Akronite builds community for people of color in outdoor ventures
Reporting and writing by Julie Ciotola
Leon Henderson has never been a stranger to adventure.
“When I was a boy I was always running around, doing something adventurous,” Henderson says. “I mean, when I was 7 years old, I literally got hit by a car, flipped all the way over and didn’t have a scratch on me. It’s crazy to think about now, but I guess I had a hard head even then.”
Henderson spent his formative childhood years in Akron and attended Garfield High School. As a senior, he decided to join the Army upon graduation, and soon after moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky for training.
Henderson hoped his commanding officers would send him overseas to Germany, where he fantasized about driving around in a Mercedes and immersing himself in the culture.
“Well, that didn’t happen,” he says. “Instead, they sent me to Fort Polk, Louisiana. I mean, I literally had a tear running down my face when the colonel told me.”
Instead of dwelling on the unexpected change of plans, Henderson found himself engrossed in life down South. He and other soldiers took weekend trips to cities like Waco and Tempe and traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Henderson says he was invigorated by the new sights and sounds.
“It was just a ball,” he says. “I really got to travel and see new places. I think that was really important for me in terms of finding my independence and realizing how much I wanted to be a traveler and just go out and see the world.”
After his military service was completed, Henderson returned to his roots and studied electrical engineering at the University of Akron. He then went on to work for the City of Akron as a clerk before becoming a firefighter, where he’s worked for more than two decades and now serves as Chief Officer for Safety Communications.
Alongside his budding career in public service, Henderson continued to seek adventure. In the early 1990s, he connected with a friend who introduced him to the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a nonprofit focused on establishing a prominent voice and necessary space in the skiing industry for people of color.
For years Henderson entertained the idea of skiing. In 1998, opportunity struck.
“A fellow fireman came up to me and said he wanted to teach me how to ski,” he says. “So he took me to Boston Mills Brandywine. I literally had a pair of jeans on, I had no idea what to wear.”
Despite a few falls, the following week Henderson accompanied his friend to Holiday Valley Resort in western New York. After that, Henderson says he “caught the bug.”
“I found myself really enjoying skiing and after a couple years took a trip to Aspen by myself,” he says. “I got really sick from the altitude sickness, but fortunately I was able to make some friends because I’ve always been outgoing. I just met some really great people and I think that’s what pulled me in — not only loving the sport but feeling like I could connect with and lead people.”
The more invested Henderson became in the community, the more seamlessly his plans fell into place. He transitioned to snowboarding and built a reputation as a talented boarder, and soon began embarking on large trips with 30, sometimes 40 other people. Right before his eyes, people of color came together to share their love for outdoor experiences.
“We really started to build a culture,” Henderson says.
In 2012, at Aspen Snowmass Ski Resort, Henderson met his business partner, Fanon Che Wilkins. Wilkins — a professor, outdoorsman, runner and traveler — instantly connected with Henderson over their shared insatiable appetite for travel and sport. Two years later, in 2014, the two organized their first trip to Niseko, Japan for skiers and snowboarders and quickly welcomed success.
“We had, I think, 115 people,” Henderson says. “That was our very first trip and we were the largest group of that type to ever travel to Niseko. I mean, not just people of color, like any group ever, we were the largest up to that point.”
Since that first trip, the group has traveled around the globe to destinations like Thailand, the French Alps and Paris. In 2018, Henderson and Wilkins trademarked the name Epic Life. As they grow through social media and word of mouth, there is no shortage of participants eager to experience the world with Epic Life.
“The more places you travel, the bigger the world seems,” Henderson says. “There’s so many places I’ve been but so many more I need to see.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Epic Life’s trips are on hold until travel is safe again. Henderson says he looks forward to that day, but for now his goal is to stay safe and continue fulfilling his duties as a public servant in Akron.
Julie Ciotola (she/her) is a journalist, runner, and obsessive reader. She was born and raised in Akron and is eager to share stories about the people and places she cherishes most.