Peaceful, majestic, and sometimes dangerous, the Chattanooga landscape is an inspiration to the adventurous side of area residents. Rocky terrains, raging rivers, and dark, unexplored caves offer endless opportunities to rise to the challenge.
Whether they’re testing physical strength, exploring mental fortitude, or even battling a chronic disease, local outdoor enthusiasts are living their lives to the fullest in the rolling landscape of the Tennessee Valley. Their collective passion has taken many of them around the world to do what they love, but they’re always happy to come home to the place that inspires them the most.
By Katy Mena
Edward Yates (above)
Rock Climber + Slack liner
Rock climber and slack liner Edward Yates finds reward in the work it takes to accomplish his goals. Born and raised in Chattanooga, he’s spent his entire life in the great outdoors. But it wasn’t until Yates discovered ropes that he discovered his affinity for climbing rocks and crossing canyons, adventurous activities that he pursued during a recent six-month trip to Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain.
“Climbing and slack lining let you see every place in the world in a unique way,” says Yates, who has also explored in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. “You can go out and experience nature with the only tool you need—your body.”
A true “free spirit,” Yates is always testing his limits and pushing his body to do things that seem impossible to most of us. Whether he’s climbing rocks or walking over ravines, balancing on nothing more than a strong piece of string, he maintains a firm belief that human beings can accomplish anything if they put in mental and physical practice.
“The beauty is in learning how to fight and believe in yourself,” says Yates. “Any person can do so much more than they might ever imagine.”
Yates’ belief in living life like a young Indiana Jones has worked out quite nicely. He tells stories about riding a motorcycle around Istanbul for three months before trekking across southern Europe with only his backpack and guitar. He describes playing music at a Greek taverna every night and exploring seemingly treacherous adventures during the day. He would climb routes 1,000 feet above the ground, making new friends and overcoming shared challenges.
“It creates camaraderie when you struggle together,” says Yates. “It’s always a struggle when you do something that’s new and difficult. But if you stay relaxed and take your time, you can accomplish your goals.”
A native of beautiful western North Carolina, Todd Wells has always gravitated towards outdoor adventures. Specifically, he loves cave rescue and rock climbing, and he has extensive experience in his favorite activities thanks to his many journeys through places like Russia, Nepal, and Canada.
“I’ve always liked to travel,” says Wells. “One of the greatest things about adventure sports is how well they travel.”
And while Wells sings the praises of traveling during his expeditions, he is clearly drawn to helping others as he pursues his passion for adventure. He spent three years with the Peace Corps in Africa after graduating from college. Wells is also an avid member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue Service’s Cave/Cliff unit, and he was part of a group that rescued a man from Ellison’s Cave in May 2013.
According to Wells, the caver had tumbled more than 30 feet from a loose section of rock. It took nearly 100 people and several hours to rescue the man from the cave—an experience Wells describes as priceless. “I spent 30 years gaining all of these skills, and when I rescue, I am able to use those skills to benefit other people,” says Wells. “It feels good to repurpose the things I have learned.”
To stay in top rescuer shape, Wells goes to the gym regularly and has been known to complete a 50K ultramarathon, namely the Mountain Masochist Trail Run through the Blue Ridge Mountains. While he’s not running currently, he is a firm believer in staying active every day, whether it’s through hiking, climbing, or even yoga.
“If you want to stay physically active, you have to be physically active regularly,” he says.
Mountain climber Scott Graham has a strong aversion to quitting, and he has the passport to prove it. Growing up in Germany, Graham viewed the Alps as his personal playground. Since then, he has traveled all over the world, climbing every mountaintop from the Himalayas to Mount Kilimanjaro to—yep, you guessed it—Mount Everest, making him the first Tennessean to ever reach the top.
Though to hear Graham tell it, none of these accomplishments are a very big deal. For him, mountain climbing is simply a way of life, and often it’s more grueling than fun. “People think there’s some sort of epiphany when you get to the top, and it’s just not true,” says Graham. “Mountain climbing can be pretty miserable while you’re doing it. It’s only in the reflection afterwards when you think about the magnitude of what you tried to do.”
Graham’s personal journey isn’t the only thing on his agenda; mountain climbing is often a family affair for the husband and father of three. The whole family has traveled the world to explore together and learn about life on other parts of the planet. “I don’t think you could do this stuff without learning something,” Graham says.
One of the greatest learning experiences in Graham’s recent memory was when he and his son, Jones, helped rescue a fellow mountain climber at Mount Rainier, an act entirely in character with Graham’s heroic spirit.
Graham has been on the board of the Lula Lake Land Trust since 2004, when the organization helped him raise money for his trek up Mount Everest. He has worked to raise money for the Land Trust and has been passionate about protecting and preserving the Rock Creek Watershed ever since. His commitment to the environment demonstrates his true love for the outdoors and the life experience it has given him.
“If I were going to give advice to anyone interested in mountain climbing, it would be to enjoy the journey,” says Graham. “Don’t be completely focused on the top. You will miss a lot of cool things on the way up.”
Jeff Bartlett moved to Chattanooga years ago to be in the heart of what he calls the “TAG” region: the Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia area that is rife with caves begging to be explored. Bartlett first discovered caving while on a trip to Connecticut. Though he describes the first cave he explored as “a miserable little hole in the ground,” he was “hooked” after his maiden expedition.
“There also aren’t many places left in the world where true exploration is possible,” Bartlett says. “But every caver has their own stories of being the first person ever to lay eyes on a new passage or the first person to leave footprints in virgin cave mud. Since I’m not likely to visit the moon or the bottom of the ocean anytime soon, I’ll take it.”
Bartlett is also attracted to the opportunity to drop out of the real world and enter into another dimension beneath the earth’s surface. Challenges are different underground, he explains, more basic in some ways and exceedingly challenging in others. Currently, Bartlett is an avid member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue Service’s Cave/Cliff unit. As a rescuer, he is challenged to navigate treacherous terrains to save the lives of fellow cavers who have been unprepared or unlucky.
“It’s pretty special to live somewhere that unpaid rescue team volunteers and members of the local caving community come together and do the impossible when someone’s life depends on it,” he says.
Bartlett has traveled across the United States to explore caves and enjoy the outdoors through a myriad of other outdoor activities, including mountain biking, trail running, and rock climbing. An experienced cartographer, he is currently working on some mapping projects in the area, but he says one day he would love to visit deep alpine caves in France, such as Gouffre Berger, Jean-Bernard, and Pierre Saint-Martin.
Ben Friberg says his love affair with water sports began more than 20 years ago. A Chattanooga native, his first adventures took him by kayak down the Hiawassee and Tennessee Rivers. Today, he has spent decades practicing his craft as a kayaker and picked up a passion for stand-up paddle boarding along the way.
His most recent venture? An incredible 111-mile paddleboard journey from Port Hemingway, Cuba, to Key West, Fla.—completed in just 28 hours. “I enjoy the dynamics of problem solving, and Cuba seemed like a really fun challenge,” says Friberg, who explains he was also intrigued by building a bridge to the people of Cuba. “If you are organized and prepared, you can stop and enjoy the moment every now and then.”
Friberg says taking time to enjoy the present is one of his greatest treasures. His appreciation for observation, patience, and hard work has taken him across the rivers and streams of the world, whether by kayak or on his stand-up paddleboard. “I’m always looking for different ways to experience water,” says Friberg. “It’s such a beautiful medium.”
Friberg said his Chattanooga upbringing has a lot to do with his affection for water sports. He has a great appreciation for the waterscape of the Tennessee Valley and north Georgia as well as a great respect for the adventurers who navigate the waters of the Southeast.
“The culture and community I’ve been surrounded by are so inspiring. I have observed many true watermen throughout my life,” says Friberg, who was helped by a handful of Chattanooga friends on his journey to Florida from Cuba. “They’ve taught me the art of water manipulation in a city where you can spend your entire life sharpening your skill set.”
Friberg says that, even with some great feats under his belt, his number one goal moving forward is to continue practicing his activities and teaching others to do the same. “So many of us eat, sleep and breathe these sports,” he says. “The key to success is enjoying every moment, not just your destination. It’s all about the journey.”
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1980, mountain biker Grace Ragland has combated her MS with physical activity for many years. The result? She is an established endurance cyclist who is still active more than 30 years after being diagnosed with a debilitating disease. “I strongly believe that exercise, diet, and finding a therapy that works for you is the ticket to beating this disease,” says Ragland.
Her battle against relapsing-remitting MS forced Ragland to face some tough challenges at a very young age and live with them for decades to come: she has temporarily lost vision, endured numbness and tingling, and even faced cognitive problems throughout her life. But through her strength of spirit, she has continued to stay mentally and physically fit.
“When I was younger, I sometimes struggled in school because of the MS. I thought I was stupid,” says Ragland. “But as I’ve gotten more comfortable with who I am and what this disease means, I’ve learned to never quit smiling or admit defeat.”
Ragland’s resolve led her to stay active in the face of disease. She was always an athlete—specifically, a runner—until control over her legs led her to take up biking instead. And because MS can be exacerbated by extreme heat, she began mountain biking in 1992 so she could always stay in the shade. To date, Ragland has traveled all over the country riding and competing in endurance mountain bike rides. She has participated in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, a 100-mile marathon mountain bike race, on four occasions. She completed the race on her fourth try, earning the 100-mile “buckle” trophy.
“That is one of my greatest accomplishments so far,” she says. “I wanted to check that box, and I wasn’t going to quit until I did.”
Brother-sister duo Hunt and Alexis Grace Jennings have been kayaking together since childhood. Alexis Grace learned to paddle first, and Hunt soon followed in his big sister’s footsteps. “When I started kayaking, Hunt wanted to learn, too. He always wanted to be just like his big sister,” says Alexis Grace. “Now we encourage one another to keep progressing in the sport and never give up.”
Roughly a decade later, the pair still hits the water together on a regular basis, motivating one another and inspiring those around them. They have traveled all over the country—and the world, for that matter—visiting exotic locales in Canada, Chile and even Uganda. Together, they have taught each other the art of finding peace through hard work. And they’ve had a great time doing it.
“When you get to a certain point, you get in the moment where the only thing you can see is what’s ahead of you,” says Hunt. “You find this flow that feels really natural, and you learn that there’s more to life than the routine.”
The journey off the beaten path has led Hunt to explore waterfalls that have never been navigated, roll kayaks in uncharted waters, and even master the sport of stand-up paddle boarding. He became so adept, in fact, that during the summer of 2013, Hunt accompanied fellow adventurer Ben Friberg on a 28-hour voyage from Cuba to the tip of Florida.
How did he do it? Jennings’ answer is simple: “Never give up,” he says. “The learning curve will always be steep when you’re doing anything new, but the only way you can really fail is by giving up.”
Alexis Grace has spent much of her time teaching young Chattanoogans that very lesson. Last summer she volunteered for Outdoor Chattanooga’s Rapid Learning Whitewater Camp, an experience she says was as transformative for her as it was for the kids: “Watching them progress from timid, shy kids to adventurous young paddlers was one of the most rewarding kayak-related experiences I’ve had so far.”
The adventures are far from over for Alexis Grace and Hunt, who both plan to keep paddling as long as possible. Alexis Grace aims to compete in freestyle kayaking competitions, such as the Ocoee River Race, while Hunt anticipates finding new waterfalls throughout the Southeast.