Hikers defy damp for New Year's outing

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJanuary 1, 2013 

— Scoffing at the cold drizzle, Laura Parrish unleashed her 4-year-old boy on the wet wilderness of Umstead State Park, watching him fly down leafy trails, hop over boulders and shake a spider out of a beech tree.

With 2013 only a few hours old, she had pulled young Nathan away from the television and joined a dozen hardy walkers for the park’s First Day Hike, starting the year with red-cheeked vigor.

“My stepdad was saying they’d probably cancel,” said Parrish, who lives in Cary. “I thought they’d be wimps to cancel. Nathan! Be nice to the trees and the rocks.”

Tuesday marked the second First Day Hike for Umstead, part of a national drive to pull people onto trails each Jan. 1. Rangers led more than 600 walks in all 50 states.

Last year, New Year’s Day saw 1,392 hikers trudging over 4,573 miles in North Carolina. This year, every state park had a outdoor jaunt scheduled ranging from easy to strenuous, said Umstead Superintendent Scott Letchworth. The early-bird hike started at 8:30 a.m. in Hammocks Beach State Park. Falls Lake Trail hosted a scavenger hunt.

“What better way to start the new year than by being outside?” asked Leslie Myers of Raleigh, starting down Umstead’s Potts Branch Trail.

Hikers spotted squirrel’s nests, noted Christmas ferns, stumbled on chunks of quartz and – thanks to one kindergartner – learned that a footbridge had 17 boards in it.

In Thailand, Letchworth explained, people greet the new year by splashing cold river water on their faces, symbolically rinsing off a dirty old year. Several Umstead hikers followed their example in a tributary of Sycamore Creek.

When he started the trip, Nathan Parrish announced, “This is a lame playground.” But after a tenth of a mile, he’d made his own walking stick and crossed a creek by boulder-hopping.

“He got a spider on his arm,” said his mother. “He shook the tree and got a spider on his arm.”

Even without the new tradition, Umstead park has seen its attendance grow steadily. More than 800,000 visitors came through in the last year, up from roughly 500,000 ten years ago. With gates off Glenwood and Harrison avenues, it offers easy access from subdivision to 5,500 acres of forest.

Originally farm land that produced poor harvests, Umstead was bought by the federal government and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. On Tuesday, hikers passed a dam still standing more than 70 years after the CCC stacked the stones.

“We’re still using some of the camps they built,” Letchworth said, pointing to a nearby drinking fountain made of similar stones, built with the same care.

Along the way, the ranger asked the youngest hikers to make a mental note of their favorite sights. The trickles in the creek. The hollowed-out tree trunks. The red berries of a holly tree.

When he finished his hike, Nathan Parrish announced his choice: the tree branch he carried that doubled as a hiking aid and hockey stick.

But after he thought for a few minutes, he ran into the woods and told Letchworth he had a second favorite.

He handed the ranger a rock he’d found, then dashed away down the trail.

Shaffer: (919) 829-4818

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