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Leading the Charge

Photo of Lauren Hughes by Tyler Allen

Meet 16 Young Athletes and Outdoor Entrepreneurs who are changing the face of Adventure 

In a time where our environment faces threats from every angle, it is encouraging to learn that not all hope is lost. We searched high and low for young environmentalists, athletes, musicians, and outdoors fanatics who will carry the next wave of Blue Ridge enthusiasts. These young individuals are just a few of countless others who are staying true to the spirit of the region, while simultaneously adapting to the modern world. 

Alice Clair, 22

Musician/Activist, @aliceclairmusic

Combining a passion for music and the environment, Alice Clair is an unstoppable force in the central Virginia community. 

While juggling a double major in music and biology at UVA, she garnered recognition in the central Virginian music scene, released her first album, managed the student radio station, and remained active in the fight against the proposed Atlantic Coast pipeline in her home of Nelson County. 

Clair’s passion for music began at age eight when she started taking guitar lessons and grew exponentially as the years passed. By the time that she was 14, she performed her first paid gig and was a regular at open mic events. At 17, Clair joined The BLNDRs, a band she regularly performs with, and never looked back.

Nowadays, Clair is a regular in the Charlottesville music scene, playing consistent gigs with the BLNDRs or on her own at local bars, restaurants, vineyards, and breweries, as well as bigger venues in the area. 

“There are a good number of flavors of art and music here, and I have an appetite,” she said.

Clair released her first solo album, Loop, this February, featuring her own powerful vocals and guitar skills backed by an array of local musicians. 

However, music isn’t the only driving force in Clair’s life. She is also deeply connected to her roots in Nelson and is a passionate protester of the proposed Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. Clair attends meeting and protests pertaining to the pipeline and uses her music as a platform to share information about it. 

“Activism is plain citizenship,” Clair said. “My home, my friends and family, my land, my water, my community, and my neighbors have been threatened. I was not given the opportunity to choose.” 

Clair’s deep connection to Nelson County is an intrinsic part of her persona that shines through in her music, even in songs that aren’t directly related to environmental issues. 

In “Patience,” a folky single from the album Loop, Clair sings,
“These hands of mine have lost their softened spots
Gouging out the rotten weakened parts
And all of the patience
In the world, I find,
Is our love’s only cost
I pray that this patience won’t lead me ‘til I’m lost.”

Later on, Clair reflected on how patience helped her wait to “see our triumph at the end of this dark, dark tunnel.”

Alice Clair | Photo by Clara Castle Photography

Lauren Hughes, 24 

Nantahala Outdoor Center

Born in the suburbs of Virginia Beach, Lauren Hughes was raised with a respect for nature that continued to grow as she got older. 

“My dad did a lot of surfing and fishing, and by tagging along with him, I discovered an appreciation for nature,” Hughes said.

Her appreciation for nature hit its peak when 17-year-old Hughes watched 180 Degrees South for the first time. The documentary film follows Jeff Johnson’s travels from California to Chile while he retraces the travels of Yvon Chouinard. Chouinard, an American rock climber and environmentalist embarked on this journey in 1968 with his close friend Doug Tompkins. Seeking new climbing adventures, this journey inspired Chouinard to create the brand Patagonia. 

After watching the film, Hughes began to look at adventure in a new way. 

 “It really opened my eyes to what outdoor recreation looked like and how critical the conservation of nature is,” Hughes said. 

Chouinard’s philosophies regarding the connection between outdoor recreation, sustainability, morals, and business acted as an inspiration for Hughes to begin a more personal relationship with nature.  

Hughes lives this philosophy of simplifying your life in order to live a more examined life in the natural world. Living minimally, Hughes spends more time focusing on the natural world rather than the material products of society. 

“I’ve strived to simplify my life by focusing my energy on the things that are most important to me,” Hughes said. “Really examining my life and asking myself, ‘Does this make me happy?’ And getting rid of things that don’t.”

Now living in Asheville, North Carolina, both Hughes’ professional and personal life revolves around nature. Working as the Nantahala Outdoor Center Logo Merchandise Buyer, Hughes can explore her passion for adventure through sharing it with her customers. 

When she’s not working, Hughes spends most of her time in Asheville hiking through the Black Balsam forest. With her passion for the outdoors, she carries a newfound respect and responsibility towards the land. 

Joey Noonan

Josephine (Joey) Noonan, 22 

Founder of Joceanic, @joceanic_

Joey Noonan came up with the idea for her t-shirt company, Joceanic, as a way to combine her two passions: art and environmental conservation. She likes to joke that “the whole business started by accident” after she posted a few pictures of shirts she made herself on Instagram and friends “reached out saying they loved my designs.” 

“I didn’t want to promote the consumerism that our culture is so obsessed with, so instead I chose to use shirts from thrift stores to encourage people to reduce their consumption,” Noonan said. 

The thrifted t-shirts are printed with silk screened designs, including seals, sharks, jellyfish, and sea dragons. A portion of the proceeds go to a designated environmental nonprofit, changing every six months.

“I wanted Joceanic to be about more than me selling repurposed shirts,” Noonan said. “My goal is to educate because knowledge is a huge part of making a change.”

Joceanic has donated to the Surfrider Foundation, a network focused on hosting local, volunteer-based beach cleanups, and Project Aware, an organization advocating for policy that will preserve the oceans from pollution and overfishing, specifically the protection of shark and ray populations. 

Noonan said she “hopes that her shirts and business model encourage people to look deeper into what’s going on in our world.” 

The company hosted its first clean-up in April of 2019 and hopes to organize and host many more in the coming months and years. 

In addition to creating and selling tee-shirts through Joceanic, Noonan is extremely passionate about conservation and sustainability in all aspects of her business and daily life. She posts blogs with advice for those looking to live a more sustainable lifestyle, including a tutorial on making beeswax wraps to replace plastic cling wrap or aluminum foil.

Noonan’s “recipe” for beeswax wraps is simple: 100% cotton fabric, parchment paper, and beeswax pastilles combined with the aid of an iron. 

Cash reaches Katahdin. photo by John McCurry

Caet Cash, 29 

Backpacker/Van Dweller, @woodswomyn

For long-distance backpacker Caet Cash, what began as an inexpensive resume “gap-filler,” quickly developed into a lifestyle. 

“After college, I didn’t find a job right away, and I was mortified about having a gap on my resume,” Cash said. 

After exploring her options, she decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. In July of 2014, she set out on the trail heading south for her first real backpacking trip, starting off with Mount Katahdin. 

“Everyone was very taken aback,” Cash said. “I hadn’t been camping since age seven, and I hated it.” 

Now, she’s hooked. Cash is currently challenging herself to “grid” the Southeast’s 40 peaks above 6,000 feet by hiking each peak once a month for the year, a total of 480 summits. 

Cash describes her “gridding” challenge as an adaptation of the South Beyond 6,000 peak-bagging challenge. She hits the trails two or three times a week, sometimes hiking as many as 50 miles in one day, and plans on finishing her challenge over the course of about two years. 

Most impressively, she’s doing it all from the less-than-26-square-foot van that she calls home. 

“I think [living out of a van] is probably easier after coming back from a thru-hike,” Cash said. “Because you go from living out of a backpack to living out of a van, which feels very luxurious.” 

Her key tip for staying sane while living out of her tiny van is to get out often—either onto the trails, into local coffee shops, or just into parks around Asheville. 

Cash’s favorite place to hike? North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains. Piece of gear she can’t live without? Her hiking dresses from Lightheart Gear, which she says have amazing ventilation. 

“We need more outdoor gear made by women, period,” Cash said. 

Matt Reilly with a Musky photo by Connor Tapscott

Matt Reilly, 23 

Fishing Guide/Environmental Writer, @mattreillyflyfishing

Operating in the Southwest region of Virginia, Matt Reilly is an accomplished fly fishing guide who dabbles in journalism for magazines like Eastern Fly Fishing Magazine and The Rural Virginian. 

Reilly became an avid fisher at a young age, fishing the Rivanna in his hometown, as well as in the Shenandoah National Park on trips with his father. 

“I just love to fish, and I love to be outside,” Reilly said. “I’m not sure how the passion evolved, but it did pretty quickly.” 

Reilly began his guiding business, Matt Reilly Fly Fishing, during his senior year of college at Randolph College and “worked out the kinks” during his first few months. After graduation, Reilly began guiding full-time, offering guided smallmouth bass, trout, and musky trips in Virginia’s southwestern region, often on the New River. 

“It is a world-class smallmouth bass fishery and a world-class musky fishery,” Reilly said of the New River. 

From late March to early October, Reilly leads smallmouth trips on the New, and during the other half of the year, he takes clients fishing for musky. 

Reilly says he was lucky to form connections and friendships in the guiding community during his teenage years, finding a mentor in experienced Charlottesville fishing guide Chuck Craft, before breaking into the guiding business. Now, Reilly is a mentor in his own right to his clients and friends. 

Bella Jariel | Photo by Jennie Jariel

Bella Jariel, 17

Climber, @bjariel

It wasn’t easy to balance a rigorous training schedule with high school, but top climber Bella Jariel somehow managed. The 17-year-old came out of Riverrock in Richmond, Va., with first-place wins in both the Boulder Bash and speed divisions this year.

“Depending on the season, I usually train 3-5 days a week,” Jariel said. “While ideally, my schedule would be more regular, juggling climbing with school can sometimes be difficult, and I have to occasionally prioritize my studies.”

Jariel’s passion for climbing started when she was seven as a fun weekend activity that she did with her parents. Eventually, she joined her gym’s climbing team and started attending practices and competitions.

“The climbing community is super collaborative,” Jariel said. “Even though competitions can be intense, competitors are quick to help each other and constantly cheering for one another and are always sharing information about how to ascend climbs.” 

Jariel’s favorite spots to climb are Hueco Tanks in Texas and Red Rocks in Nevada. 

“The rock quality and features are incredible, and the locations are also picturesque,” Jariel said. “I also enjoy fun day trips to local areas like Great Falls and Carderock on the Potomac River when I can. While indoor competitions can be fun, I love the outdoor aspect of climbing.” 

The Blue Ridgers

Photographers, @theblueridgers

In 2017, a group of young photographers came together to create The Blue Ridgers. Together, this collective of photographers seeks to showcase the beauty of the Southeastern United States by connecting with young artists from the Smoky Mountains to the foothills of Appalachia. 

This group is comprised of 9 young photographers, including Dalton Perry, 29, and Hung Ta, 22. Although Perry and Ta, have only known each other since 2017, they share a bond through their mutual passion for capturing the beauty of the outdoors. 

Perry’s career in photography stems from his appreciation for travel and adventure. In 2016, Perry decided to buy his first camera before taking a trip out West to visit a few national parks.

“I wanted to get involved with photography for the sole reason that my wife and I love to travel,” Perry said. 

Knowing only the basic information about photography and cameras, Perry taught himself how to use manual mode. As he got more into photography, he started connecting with other photographers through Instagram, including Ta. 

Ta moved from Vietnam to Boone, North Carolina, ten years ago, later attending Appalachian State University. He fell into the photography business because he wanted to show his family the beauty of Boone.

“The majority of my family still lives in Vietnam and may never have the opportunity to travel here,” Ta said. 

Perry, Ta, and other area photographers began going on hiking and photography trips together. In 2017, they formed The Blue Ridgers on Instagram. 

They host meet-ups to form relationships between like-minded photographers. In the long run, The Blue Ridgers hope to collaborate with local businesses, tourism boards, and outdoor apparel companies to promote the region and the outdoors. 

Both of these photographers’ careers have been deeply impacted by their relationship with the outdoors. For Perry, his career has allowed him to experience the beauty of hiking, traveling, and experiencing other cultures while deepening his desire to do his part in caring for the earth. 

Ta is grateful for the friendships that he has gained through his career.

“They continue to inspire me every day to spend more time outside and to respect our environment, wherever we may be,” Ta said. 

Luke Paulson photo by Justin Keefe

Luke Paulson, 27

Ultra Runner/Sustainable Chef

Luke Paulson never expected ultra running to become an essential component of his lifestyle. 

While he competed in shorter races, it wasn’t until he spontaneously signed up for the Lookout Mountain 50 Mile race in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2017 that he attempted an ultra race.

Ten races later, the sport has become one of his top priorities. Of those races, Paulson has placed either first or second in every single one, including a first-place finish at the 2019 Mt. Mitchell Challenge with a time of four hours and 29 minutes.

Paulson first began his running career in middle school after joining his cross-country team in 6th grade. 

“I have always loved the outdoors and running on trails,” Paulson said. 

Depending on what phase of training he’s in, Paulson tends to run anywhere between 80 to 115 miles a week. Typically, he saves his long run for Sundays, which can range anywhere between 16 to 36 miles. 

While racing, Paulson is able to use his competitive personality as a tool for self-motivation. But that competitiveness can only take him so far in a race. 

“At that point, all my thoughts pretty much go straight towards literally just finishing the race,” Paulson said. “I like to remind myself that the pain is only temporary. I sometimes also think back to all the training that I have put in in preparation for the race, which serves as a reminder of what I know is possible.” 

When Paulson is not on the trail, he is working as a sustainable chef at Rhubarb, a restaurant in the heart of downtown Asheville. The restaurant serves local dishes, supporting the farmers of Western North Carolina. He seeks to minimize his impact on the environment through buying meat and produce that is grown in the least destructive way as possible. 

 “One of the best things you can do is to eat lower on the food chain,” Paulson said. 

He began his career in the food industry during college, working at commercial kitchens near Colorado College. Since then, he has spent time at various establishments.

Paulson’s interest in sustainable food grows from his love for the natural world.

“Growing food, living a healthy lifestyle, and cooking all come together to help form my interest in sustainable food,” Paulson said. 

Want to cook the best things possible? 

“Use locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible and make sure they are in season,” Paulson said. 

The Asheville community has provided Paulson with the perfect environment to grow his passion for both running and sustainability. Looking forward, Paulson is training for the Shut-In Ridge Trail Run in Asheville and the JFK 50 Mile in Maryland, both taking place this fall.  

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