Aiming for adventure: Competition encourages families to get exploring outside
For Tim Petrea, it was a truck and a red box that launched a lifetime affinity for the outdoors. Growing up in southern Georgia, Petrea wasn’t close to a whole lot of mountains, but when he saw his father loading up the red box, he knew they were headed for yet another Appalachian excursion to Western North Carolina.
“Every time he put that thing in the truck, we were going camping. I think I’ve got a love for the outdoors and a love for just getting outside because of moments like that,” Petrea said. “They’d put us in the back of the tuck and we’d go to Maggie Valley or Cherokee and go camping.”
Now, Petrea’s a resident of the region that was so important to his childhood, and as program supervisor for the Waynesville Parks and Recreation Department, he’s made it his business to help other families experience those same adventures.
“If they learn how to do stuff like this, these are things they can do for a lifetime,” Petrea said. “These are lifetime goals they can do, lifetime hobbies.”
With a million acres of national forest and 800 square miles of national park within easy driving distance of town, there’s ample opportunity to mess around outside. But in his time working in Waynesville, Petrea’s found that a large share of local families don’t do much to take advantage of the natural beauty in their backyards. Since joining the Parks and Recreation staff in 2013, he’s been working to change that, ramping up programming to include a range of opportunities for outdoor adventure and even exploring the idea of creating a youth outdoor leadership program.
His most recent effort, dubbed the FAR Challenge — Family Adventure Recreation — aims to get families competing against each other for points earned while getting active outside. In May, Petrea will total the points and dole out prizes — experience-based winnings like a family paddle trip or guided hike — to the winners at the Waynesville Kiwanis Spring Fling.
But, Petrea added, “The prize that they get is much better than a prize they would get at the thing in May. They get time spent together.”
That’s how the Rinker family — Joanne, Jeremy and their two daughters, ages 8 and 10 — is looking at it. The Rinkers moved to Haywood County this summer, and with Jeremy working as a gym teacher and Joanne as a dietician, it’s safe to say they’re an active bunch. When they signed up for the challenge, the idea was that it would help motivate them to explore the places surrounding their new home while also giving them a family activity to rally around.
“It’s good for us because we’re all together. Our family’s all together and it’s sort of uninterrupted time,” Joanne said. “It gets them (the girls) to stop and look at things and be grateful and appreciate what’s around them. We live in this beautiful area of North Carolina. I think that’s very different from any other way that we would be active.”
Joanne’s hoping to emerge from the contest with a better understanding of the area and a list of family favorites that the foursome can return to again and again. Petrea said he’ll be eager to hear the contents of such lists, anticipating that the information he gets from the participants will help him further align the rec department’s offerings with the community’s needs.
“It will give me some good feedback on what families are doing,” he said.
In the month since they signed up, the Rinkers have been doing pretty well. So far, the family’s gone hiking at Sams Knob off the Blue Ridge Parkway, explored a corn maze, visited an aquarium in Gatlinburg and gone ziplining in Asheville. Every week, Joanne said, there’s an ongoing “what are we going to do this weekend” conversation. That, rather than the competitive aspect, is what’s motivating the girls, she said, but her own competitive spirit might kick in a bit more strongly before May rolls around.
“As the year goes on, I may say, ‘We need to do one of these big things and get ourselves a bunch of points,’” she said.
Haywood and its surrounding counties definitely offer plenty in terms of “big” adventures, and sometimes you don’t have to wander far from the beaten path to find them.
Petrea recently led one such excursion, a group of four hardy souls who walked across the Parkway from the pull-off for Waterrock Knob, abuzz with vacationing leaf peepers, and embarked on a little-used trail that descends the mountainside all the way to Pinnacle Park, just outside of Sylva.
It’s a tough trail, the 6.2 miles containing more than 3,000 feet of elevation change. Parts of the trail bear more resemblance to climbing than walking. It’s a trek guaranteed to make thighs burn and calves twinge.
But the pain comes with payoff. At 2.2 miles, the trail reaches Blackrock Mountain, topped with a huge, flat rock. At the peak of leaf season, a panorama of fiery mountains spreads below, a view that would be hard to rival with a photograph or drive-by overlook.
“A picture’s not the same. It’s not,” said Sharon Flowe, a science teacher at Tuscola High School and participant on the hike.
Add to that view the smell of spruce, the glimmer of sun-shot fall leaves and the graduation from meadow to spruce-fir forest to hardwood cove that accompanies every turn of the trail, Flowe said, and it should be easy to see the value of being there.
But yet, Flowe said, very few of the teenagers who pass through her classroom at the high school — kids who have lived in Haywood their whole lives — have had that kind of experience.
“They’re not getting out in the woods to do what we just did,” she said. “They live in one of the most amazing places, and they don’t realize the resources that are right there.”
Being outdoors gives a sense of connection to the surrounding world, provides real-world validation to the concepts taught in the textbooks her class uses. But it’s about more than that.
“I also think that being outside is good for your brain,” Flowe said. “You’re not near an electronic device. You’re using all your senses. You’re opening up your eyes to things you don’t see just sitting in a room.”
That’s what she tries to drive home every year when she takes her class to a field trip at the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — one of those in-your-backyard places that many of her students have never visited.
For some students in Haywood, whose high poverty rate means that many families have more immediate needs to worry about than teaching their kids to hike, family finances and access to transportation are an obstacle to getting outdoors. It’s hard to muster up the wherewithal to find an outdoor adventure when it’s a toss-up whether the dinner table will be full that night. Those are obstacles that entities like the schools and rec department should look at getting together to address, Flowe said.
But while poverty is real for many families, Petrea said, it’s also true that recreating on the WNC’s abundant public lands is one of least expensive ways to enjoy a day of family fun. Sure, you can always drop money on expensive gear, but at its most basic level, a hike in the national forest or national park is free but for the gas to get there.
“You can get out there and do a lot of these things,” he said. “There’s no cost.”
Take the challenge
It’s not too late to get in on the FAR Challenge. Organized through Waynesville Parks and Recreation, the Family Adventure Recreation Challenge is open to all — even people who don’t live in Waynesville — and it’s not exclusive to couples with kids.
Here’s how it works:
- Get outside. The FAR Challenge guide, available from the Waynesville Recreation Center and town website, includes a list of activities worth 10, 25 and 50 points.
- Keep track. Each week, email Petrea with an update of outings undertaken and pictures showing your family there together.
Competition categories include: couples with children, couples without children, single people without children, single people with children and seniors over 55 without children.