15 Best Stories of 2015

2015 was an especially big year for the outdoors. BRO covered everything from record-setting runs to lumbersexuals. There were tragic deaths—and close calls.  Here are the stories that generated the most chatter in 2015.

15. A Crowded Walk in the Woods

With the Hollywood release of A Walk in the Woods in 2015, even more hikers are expected to hike the Appalachian Trail. Will crowds swamp the A.T. or help save it? BRO looks at the past, present, and future of America’s most iconic footpath.


14. Won’t Pipe Down

A 550-mile pipeline pumping natural gas is planned for West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, cutting a broad swath through George Washington National Forest and across the Appalachian Trail. Can activists stop another Keystone in our Blue Ridge backyard?


13. Digital Danger

Social media is changing the way we play. Does Strava enhance or erode the outdoor experience? Does paddling porn amplify adventure or push risk-taking too far? Critics and supporters discuss technology on the trail.


12. Monumental Battle in the Mountain State

The proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument in West Virginia would permanently protect some of its most beloved landscapes, but it sits squarely atop a natural gas oasis. A coalition of outdoor enthusiasts collide with a booming fracking industry over West Virginia’s most treasured wildlands.


11. The Ragged Edge

Why do kayakers risk their lives dancing with danger? What propels paddlers to plunge off waterfalls? Blue Ridge boaters share their candid stories from the horizon line.


10. Bear attacks

In the summer of 2015, bears attacked hikers in Douthat State Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bear encounters are becoming more common as urban sprawl encroaches upon wildlife habitat.


9. Bouldering’s Best-Kept Secrets 

High Country climbers have traditionally been tight-lipped about their favorite bouldering spots. That’s because access issues and development have threatened their most treasured rock faces. In 2015, new guidebooks and a rapidly growing climbing community have revealed most of the High Country’s best-kept bouldering secrets. Will climbing hotspots be better protected or overused and closed down?


8. End of the Ocoee?

One of the nation’s most popular whitewater rivers could be closed to paddlers. In 2015, TVA announced plans to charge $11 million to continue dam releases for recreation on the Ocoee River. The Ocoee was the site of the 1996 Olympics’ whitewater paddling events, and now its world-class whitewater is currently being held for ransom.


6. The Future of Forests

Throughout 2015, all eyes have been on the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Plan, which will decide the future of the largest forest system in the East. Controversies over logging, recreation, and access have dogged the plan, but in late 2015, a coalition of over 30 outdoor groups joined together to support a comprehensive compromise that includes two new national recreation areas and 109,000 acres of wilderness.


5. Rise of the Lumbersexual

Award-winning author Wiley Cash examines the phenomenon of the lumbersexual—the flannel-wearing, bearded outdoorsy hipster—and its roots in our longing for the past, especially in Appalachia.


4. Lessons Before Dying

ALS is taking Royce Cowan’s body, but not his adventurous outdoor spirit. Five years ago, he was at the top of his game: a gonzo whitewater paddler who had just married the love of his life. Five years later, he cannot move his muscles. Nobody knows what causes ALS, and there is no cure for ALS. His story could easily be yours or mine. Yet he has lived long beyond expectations thanks to healthy living, a dedicated wife, and plentiful outdoor adventure—even as his body fails him.


3. Wolf Wars

Only 75 red wolves remain in the wild—all of them in eastern North Carolina. A red wolf recovery program has brought them back from the brink of extinction, but now agencies are considering abandoning the program. Will the howl of the red wolf disappear forever?


2. Jenny Bennett’s death

62-year-old hiker and local author Jenny Bennett had been exploring off-trail in the Smokies for decades. Then, in early June, she was reported missing after embarking on one of her favorite off-trail hikes. Her body was eventually found near the Porters Creek Trailhead. What went wrong?


1. Records (and Rules) Broken on the A.T.: Scott Jurek’s Speed Record (and Jennifer Pharr Davis’s response)

Legendary ultrarunner Scott Jurek set a new Appalachian Trail speed record of 46 days, 8 hours, 7 minutes, overcoming a severe quad injury early in the trek and severe flu in the final few weeks. He topped Katahdin only a three hours ahead of the previous record held by Asheville’s Jennifer Pharr Davis, who wrote a powerful and candid response to Jurek’s record in the August issue of Blue Ridge Outdoors. Jurek was fined by Baxter State Park for his post-run celebration atop Katahdin, which also generated controversy among the outdoor community. Less than a month later, Heather “Anish” Anderson set the unsupported A.T. record, completing the trail in 54 days without any crew or assistance along the way.

Jurek Sets Out to Break AT Speed Record


Jurek Sets New AT Speed Record


Scott Jurek Fined for Khatadin Celebration


Former AT Record Holder Jennifer Pharr Davis Responds to Jurek’s Achievement 


Heather Anish Sets New Unsupported AT Record


Places to Go, Things to See: