The great outdoors: New Franklin outfitter store proves a big hit with enthusiasts

With the explosion of outdoor sports over the past few decades in Western North Carolina, perhaps it shouldn’t come as that big a surprise another outfitting store has opened in the region.

But this one is different, in at least two ways: The guys running Outdoor 76 truly use the equipment and clothes they sell; and the gear-oriented store is located in downtown Franklin, a place known more for its older, retired population than its hit-the-woods types.

But things have been changing in Macon County, too. Franklin has bonded during the past few years with hikers on the nearby Appalachian Trail, even to the point of hosting a festival for them each year and winning an official “trail town” designation. And plenty of people here and in the neighboring communities — young, middle-aged and older — seem increasingly eager to experience the outdoor life.

That helps explain why Outdoor 76, co-owned by Rob Gasbarro and Cory McCall, has gone gangbusters since the store opened on Main Street 10 months ago.

“It’s really overwhelming, though in a good way,” said Gasbarro of the explosion in growth the outfitters are experiencing.

Outdoor 76 carries name brands such as Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, Patagonia, Scarpa, Vasque, Keen, Western Mountaineering, Salomon, MSR and more. Additionally, the two men offer guided hikes and trips, plus carry an impressive array of camping, hiking and paddling equipment. They also rent equipment.

“It’s owned and operated by enthusiasts,” Gasbarro said. “We do this because we love to do it.”

And as if opening a new store wasn’t enough, both Gasbarro’s and McCall’s wives are expecting babies. Each will have their first children, seven weeks apart, in December and February, respectively.

In the meantime, they are putting together an outdoor festival to take place Oct. 8-9 in Macon County, featuring an outdoor triathlon, 5K race, a frisbee-team tournament, disc-golf competitions, plus clinics on flyfishing, paddle sports and more.

 

How it came about

Gasbarro’s and McCall’s business partnership came about in an unusual fashion: they became buddies through church. Gasbarro, 35, had moved to Western North Carolina from Tampa, Fla., for a job with an engineering company. McCall, 29, a Franklin native, was working in real estate.

When the economic doldrums hit, Gasbarro’s job felt “iffy,” and real estate sales went into the toilet. The two fellows knew they needed to find other ways to make livings.

“If we’re going to struggle, we decided we might as well struggle for ourselves instead of someone else,” Gasbarro said.

And the idea for an outfitter store, jointly owned by these two outdoor enthusiasts, seemed a natural. Gasbarro had an extensive paddling background, and McCall, a longtime runner, had played around in a lot of outdoor sports.

Though many people just didn’t initially get why they’d want to chance on opening one in downtown Franklin. But the two men did their homework: Franklin’s Main Street, Gasbarro said, has the highest traffic count of any municipality west of Asheville.

Then Gasbarro pulled out maps of the region from beneath the store counter — look, he explained excitedly, Franklin is the hub of virtually every outdoor experience one can enjoy in WNC. Kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, trail running — you name it, and you can experience it within a short drive of Franklin. And if that weren’t enough, the major highways essentially all flow through, or connect into, Macon County — U.S. 441 and U.S. 64 principally.

“We’re better positioned to tap the metropolitan areas than anyone else,” he said of Franklin. “Location, location, location.”

McCall, too, felt comfortable about opening the store in his hometown.

“Franklin needed this,” he said between helping a customer decide on what shoes were needed. “Franklin needed an avenue to fulfill the needs of people who are outdoor enthusiasts.”

Other outdoor shops carrying gear, clothing and supplies in the region include Mast General Store in Waynesville, Blackrock in Sylva and Three Eagles in Franklin.

But the closest shop to Outdoor 76, as an outfitter that also offers guided tours and rentals, is the Nantahala Outdoor Center, but that’s far enough away not to pose problems. In fact, Outdoor 76 has a great relationship with NOC, Gasbarro said.

Program marries old skills with new needs

Scotty Bowman always knew he wanted to work outdoors, but he couldn’t figure out how to live his dream and also make a livable salary — so he instead paved a career in restaurants, including stints as a chef. At least, this is what Bowman did until hitting his 40s, that momentous time when folks often realize that it’s either now or never to indulge their passions.

Bowman, in taking the risk to build a new career focused on the outdoors, has become part of a unique movement that might just help the Southeast get more Wilderness Areas to enjoy. Bowman has been busy this summer building and fixing trails in remote backcountry settings with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, a new program of The Wilderness Society that works directly with the forest service to provide support for Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas.

In Wilderness Areas, you can’t use chainsaws or power tools for trail work, which makes building trails in the backcountry miles from the closest road tough work. The SAWS group is deploying volunteers into Wilderness Areas who are willing to do the heavylifting of trail work using only hand tools, such as crosscut saws, in those remote territories where firing up power tools would violate wilderness regulations.

The labor from SAWS crews not only blazes new trails and keeps existing ones maintained, they could also be key in the effort to get more areas in the national forests designated as wilderness.

Designating new wilderness areas can be controversial given the stricter rules that apply, limiting everything from motorized recreation to hunting to logging to road building.

But even hiking clubs can be against new wilderness designation if it means their volunteer efforts to maintain trails in those areas will become more difficult, explained Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian program director for the Wilderness Society’s, based out of the regional field office in Sylva.

Hiking clubs are the front line when it comes to trail maintenance. But, Martin pointed out, they are generally made up of older, retired folks, with small core groups who also work on trail maintenance. And with limited time and energy, these good Samaritans often understandably balk at the wilderness rule of not being allowed mechanized tools such as chainsaws.

Enter younger, eager men and women such as Bowman, who are simply enchanted with being able to use crosscut saws and other primitive tools. A volunteer stint with SAWS has led to a summer job for Bowman as head of a SAWS volunteer trail crew. He hopes to repeat the experience next summer.

The trail crews are trained in using the necessary primitive tools, and learn trail building and trail maintenance techniques.

Bowman is in college, and anticipates perhaps mingling the contacts made through SAWS into a more permanent outside-oriented job, such as with the U.S. Forest Service.

“I always wanted to be outside, to be a part of doing something for the trails and for the public,” the 42-year-old said. “And I’ve picked up some really cool skills doing this.”

And the wilderness areas are picking up a lot of extra maintenance help these days, said Bill Hodge, director of SAWS.

“The idea is not to replace the hiking clubs, it’s to supplement their work,” Hodge said.

In the Southern Appalachian region encompassing North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina, there are 22 federally designated Wilderness Areas and another 14 Wilderness Study Areas, which fall under the same set of no-mechanized-tools restrictions. Wilderness Study Areas requires congressional approval to move into actual permanently protected Wilderness Areas.

Crews, such as the one led by Bowman, go into the backcountry for five-day stretches at a time to work on the trails. There have also been shorter, weekend-long programs. SAWS is also active through its Wilderness Rangers program, which has placed SAWS “rangers” on the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee and on the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia through November.

The initiative is part of a wilderness challenge funding grant, a 10-year effort to bring all of the U.S. Forest Service’s wilderness units up to a certain standard by 2014. North Carolina’s Wilderness Areas were at a higher level this year, but since the areas are reassessed each year, it could be that a SAWS ranger will be used in this state next year, Hodge said.

The SAWS rangers are, along with other duties, helping map where camping sites are being set up in the wilderness areas, Hodge said. Plus, they often serve as the only “official” many visitors will see in these remote regions, helping to guide hikers and provide help as necessary.

SAWS also will hold its second Wilderness Skills College in partnership with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy with two weeks worth of trail techniques and crew-leadership training. This past spring the conference was at the Ocoee Ranger District Work Center in Ocoee, Tenn.

Next spring, the hope is to hold the workshops here in North Carolina, Hodge said.

Recreation rendezvous shines a light on WNC

Representatives from some of the biggest names in outdoor recreation will soon touch ground in Asheville for the 2010 Outdoor Industry Association’s Rendezvous.

Industry leaders from major brands like Patagonia, The North Face, REI, Merrell, Mountain Hardwear and many more will be flying through the Nantahala River on a whitewater rafting trip and exploring the Smokies by next week.

“The focus of the international outdoor industry will be on our region,” Sutton Bacon, CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which is hosting the conference.

Bacon and his peers say they hope the Rendezvous will encourage national and international businesses to open up shop in Western North Carolina.

“I think the WNC outdoor industry is certainly rolling out the red carpet,” Bacon said.

The major outdoor conference comes on the heels of Asheville being chosen as the site for a listening session as part of President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative earlier this year.

“It’s a validation of the kind of mountain lifestyle that Western North Carolina offers,” said Mark Singleton, executive director of Cullowhee-based American Whitewater.

Christine Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, said the Smoky Mountains are iconic for the outdoor industry.

WNC is home to the most visited national park in the country, and two of the most heavily visited national forests in the country, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. The region also serves as headquarters to major outfitters and outdoor retailers in the country.

“If there is a hub of outdoor recreation in the east, Asheville arguably can lay claim to it,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of the Outdoor Industry Association.

 

Boost from recession

A major focus of the OIA Rendezvous will be to gauge the direction the U.S. outdoor industry is headed.

Since outdoor recreation tends to be more affordable than the typical vacation, the recession has actually driven more Americans outside than before.

At Mast General Store in Waynesville, employee Jay Schoon said the economic downturn has indeed brought a boom in business.

We’ve been having one of the best years, if not the best year, that we’ve ever had,” said Schoon, who has worked in the WNC outdoor industry for almost 20 years.

During tough economic times, the relatively low cost of outdoor activities holds clear appeal.

“When you look at hiking, all you need are a pair of shoes and a backpack,” Hugelmeyer said.

Fanning said connecting with nature can also provide physical, emotional and spiritual benefits and a healthy escape from the bad news of the day.

“People really are realizing outdoor recreation is something that can sort of disconnect you from the realities of today,” Fanning said.

Statistics also show that Americans are also opting for shorter outings. Rather than setting out for a week-long backpacking trip, they will take a day hike, mountain bike or go river rafting over the same period.

“The American is becoming a consummate sampler,” Hugelmeyer said.

Still, millions of Americans have yet to step into the great outdoors.

One point to drive across to these consumers, according to Fanning, is that reconnecting with nature doesn’t have to be an expensive or complicated affair.

“You don’t necessarily need to save up and have a once a year or once a lifetime trip to Yosemite,” Fanning said. “You can be right in your backyard.”

With the American population mostly gravitating toward cities and suburbs, Hugelmeyer said OIA hopes there will be great investment in urban parks, not just national parks.

 

Reaching out to youth

According to OIA, 90 percent of people who participate in outdoor activities now started between the ages of 5 and 18. Children who grew up camping, hiking and biking are more likely to continue as adults. Those who stayed inside as kids likely won’t take up backpacking as adults.

But OIA has found that there is a significant decline in the number of young people participating in outdoor activities. With more technological options for entertainment, youngsters are opting to stay inside. Kids cite lack of time, lack of interest and too much schoolwork as reasons for not getting outdoors more often.

Parents may have to shoulder much of the blame for that.

“Too many find it convenient to park a child in front of a TV set or computer screen,” Hugelmeyer said.

Melanee Lester, manager of Mast General Store in Waynesville, says that kids are often interested in the outdoors but don’t have the support of the parents.

Fanning and Hugelmeyer point out that more outdoor recreation for kids could provide tangible benefits, including better grades, closer family relationships and major health benefits. Those who appreciate the outdoors will also care about conservation and being good environmental stewards.

More outdoor activity could also curb the obesity crisis in the country.

“It’s a very small investment to head off what will be a very large medical bill later on,” Hugelmeyer said.

According to Fanning, the solution will come once parents are given the skills, information and confidence to schedule outdoor activities, and young people are empowered and inspired.

“At the end of the day, this is about parents and families taking personal responsibility to take their kids out,” Hugelmeyer said.

“For all of us who have a passion for the outdoors, we also have a responsibility to pass that passion to the next generation,” Fanning said.

 

 

By the numbers*

Participation

• 48.6 percent of Americans ages 6 and older participated in outdoor recreation.

• Americans made an estimated 11.16 billion outdoor excursions in 2008.

Spike in outdoor activities

• Hiking up by 9 percent

• Camping up by 7 percent.

• Backpacking up by 19 percent.

• Mountain biking up by 10.2 percent.

• Trail running up by 15.2 percent.

Youth less interested

• 6 percent drop in people ages 6-17 participating in outdoor recreation. This number has dropped by 16.7 percent in the previous 3 years.

Most popular activities by participation rate

1. Freshwater, saltwater and fly-fishing: 17 percent of Americans.

2. Car, backyard and RV camping: 15 percent of Americans.

3. Running, jogging and trail running: 15 percent of Americans.

4. Road biking, mountain biking and BMX: 15 percent of Americans.

5. Hiking – 12 percent of Americans.

*Statistics from the Outdoor Industry Association study conducted in 2009.

Holiday gear guide

Nobody knows their way around the gear section of an outfitter store better than the people who work in them every day. The purveyors of serious outdoor clothing and equipment are almost always addicted to their own product. The Smoky Mountain News has capitalized on the expertise of three of the region’s premier outdoor retailers–– Mast General Store in Waynesville; Blackrock Outdoors in Sylva; and Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City –– by asking their staff to recommend the best outdoor gear gifts this season.

 

Gear Classics

In every generation there’s a technology or a design that’s so good it never changes. If you check out what the gear gurus are wearing in their free time, you get a feel for what the items are.

Blackrock Outdoor Company • Patagonia Down Sweater $200

Patagonia sets the standard for quality gear manufactured with environmentally responsible processes. Their answer to the polyfill puffy coat is this quilted sweater that will keep you snug while you’re cruising or provide warmth under a waterproof outer layer in cold conditions.

Nantahala Outdoor Center • Kleen Kanteen $19.99

Coming in just under $20 and made of BPA-free stainless steel, Kleen Kanteen water bottles are a great gift for almost anyone. Kleen Kanteen formed in 2004 and put BPA-free stainless steel technology into the mix as an alternative to plastic water bottles. The company is part of the 1% For the Planet partnership that donates a portion of its profits to environmental causes.

Mast General Store • Mountain Hardware Flip Jacket $180

Polyfill down puffy coats are a perfect example of a classic design. They’re comfortable, stylish, and retain heat even when they’re soaking wet. The Flip jacket might cost a bit more than a polyfill puffy from another manufacturer, but Schoon says you’ll notice the difference as soon as you snuggle into one.


For the person who has everything...

If you have a gear head in your family, then the chances are slim you can walk into one of these outfitter stores and find something they don’t already have. All of the experts in the field will tell you the simplest solution is to buy a gift certificate of $100 or more, but they also offered up some unique gift options that might tickle the fancy of the person who has everything.

Nantahala Outdoor Center • NOC Belt Buckle $22

We guarantee you won’t find this stylish buckle anywhere else!

The Stick $42.50

It’s like a toothbrush for muscles, erasing soreness and tension after a tough weekend workout!

Mast General Store • EGear solar pull light $19.99

This handy little outfitter light features both solar charge and pull charge features so you’ll never run out of light in the backcountry.

Wedderlings hand-forged Swedish steel hatchet $60.99

Designed to last a lifetime, this hatchet is sure to push its way into your gear head’s backcountry setup.

Blackrock Outdoor Company • Innova Disc Catcher Sport $199

Disc golf is Western North Carolina’s fastest-growing past-time and Blackrock carries everything you need to get started. Buy a friend a disc basket and set them loose on a lifetime of low-flying fun.

 

Stocking Stuffers

Stockings are arguably the most fun part of Christmas morning, in part because filling a giant sock full of little gifts tickles the creative instinct of holiday shoppers. All three of our featured local outfitter stores have a whole slew of neat stocking stuffers, but we’ll highlight a few really choice picks.

Blackrock Outdoor Company • Columbia River Knife and Tool M-16 Series $59.99

These hardy river knives are lightweight and built to stay sharp.

Cliff Bar minis $.75

Cliff Bar now makes little tidbits that are perfect for stuffing stockings or the inside of your ski parka for a long day on the hill.

Nantahala Outdoor Center • Foamie Boater Kit $20

Kids and adults love building miniature foamy boaters to float or to race in small creeks and streams.

Kayaking Santa Ornament $10.95

Let’s face it, Santa just looks cooler in a kayak than in that clunky old sleigh. We hope Santa’s got a high-volume stern!

Mast General Store • Green Guru Billboard Series wallet $25

These stylish, sleek, bifold wallets are manufactured from recycled billboards. They’ll impress the most demanding fashionistas and enviro activistas in one fell swoop.

Mast General lip balm $2.99

Manufactured by Joshua Tree, an environmentally friendly independent supplier in Michigan, the Mast store line of lip balm is top quality and eco-friendly.

 

Hot New Items

Every year, outdoor clothing and equipment companies come out with new products and new materials. Hot new items make good gifts because your loved ones can hit the streets (or rapids) knowing they’re trendsetters.

Nantahala Outdoor Center • Astral Greenjacket Limited Edition $240

Asheville’s Astral Buoyancy — founded by NOC alum Phil Curry — has once again put out the most sought-after PFD for paddlers. Loaded with features, the Greenjacket rescue vest provides paddlers with unmatched freedom of movement. The LE has a small-batch design that looks as good as it performs.

Mast General Store • Mountain Hardware Monkey Woman Jacket $150

Mountain Hardware was started by the people who put The North Face and Sierra Designs on the map. The Monkey Woman Jacket is a thermic fleece jacket that combines incredible warmth and a lightweight design. Thermic fleece isn’t brand new –– it’s the shaggy kind –– but Jay Schoon and Jim Taylor at Mast in Waynesville say its popularity is still on the ascent.

Blackrock Outdoor Company • Under Armour Hundo fleece pullover $69.99

Under Armour has been a staple for high school and college jocks for a number of years, but now their gear line is penetrating the outdoor marketplace. Blackrock now carries a full line of men’s and women’s base and outer layers.

Blue Ridge Parkway kicks off 75th anniversary

The Blue Ridge Parkway will kick off its 75th anniversary celebrations this month with several historical, symbolic and entertaining events, even though the official anniversary isn’t until next year.

• A program called “Natural Resource Stewardship – An American Indian Legacy and Model for Our Future” will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at the Cherokee High School. The talk will be given by Gerard Baker, superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial who was featured in Ken Burns recent national parks documentary, along with former and present superintendents of the Parkway, Dan Brown and Phil Francis.

• Ceremonial Torch Passing will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 13, on the parkway outside Cherokee. A torch will be passed from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which celebrated its 75th anniversary this year, to the Parkway. Both park superintendents and Eastern Band of the Cherokees’ tribal leaders will deliver remarks. The Warriors of AniKituhwa dancers will perform. Park at the Cherokee Transit Lot on U.S. 441 just outside the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to take a shuttle to the site of the torch passing.

• Guided history tours in partnership with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian will be given by Cherokee storytellers at noon on Friday, Nov. 13, with several stops along the southern portion of the Parkway. Cost is $20 per person and includes a boxed lunch. 828.497.3481.

• Parkway History Day will be held on Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Folk Art Center on the Parkway outside Asheville.

There will be craft and music demonstrations and special exhibits. A panel discussion at 10 a.m. will examine the history and lasting impact of the decision to route the Blue Ridge Parkway through Western North Carolina. An interactive session will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Parkway issues, challenges and initiatives, including design guidelines for adjacent lands and preserving view sheds.

• A concert by Nanci Griffith will be held at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14, in Asheville. There will also be a performance of the one-time-only collaboration of The Blue Ridge Bluegrass All-Stars showing their support for the Parkway, including renowned musicians: Doyle Lawson, Sammy Shelor, Bryan Sutton, Tim Surrett, and Jim Van Cleve. The Cherokee Warriors of AniKituhwa will also perform, and the entire evening will be hosted by Asheville’s own Grammy award-winning musician David Holt. General seats are $35 and patron seats are $75. Tickets available at Ticketmaster.

Gifts that keep giving

Looking for a Christmas present? Western North Carolina is home to many outdoors organizations, conservation groups, outing clubs, nature societies and environmental non-profits in need of charitable contributions.

A life in the rapids

By Jennifer Garlesky •Staff Writer

The raging Class II rapids of the Cacapon River, which flows along the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, hooked Doug Woodward on whitewater paddling.

On the mark: Cullowhee base-camp raises profile in wilderness emergency training

Landmark Learning, a Cullowhee-based wilderness training center for the outdoor industry, has forged a new partnership with the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Wilderness Medicine Institute.

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