Missy Wilson: Creating Space for Black Women Outdoors

Missy Wilson is passionate about creating community for black women in the great outdoors. As the Houston chapter admin for Black Women Who Kayak+, she has helped increase membership tenfold through exciting events, from rock climbing to paddle boarding.

I interviewed Missy shortly after she returned from an epic backpacking trip in the mountains of Alaska. Read on to learn who stoked her love for the outdoors, how the pandemic lead her back to adventure activities, and what she learned from her very first backpacking trip.

When did you discover your love for the outdoors?

I discovered my love for the outdoors when I was about five years old. My aunt, who is very outdoorsy, took me on my first hike of Stone Mountain. It is a huge piece of granite in the middle of DeKalb County in Atlanta. You can get a pretty good view and it’s a little challenging. That was my first introduction to the outdoors, and I was just like, “Oh my gosh. This is so cool.” Hanging out with my aunt, plus doing this amazing hike.

A year or two later, she took me on my first camping trip and I was sold. I remember just being out there with her friends and her friends’ nieces, and I just had the best time.

Throughout my life I would continue camping. I went on camping trips with my friends in high school. At summer camp, I went canoeing for the first time. That was my first introduction to water outside of swimming. It was a beach day at the lake and my friends and I snuck into the canoes. It was just so much fun. I was like, “I have to do this again.” When I went off to college, I bought my own kayak off Craigslist. That’s how I got started with kayaking.

Besides your aunt, would you say that your family was outdoorsy? Was that a part of your upbringing?

Outside of my aunt, not really. My granddad, Charles, would take me fishing. He took me deep sea fishing when I was nine and we’d go to the beach. My brother is a runner and he’s done nine half-marathons, but when you normally think of the outdoors, I feel like you think of camping, hiking, and paddling. We weren’t really into that type of stuff. I was the odd one out.

My aunt used to work for Outward Bound and AmeriCorps and she was super outdoorsy. She loved camping, she went backpacking, hiking, you name it and she’s done it. I think that she and her partner were a huge inspiration. They really introduced me [to the outdoors] and I can always go to them for advice. Now my family is interested in the outdoors. My mom wants to go kayaking.

How did you find Black Women Who Kayak+ and what inspired you to get involved?

The pandemic was a huge struggle for me because I am really social and outdoorsy, but I was also really scared of catching COVID and bringing it back to my family. So that really kept us isolated.

My therapist recommended making a list of 20 things that brought me joy; they could be grandiose or really small. One of those things was kayaking and being out on the water. I thought, “How can I do this?” That led me to Google. I literally typed in black women kayaking and Black Women Who Kayak+ was the first thing that popped up. This was in 2021.

I saw there was a chapter in Austin and they had an event coming up in July, so I signed up. Austin is about two and a half hours away. I drove up there and I was so excited, so giddy. That was actually my first time ever paddle boarding and I was sold. I had brunch with the founder of the group, Tanya Walker, and literally the next weekend, I started researching and planning events for the Houston chapter.

I believe we were at 40 members when I started and we grew to about 400 members, just for the Houston chapter alone. It took a minute; my first event, I had one person show up. But then it just kept growing and had a snowball effect. They were telling their friends and everything.

It was just so cool to see black women doing things that bring us joy and trying new things. A lot of the members that come to events have never tried these activities before, including myself.

It’s been really life changing for me. I went from not really knowing anyone to having this huge community of women. It’s just been a blessing.

What’s the makeup of the group? How old are the members and what are their levels of experience?

We definitely have a broad variety of ages and experience levels. Usually they’re beginners, but I do have some people that are avid outdoorswomen. I would say our group ranges from mid-20s to mid-50s.

Black Women Who Kayak+ partners with a lot of organizations so that our members can rent gear. We charge a small fee to have these experiences because a lot of people don’t have the gear. I think that’s one of the best things about the group; you can test out something or try a new activity before you decide to invest in it.

Tell us about the mission of Black Women Who Kayak+.

Black Women Who Kayak+ has chapters all over the United States with 1000+ members. The organization’s mission is to encourage and empower black women and women of color to feel comfortable and be in spaces that you don’t normally see us in. We also want to encourage the next generation by saying, “We’ve done it. You can do it too. The outdoors is for everybody.” And it’s truly been a movement, uplifting women to try new things and experience any and everything outdoors.

During your tenure as the Houston chapter leader, have you had a specific goal or focus? What kinds of events have you put on?

My number one thing was to grow the actual chapter. I would just Google all the outdoorsy stuff that is here in Houston and I would reach out to the organizations or businesses that provide rentals. I also made a list of things that I had been wanting to try, but I didn’t have anybody to go with.

We’ve done indoor rock climbing, horseback riding, archery, paddle boarding, kayaking, and camping, to name a few. It’s definitely been awesome.

Our biggest attendance to date was 22 people for indoor rock climbing. We partnered with Houston Black Climbers United (HBCU). I love partnering with other black outdoorsy organizations because we help each other out. We’re all working towards the same goal of getting us outdoors, being active, and having a community.

Why do you believe creating community and increasing representation of Black women in the outdoors is so important?

I believe in a soft life. I think so many times we’re rewarded for our resilience and how strong we are. And I just believe that nature is healing. Being outdoors has its own healing effects. We’re taking back the outdoors and the fact that we can be outside and enjoy ourselves. It’s so important to take a break from the hustle and bustle, just go outside, even if it’s something small, like a walk in the park. For me, mine is paddle boarding. I disconnect and just listen to the water and that fills my spirit.

It can be pricey to do certain hobbies outdoors, but it costs nothing to go for a walk around the neighborhood. It connects to our mental health and it’s so very important that we see its value. Just getting outdoors has helped me tremendously and I know it can do the same for other women.

Between buying your first kayak in college and discovering Black Women Who Kayak+, how involved were you with water sports and getting outdoors?

I had not been kayaking since college. When I would go out on the water by myself, it really stressed my mom out and I didn’t like stressing my mom out. My husband is not outdoorsy, so I didn’t have anyone here to go kayaking with. I neglected that side of me.

I became a wife. I became a mom. And I neglected me. I neglected what brought me joy outside of those two things. I think as a woman, it’s very easy to do. You have to think about schedules and dinner and cleaning up and just all these things that you think about as soon as you wake up. Who has time for kayaking? But after the pandemic, I decided to make time and it’s been a game changer. My cup is full and so I’m able to fill their cups even more.

I wish I wouldn’t have neglected it for 10 years. I went for a sunrise paddle recently in Austin and realized I love being on the water so much. I woke up to watch the sunrise and that helped me get ready for the week.

Tell us about your experience backpacking in Alaska. How were you able to participate?

Black Women Who Kayak+ (BWWK) partnered with NOLS, which is the National Outdoor Leadership School. NOLS is based in Wyoming, but they have headquarters all over the country, including in Alaska. We were awarded one spot for a member. But the biggest thing about being outdoors is you’re usually the only person of color. So, Tonya, the founder of BWWK, wanted to send another person with the member. She raffled off the member spot and an admin spot. My friend Kim won the member spot and I won the admin spot. This was back in December 2021. Only six months after I’ve been in the group, I found out I was going on this amazing trip.

While Kim’s tuition was paid, we needed funding for accommodations, my tuition and gear. We set up a GoFundMe and randomly got an email that our GoFundMe goal had been reached. We found out that Grape Nuts donated $12,500 to our GoFundMe. We were able to pay for my tuition, our accommodations, the whole nine thanks to Grape Nuts. For Women’s History Month and their 125th anniversary, they wanted to support nine women pioneers, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.

I started training in April and May; I was running and doing strength training, walking with my pack and breaking in my boots in during 97 degree weather in Houston, looking like a crazy lady.

And then the trip came. We flew to Anchorage, which was a seven-hour flight. The next day, we woke up and were driven to NOLS headquarters. All of our gear was inspected and we learned how to pack our backpacks. My backpack was probably 45 pounds.

On August 6th, my 35th birthday, we flew by bush plane to the Southern Talkeetna Mountains. It was so incredible to see. We got to see sheep and caribou from an aerial view. They dropped us off at the base of the mountain. The only way out was hiking out or having them pick us up by plane, but you had to be in a place where they could land.

So over the next six days, we would have to hike. There were very challenging, hard moments. And I had never even been backpacking before, so I was a complete beginner.

I remember on one of the first days, we had to climb down this drainage. It was steep, rocky, and wet. It started raining and I just remember being scared. Fear and doubt are such incredible tools. They can be so overwhelming. I looked down and thought there’s no way I can do this. I slipped a couple of times and had to jam my hiking pole into the side of the mountain. It probably only took like 15-20 minutes to get down, but it felt like an hour. When I finally got to the bottom, I just bawled my eyes out because I was so scared. I doubted that I could do it, but I did it.

Our excursion was all women and our two instructors were from Brazil and India. That was huge that we were a group of nine women being led by two female instructors.

The drainage was one of the hard days and the next day we hiked on very, very steep inclines. It rained every single day, except for the last day and a half. The temperature dropped below 30 at one point. We hiked on patches of snow; we bushwhacked through bear country. Saw grizzly bear prints and scat. We didn’t see any grizzlies, but they were near the area, so we were hollering out bear calls to try and persuade them not to come near us.

You look back and say, “Wow, I did that. I’ve crossed all of this.” The day we bushwhacked, it was five miles in low visibility. And then one night, we had to sleep on a hill because no one could continue. We were all exhausted. At the end of it, we ended up hiking 26 miles and had an elevation of 3000 feet.

Those last couple of days were hard. The last day, we probably did seven or eight miles, maybe 10. It was tough. We were hiking from 7am to noon to get back because people had flights to catch and we had to get back to base camp.

We all grew so close. They separated us into cook groups. You were with your other two teammates for the entire trip. Bonding with these women and learning about their lives outside of this, what brought them here, was amazing. The youngest person was 23 and the oldest person was 40. I told them, “You guys are so cool for doing this now. Do it all now. Enjoy yourself. Have all the experiences.”

And then learning how to survive out there. I learned how to cook on a small propane stove, how to set up tents and tarps. I learned different types of knots. I learned three different styles for how to properly cross a river. Now I feel like I can go out and share my knowledge with the members of Black Women Who Kayak+. The fact that I’ve crossed a river is crazy. You couldn’t have told me a year ago that I would be able to tell that story.

Did you have a favorite moment during your trip?

Crossing the rivers was huge for me. That was really, really big. The end was so euphoric because the person that was picking us up popped out of the forest; it was almost like a mirage.

They also made me a birthday cake. There were so many great moments like that. We were hiking and I remixed “When the Ants Go Marching In.” I did a fun adult version and they loved it. It was a crowd pleaser. In the little down time we had, connecting with the girls was my favorite part. It was such an amazing experience.

How did the experience impact you afterward?

The fact that something is so challenging and intense can have lingering effects. My left big toe was still numb a month after. All of our fingers had been peeling. They were extremely dry. I’ve been going through adventure withdrawals. Another lady was saying she has this extreme urgency to complete everything on her list. We have this community; we have a group chat now. We’re planning to do a reunion trip, maybe not as difficult as this one.

I’m so grateful for the experiences and for the women that I met, and also being able to go with Kim and have this experience with her. I wouldn’t have even had this opportunity if Kim didn’t need an extra person. She would have been the only black person going. And I definitely think there were moments when we just kind of looked at each other like, you know, and that’s necessary. That makes you feel comfortable.

It was such a crazy experience. The views that I saw are so incredible. It was some of the freshest air I have ever breathed in. On the last day I was out there, I just sat on a rock and released all the emotions. I was like, “I can’t believe that I’m here having this experience after a year of being outdoors again. What did I do to deserve this blessing?” And I felt so close to God being out there. There are no distractions, no outside noise. And I’m not the most religious person or anything like that, but I was just like, He is the true artist. It was just so overwhelming and so powerful.

It was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life, but I am so grateful for it. Now I have a connection with Alaska and I do want to go back to go see the Northern Lights. The Talkeetna will always have a special place in my heart and meaning. I don’t want to sweat the small stuff anymore. I feel invincible right now.

I miss waking up to a mountain. I really do understand why some people become nomadic. When I was out there, I didn’t miss social media. I didn’t miss Coca Cola. I didn’t miss Chipotle. These are things that didn’t even cross my mind. Outside of missing my family, I did enjoy disconnecting. I wasn’t able to talk to my son Patrick for eight days, so that was really tough. But, I did like disconnecting and taking a break from the hustle and bustle.

I’m trying to figure out how I can incorporate more adventure into my life, even outside of the group.

Do you do outdoor activities with your son and your husband?

Just last year, Craig, my husband, went paddle boarding with me. I also go on hikes a lot with my son Patrick, who’s five. I took him on his first kayaking trip recently and he loved it. The reason why I waited is because of mom anxiety; I needed to feel a little more comfortable that he would listen to me and actually sit down. But he did really, really well. I asked him if he would like to do it again and he said yes. Now kayaking is something that we can share. It’s inspired me to take him out on more adventures.

What would you say to encourage black women who are new to outdoor activities to continue exploring?

I would say start off small, find something that you’re comfortable with. Find a local group. There are black outdoors organizations popping up all over. We’re out there and you definitely don’t have to do it alone. If you do go alone, more power to you. Just be aware of your surroundings, have fun, and be safe. And stop putting it off.

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