Author Archive | Jack Igelman

Gaining a Foothold in the RAD

Rendering of Smoky Mountain Adventure Center by Glazer Architecture

Rendering of Smoky Mountain Adventure Center by Glazer Architecture

Twenty-one years after opening Climbmax one of the nation’s first indoor rock climbing gyms in downtown Asheville, Stuart Cowles is on the sharp end again.

In the early 1990’s Cowles left his job as a manager and designer at a climbing gear enterprise in Conway, NH with the goal of opening a climbing gym.

“That was the motivating factor to move to Asheville. I wanted a small city with a solid climbing community that might be able to support it,” he says. Since then, he’s roped in a loyal following and introduced hundreds of folks to the edgy sport.

Fast forward two decades and construction is underway on the Smoky Mountain Adventure Center in the River Arts District (RAD) that will open its doors later this spring or summer. On a small wedge of land on Amboy Road nestled between Carrier Park and the French Broad River Park, the enterprise will feature a state of the art climbing gym, a yoga studio, a beer tap, as well as bike, stand up paddle board and other gear rentals. The outdoor adventure facility was designed by the local architectural firm Glazer Architecture.

Cowles, however, isn’t jumping on the RAD bandwagon. In fact, the entrepreneur took the lead  of the Mountain Sports Festival as the first executive director over a decade ago. While it’s original venue was downtown, “the goal was always to move the festival to the river,” says Cowles.

In 1994, when Climbmax opened on Wall Street, downtown was just on the verge of its renaissance, much like the river district is today. “I decided I wanted to be in the heart of downtown. I looked at opening along the river 22 years ago — at the time it just wasn’t the right place,” he recalls.

Framing of the SMAC commenced on February 11, 2015

Framing of the SMAC commenced on February 11, 2015

But as the rejuvenation of the river district started to turn the bend, Cowles launched a search for another indoor rock gym venue in the RAD. The crux, he says, was finding a workable building for a climbing gym. With assistance from a Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority grant, Cowles decided to take the leap and design and build a new facility in the RAD. While he’ll continue to operate Climbmax, he’s hoping to tie into the growing demand for recreation along the French Broad.

“It’s really a perfect location since the river brings so many active people together,” says Cowles who intends to create a one stop destination for outdoor adventure. “We hope to be an anchor point, engage active people and keep them within the city limits.”

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ABCs for the New Year

Jonah Igelman walks the line

Jonah Igelman walks the line

I’ve never been the type of guy who’s stuck to my New Year’s resolution (but who has?). So this year I decided to take a novel approach: a list of activities to make the most of the outdoors and my neighborhood without all the driving. While gas prices may be at a two decade low, time is scarce, so here are my ABCs of New Year activities just beyond the front porch.

Arrange gear in my garage
Boulder the dam remains on the Hominy Creek Greenway
Cycle to the store more often
Discover five new running routes
Examine the ecology of a local watershed
Float the French Broad
Garden
Hang in a hammock and read
Identify edible plants
Juggle
Kick a soccer ball
Live outside more
Maintain a derelict piece of public space
Name every tree species on my street
Observe the night sky
Pack a picnic at the local park
Quote Walden in the woods
Run a local 5K
Slackline at the park
Track animal footprints
Unicycle
Volunteer for a park workday
Wage a water balloon fight
X-plore Buttermilk Creek
Yoga in the backyard
Zip down Sulpher Springs Road on a longboard

 

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Fish Oar Float

Jason Brownlee at work in the French Broad Riverworks shop within Carrier Park

Jason Brownlee at work in the French Broad Riverworks shop within Carrier Park (photo courtesy of French Broad Boatworks)

I recently caught up with Jason Brownlee, the co-owner of the French Broad Boatworks and Asheville native to chat about their handcrafted riverboats and upcoming river tours.

He and his partner William Evert, both avid anglers, skilled carpenters, furniture makers and homebuilders, joined forces five years ago to begin crafting high-end boats for fishermen. But not just any fishing boat, their fleet of hand crafted, oar powered river dories are top-of-the-line and a nod to the traditional ocean vessel that’s known for its seaworthiness and simplicity.

For land lubbers whose river craft knowledge may be limited to tubes and canoes, Brownlee explains that a river dory is kin to ocean fishing crafts designed with a wide flat bottom, pointy prow and stern, and high sides to ride safely on top of the current.

While the pair dabbled for several years on a design, their classic look they’ve adopted has been reengineered with an ultra modern light wood frame that is sheathed and protected by high tech material. However, the interior is where their woodworking skills really shine and gives the boats a nostalgic look they’d like to preserve.

But Brownlee isn’t just a dory enthusiast, he’s also a river advocate; the thirty-seven year old has seen the river corridor at its best and worst.

“The river district used to be an absolute wreck,” remembers Brownlee. But when the restaurants and bars started to make headway on the river, he knew the tides had shifted and wanted to get more involved with its revitalization. “We’re trying to be part of the experience,” he adds.

Brownlee, of course, is overjoyed at the rebirth of the river district and use of the river; he’d just like to give people the opportunity to glide downstream in high style.

Naturally, dories are ideal for anglers to cast on two feet, but its buoyancy makes for a smooth ride too and an ideal watercraft for birding, hauling camping gear, or just a gentle sunset cruise. So this spring, the pair is launching the Asheville Wooden Boat Tour to lure non-anglers to the experience of floating in a craft boat. The roughly one and a half hour tour will cast off from their workshop within Carrier Park to the Smoky Park Supper Club.

 “We really want folks to experience a drift boat,” says Brownlee. “It’s the only way to go down the river.”

Visit their website for more information about the Asheville Wooden Boat Tour launching this coming spring. www.frenchbroadboatworks.com

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Up and Running in the RAD

Inside the Asheville Running Company

The Asheville Running Company in the River Arts District (Photo: Asheville Running Co.)

Randy Ashley is accustomed to being a step ahead of the pack. The accomplished distance runner had a successful competitive running career that spanned over two decades including qualifying for two Olympic marathon trials in ‘96 and ‘00.

Now he’s blazing new trail as general manager of the Asheville Running Company in the blossoming River Arts District (RAD).

“I noticed how busy it was at the Wedge and for art strolls,” says Ashley. “I thought someone ought to open a running shop.”

At first, everyone he talked with got cold feet. After all, the RAD may be known for its food, beer and art, but not for its retail shopping. Eventually owners Judi and Dan Foy, whose son was coached by Ashley at the Asheville School, loved his idea and in early September the store opened its doors in the Pink Dog Creative building located at 346 Depot Street, a former warehouse that’s now home to art galleries, two restaurants, and the Asheville Area Arts Council.

While opening a retail shop in what was formerly the city’s most desolate terrain may be chancy, Ashley is acquainted with the challenges. With a partner he opened a running store in Biltmore Park Town Square in 2002, but may have been a few years too early.

Now, with the booming running scene in Asheville and excitement about the revitalization of the RAD, he’s betting the time is right to get a foothold in the shoe business.

In addition to stocking a wide range of top-of-the-line running shoes, accessories and apparel, he also plans on bringing his passion for the sport, knowledge of the area, and skill as a team and personal running coach to the table.

The store hosts weekly group runs that Ashley says are non-competitive, “citizen-type runs” led by store ambassadors, while the footprint and design of their space allows them to host a variety of events, including a series of fitness programs.

“We want folks to feel welcome here and to take advantage of what we have to offer,” says Ashley. “We’re in this for the long-haul.”

To find out more about their weekly runs and other events, check out their Facebook page or their soon to be launched website at ashevillerunningcompany.com

 

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Get Outside with Kids

Boating is an adventure all ages can enjoy.

Boating is an adventure all ages can enjoy.

There’s no better time than the crisp days of autumn to explore the outdoors and take in the region’s spectacular show of color. Here’s a quick guide to bona fide adventures within a couple hours radius of Asheville that are fun for kids and adults too.

Hike: Sam Knob

The highest points of North Carolina’s backcountry may seem out-of-reach for young explorers, but the short hike to the 6,050-foot peak of Sam Knob is one an entire family can conquer. This double summit near the Blue Ridge Parkway is an ideal outing to take in colorful fall vistas at the roof of the Pisgah Crest and for snapshots of the Shining Rock Wilderness which was among the original fifty wild areas designated by the Wilderness Act in 1964. The route up has a diverse landscape of lush vegetation, rolling meadows, steep rocky slabs, and two grassy knobs separated by a shallow gap. With few trees to obscure the view, the peak highlights captivating vistas across rows of wild ridges and well-known landmarks, such as Shining Rock Ledge and Devil’s Courthouse. In all, a 2.2 mile round trip.

Getting there: From Asheville, follow the parkway south for 26.5 miles. Just past milepost 420, turn right on Forest Road 816 (Black Balsam Road), and follow to the terminus at the Black Balsam parking area.

Paddle: French Broad River (Hot Springs to Murray Branch Picnic Area)

An ideal canoe float or introduction to whitewater on the French Broad. This portion of section 10 is peppered with easy rapids along a four mile section of the river from the town of Hot Springs to the Murray Branch Picnic Area just upstream of the Tennessee state line. Paddle through a few wave trains and look for great spots to swim.

Getting there: From Hot Springs take U.S. 25/70W across the bridge, turn left at the end of the bridge, then right on SR 1304 for four miles. Reserve a raft from the Hot Springs Rafting Company or contact Bluff Mountain Outfitters to arrange a shuttle.

Mountain Bike: Jackrabbit Mountain – Mountain Biking and Hiking Trails

In 2010 Clay County leaders unveiled a 15-mile playground for fat-tire lovers on a hare- shaped peninsula of land bordered by Lake Chatuge near Hayesville. A great ride for families with kids is the gentle 3.1-mile Central Loop that sprouts a handful of shorter branches — all junctions are well marked with maps and color-coded blazes. Don’t forget to bring a bathing suit for a dip in the lake and keep your eyes peeled for a rope swing near the trail.

Getting There: From Hayesville, take U.S. 64 east to N.C. 175. Head south for 3.4 miles and turn right on Jackrabbit Road. In a half mile, turn left into the trailhead parking lot.

If you’re planning a outing with kids, here’s a list of ten essentials to consider to make your next adventure a grand slam!

 

1. Plenty of water
2. A first aid kit
3. An abundance of healthy snacks and a special treat for the summit
4. A best friend
5. Rain gear
6. The Lorax
7. An extra outfit and a back-up pair of socks and shoes
8. A magnifying glass
9. Patience
10. A back-up plan

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Art History: Explore the Art Loeb Trail

A small hiker on Black Balsam along the Art Loeb Trail.

A small hiker on Black Balsam along the Art Loeb Trail.

 

“Named in tribute to Arthur J. Loeb, industrialist, conservationist, and hiker who so deeply loved these mountains …”

These are the words on one of my most cherished mementos: a folded program commemorating the dedication of the Art Loeb Trail—one of Western North Carolina’s most revered footpaths—on November 9, 1969. I came across it years ago while researching a magazine story marking the route’s 40th anniversary.

The thirty mile path, named after the late Brevard trail blazer, covers some of the finest terrain in the region. Much of it is doable in short day-hikes, including Black Balsam. The mountain is a 6,200 foot behemoth within an hour walk of an easily accessible trailhead near the Blue Ridge Parkway, and it’s one of my favorite hikes.

To be sure, I’m fond of the ridgetop path’s glorious views. But I have a soft spot for Loeb, too. I wish I’d met him—he died in 1968 at age 54 after a brief battle with cancer. In a wool Pendleton shirt, hiking boots, and a worn leather backpack, Loeb got out in the woods every weekend to explore new trails or hike some of his favorites, sections of which eventually became the Art Loeb Trail.

He didn’t start out as an avid hiker. The Philadelphia native moved to Brevard at 26 to work at the Ecusta plant, which once stood along the Davidson River. After suffering a heart attack in his mid-forties, he began walking as part of his recovery. And he walked … and walked…

His healthful jaunts eventually led him to the woods where he discovered a delight in being outdoors. He also became a dedicated trail volunteer: One of his projects involved linking sections of hiking trails from the Davidson River near his home in Brevard to Cold Mountain.

He never finished, but a few months after his death, the Carolina Mountain Club and the U.S. Forest Service finished the trail and named it in his honor.

Nearly a half century after his death, the trail is as popular as ever and a fitting tribute to the WNC hiking pioneer.

To pay homage to Loeb, day-hike to the grassy top of Black Balsam or continue north on the trail into the Shining Rock Wilderness. To access the trailhead to Black Balsam, follow the Blue Ridge Parkway to milepost 420 and turn on FS Road 816. Follow the road to one of several trailheads, or park in the lot at the end of the road.

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I Walk the Line

Lori Wilkins finds her groove on a slackline at Carrier Park

Lori Wilkins finds her groove on a slackline at Carrier Park

 

Two sturdy trees, 50 feet of nylon or polyester webbing, and a soft landing are all that’s needed to set up a slackline. All of which are abundant on Sunday afternoons at Carrier Park where a group of dedicated slackers – as they’re known – can be found just downstream of the picnic shelter at Carrier Park in a cluster of trees along the French Broad River.

Lyle Mitchell has been organizing the collective of slackers since February – what devotees of the sport call a “jam” – from four in the afternoon to sundown. What drew Mitchell to the pastime was to become a better rock climber. And indeed, the sport was developed by climbers who, several decades ago, spanned rope or webbing between two trees to hone their balance.

Since then, the sport has taken a path of its own.  For instance, soon after getting hooked on slacklining Mitchell pursued a popular outgrowth of the sport performing traditional yoga poses on a slackline.

Yoga aside, to simply balance upright in a single spot or to place one foot in front of the other on a one inch wide piece of slightly tensioned webbing takes more than just flexibility and confidence. Mitchell says that finding a place of mental and physical stillness is necessary in order to get the feel for a slackline. And even on a leisurely Sunday afternoon on the banks of the river there’s plenty to addle your state of mind – walkers, dogs barking, bicycles grinding.

Mitchell points out that any strain or stiffness in your body is amplified by the looseness of the line; your nervous energy transmitted into wild tremors on the webbing.

“You have to be present in the moment. As soon as your mind wanders you’re off the line,” he says.

But unlike rock-climbing, which typically involves a destination (the top), Mitchell says the end game of slacklining isn’t necessarily to get from one tree to the other. “The goal is to get a better sense of where your body is in space; how to engage your sense of being,” says Mitchell who adds that the weekly jams are beginner friendly and regular attendees will demonstrate a few fundamentals to help newbies off the ground.

If you’re up for the challenge check out the group’s Facebook page (Yoga Slackers Asheville) or for less than $100 rig up your own line in the front yard – a nod to the simplicity and versatility of the sport.

 

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A Paddler’s Paradise: Explore the French Broad on a SUP

Paddling and standing on the French Broad. (Photo: Effort, Inc.)

Paddling and standing on the French Broad. (Photo: Effort, Inc.)

 

For David Donnell, the perks of cruising down the French Broad River on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) are all about the vantage. But then again he’s always seen Asheville’s chief waterway from a different angle.

When Donnell opened the Asheville Outdoor Center in 1992, the river oozed just about everything but charm.

“Back then the river had a stigma as a nasty body of water; there was no emphasis on making the riverfront pretty, but it was a great location for my business,” says Donnell. Three years after opening, he pioneered the recreational development of the riverside by transforming a former sand company on three acres into a sanctuary to promote his devotion to river sports.

Donnell says that it took a while for visitors to warm up to “calm water” paddling in the mountains—then, the thrill of whitewater was the principle lure to the region’s rivers. But in the last few years, boaters, anglers, and tubers have become a common site on the French Broad.

And lately, so too have paddlers on SUPs—especially Donnell.

As a whitewater boater, he was accustomed to standing in his canoe to anticipate challenges downstream, so the transition to navigating a rivercraft on two feet came easy.

Anna Levesque, the owner of Girls at Play and former member of the Canadian Freestyle Whitewater Kayak team, is also a devotee of the growing sport and appreciates the versatility of a SUP. “You can sit on the board, kneel, do yoga, or stand up. You can also vary the intensity; even when you’re going out for an easy float, you’re still activating and toning your muscles just by balancing on the board,” says Levesque, whose business offers SUP lessons and SUP yoga classes.

Both say the natural character of the river—its mellow tempo, the lack of obstructions, and occasional waves—make it a perfect venue for the sport.

Despite the relatively placid current, Donnell, a certified paddleboard instructor, stresses the inherent dangers of moving water, and says that knowing the risks and having the proper equipment are vital. Levesque agrees and suggests that instruction to develop skills, such as a strong forward stroke, can help paddlers stay out of trouble and get the most from the experience: staying focused on the views of the river that may be missed if sitting on your fanny.

“You can get lost and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere and still be in the center of Asheville,” says Donnell. “So many folks experience a moment of peace and come off the river totally recharged. It’s a great release.”

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The Green Within

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When I start talking about the Hominy Creek Greenway in the heart of the city’s west side I have a tough time containing my glee. Though small in size (just fourteen acres) it’s big in meaning. Acquired by the city in 2011 – the beloved parkland is a testimony to what a group of dedicated citizens can accomplish.

In 2006 My neighbor Doug “Brotherhug” Barlow spearheaded a grassroots effort to conserve the land when he moved to Asheville from Atlanta. Then, the overgrown corridor and right-of-way for an underground sewage line was overgrown, trashy and dangerous. Even still, Barlow saw beyond that and envisioned a thriving, wild, and much needed community green space.

Many others agreed. His effort to conserve and purchase the tract was enthusiastically backed by neighbors, non-profit organizations and local government. The wave of support (and funding) is a sign of the times; it’s a by-product of a growing and forceful movement in Asheville to create more pockets of connected urban greenspace. That may seem a superfluous goal since our city is surrounded by over a million acres of public forest. Yet for a town that places such a premium on quality of life, recreation, and the environment some argue that we’ve lagged behind other urban areas in the amount of greenways and natural parkland.

Fair enough, but there may be a good reason for the shortcoming.

In the decades following World War II, policymakers figured there was little reason for recreational resources since the town was flanked by a heap of opportunities in the national forests, and state and national park land.  City Hall was also shackled by the highest per capita debt of any other city in the nation when the thundering economic boom of the 1920s crumbled — bolting a fiscal ball and chain that city leaders didn’t shake until the mid 1970s.

The result was an underdeveloped local park and greenway system and little to no vision to expand it.

Fast forward a few decades and behold the Hominy Creek Greenway. The once derelict corridor of green space now filled with users – pet owner, cyclists, swimmers, families – is a pillar of the West Asheville and it’s hard to imagine my neighborhood without it. That’s a great testament to our people, leaders and the kind of institutions that make Asheville such a great place to live and visit. And not just for the parkland around, but for the green space within.

 

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