Get the Fever, Meet the Challenge: CMLC Issues another Version of White Squirrel Hiking Challenge

There seems to be something special in the air lately that is inspiring people to get outdoors and go for a walk. It could be the onset of autumn and return of beautiful fall color to our mountains. Perhaps it's cooler temperatures that make the trails more inviting. And just maybe it's a new wave of White Squirrel Fever sweeping the region.

Wait. Do what now?

White squirrel fever (noun): The addiction related to a quest to complete eight hikes on the most spectacular lands protected by local conservation efforts, seeking the coveted reward of the famous White Squirrel hiking patch, the inspiration felt from visiting scenic lands forever preserved and publicly-accessible, and the satisfaction of supporting further land conservation in our region.

This inviting fever is brought on by Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy's popular White Squirrel Hiking Challenge, and the reason for a new pandemic is CMLC's recent announcement of a brand-new line-up of eight hikes in its newest release of the program — “Version 3.”

CMLC's Hiking Challenge not only awards an embroidered white squirrel patch that hikers can affix to their hats, packs or shirts, but completers of the hikes also earn gift certificates from the program's sponsor, Mast General Store. The certificate can be redeemed for hiking gear in the outfitter of Mast's downtown Hendersonville location.

The white squirrel patch design was chosen to highlight the local wildlife curiosity of Transylvania County — and recent migrant to Henderson County and beyond. One of the goals of CMLC's conservation efforts is the preservation of wildlife habitat and corridors — which even includes the regionally beloved rodent. The two counties make up the majority of CMLC's land protection service area.

First launched in 2011, CMLC's Hiking Challenge is now in its third release. In just three years, the program has raised nearly $20,000 for the land trust's conservation efforts in WNC, directly supporting projects that safeguard water quality, create new trails and parks, and protect scenic views — among many other public benefits.

Bob Carlson and his wife, Kim, of Hendersonville, caught the fever more than once. Completers of both previous Challenges, the program enabled them to learn about land conservation while they explored new outdoor destinations in the region.

“The White Squirrel Hiking Challenge showcases the beautiful variety of terrain that CMLC is protecting,” Carlson said. “It's absolutely amazing how many special places they have protected. It's a joy to visit them for ourselves, and to support their continued work to conserve even more.”

The Carlsons enjoyed the challenge not only for its scenic views, but also the ease with which they found out how to reach the eight trails.

“All of the information is online. The website provides clear directions to the trailheads and for the hikes themselves,” said Kim Carlson. “It is terrific for both newcomers and experienced hikers. It's also great for those who want to avoid big group hiking but still not get lost.”

For the Carlsons, the perks at the end of the journey don't hurt either.

“Since there is a goal to attain, CMLC's Hiking Challenge is a big motivator to get hikers out into nature,” Bob Carlson said. It results in a feeling of accomplishment upon completion. And we just love that white squirrel patch.”

The couple isn't alone. The previous edition of the Hiking Challenge — Version 2.0 — has seen nearly 120 completers to date — almost twice as many as the inaugural edition. Since the program's inception, regional hikers have logged more than 3,500 individual hikes on lands protected by CMLC.

CMLC's Hiking Challenge has proven popular with both adults and children. Earlier this year, Bryson Baucom, age 4, completed the eight hikes to become the youngest challenger to earn the patch. “I like the white squirrel,” Bryson said. “My mom sewed it to my backpack, and hikers on the trails ask me where I got it.”

Bryson's parents, John and Erin, made the short trip to the mountains about a half dozen times from Boiling Springs, S.C., to complete the challenge as a family. They are one of more than 30 couples and families to finish the challenge together.

“It was a great way to spend time together as a family in the outdoors while also getting to instill a conservation value in our son at an early age,” said John Baucom. “So many of these places wouldn't be available for us to hike if it weren't for CMLC's work. And many of them certainly wouldn't be as scenic if they weren't set aside to keep them that way.

“Visiting these spots and knowing they will be around for Bryson to take his children and grandchildren to them … that's probably the biggest reward,” he added.

According to Kieran Roe, CMLC's executive director, the Hiking Challenge is especially a way for visitors to these lands to understand the importance of land conservation. “We are convinced that if we can get more members of our community out onto the lands we protect to experience them firsthand, they'll 'get it,' ” he said.

“The Hiking Challenge provides a tangible incentive to see these special places in person — and we hope those visits are just the first sparks in what will be a burning passion for visiting and supporting the conservation of natural lands in our region — one that lasts a lifetime.”

Participation in CMLC's Hiking Challenge is free for members. Visit carolinamountain.org/hc3 to enroll in the program and find out more information about the program.

Feel yourself catching White Squirrel Fever and wondering how to cure it? Take the Challenge and go for a hike.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

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