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Hikers and Advocates

Hiking Challenge participants are ambassadors for the great outdoors.

Eileen Horvatch, Jack Fitzgerald, and Kay Shurtleff on Bearwallow
At 87, Jack Fitzgerald is taking on Hiking Challenge 5 with his friends Eileen Horvatch and Kay Shurtleff.


Jack Fitzgerald is “the challenge king,” according to his friend Kay Shurtleff.

It was Jack who came up with the Waterfall Challenge for the Carolina Mountain Club, which takes intrepid hikers to 100 waterfalls in North and South Carolina. He’s hiked all of the 6,000-foot peaks in North Carolina, all of the trails in Pisgah National Forest, and all of the miles of the Appalachian Trail and the Mountains to Sea Trail that are maintained by the Carolina Mountain Club. He’s checked off the 24 towers in the Lookout Tower Challenge. He’s a three-time White Squirrel Hiking Challenge completer. 

Now, he’s doing the WPA White Squirrel Hiking Challenge 5, along with Kay and their friend, Eileen Horvatch.

Jack is animated and talkative, but he takes time to be still in nature.

He says, “On every hike, we sit down for 10 minutes—hopefully near a waterfall or a stream because there you’ve got the music.”

He’s slowed down some from his peak. These days, he hikes an average of 1.5 miles per hour. “But that’s not bad for 87!” he points out. 

The White Squirrel challenge features eight hikes, all on lands that Conserving Carolina helped protect. The hikes include the famous waterfalls of DuPont State Forest; the new Weed Patch Mountain Trail with its dramatic overlooks; Bearwallow Mountain with its panoramic views; the highest point in South Carolina; and others. The challenge is sponsored by Witherspoon Platt + Associates, a conservation-minded real estate firm. 

For this article, I talked with seven people who are taking the challenge and found that every one of them is not only an avid hiker but a passionate advocate for the outdoors—for getting people outside and for protecting nature. 

A Nature Group for People of Color

Larry Pender and friends at DuPont waterfalls
Larry Pender and Terumi and Mark Culmer experience the DuPont waterfalls.

Tanya Marie Cummings has been discovering new things in her 60s. For one, she discovered the beauty of the mountains around her home in Henderson County, after she retired here from Los Angeles. She also met her partner, Larry Pender (known as Pender) to whom she recently became engaged. 

Tanya Marie and Pender realized that many people of color—like themselves, until recently—don’t often get out to parks and experience the wonders of nature. So, two years ago, they started a group to change that, called Pathways to Parks.

Tanya Marie Cummings at the DuPont waterfalls.
Tanya Marie Cummings at the DuPont waterfalls.

Tanya Marie says, “Our goal is to encourage people of color to get out to the parks because of all that the parks offer. So much beauty! And the health benefits! We encourage people to take advantage of these public lands. Because, when you think about it, this land belongs to us. And when you look at it from that point of view, look at what we’re missing out on.”

Among its outdoor activities, Pathways to Parks will lead all of the hikes in the Hiking Challenge, Tanya Marie says. She and Pender recently went to one of the challenge destinations—the DuPont waterfalls—with some friends who had never been there before.

“Our friends were astonished,” she says. “They could not believe the beauty. They were so excited, they said, ‘Count me in with Pathways to Parks and every place that you guys can possibly go.’”

(To join the Pathways to Parks mailing list, email Tanya Marie at [email protected]

“Raising Kids Wild”

Stephanie Harper and kids at Wildcat Rock
Stephanie Harper and her three older kids, Anthony Harper, Gaby Harper, and Maeve Heaton, enjoy a hike in the Hickory Nut Gorge.

Stephanie Harper also moved from California, with her husband and their four children, a blended family. “It might have seemed crazy driving cross country and selling all of our things and starting over in Asheville, but it’s made a difference in so many parts of our lives,” she says.

Three of the kids are now teenagers and the youngest is five. When they lived in the Bay area, they were like most families they knew: busy, stressed. The kids were overscheduled. The parents spent long hours working and commuting.

Now, they shape their lifestyle to support mental clarity—and an important part of that is spending time outdoors. Stephanie says that in their friend circle, they saw very few families getting out in nature on a regular basis. To help change that, she started a blog called Raising Kids Wild. Stephanie also started writing for Outdoor Families Magazine.   

She learned about the Hiking Challenge through social media and saw that it features several places they already love, as well as several they have yet to try.  “We want to complete them and we will, so we’re excited about that,” she says.

She says they’re motivated to earn their White Squirrel patch. “I like the idea of patches,” she says. “Having a sense of pride in what you’ve accomplished outside is important, especially for younger kids.”

Hiking Challenge 5 Patch

Getting Kids in the Mountains

Kay, Jack’s friend, has completed all four White Squirrel Hiking Challenges so far. For her, Hiking Challenge 5 is a special one because, last year, she was unable to hike. She was fighting cancer. But even when she was sick, she took a walk every day. Now, she’s back out on the trails. 

“I enjoy getting back out,” she says. “I am so appreciative of good health and good friends.”

She says, “It’s not the mileage. It’s the experience. Being outdoors and enjoying it. Being with good people that are fun and have the same interests.”

Kay is not only participating in a challenge; she’s helping to lead a challenge. As a volunteer with the Carolina Mountain Club, she’s promoting the Youth Partner Challenge. In this challenge, young people and adults go together to experience eight of this region’s most stunning places—like the Shining Rock Wilderness and Bearwallow Mountain.

The young people are excited to earn their patch, she says, but they also gain something deeper—a connection to this vast, inspiring, wild landscape.

The Trail Builders

Kim Chao on Bearwallow Mountain. Photo by Bob Carlson.

Bob Carlson and Kim Chao joined the very first White Squirrel Hiking Challenge in 2011. Bob says, “When we first came from Chicago-land as retired teachers, we came to Hendersonville and said, ‘Okay! We’re ready to hike!’ Well, you don’t just pull off to the side of the road and start hiking.”

They heard about the challenge and, for them, it was a great way to explore local trails. But it seemed a little disorganized. Bob stepped up to help coordinate it, and he’s been volunteering ever since—helping all five versions of the challenge run smoothly. He and Kim also became members of Conserving Carolina’s Rock Crushers volunteer crew, and they’ve dedicated many hundreds of hours to trail work. A highlight for them was helping to build the award-winning Weed Patch Mountain Trail. 

Kim says, “We know some of trails in the challenge very well, because we helped build them—but it also takes us to other areas where we might not think to go.”

She says, “I feel proud that these lands are all conserved by Conserving Carolina.”

Eight Hikes in a Day

Sean Cobourn also did the first Hiking Challenge—with his twin daughters, who were eight at the time, along with some of their friends. “Being out in the woods with four or five or six little kids is quite an experience in and of itself,” he says.

Sean is a prominent rock climber, who put up many of the routes on the rock faces of the Hickory Nut Gorge. He’s also worked on conservation projects with the Access Fund and Carolina Climbers Coalition. He plans to do Hiking Challenge 5 with his daughters, who are now 16—and as an added challenge, they decided to knock out all eight hikes in a single day! 

They’ve mapped out a plan for the big day, although they’re waiting until there’s more daylight.

Sean says that, like him, his daughters love to see the forests and mountains free from development.

“It’s educational that these are all conserved lands,” he says. “That’s important in my opinion. I think instilling that virtue into my children is important, so they understand why these lands are there and why they’re conserved.” 

Sarah and Emily Cobourn were eight during the first Hiking Challenge in 2011, shown here with their friends in Florence Nature Preserve.




This article is written by Rose Jenkins Lane as part of our our monthly Stories of the Land series which runs in the Hendersonville Times-News. These stories explore people’s connection to the land and the ways they give back to the places they love.  


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