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Cultivating Confidence

outdoor family

Bryant Baker hikes with Ulani, left, and Makya. Baker said they have tried just about every type of child carrier to see what works best. Photo courtesy of the Bakers

Raising a kid to confidently love the outdoors is different for every family. While spending time in the natural world is intrinsically simple, how parents are able to help kids explore often depends on time, access, and resources. To gain perspective, BRO caught up with three families prioritizing recreation and setting aside time to get outside.

Paddling Couple Shares Their Passion

Bryant and Laura Baker met in college, eventually making their way to West Virginia as guides on the New and Gauley Rivers. For the next decade, they split their time between West Virginia and Utah, guiding rafting trips, working as wilderness therapy instructors, and thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. 

“We always loved the New River Gorge and this region,” Bryant Baker said. “We always talked about ending up back here and this being a place we wanted to raise our kids. There are a number of folks who we’ve guided with throughout the years who’ve also had the same process of guiding, traveling, and then settling down to have kids. We’ve all found ourselves back here, which has been fun. Our kids run around together.” 

The time finally came to move back to Fayette County, W.Va., in 2018. Now the Bakers try to get out with their three daughters: Ulani, 4; Makya, 2; and Norah, 10 months, as much as possible. “All of this stuff, we want it to be normal for them,” Bryant added. “The more we make an effort to do it, the easier it gets every time.”

For Bryant, the river operations manager at ACE Adventure Resort, getting outside with the kids is all about logistics, planning, and efficiency. “Ninety percent of the time, if not more, the hardest part of any of this is just getting out the door,” he said. “Just getting them in the car and getting everything you need. The night before we’re going to try and do something, I like to get things lined up and have all the gear set out.”

One of the advantages of living where the Bakers do is access to top outdoor recreation spots in the New River Gorge, Gauley River, and Monongahela National Forest. As former raft guides, they especially enjoy paddling with their kids on the Upper New.

“We take down a raft and strap a frame to it so that I can row, or my wife can row while one of us kind of manages the madness,” Bryant said. “They can run around the raft, and we take lunch. They can jump out and swim in different spots. There’s not a lot of places you can do that in a day, get your kids out like that, and have it be that easy of a shuttle.”

Bryant gets new perspectives on adventure sharing his love of the water with his kids. “That’s just amazing having your daughter sit in your lap and ride through a rapid together,” he said. “Their little faces light up and they feel like they’re doing this on their own. Even if I was doing the same thing on my own, it would be totally different. You enter into their level of excitement and adventure. It makes even the most low key of adventures really, really exciting.”

When they’re not on the river together, the family is exploring the rail trail system, accessible swimming holes, and local climbing spots. Bryant and Laura also set aside times for paddling or running dates, hiring a sitter so they can hit the trail together.

The Bakers are also working to eliminate barriers and increase access to outdoor recreation for other families in the area. They recently started a non-profit, Adventure Appalachia, that will help connect local youth and foster families with the outdoor adventure industry already established in the area. To fund the program, they are starting a series of endurance races in the Gorge. The inaugural Rim to River 100, the first 100 miler in West Virginia, will run November 7. 

“My wife and I moved here in order to raise our daughters with outdoor adventure being a normal part of their upbringing,” Bryant said.

“The problem we see is that, if parents don’t have the skills and experience (like we have) to take their kids rafting, climbing, kayaking, etc., then their only other option is to pay for a guided trip. Most local families around here can’t afford to do that, so most local youth around here don’t get to partake in the amazing outdoor adventure opportunities that exist literally right outside their front door.” 

With the new program, Bryant said they hope to give other kids the same experiences his daughters have had. “I hope as they grow up, these are all things that they’ll like to continue to do,” he said. “They’re going to have their interests and figure out their path. I think all of the life lessons they can pick up from doing this stuff is going to help them no matter what avenue they pursue in life.”

Tracy Martin gets outside with her daughters in a variety of ways, from playing in their backyard to section hiking the A.T. Photo courtesy of Martin

A New Mom on the A.T.

When Tracy Martin totaled up the distance she hiked with her three daughters in 2017, she was surprised to find they had done more than 200 miles. “I was floored,” she said. “That seemed like so much to me. I told the kids and they couldn’t believe it because that just sounds like a million miles to a kid.”

Every year since, Martin has kept track of their hikes as the girls become more comfortable outside. In 2019, they hiked 533 miles and completed their fourth section hike of the Appalachian Trail. 

“When the kids hike and go camping, they feel so confident, even if they’re not quite there,” Martin said. “They feel like they are. That’s really important because I feel like a lot of kids don’t have confidence in very many areas. I feel like my kids are so confident when they’re outside no matter what they’re doing. And I just really like watching that.” 

In the beginning, hiking was a way for them all to get out of the house. As a new mother of three adopted girls, now 12, 8, and 7, Martin said they all needed a change of scenery.

“Becoming a mom was really shocking,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about having one kid, let alone three. We needed to be out of the house and have something to do together that was active and would keep them entertained.”

They took trips around their home in Kentucky and beyond. Whether it was a walk at a local park or camping overnight at Mammoth Cave National Park, getting outside helped them all connect through new experiences.

Martin puts their trips on the calendar so the girls can see what’s coming up. Now that the girls are older, they have their own ideas and goals for what they want to accomplish. “I discovered early on that carving out time for that on purpose makes it more special, makes us look forward to it,” she said. 

Living close to the A.T., Martin recommends it for parents with kids because there are so many resources out there on what to expect. 

“Everyone and their dog has hiked it,” she said. “So, you can easily find people on Instagram or YouTube and you can watch them hike a specific section. You can know there’s one really hard climb that day, that day there’s a shelter that’s really nice, and then you pass the grocery store. If there’s no resources, I wouldn’t have been able to prepare my kids, they would have been grumpy, and I wouldn’t have packed extra Snickers bars.”

When they do their multi-day section hikes, they take into account where the shelters are and what kind of terrain they will face.

“Each day, I’ll have an easy goal,” Martin said. “Even if someone is really grumpy and crying, we can still do four miles. Then I’ll have a ton of attainable goals. Like, we can definitely go four, but we can probably go seven. And then I’ll have a super stretch goal. If everyone’s in a really good mood, we’re not tired, we’ve got good snacks, and the weather’s nice, we can go 11 miles.”

To keep up with the kids as they grow, Martin values buying used gear that can be passed down to each of the girls. “Kids only use stuff for maybe six months and then they grow out of it,” she said. “I do a lot of thrift stores, Once Upon a Child, sometimes clothing swap groups on Facebook. We get a lot of their baselayers off of eBay because some other kid used it and then grew out of it. So, it’s still in good shape.”

Although they haven’t set a goal for how many miles they want to hike in 2020, Martin said she’s prioritizing time all together and with each daughter individually. “Outdoor time can be therapeutic for kids, really for all kids, but specifically for kids who have trauma in their background,” Martin said. “You don’t have to drive to a national forest or go backpacking on the Appalachian Trail to feel accomplished. Sometimes just walking to the library is a big accomplishment with kids. Any kind of nature is going to help, even if it’s hanging out in the backyard and looking for worms. Little things like that change the way that your kids think about nature, even the way they think about the world around them.”

Skippy, Mia, and Zoe Norton. go for a ride with their mom, Rachel Thielmann (back). Photo courtesy of Thielmann.

The Kids Are on Bikes

In the 20 years since Rachel Thielmann and Pat Norton moved to town, the mountain biking scene in Charlottesville, Va., has taken off. As their three daughters have grown up, local trail systems have expanded. 

“We started when they were really little, using a bike trailer to come downtown and go to the farmers market,” Thielmann said. “There’s something really awesome about sharing the things that you love with your children, seeing your children take up those things, and have those connections.”

Twins Mia and Zoe, 13, and Skippy, 11, took to the sport, joining the Cutaway Girls Mountain Bike Team in elementary school. “For my kids, it’s a beautiful experience because they have so many good friends that they ride with,” Thielmann said. “It’s very supportive. I feel like it’s important to build confidence in kids, especially middle school girls. Just having this place where they can go have fun, challenge themselves, and be held to a high standard.”

The team competes at NICA races around the state. 

“You’re not going to be cut from the team,” Thielmann said. “You’re not going to be made to sit out during races. If you want to be that kid like Skippy, who’s super competitive, or like my older two, who are a little more laid back about it, they can still have fun and feel valued as members of the team.” 

But the lessons extend beyond just learning how to be a better mountain biker. “It helps kids become stewards,” Thielmann added. “They’re more concerned about the environment. They’re stopping to pick up trash when they see it.”

Having easy access to trails and other resources has allowed the entire family to explore the Blue Ridge region together. 

“From our house, you can ride to the Rivanna Trail,” Thielmann said. “You’re not even in a position of having to have a rack on your car and load up all your bikes. If my husband has a little time after work, he can grab the girls and ride for 45 minutes.”

The family also enjoys getting on the trails at Preddy Creek, Monticello, Oak Hill, and Stokesville, all within an hour’s drive of their home. And when they’re not riding with their daughters, Thielmann and Norton make time to ride for themselves.

“Some of it was recognizing that riding with your kids was not the same as riding for yourself,” Thielmann said. “Taking your kids on a ride on a Saturday is awesome, and you should also set aside some time to get out and ride by yourself.”

Now that their daughters are older, they find it easier to get outside on their own. The couple has fun riding regional trails together on their tandem bike.

“We raced GRUSK (Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob) on it,” Thielmann said. “It’s just kind of our thing. He’s a lot more skilled than I am, but it’s just a fun way to spend time together. Because our bike is so heavy, we’re not very fast off a dime. But once we pick up a little momentum, we can drop anyone.”

Although they were riders before their kids, Thielmann said she’s seen other parents pick up biking once their kids joined the team, and now “the girls are riding with their friends and we’re riding with our friends.”

Looking ahead, Thielmann is excited to see how cycling continues to grow in the area, especially with additional infrastructure that would make bike commuting to work or school more accessible. And she wants to see her daughters continue to find joy outside. 

“I was someone who really was never athletic growing up,” Thielmann said. “I love that cycling is really accessible to everyone. You see people out there as old as my parents that are still riding. You can ride on a team, but you can also ride by yourself. That‘s one of my hopes for my girls because I know that physical activity can be really therapeutic. No matter what they decide to do in the future with riding, they’ll always have that as something when you’ve had a hard week, you can hop on your bike for an hour.” 

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