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Posted on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 at 2:45 pm

Rec. department offers first ever outdoors backpacking, kayaking, and biking program to foster middle school youth health


Park 2_aStaff Writer
John Coffelt

 This summer Coffee County middle school-aged youth have the opportunity to take part in a joint Manchester recreation department and Urban Century Institute pilot program that aims to reduce obesity through outdoor activities.

The free program, The John Muir Adventure Club, is modeled on some of the activities of twentieth-century author, explorer and naturalist John Muir.

“This is an honor for us,” said Bonnie Gamble, Director of Parks and Recreation, “that they have picked Coffee County as their first trial site.”

Registration is ongoing for children in grades six through nine. It will run through the summer and into the next school year.

Program coordinator Ryan Jennings said that the way the program works is participants mostly plan their own adventures and then log in and earn points towards prizes.

“It’s a free outdoors program with activities like kayaking, hiking backpacking and camping,” Jennings said.

“What we want to do is get the participants to go out on their own and do outdoor activities.”

For example, a family might go kayaking on the Duck River from Normandy Dam to the Dement Bridge. When the participant returns, he or she would log in and record their activity to earn a certain number of points.

“You earn prizes by accumulating those points,” he said.

Jennings said that free trips are being planned for those who reach number of points.

“Randy Hedgepath, [the State Naturalist for Tennessee State Parks], will be leading a nature walk.”

Also in the works is possibly a caving trip to Lost Creek Cave.

“We’re talking to Tullahoma Bicycle Club. I believe they have a program where they take middle school-aged children out for a bike ride.”

Jennings said that he is trying to secure a group discount or even a free trip from a local canoe rental.

“Middle Tennessee is absolutely a great place with all the scenery and outdoor opportunity we have, it’s a great place to do this. We have a lot of caves in the area and a lot of trails.”

Other possibilities are adventures exploring the Murfreesboro greenway and blueway (a section of Stones River readily navigable by canoe), Old Stone Fort State Archeological Park, and the various natural areas within a short drive.

Self-guided activities are detailed in a handbook to help the participants enjoy nature like Muir.

Funding for the program comes from a state Diabetes Initiative Grant awarded to the Urban Century Institute, a Chattanooga-based group that seeks to “develop, implement, and disseminate integrated solutions to the challenges associated with rapid urbanization.”

The name of the club comes from John Muir who is often called the father of the national park. Muir’s activism helped to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Parks by petitioning U.S. Congress for the National Park bill that was passed in 1890.

Muir’s love of nature showed a spiritual quality and enthusiasm toward nature.


Muir’s post-war look at

mountainous Tennessee

In September of 1867, Muir began a walk that would take him through Tennessee during a 1,000-mile walk, from Indiana to Florida.

According to his account in “A thousand mile walk to the Gulf ” he wrote,  “My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest.

“Folding my map, I shouldered my little bag and plant press and strode away among the old Kentucky oaks, rejoicing in splendid visions of pines and palms and tropic flowers in glorious array, not, however, without a few cold shadows of loneliness, although the great oaks seemed to spread their arms in welcome.”

It was a dangerous trip that would take him into the war-ravaged South and the backcountry of Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee.

Muir’s account tells of a farmer that, after a lengthy discussion of the merit of naturalism, warns Muir of a lingering guerrillas still operating in the area.

“He then told me that although the war was over, walking across the Cumberland Mountains still was far from safe on account of small bands of guerrillas who were in hiding along the roads, and earnestly entreated me to turn back and not to think of walking so far as the Gulf of Mexico until the country became quiet and orderly once more.”

Muir later walked upon a just such a band of highwaymen on horseback.

“They had stopped their horses and were evidently watching me. I saw at once that it was useless to attempt to avoid them…. I knew that there was nothing for it but to face them fearlessly, without showing the slightest suspicion of foul play.

“Therefore, without halting even for a moment, I advanced rapidly with long strides as though I intended to walk through the midst of them.”

Muir turned a bit farther down the road to see the bandits arguing about whether he was worth robbing.

Muir, unkempt and half starved, only gathered strange looks from the group.

Muir only carried  a comb, brush, towel, soap, a change of underclothing and three small books: a copy of Burns’s poems, John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and a small New Testament.

Muir often wrote that nature was his cathedral. Even so, his account of Tennessee briars gets a less than sublime depiction.

“Lost and hungry, I knew my direction but could not keep it on account of the briers. My path was indeed strewn with flowers, but as thorny…as mortal ever trod.

“In trying to force a way through these cat-plants one is not simply clawed and pricked through all one’s clothing, but caught and held fast. The toothed arching branches come down over and above you like cruel living arms, and the more you struggle the more desperately you are entangled, and your wounds deepened and multiplied.”

He quips, “The South has plant fly-catchers. It also has plant man-catchers.”

Muir would continue his trek to Florida, catch malaria, recover and eventually become the leading voice of nature writings. He formed the Sierra Club and is the namesake of trails across the country.

For more information about the John Muir Adventure Club, contact Ryan Jennings at  (931) 588-1231,, go to,  or contacting the Manchester parks and recreation department at728-0273.