Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Urban Youth Meet Nature On The West Branch

What follows is a story of some young men from Albany learning to fly fish on the West Branch of the Ausable River, and who for the first time experience the pull of the river, its rocks and pools, a trout on the line, and in their hands. I start with some background.

When Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve organized one year ago, we decided to seek out non-traditional allies and educational partners in our efforts to broaden aware, informed support for wild nature. One of those partners is Brother Yusuf Burgess of Albany.

For many years, Brother Yusuf has been helping young urban youth to discover discipline, teamwork, self-awareness and self-worth in the great outdoors. As often as time and funds allow, Yusuf brings youth from Albany to the Adirondacks, Catskills, Hudson Valley and beyond to learn outdoor skills such as boat-building, fishing, skiing, camping. He understands young people and the streets. He has walked their walk.

A former counselor at the Albany Boys and Girls Clubs, Yusuf is employed as Family Intervention Specialist with Green Tech Charter High School. He is an experienced kayaker and fisherman, founder of the Environmental Awareness Network for Diversity in Conservation, and is also New York’s representative on the Children and Nature Network. For several years, Yusuf worked for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation to recruit more children and families of color into DEC’s Summer Campership program. His successful efforts to create teen “eco-clubs” in urban America have been noticed at home and internationally, and he is widely sought as a speaker. Some of the young men and women whom Yusuf influenced have gone on to professional careers, and some have returned to help Yusuf mentor today’s teens.

Yusuf and his students are featured in the acclaimed 2010 documentary film, Mother Nature’s Child (Fuzzy Slippers Productions, Burlington, VT), which explores nature’s powerful role in children’s health and development. To quote from the film’s promotional materials, “The film marks a moment in time when a living generation can still recall childhoods of free play outdoors; this will not be true for most children growing up today.” For more, go to www.mothernaturesmovie.com.

Recently, Yusuf brought six young men from Albany’s Green Tech Charter High School to learn fly fishing from Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley, to apply what they learn on the West Branch of the Ausable River, and to camp out at Dan’s oak grove in Keene. Yusuf had each boy equipped with fly rod, poncho, and camping gear. Dan worked tirelessly to improve their casting technique, where the thumb and tip of the rod work together to drop the fly where it wants to be – right where the hatch is rising and the fish biting. Few other sports require the wrist and shoulder to be so still. Slowly, with Dan’s careful guidance some of them got the feel for it.

On the river, Dan explained about the Forest Preserve and its significance, and taught the boys that this particular section of the West Branch was a “no kill” conservation area, where fish are “catch and release” only. He showed them how to tie a fly, how to hold the hook to avoid being punctured, and how to read the river for the best places to fish.

One boy got in the waders, took Dan’s favorite rod, and immersed himself in the life of the West Branch. Completely absorbed, he moved upriver to an unoccupied pool, casting by himself. About 2 pm, we heard him. He had a trout on his line! His friends joined him as he unhooked a nice brown trout, proudly held it for the cameras, and released it. This was one of many special moments where these young men exchanged self-consciousness for independence as they explored a completely new and challenging outdoor world.

As other fishers left a pool unoccupied, Dan moved the group to that very spot and found that within minutes the trout were rising to a hatch, perhaps the black flies which were beginning to harass us on the bank. Dan positioned the young men for success, but their casts were just falling short of the constantly rising fish. Finally, Dan took his rod and practice-cast upstream, and then dropped the fly perfectly. After several attempts, he had a trout on the line. He called for one the boys to bring it in slowly and very soon in their hands was a handsome, small brook trout which tolerated a photo-shoot, and then shot from their hands back into the river: a magical conclusion to the afternoon’s “edventure,” a term Yusuf uses frequently.

Back at their camp in Dan’s oak grove, the boys settled in to tend and watch their camp fire, joke and laugh, and also to think on the day and what they had accomplished. “I am thinking about how far I am from home right now,” said one young man very quietly as he stared into the fire’s light. I knew he was not merely referring to road miles, but to inner miles. Next morning, Dan asked another about his overnight experience. “It was my first time camping, and it was extremely fun!”

It is remarkable to see how Yusuf works with these young men who, without the guidance and opportunities for growth he provides, might easily fall under many negative influences close to their homes. Yusuf participates in their camaraderie, knows these young men, and knows how to bring out their best qualities, put them to work, and to earn their respect. I am pleased we are playing a small role in Yusuf’s determined campaign to transform the lives of several generations of urban youth through exposure to nature in the wild Adirondacks.

Photos: Brother Yusuf Burgess with the young men he brought with him to the Ausable; Brother Yusuf; Dan Plumley coaches from mid-stream; Trout in the hand.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




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