Destination Backcountry

Destination Backcountry

A canoeist heads out to stargaze in the Adirondacks.

A canoeist heads out to stargaze in the Adirondacks.

Adventure guide David Dicerbo '97 believes in the restorative power of the wilderness.

David DiCerbo ’97, a licensed wilderness guide, led a small group on a hiking and canoeing trip deep into an old growth forest in the Adirondacks. The night sky was so heavy with stars that it looked “like you could reach out and touch them.”

The whole group was struck “by how pristine the wilderness was,” he recalled. All except one woman, Janice, who just wasn’t quite feeling the spirituality of it all.

So, DiCerbo led the group out into the middle of a lake in their canoes to stargaze. He pointed out the Milky Way, a hovering, cloudy orb above them.

That seemed to change things for Janice, Dicerbo said. Lying on her back in her canoe, Janice went quiet, then wept at the beauty.

For DiCerbo, life is all about finding that moment of illumination that the wilderness can give us, and sharing it with others. Nature, he said, has “a way of centering things.”

DiCerbo founded Destination Backcountry Adventures (DBA) a decade ago on the “conviction that everyone should be able to experience the restorative power of authentic wilderness.”

His firm is now the largest guided adventure company in New York state. DBA was featured on The Today Show — DiCerbo took Megyn Kelly and her family on an overnight campout in New York’s Harriman State Park — and has also been written up in The Wall Street Journal and Men’s Health, among other outlets.

His company offers guided adventures: hiking, backpacking, canoeing and kayaking, and yoga trips, as well as classes that teach map, compass, and survival skills. He also leads corporate training, marathon and Spartan race training, and more.

DiCerbo co-owns and runs the company with his wife and business partner Jessica Tackett. Last June, the couple welcomed their first child, daughter Camila, who hit the trails with her parents when she was just a month old. The couple manages a team of licensed guides and offers about 50 different adventures in New York’s Hudson Valley, Catskills, and Adirondacks, as well as out-of-state in Utah.

“Perspective is very easy to get in touch with, in the outdoors, because it exists all around you,” DiCerbo told Fairfield University Magazine on a recent Zoom call. “It’s so amazing to see how something can open someone’s mind and completely change their perspective on everything. It’s a really rewarding job.”

But it’s been a long journey and the road to entrepreneurship wasn’t always easy or clear. There have been “bumps in the road,” and both figurative and literal storms. Once, out on the trail, he heard a scream, and then a commotion. A seasoned adventurer, DiCerbo put his “cold steel face on” because he knew he would have to deal with some blood.

Participants in a corporate hiking trip at Minnewaska State Park in Ulster County, N.Y.

Participants in a corporate hiking trip at Minnewaska State Park in Ulster County, N.Y.

One of DiCerbo’s fellow guides was holding his own head in his hands, blood “pumping from between them.” Was it just a nasty scrape, bleeding pretty badly? Or was this man’s skull fractured? DiCerbo calmly weighed the situation. At the time, they were four miles from the nearest road, and 40 road miles from the nearest highway. They were out there. Way out there. There was no way DiCerbo could treat him.

Luckily, DiCerbo — like the other guides that he trains and leads — has wilderness firstaid training and knew how to stabilize and evaluate the injury. He calmed things down and cleaned the laceration enough to be able to part the “jagged, horrible-looking five-inch split” with his thumbs.

There was good news and bad news. DiCerbo had to tell his guide-in-training that he’d have to be evacuated. The good news? “I told him, ‘your skull doesn’t appear to be fractured, so we don’t have to worry about your brains falling out,’” DiCerbo said, seeking, at the time, to balance things with levity. They both had laughed, the wound was treated safely, all ended well. They lived to tell the story and are stronger for it.

David DiCerbo ’97 holds a splake trout during an Adirondacks wilderness adventure.

David DiCerbo ’97 holds a splake trout during an Adirondacks wilderness adventure.

Born in Danbury, Conn., and raised in an Irish-Italian American Catholic family who “always extolled the virtues of Jesuit education,” DiCerbo’s college search was almost exclusively for Jesuit schools.

When he set foot on campus he was “blown away” by the University. DiCerbo graduated with majors in history and politics from Fairfield, and a minor in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies.

“I wouldn’t have changed my academic experience at Fairfield for anything in the world,” said DiCerbo, who also played rugby.

“We were taught to think, as opposed to being taught what to think,” DiCerbo continued. “I really feel that my time at Fairfield prepared me very well for all my careers, culminating in this one.”

After graduation from Fairfield in the late nineties, he hit the nine-to-five grind, commuting and staring down traffic every day. Then he moved south, to the Florida Keys, went into education, and that’s “where the adventure bug really bit.” He lived near the water and was able to regularly fish and kayak.

He then found his way into educational publishing where he moved up the ladder at Houghton Mifflin (HM). DiCerbo was achieving all the traditional markers of success: promotion, financial stability, and respect. But it all felt “hollow” to him, so in 2008 when HM changed hands, he took a severance and shifted his path to find new meaning in his work.

“I think that’s very Jesuit,” DiCerbo said excitedly, raking his fingers through his hair, “that your work should have a higher meaning. That you should have a higher purpose than your own gratification.”

For about five-and-a-half months after that, he did nothing but hike in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Oregon. He realized that his time in the woods kept him centered.

“It kept me sane. It made me feel like a complete human being. And I thought, there must be hundreds of thousands of people in the greater New York City area who could also benefit.”

So, in 2011, DiCerbo — then based in Brooklyn, N.Y. — built DBA from the ground up. He went through the New York State licensing and certification process to officially become a guide and started his company based on a simple philosophy: time outdoors makes for better people, better people make for a better society.

“What we’re doing is trying to improve our society as a whole,” DiCerbo said. “For guides who can get along with that, it resonates very deeply.”

DiCerbo and Tackett canoe with a client in the Adirondack wilderness.

DiCerbo and Tackett canoe with a client in the Adirondack wilderness.

Within the first year, DiCerbo realized that DBA was having a “pretty outsized impact.” He saw people who had never left their neighborhoods in Brooklyn climb mountains for the first time, and he taught a gaggle of city kids how to safely climb boulders. Mostly, it was the looks on their faces that convinced DiCerbo he could make an impact “on a real level.”

As a result, another focus for DBA in the last few years has been on representation and access. “The number of times someone has said to me, ‘Oh my God, this is so beautiful out here. I thought the outdoors was really just for rich people,’” DiCerbo said with a laugh.

“It’s really quite the opposite,” he affirmed. “In fact, New York State has two million acres of forest preserve that is free to access.” In addition, DBA has partnered with Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors — both national non-profits aimed at increasing Black and Latinx representation respectively in conservation, outdoor recreation, and environmental education spaces — to assist in the effort to diversify the outdoor leadership community as a whole.

In 2015, DBA started offering school and corporate adventures — everyone from Wall Street bankers, to programmers at LinkedIn, to eight-year-old rock climbers have been on treks with them — and those outings have grown in popularity during the pandemic.

“At the end of the day, I know I’ve emptied my tank and it was all for a really good cause,” DiCerbo said. “That’s my goal. I want to know that all that energy went toward something that is going to leave this place better than we found it. I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to be in a position where we can do this.”

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