Hundreds start new year with hike in Durham's Eno River State Park

jstancill@newsobserver.comJanuary 1, 2014 

— Christening a new year with a walk in the woods is an increasingly popular act for people who want to turn over a healthy new leaf.

For hundreds in Durham on Wednesday, the New Year’s Day hike at the Eno River State Park was the renewal of a beloved community tradition.

“We do it every year,” said Eileen Regan of Chapel Hill, at a picnic shelter where hikers toasted marshmallows, drank hot chocolate and ate popcorn. “It’s just such a nice way to start the new year....I think it’s really charming that this many people want to go for a hike.”

Regan and friend Mesa Somer of Durham guessed that they had done the Eno walk for 15 years, starting when their children were young. Now they consider it a must to welcome a new year.

“The Eno is a special place for Durham. I use it a lot,” Somer said. “I like to get together with other people who are helping this wilderness survive.”

They were among the roughly 600 people at the Eno on Wednesday. Park rangers directed bumper-to-bumper traffic leading into the park. Crowds of people waited to cross the swinging bridge single file on the short hike of about two miles. Others were more ambitious, opting for the long hike twice as far.

Along the way, hikers stopped to watch the water run over rocks, rushing from recent rains. They pulled out their mobile phones to photograph a great blue heron perched in the river.

Hiking the Eno on Jan. 1 is a ritual that goes back decades, long before other state parks launched what are now commonly called “First Day” hikes. No one is quite sure of the year when it started, but the best guess is the late 1960s or early 1970s, when a loosely organized group of nature lovers set out to change the course of a river then threatened by development.

The grassroots group, then known as the Association for the Preservation of the Eno River Valley, had a strategy with a simple idea at the core: take people hiking and they will fall in love with the Eno. Small hikes turned into big hikes, often with top city and county officials along. Canoe trips were incorporated, including a special invitee, the late former governor Jim Holshouser.

The tactic worked. The Eno River State Park was born in 1973 shortly after a 90-acre land donation. The conservation quest still goes on for the Eno River Association, which boasts more than 1,200 households as members. Land purchases and donations over the years have increased the park’s size to 4,209 acres in Durham and Orange counties, and the association aims to add another 1,800 acres.

The New Year’s Day hike is one of the many ways to attract people to the area to experience the river and surrounding land in its natural state, said Robin Jacobs, the association’s executive director.

“Over and over we’ve seen how, once they connect with the river, they want to help protect it,” Jacobs said.

The association leads Sunday afternoon walks in the park during winter and spring. There are science and nature camps, canoe excursions and, of course, the Festival for the Eno around the Fourth of July.

Other state parks now offer First Day hikes. Temperatures in the 50s made for perfect walking weather on Wednesday at the Eno, which volunteer Bev Bell calls “the granddaddy of hikes.”

Last year, a steady rain kept attendance low, around 200, Jacobs said. Not this year.

Barrett Holland, on his first New Year’s hike at the Eno, said he was overwhelmed, “in a really cool way,” by the crowds.

“It’s a really special way to get a community feel, with everyone here at the same time,” Holland said.

Joanna de Andrade, 8, came to the Eno with her mother, Nan, and their Boston terrier, Meatball.

“It’s fun, and you get to see all the nature and all,” Joanna said.

Her mother noted another bonus after weeks of holiday feasting: “Walk off some of those calories.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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