Blue Ridge Outdoors spoke with 30 people from across the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, 30 years and younger, who are driving the next generation of outdoor leaders. They are athletes, entrepreneurs, activists, and weekend warriors.
Alleigh Raymond, 15
Fly fisher, N.C.
In the five years since a family friend took her fly fishing for the first time, Alleigh Raymond has been working to increase young women’s participation in the sport through her work on the Trout Unlimited’s Youth Leadership Council and volunteering in the community.
“Since I’ve been fly fishing, I have encountered a lot of negativity from the younger demographic of teenage boys and even grown men,” she said. “I really just want the upcoming generation of women in fly fishing to not have to have to experience that.”
Raymond is partnering with the Asheville Orvis store on their 50/50 On the Water Campaign to get more girls and women fishing. She plans to host a day on the water for young girls and teens in November.
Ashley Manning, 26
Raft guide, S.C.
In the growing community of people working to increase diversity in the outdoors, Ashley Manning is adding her name to the list. She started working as a whitewater raft guide in college after falling in love with paddling and kept returning each summer.
“I am trying to create a safer space for people who might not be as likely to paddle,” she said. “I’ve been a plus-sized woman all my life… so definitely showing people what I’m made of.”
Although Manning’s campaign is just getting off the ground, she hopes it will inspire other people to get on the water. She also writes about her experiences for The Trek.
Favorite whitewater spot: “Colorado River, but the Chattooga has my heart.”
Ben King, 29
Cycling started out as a family thing for Ben King; his dad, uncle, and brother all raced. Now, the five-time national champion splits his time between Virginia and Italy as he competes internationally as a member of the South African team, Dimension Data.
“I still do the bulk of my training in Virginia,” King said. “In my opinion, it’s the best place in the world to train around the Blue Ridge.”
At the end of August, King added his first Grand Tour win to his resume when he won stage 4 of the Vuelta a España. He followed that up with a win in stage 9 a few days later, placing 35th overall. Favorite race: Tour of California.
Ben Smith, 29
Founder of GooseFeet, Ga.
When Ben Smith was a junior in college, he and a few friends decided to take a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in the middle of January. They were greeted with temperatures of five degrees.
After that miserable trip, Smith started looking around for ultra light insulation gear so he wouldn’t be in the same situation again. Unable to find anything in his price range, he decided to make his own. Eventually, Smith had enough requests from other people to set up a website and GooseFeet was born.
Smith has carved out a niche market with his customizable jackets, working with each customer on their measurements and specifications. All GooseFeet products, including socks, pants, and pillows, are made in the United States.
Brittany Leavitt, 29
Outdoor instructor, Md.
Whether she’s teaching preschoolers at the Smithsonian Museum or instructing rock climbers on proper technique, Brittany Leavitt is a mentor and advocate for the next generation of outdoor trailblazers.
She leads climbing, backpacking, and hiking classes around the Mid-Atlantic as an REI instructor. Leavitt works with Brown Girls Climb to increase representation in the climbing community. In October, the organization partnered with Brothers of Climbing to put on the second annual Color the Crag Climbing Festival in Steele, Ala.
As the West Coast regional leader for Outdoor Afro, she coordinates events to reconnect the black community to the outdoors. In June, Leavitt and ten other Outdoor Afro leaders, ages 25 to 60, became the first all black American group to summit Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Damon Hill, 25 (featured)
As slacklining grew in popularity, Damon Hill established himself as a master of balance and an advocate for the sport. Hill spent two and a half years traveling the country as a professional slackliner before transitioning into more of a mentor and teacher role.
“I slowly learned how to rig highlines, how to be a facilitator of the sport rather than just a participator,” Hill said. “The immediate response from most people is they think it’s so dangerous. Truth be told, it’s much safer than most extreme sports.”
In 2017, he co-founded the Southeast Slackline Coalition with a friend to increase access for riggings on public lands and to educate the public on the safety of the sport. When he’s not balancing on a line two inches wide, Hill is also an amateur filmmaker and co-founder of Kayeke, an outdoor apparel company.
Damon Yeh, 30
Damon Yeh lives out his interest in conservation through his job and his hobbies. During the day, Yeh works as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in their international division, coordinating exchanges of ideas and delegations with partnering countries in the Asia program.
But in his free time, you can find him outdoors climbing and backpacking around the country. His background in natural land management helps in his role on the board for Mid Atlantic Climbers, managing their stewardship program.
Yeh coordinates volunteers for trail cleanups and works with other agencies to open up public lands for climbers. In 2016, Mid Atlantic Climbers worked with Access Fund and the National Park Service to increase access to Catoctin Mountain.
Emma Wright, 23
Founder of Alta Trails, N.C.
Emma Wright says she was acutely aware of her gender during the four and a half months she took off from college to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.
“Overall, about a quarter of the thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail are women,” she said. “But the number of solo women is a fraction of that.”
Wright, a cultural anthropology major at Duke, wrote her senior thesis about how hikers form bonds and form boundaries on the trail. She interviewed thru-hikers while on the trail and conducted follow up interviews about the reentry process.
In conducting this research, Wright was bothered by the lack of racial and gender diversity on the trail.
With her own experience in mind, Wright started Alta Trails to offer affordable backpacking trips in North Carolina and Virginia for anyone who identifies as a woman. Through donations, she provides all of the gear and supplies needed for the weekend trips as she works to break down some of the barriers for those who have never been backpacking. As the program grows, Wright hopes to offer trips for a variety of age groups and skill levels.
Trail name: Wonka
Gerry James, 28
Founder of The Explore Kentucky Initiative, Ky.
The Explore Kentucky Initiative in 2013 started as an Instagram account to promote outdoor recreation and conservation in Kentucky. Gerry James, a senior in college at the time, was one of the only people in the state using social media to promote Kentucky beyond bourbon, bluegrass, and basketball.
In 2016, the initiative evolved from a social media campaign to an organization as James began taking on projects, such as helping counties brand their resources. James started the Kentucky Waterman Series in 2017, a collection of paddle races across Kentucky that allow competitors to earn points the more events they compete in.
The mayor of Glasgow approached James in February for help developing the Beaver Creek Blueway Trail, Explore Kentucky’s first outdoor infrastructure project. James took the lead on mapping and branding the trail, designing access points, and organizing river clean ups.
He received the American Canoe Association’s 2018 Volunteer of the Year Award for his leadership and dedication to paddlesports.
Ian Niblock, 27
Head cider maker at Bold Rock (Nellysford), Va.
Bold Rock Hard Cider had only been around for a year when Ian Niblock started out as an assistant cider maker right out of college.
Fast-forward five years, Niblock is now the Head Cider Maker in Nellysford, Va. and Bold Rock is the number two best-selling cider in the United States. Niblock said they bottle around 15,000 liters of cider a day, six days a week.
“One of the first times it really hit home for me was when I saw an empty bottle of Bold Rock, like litter, on the side of the road,” Niblock said. “Obviously I cleaned it up, but it stuck to me as, oh, people actually like this.”
Most underrated cider: pear cider
Joshua Julian, 29
Founder of Mammoth Clothing Co., Ala.
Mammoth Clothing Company is a physical manifestation of Joshua Julian’s motto: get outside and do good.
For the first part of the mission, Julian wanted a way to brand the outdoors in the Southeast beyond the “status quo.”
“It’s very heavily saturated with hunting, fishing, stuff like that,” he said. “But there’s some amazing things in the Southeast that are out there as far as hiking, kayaking, some amazing waterfalls. You don’t have to go to Colorado, you don’t have to go to California.”
Proceeds from the sale of t-shirts and hats go towards the second mission, doing good in the community. Julian and Mammoth Clothing partner with organizations like Tuscaloosa’s One Place to help adults and juveniles who have recently gotten out of prison, teaching life skills and offering emotional support.
Juzl Garcia, 26
Juzl Garcia is the epitome of the weekend warrior. It has only been within the last year that she started to explore all that the mountains of Western North Carolina have to offer. Now Garcia spends virtually every weekend hiking a new trail, documenting her experiences with photographs. Through her Instagram, she started meeting other people in the area who were doing similar things on the weekends and going on hikes with them.
As Garcia found internal peace on the mountains, she started looking for jobs that would allow her to be closer to those opportunities. As fate would have it, she just landed a job in Asheville.
“If I could do what I’m passionate about doing in terms of a career and also be at the same place where I feel extremely alive, then why can’t I have both?” she said.
Favorite hike: Hawksbill Mountain
Kai Lightner, 18
Rock climbing is heading to the 2020 Olympics for the first time and Kai Lightner is hoping to be among the first competitors to represent the United States. There will be three rock climbing events: bouldering, sport, and speed, to test the athlete’s agility, power, and endurance.
As the story goes, Lightner’s journey to one of the top climbers in the United States started at age six when his mother found him climbing up a flagpole. The next day, she dropped him off at a local gym after school and he was hooked.
In the twelve years he has been climbing, Lightner has earned 12 National Championship titles, ten in youth categories and 2 in the adult circuit, and is a 5-time youth world championship medalist, including one gold.
In August, he started at Babson College in Boston to be closer to his coach as he trains for the Olympic qualifiers.
“When I first began this sport, the Olympics were not an option,” Lightner said. “I joined this sport because I loved the movement and the Olympics kind of hopped up on my lap.”
Favorite place to climb: Red River Gorge
Kayla Carter, 29
Outdoor Development Manager, Tenn.
Kayla Carter gets things done, especially when they involve working outdoors. She grew up in East Tennessee, went to college in the area, and now works to bring more people to the place she loves.
In her role as Outdoor Development Manager for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, Carter helps promote outdoor recreation opportunities in the region. She was instrumental in organizing the first Meet the Mountains Festival in Johnson City and launching the Appalachian Trail Tennessee Podcast.
The Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals and the National Trail Systems recognized Carter for her work with scholarships to attend conferences.
Carter successfully completed the Appalachian Trail in 2014 and still maintains a three-mile section of the trail near the state border with the Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club in her spare time.
Kyle and Trevor Ritland, 25
Founders of Adventure Term, S.C.
Twin brothers Kyle and Trevor Ritland were always outside growing up, chasing snakes and butterflies with their biologist parents. Now, the brothers are taking their passion for the environment and storytelling to create Adventure Term.
This experience-based educational organization offers students and young professionals the opportunity to explore unique environmental issues while learning the communication skills needed to talk about them to a larger audience.
“Our students are the ones writing these articles, they’re holding the camera making a documentary,” Kyle Ritland said. “So the goal is not only to produce a documentary, telling this story, but sharing the knowledge that we’ve learned on the trip with other people.”
In the summer of 2019, the Ritlands will run their first student program as a non-profit, “On the Border.” Participants will examine the ecological consequences of the proposed southwestern border wall on the species that make their homes in those ecosystems.
Liz Canty, 27
Liz Canty has only been running ultramarathons for two years, but she has already positioned herself as one of the top trail runners in the country.
In March, Canty became one of the youngest women to complete a loop at Barkley Marathons. The race is limited to forty runners every year and only fifteen people have completed all five loops since the race was first run in 1986.
When Liz Canty isn’t running ultra marathons, she’s volunteering for any runner who needs assistance at local races, playing doctor, babysitter, chef, and running coach. Most recognize her on the trail, and Instagram, by her awesome leg tattoos.
Favorite race: Canty took first place in the 2017 Pinhoti 100, her first 100-mile race.
Luz Lituma, 29
Co-founder of LatinXhikers, Ga.
LatinXhikers started out as two friends getting outside together, going on hikes and sharing their adventures online. Luz Lituma and Adriana Garcia wanted to highlight diversity and inspire more people of color to get outdoors.
As the popularity of the account grew, LatinXhikers evolved from a social media account to a larger movement to make the outdoors more accessible.
“We thought it would be a community of close friends and stuff,” Lituma said. “Never in our heads did we think that we’d gain so many followers and have REI reach out to us.”
Lituma and Garcia received sponsorship from REI to host hikes that are free and easy to reach from whatever city they are in as they encourage more active participation outside.
Marcus Fitts, 29
Founder of District Triathlon, Md.
When Marcus Fitts was trying to get back in shape after knee surgery, he looked to his friends for support. Within six months, three friends turned into District Triathlon, a triathlon team of 113 athletes.
“The goal of the organization is to introduce people of color to multi sports,” Fitts said. “We really thought there needed to be a better balance between mental and physical health in the community.”
In addition to providing training and coaches, District Triathlon asks members to complete at least ten hours of community service. As Fitts is transitioning out of his full-time job into full-time coaching, he is looking to secure a title sponsor for the organization and is training for his first Ironman.
Mason, 16, and Palmer, 15, Kasprowicz
Founders of Flies by Two Brothers, Va.
Flies equal money for college times two (F = MC*2). That’s the equation Mason and Palmer Kasprowicz came up with to explain their business, Flies by Two Brothers. They started tying fishing flies and selling them in 2014, saving their profits for college tuition.
In the last four years, the brothers have sold almost 4,000 of their homemade flies through trade shows and their online store.
Mason Kasprowicz said the business is about more than the money. The boys also learned “How to write good emails, how to talk to people, make eye contact, website building, knowing how to make taxes, all important life skills that come with operating a business.”
In their spare time, the brothers are president and vice president of their high school’s fishing club and are youth representatives for the Northern Virginia Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Nadia Mercado, 26
Hiker and skydiver, N.C.
Nadia Mercado wanted to try skydiving at a young age.
“I saw the Power Rangers do it when I was five years old and I was like, “oh my god, I need to do that some day,” she said.
Mercado jumped out of a plane for her 23rd birthday and has completed 157 jumps since then. When she’s not working as a cardiac nurse, she coordinates community service events for Team Blackstar Skydivers and writes about racial justice and gender equality in the outdoors for Melanin Base Camp.
Mercado was accepted into the 2018 Emerging Leaders program for the SHIFT (Shaping How we Invest For Tomorrow) Festival in Jackson, Wyoming. This year’s festival will cover the healthcare benefits of spending time outside.
Natalie DeRatt, 30
Outdoor media, Ky.
Like many bobsledders, Natalie DeRatt started as a runner. She moved from England to the United States on a track scholarship from UNC Asheville before making the transition to a new sport. She represented Team USA and then Great Britain in several international competitions, working 40 hours a week for Eagles Nest Outfitters and training another 40 hours on top of that.
When a leg injury cut her competitive career short, DeRatt took her love for the outdoors with her as she started her own marketing and communications firm, Carmen and Grace. She specializes in helping smaller brands in the outdoor industry, like Crazy Creek, Bellyak, and Recover.
Nick Gilson, 29
Founder of Gilson Snow, Pa.
Nick Gilson was teaching middle school science in Tennessee when he launched Gilson Snow from his classroom. Two years later, he moved to Pennsylvania to build snowboards and skis full time. In the beginning, Gilson assembled every board himself from locally grown trees.
But since 2013, the company has doubled in size every year, expanding into markets across the United States, Europe, Australia, and Northeast Asia. The snowboards and skis are still made locally from local lumber, but there is no way for Gilson to touch every board that the company sells.
Gilson has received numerous awards in innovative product development and holds several snowboard and ski patents for his designs.
“We’ve really focused in on building boards that are simply more fun to ride,” Gilson said. “So they have more play, but then they have the ability to be incredible aggressive carvers.”
Nick Massey, 18
Trail maintenance, N.C.
Since 2016, Nick Massey has logged over 3,000 volunteer hours in the National Forest, repairing trails, cleaning up trash, removing non-native invasive plants, and whatever else is needed. He works with Wild South to coordinate community volunteers, leading trail maintenance crews in Linville Gorge, Lost Cove, and Harper Creek.
“I think that if you love a place, you need to get out there and help take care of it,” he said.
Because he spends so much time out on the trails, Massey also started volunteering with the Linville Wilderness Rescue Squad to assist in wilderness rescue operations. He just enrolled in a basic EMT course and likes to take photographs of wildlife in his spare time.
Paris Brown, 28
Paris Brown was always active growing up, mostly playing traditional sports like basketball and football. She took a parkour class at a local gym in college and from there, her friends introduced her to climbing. She started competing in Spartan races and mini bouldering competitions around the D.C. area.
On a whim, she decided to apply for a spot on season 9 of American Ninja Warrior and had a chance to compete on the show last year. Although she didn’t do as well as she thought she could, Brown plans to apply for a second chance.
“It’s kind of just putting myself out there a little bit, trying to show that there are other people who climb and they’re not necessarily what you always see,” Brown said.
Follow her on Instagram @paris_mvmt.
Randi Goodman, 26
Mountain biker, Va.
For Randi Goodman, the outside is the place to be and she wants to get more people involved. While at King University, she helped her team win two National Championships, one in mountain biking and the other in cyclocross. Around the same time, Goodman started working at Mountain Sports Ltd, an outdoor store specializing in equipment and information.
Now a full-time employee, Goodman wants to start beginner-friendly rides for people who might not have as much experience on bikes but want to get outdoors. She’s also helping write grants to fund the Mendota Trail, a rails to trail under construction in Washington County, Va.
“I just want to encourage more women to get out there and get muddy and sweaty and dirty. I mean, I’ll still paint my nails and grab on to my handlebars,” Goodman said.
Rashid Clifton, 24
Whitewater kayaker, N.C.
As a teenager, Rashid Clifton would spend hours driving from Charlotte, N.C. to the coast in order to spend whatever time he could surfing. Then a teacher told him about the U.S. National Whitewater Center, right in his backyard.
Clifton started working as a raft guide at the center when he turned 18. One day after work, a friend invited him to try out a kayak.
“She tried to teach me how to roll and it didn’t go great,” Clifton said. “But after that, I was pretty determined to get it. Once I got it down, you just couldn’t stop me from kayaking.”
Most weekends you can catch Clifton at the center or kayaking around the Southeast. He has completed the notorious Green River Race and plans to tackle the Lord of the Fork Race and the Ocoee River Race.
Rowan Stuart, 22
Freestyle kayaker, N.C.
Rowan Stuart has been a player on the freestyle kayaking scene since she was fifteen. Whitewater freestyle involves throwing as many tricks as possible in a specific amount of time.
Since 2012, she has made Team USA every year. In that time, Stuart has been to three world championships and two world cups, winning the Junior Women’s Freestyle World Championship in 2013. She also took second at the Green River Race in 2016.
Now, Stuart is taking a step back from competing to work as an instructor at H2O Dreams Paddling School in Saluda, N.C. She wants to get certified to judge freestyle competitions and is learning how to mountain bike.
Favorite trick: the McNasty
Sarah Brown, 26
Resort management, Pa.
Sarah Brown likes to start each morning outside, usually as first one on the ropes course or the ski lift depending on what season it is. During the summer months, Brown oversees the zipline course and mountain bike program as assistant manager of adventures at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, the same place she learned to snowboard at eight years old. In the winter, she runs the show down the road at Laurel Mountain as operations manager, handling anything that may come up over the course of the season.
“I knew I wanted to be outdoors somehow in my life,” Brown said. “And then once I fell into this role, I want to be in it for the rest of my life.”