education program at Colgate, and these conversations about inclusivity, safety, and accessibility to the outdoors is something very important to us and to me as a trip leader for the program. It also seemed like a good fit for me because the Adirondacks is where we usually venture for a lot of our Outdoor Ed trips. So when I heard about the amazing work of ADI, I wanted to get involved. 

Overall, this experience was really fulfilling. It was the first time I have so actively participated in the process of research as an intern. I got to meet so many wonderful people, hang out in a place I really care about, and have fun learning about the history of the Adirondacks. I hope my research this summer reinforces the importance of this kind of work and helps make a place as special as the Adirondacks accessible, safe, and welcoming to everyone.

Banner photo of Adirondack Mountains:  Mwanner at en.wikipedia