No S’Mores Till Brooklyn: NYC Camping Spot Offers Urban Oasis for City Youth

February 27, 2020
NYC Camping
Paula ChampagneNYC camping is alive and well at Ecology Village in Brooklyn, where AMC-trained leaders bring youth groups for a taste of the backcountry in the heart of the city.

The asphalt service road that leads to Ecology Village, one of a handful of overnight camping spots in New York City, makes for smooth bicycling. When six young cyclists, all between the ages of 9 and 13, and their leader, Courtney Williams, pedal into the site on a sunny autumn Saturday morning, the vibe is triumphant. They’ve cycled 26 miles, largely along the Brooklyn waterfront, to reach this secluded natural area, nestled within Floyd Bennett Field on the southeast coast of the borough, and the weekend has only just gotten underway.

“I’ve been here before,” Dylan, age 12, recalls. The group wheels the bikes behind a recreation building and heads toward Campsite Trail, crossing a narrow asphalt lot to approach a trailhead. Dylan glances to his right, where a slip of Jamaica Bay is visible on the horizon, a tranquil image beyond the New York City Police Department’s Aviation Unit and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Reserve base. “With Scouts,” he continues. “To clean the beach.” He describes finding tires, scrap metal from airplanes and boats, and traces of fuel. 

“Save the turtles!” shouts his twin brother, Jordan.

Their banter sets a tone of ease for the entire group. Though the kids cycle often with Brooklyn-based nonprofit Kids Ride Club, which has city youth to cycling for the last 24 years, they do not all know one another. And, Williams and Kids Ride Club founder Dr. Ed Fishkin have never led an overnight together before—in fact, Kids Ride Club has never taken a group “bike camping” before this weekend. Past overnights were in hotels.

Williams was quite intentional in choosing Ecology Village, where she trained to become an outdoors educator with AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program. “For kids who are 100 percent accustomed to concrete sidewalks, it is significant to walk around the loop here, see Flatbush Avenue, and see an airplane—these are comforts of home.”   

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The group is eclectic. Twins Dylan and Jordan—who Fishkin describes as “very close; one wouldn’t do anything without the other”—are buddies with Steven, age 13, and his brother Anthony, age 11. The four boys attend public school together, just a few blocks from their homes in north Brooklyn. Sofia, 12, is sister to Clemente, 9. Their mother is a painter who is originally from Chile, and for many years ran a café in Park Slope with their father, Brent Whitson, who is along for the weekend as well. Everyone—Williams, Fishkin, Whitson, and the six children—met early this morning at Recycle-a-Bicycle, a bike refurbishment shop in Long Island City, Queens. Having arrived at Ecology Village, everyone slowly wheels their bicycles to the Cherry campsite, roughly a quarter-mile north of Building 70, a white-columned education and recreation building where the service road into the site dead-ends.

Williams wears a white cycling helmet, black leggings, and navy Chrome bicycle messenger sneakers with navy laces. A weatherproof bag around the handlebars of her Univega 12-speed bike protects her phone and ID. When she unzips her windbreaker, her blue shirt reads, “Bikes & Food & Road & Friends.”

Her cycling-advocacy endeavor, The Brown Bike Girl, partners with public groups and nonprofits, like Kids Ride Club, “to increase bicycling access and adoption within communities of color, and bicycling education for all.” This vision is harmonious with the early inspiration for YOP, which began in the late 1960s as a measure to support equitable access to the outdoors. This year, YOP will be folded into AMC’s newly formed Outdoor Leadership Institute (OLI), which will continue to train outdoor group leaders and prioritize equity. Williams attended an AMC-led training in June 2019 that covered all aspects of outdoor leadership, from how to set up a tent and read a trail map, to conflict management. More broadly, AMC trains educators how to instill, in young and potentially first-time campers, an appreciation for and stewardship of the natural world.

At the campsite, Williams’ strategy is to “present the problems” and let the campers work their way to the solutions. She recognizes this will necessitate judiciousness.

“Going in,” she says, “I loved the idea of [taking youth outdoors], but was apprehensive of my own ability to sufficiently relate to, entertain, and not be overwhelmed by a bunch of high-energy kids I visualized as bouncing off the walls like the atoms in a molecule.”

The mid-October weather is just starting to turn, and the branches of the mature pines hugging the campground seem sparse and skeletal when sunlight filters through them. Three picnic tables are set up under a wooden overhang to the left when one enters the campsite, and wooden tent platforms run along the edge of the site, leaving a grassy expanse in the center. To the far right end of the campsite, the pines are, as Sofia puts it, “ginormous.” There, the ground is blanketed in dry brown pine needles, and 10 cut logs are positioned in a circle around a fire ring. The group walks back to Building 70, and an assembly line forms at a gear storage room on the right side of the building. Two wagons are piled high with sleeping bags and pads, fleece pants and pullovers, two- and four-person tents, tarps, water jugs, and rain jackets. Before Williams secures the storage room with a padlock, Dylan glances inside and asks, “Can we just sleep in here?”

“Sure. Stay here with the spiders!” Jordan says. 

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“Oh, this is warm,” Jordan continues, pulling on a fleece.

“Are you all cold?” Dylan asks.

“I haven’t been cold since 1964,” Fishkin replies.

“Let’s put on the thermal leggings,” Williams suggests, which is followed by a chorus of “I’m good.”

“It’s not underwear, it’s leggings,” Williams offers. 

At one of the picnic tables under the wooden overhang, after a lunch of cheese on wheat bread, hummus, apples, and salad, Williams shows the group a black-and-white image of a deer tick, comparing its form to the size of a dime. She describes the triangular shape of an ideal campsite, and the goal of keeping animals both out of the tents and away from food. Steven and Sofia move bagels, instant coffee, powdered creamer, and canola oil into the secure brown metal bear box near the entry to the site. The campers position the bicycles on one of the wooden tent platforms; at the rear corner of the platform, Steven quietly works a clove hitch knot into thin paracord to connect a tarp to the platform railing, while at the opposite corner, Dylan announces, “I completed a square knot. A proper square knot.”

Before her AMC training, Williams had only camped once before, which she describes as “an occasion that only involved me setting up my tent while we then ate prepared food from grocery stores down the road.” The personal autonomy she has found on a bicycle complements the self-reliance one might find when camping—she’s discovered the extent of what she can do on her own. Both cycling and camping expand upon Williams’ formative connections to the outdoors, which date back to her childhood in Gary, Ind., and exploring the shores of Lake Michigan with her grandmother.

Around camp, Williams intuitively strikes a balance between letting things happen and providing gentle support. The campers pick up on her ease, and, once the bicycles are secure, instinctively drift to the cluster of massive pine trees surrounding the fire ring to gather kindling and long branches for roasting marshmallows later. Everyone soon finds a seat on one of the logs. 

“I have a question,” Williams begins. “What’s your best skill from camping that we can help each other learn? What’s your hot tip?”       

“I’ve learned how to hold a knife and use it,” Dylan recalls, advising the group that it is customary to say, “I’ve got it,” when someone hands you a knife.

“Blood circle!” Jordan interjects.

“A blood circle is the circle you have to be outside of [around someone holding a knife] so you don’t get hurt,” Dylan explains.

“What do you need to build a fire?” Williams asks.

Anthony responds immediately: “Fuel. Oxygen. Dried wood.”

“I’ve learned about buddy systems, and first aid,” adds Steven.

Steven and Anthony’s dad works seven days a week as a cook in a Chinese restaurant; they attend Chinese school on Saturdays, and public school during the week. When Anthony attended his first Kids Ride Club activity, a year after his older brother joined, he didn’t know how to ride a bike. A year later, he was the group’s “Rookie of the Year.”

“I’ve learned to stick a marshmallow deep into the heart of the fire,” says Sofia. “Some like marshmallows golden, but I’m like no, I like it burnt.”

“I’ve learned about being together,” says Jordan.

“Explain about that,” Williams replies. 

“You may not have tomorrow,” Jordan answers, “so live today, today.”

“That sounds very deep,” Williams says.

“It’s from a song,” he admits.

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The group stands for a walk on Campsite Trail. The clouds are gray wisps, like smoke from a slowly dying fire. Beneath the cloud cover, a white sheen is luminous, and the sun is a lingering slip of pale orange behind the darkened tree line.

Floyd Bennett Field, part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area, is on a peninsula that juts into Jamaica Bay; Gateway is a collection of protected natural and historic sites near or along water, the Atlantic Ocean or one of its auxiliary bays. Floyd Bennett Field once housed New York City’s first municipal airport, and later a vital naval station during World War II. It is the home base of Hangar B (where preserved historic aircrafts are exhibited) and the Historic Aircraft Restoration Project. It is also a mixed forest of conifers, deciduous trees, bayberry, blackberry and sumac shrubs, vines like Virginia creeper and poison ivy, meadows, beachfront, and salt marshes that sustain crustaceans and help cleanse Jamaica Bay.

The National Park Service (NPS) has run Ecology Village as an environmental education program since 1977. AMC’s presence there is the product of a unique collaboration with the NPS. AMC leadership approached NPS about camping within the boundaries of New York City, drawing inspiration from the repurposing of El Presidio in San Francisco, a retired military base turned National Recreation Area, after attending a ranger-led workshop at Gateway National Recreation Area. 

Since 2017, AMC has held six trainings at Ecology Village, equipping 45 new educators. In 2019, 246 campers, many of them young, came to Ecology Village with AMC-trained leaders. In fact, you can’t bring a group here unless you’ve been through AMC’s leadership institute. Like most of New York City, Ecology Village is accessible by public transportation; the Q35 bus stops just at the entry to Floyd Bennett Field, on Flatbush Avenue. Eboni Cooper, AMC’s program manager for OLI educators, observes, “Transportation is one of the biggest barriers for our members to get to spaces to camp. Since AMC exists to help people get outdoors, and since New York City is a huge city but one without lots of outdoor opportunities this close to home, this site is pretty unique.”

In the future, AMC and the leaders it trains may make use of NPS bicycles to support archery and ranger-led kayaking and canoeing excursions. Park rangers have also created adventure boxes for Ecology Village that leaders can check out, covering topics like aviation, soundscapes, and phenology.

On Campsite Trail, the Manhattan skyline and One World Trade Center appear in our peripheral vision like cutouts in a diorama. Williams asks, “What are we hearing here that we don’t hear in other places?”

The sound of crickets is as distinct as the sound of a far-off helicopter. Trees rustle, and birdcalls are loud and repetitive.

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Upon return to the campground, Steven and Sofia help Williams cordon off a camp kitchen and unpack a large tub of cooking supplies and utensils. Sofia slices chicken breasts, and Steven slices peppers and onions. Clemente stands beside Williams throughout the entirety of the meal prep. Williams plugs a small cylinder of propane into the side of a camp stove and ignites the burners. Clemente opens a box of rice, and fills a pot with water from the large orange Gatorade jug propped on an adjacent picnic table. When the chicken starts to freeze in the pan, Clemente and Williams redistribute the chicken, peppers, and onions into two foil envelopes, and, just as he described a few hours earlier, settle those safely on the steel grate over the campfire.

As the foil packets heat, Williams posits another question: “So, if you could bicycle anywhere, where would you want to go?”

“Washington, D.C., because it’s not that far,” replies one camper.

“Pennsylvania,” answers another. “My sister is going to college there.”

The packets are flipped after six minutes. At the end of another six minutes, there is a countdown. When a timer chimes, Jordan shouts, “Happy New Year, everybody!”

“Happy new chicken!” Dylan answers.

The group returns to the picnic tables and fills large flour tortillas with the chicken, peppers, and onions. Williams stirs black beans into the rice.

After dinner, marshmallows are charred and toasted, and campers recall previous marshmallow catastrophes and triumphs—burnt, gooey, perfect, lost in the ashes. “The perfect branch for toasting marshmallows is not too thin, or it will break and the marshmallow will fall in—it’s happened,” remarks Sofia.

“What time is it?” asks Clemente. “It might even be past my bedtime.”

“It’s 10:07 [p.m.],” Williams replies. “You have rocked so hard, you don’t even know.”

The next morning the horizon is lavender as the group turns onto a narrow service road in front of Building 70. At 6 a.m., Williams had gently tapped each zipped tent, to be sure all were awake for a sunrise hike on the Marine Parkway–Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to the Rockaway beaches in Queens.

On Aviation Road, everyone pauses to examine an NPS map of Floyd Bennett Field. They have cycled to many New York City beaches in the past—Plumb Beach, Coney Island, and Dead Horse Bay—but this morning, they can see the Brooklyn coast as a unified landscape. 

When the group turns left onto Flatbush Avenue, the horizon over Jamaica Bay becomes fiery, the clouds dispersed and soft and smoky against a backdrop of orange and yellow. There is a slight grade to the bridge, and the green-gray bay beneath becomes farther away as the group ascends the ramp. Three men, wearing knee-high galoshes, cast fishing lines on the beach below. The sun inches above the horizon on our left quickly, its form like an intact egg yolk.

Before it is time to pedal back to Recycle-a-Bicycle, Williams gathers the campers at the Picnic Pavilion in front of Building 70 and spreads an assortment of images mounted on cardstock on the table. She asks everyone to choose one to “sum up the trip.”

Steven chooses a portrait of Cherokee ethnographer Mike Crowe, and remarks, “We learned about different people, and we learned from them, and we made new friends.” Sofia chooses an image of a four-person rafting team, observing, “We had a lot of fun.”

Williams selects an image of two dancers in the air. The adventure, she concludes, was “a leap into the unknown.” At the start of the trip, she had remarked, “I have lived many lives on a bike.” As the trip ends, she reflects that thinking through youth’s eyes and abilities was important for her, as, she says, “I don’t have a lot of kids in my circle. I am realizing that at the root of it all, they want the same simple thing, which is to have fun, explore something new, and be validated.” She hopes that the campers she works with as an outdoor leader and educator will ultimately seek out a pastime that they love, as she has with cycling, and keep it in their lives well into adulthood.   

“Everybody needs to connect with joy, independence, and a sense of adventure,” she concludes. “When you have your own recreation, and sense of enjoyment, you can really withstand the various pressures of the world as an adult. That’s where we rest. That’s where we restore ourselves.”


WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

AMC’s Outdoor Leadership Institute (OLI) trains educators and leaders—like Courtney Williams of The Brown Bike Girl—to independently facilitate group outdoor adventures. Trainees are immersed in the outdoors, coming away with crucial leadership tactics, group management skills, and navigation strategies. Three past trainees—Cody Albright, manager of outdoor recreation for BREC Outdoor Adventure in Baton Rouge, La.; Terri Mulks, director of Camp Susan Curtis in Maine; and Erin Hashimoto-Martell, S.T.E.M. director for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary Education—reveal how their AMC training helped lay the groundwork for their careers in education and outdoor leadership.

 

How did your AMC leadership training influence your career path?

Cody Albright: I gained insight that made me a better mentor to people under my management and a stronger outdoor professional, solidifying my decision to keep working in this field.

Terri Mulks: Professionally, I use [AMC leadership] principles when training staff every summer. Personally, even 20 years after my training, I still use the skills I learned, like how to properly pack a bag or prepare balanced meals.

Erin Hashimoto-Martell: I’ve become a member of a nature-based learning research network, focused on ensuring students have access to outdoor learning.

 

What was the most memorable part of your training program?

Albright: The change in participants throughout the program, specifically on the leadership training trips. People conquered fears and failed forward. When you are in the backcountry, something inevitably goes wrong, and you have to work through that adversity with your group. Meghan Klemm


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Amy Beth Wright

Amy Beth Wright is a Brooklyn-based travel writer and also edits Parks & Points, a website dedicated to public lands.