You don’t need a ton of money or expertise to explore the outdoors—especially in Chattanooga 

Growing up, Bailey O’Sullivan’s family moved about every two years for her mom’s job. They ended up in Chattanooga, Tennessee for a few years when she was in middle school. 

“My dad’s goal every time we moved was to get us into activities that were unique to that place,” O’Sullivan said. “When we moved to Chattanooga, he saw an ad in the newspaper for a pool roll session for kayaks. We didn’t really know what he was talking about, but we’ve always loved water.”

The O’Sullivan sisters started attending weekly sessions with the Whitewater Kids Club, starting at the pool until moving up to the whitewater rivers easily accessible from Chattanooga. 

“Kayaking can be cost prohibitive when you first get started because it’s a financial commitment to buy all the equipment,” O’Sullivan said. “It was great to do it through this program because they provided all of the equipment. So, we didn’t have to buy a bunch of stuff for a sport we weren’t sure we would like.”

That program was an early model of what would eventually become Outdoor Chattanooga, a division of the city’s Department of Economic and Community Development. The city officially established the program in 2004 as part of an initiative from then Mayor Bob Corker to highlight the city’s natural resources.  

Sunshine Loveless, Outdoor Chattanooga’s customer relations specialist, said the program is designed to get residents and tourists outside, taking advantage of the many outdoor recreation opportunities in the area. 

Unlike most cities, Chattanooga does not have a parks and recreation department. Instead of offering softball, soccer, and basketball leagues, Outdoor Chattanooga provides introduction to activities like mountain biking, whitewater kayaking, and hiking. 

“Everything is that outdoor play, connection with nature,” Loveless said. “There’s not really any other city organization that offers the kind of programming that we do. We’ve had several cities call us and ask how they can adopt our model and incorporate it into their own setting because they recognize the economic impact that it has.”

Most of the programs, including archery, adaptive cycling, bike commuting 101, and the hiking series, are free. The organization provides all of the equipment, instruction, and transportation. The more intensive programs, such as whitewater kayaking, come at a much lower cost compared to private resources available.

“I think by offering those low-cost, no-cost programs, we are able to reach that demographic that wouldn’t normally have access to getting outside and playing,” Loveless said. “We are not limited to just those who can afford it.”

For many participants, like O’Sullivan, they come away with a passion or appreciation for the outdoors. 

Although her family eventually moved away from Chattanooga, O’Sullivan kept kayaking. In college, she worked at the Nantahala Outdoors Center during the summers before coming on as a full-time kayak and wilderness medicine instructor. 

“Kayaking has changed my life 100 percent,” she said.  

When she moved back to Chattanooga for nursing school, O’Sullivan worked as a summer kayak instructor for Outdoor Chattanooga. Although the program has evolved from her time to include more activities and opened up to all ages, the mission is still the same. 

“It would be cool if every city had that as a resource,” Loveless said. “I’m curious about mountain biking but I don’t want to go drop $800 on a bicycle just to not like it. So, we offer a two-hour course for 10 bucks where we give you a mountain bike and teach you the basic skills. Usually by the end of that two-hour session, you have decided whether you are going to like this or you’re glad you didn’t spend more than $10 to learn that.”

These programs are open to everyone, from novice adventure seekers to more experienced users looking for a structured outing.

“Some of my favorites are the first timers,” Loveless said. “We took a 70-year-old woman on a kayaking trip down the river at sunset. It was super slow going because she had never been in a kayak before, but she was so grateful for the experience.”

Outdoor Chattanooga’s influence extends beyond the residents of the city. 

Alden Lee went whitewater rafting for his fifteenth birthday and fell in love with the experience. He took a whitewater kayaking lesson for a more personal experience the following year but knew it would be difficult to continue when lessons cost $150 for a half-day session.

“It just was not sustainable,” Lee said. “We looked all around Atlanta for different ways I could still pursue this. I was at a point in my life where I was really getting into it.”

While doing research online, the Lees came across Outdoor Chattanooga’s program. A year-long membership there cost less than $100 for access to instruction and equipment. Although it was a two-hour drive, the Lees made it work on the weekends for a much more affordable price.

“You were surrounded by this overwhelming feeling of being in a place where people are dedicated and truly want to share that passion with you,” Lee said. “It’s a crazy thing to be strapped into a boat and then going underneath the water. You feel completely comfortable with them because you know that they got your back. They make that clear.”  

By the end of that first year, instructors were inviting Lee on personal trips so he could get more experience on rivers the program didn’t cover. The past two summers, he worked for Outdoor Chattanooga as a kayak instructor and staff member. 

“I could easily put myself in the shoes of whoever was that participant,” Lee said. “To have that lens that you can put on as an instructor is really awesome, knowing the fear that happens going down your first rapid and the different things that made me stick with it. It felt like passing the torch in a way.”

Lee, who is heading into his junior year at Warren Wilson College, is organizing a whitewater kayaking club to teach others about the sport and eventually compete against other colleges. 

“I’m trying to give back that feeling and style of instruction Outdoor Chattanooga gave me,” he said.