Hotels and downtown condos are springing up by the second. A new dining spot opens at one end of the street, and then another at the opposite corner. Durham is going through a dramatic period of growth, and it’s a spectacular thing to watch.
What’s also amazing is that a Durham resident can experience the adrenaline rush of a high (or low) ropes course at two city parks. Their children can climb across boulders in a designated green space settled among those large developments. And the whole family can embark on a canoe trip on one of our multiple waterways. We spent a remarkably cold and wet winter hibernating in our urban dwellings – it’s time to get back outside.
Learn the Ropes
“The truth is that the biggest surprise for Durham folks is that the course exists,” Kim Oberle explains. In spite of serving thousands of people, many are unaware of the 13-element low ropes course located adjacent to the Spruce Pine Lodge and Lake Michie and the 22-element high ropes course in Bethesda Park near RTP. “We meet and talk to people constantly who … are thrilled that it’s here in Durham.”
And those folks have Kim, the manager of outdoor recreation and city lakes for Durham Parks and Recreation, in part, to thank. She worked at ropes courses while in graduate school at Appalachian State University and early in her career. With its large number of youth-serving agencies and small, creative startup businesses, Durham looked to be an ideal community for similar courses. “At that time, urban outdoor recreation hadn’t yet gained traction,” Kim says, “so these two courses seemed like a great way to bring professionally facilitated outdoor experiential education to the Durham community.” The low ropes course came first, in 2006. A high ropes course was the next logical step, though the department had to wait for funding before implementing the plan, which was completed four years ago.
That course – the Discovery Course – is particularly unique in its design. “A traditional ropes course design is either a pole course, where one member of a group climbs a tall pole to conquer an element such as the trapeze or catwalk while the rest of the group watches, or a linear course,” Kim says. “A linear course entails climbing an entry element like a rope ladder, and then doing a series of five to six elements that connect in a linear fashion.” The Discovery Course has many advantages, including three levels to ease participants into the height of the course; options for different routes and exits, whether it be by giant swing, dual zip line or walking back down the course; and it can accommodate 20-25 people at a time, depending on age and ability, so all group members can be on the course at once. “An important consideration is that our programs are generally facilitated by full-time staff who have degrees in organization psychology and outdoor leadership,” Kim adds. “This level of training means we’re able to consult with clients and build thoughtful, individualized programs for each group based on their desired outcomes, even if that’s just to play together for four hours.”
People come to use the course for multiple reasons – workplace outings, birthday parties, family adventure days, to name a few. While the Discovery Course is reserved primarily for group experiences, DPR outdoor recreation wanted to offer times for individuals and families to enjoy the course as well. So they created Discovery Days, which take place nine Saturdays each year and are scheduled in three 75-minute sessions. All it takes is pre-registration at dprplaymore.org and an $8 fee for Durham residents ($13 for non-residents).
“Durham has a fantastically diverse community that chooses creative methods to connect to one another,” Kim says. “The Discovery Course provides such an outlet.”
Canoes and kayaks slip quietly into the water at Falls Lake in northern Durham County just before sunset. The vision of the people in the boats adjusts to the dark, but the sounds of the evening are more pronounced than what can be seen. “It’s not uncommon to hear all kinds of frogs starting up their evening song or owls hooting and performing courtship calls,” Natasha Teasley says. “We’ve even had deer snort and stomp at our passing, and beavers will occasionally make an appearance.”
The Falls Lake gathering is one of two evening paddles offered by Frog Hollow Outdoors, which provides a resource for canoe and kayak education, the exploration of nature, adventure, self-discovery and a greater overall connection with the outdoors to Triangle and North Carolina residents and visitors. The other program – Paddle Under the Stars – is one of the organization’s most popular and invites an astronomer from Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill to join the group on the water and educate participants on the constellations and planets above them. “The nighttime experience is different on the water because it is almost more intimate,” says Natasha, the operations manager at Frog Hollow. “You are on the water with a group, but everything is quieter and more peaceful.”
Frog Hollow Founder and Durham native Banks Dixon started the business with just a few boats, which he made available for folks to use during the evenings and on weekends. From that small operation, begun in 1998, the business has expanded to 18 staff members, offering guided trips along North Carolina’s rivers and lakes, classes and summer camps. “The more people connect with our waterways, the more they will care about protecting those spaces,” Natasha says. “Clean water is something we are very fortunate to enjoy here in Durham. We should all want to keep it that way.”
In addition to the night paddles, Frog Hollow provides guided day trips at the headwater of Falls Lake as well as an Eno River tour, divided into sections, in partnership with the Eno River Association. If you’d rather just hop on the water for an hour or two during the weekend, the organization manages an outpost at West Point on the Eno Park May through October. Frog Hollow has also added a Women’s Adventure series this year, led by female staff members with a “girl power vibe.”
“Paddling is a lifelong sport,” Natasha says. “You can enjoy it at any age. We live in a busy, heavily populated area … it is important to be able to find quiet places to be able to reflect a little. Getting on the water – even with a group – offers that.”
While these high ropes courses and canoe trips exist on the periphery of Durham, there’s also a dedicated green space to be found in the heart of downtown. “Durham Central Park is a five-acre oasis,” says Tess Mangum Ocaña, assistant to the executive director of DCP. “There is nowhere else downtown you can relax on that much grass and have a picnic, do some yoga or enjoy an outdoor concert.”
Tess speaks from experience – she often brings her boys, Yago, 7, and Nico, 4, to the park, which they lovingly refer to as “Mama’s Park.” And now, the park has another attraction for Tess’ kids and their peers: Mount Merrill, an interactive play area near the eastern end that opened last December. It’s attractive to Tess as well, but for different reasons: “They need to expend their energy, if you know what I mean, so that there’s a chance of some quiet time at home.”
The play mound – which is ADA accessible – has plenty of options to keep the kiddos entertained, from two slides to a climbing net and the boulder climb itself. Amphitheater seating gives parents a better view of the action to monitor their kids’ play. “I’ve heard several families say they love being able to bring their kids to Mount Merrill on food truck rodeo or farmers’ market days,” Tess says. “[It’s great for] kids that have aged out of climbing on the concrete turtle and cardinal but aren’t quite ready for the skate park at the top of the hill yet.”
Mount Merrill is named for Merrill Davis, a supporter of DCP and general manager at the neighborhood’s garden store, Stone Brothers & Byrd, who died in a car accident in 2012. He helped in seeding the lawn in the park, and his 2009 wedding was one of the first at the Pavilion. Mirroring Merrill’s dedication to the park, the community pooled together more than 550 donations – including $29,473 from a Kickstarter campaign – to raise the $200,000 needed for Mount Merrill’s construction and maintenance. Eventually more funds will need to be raised for additions to “Wanderland,” the long-term play area project that includes the playground. But plans are for grown-ups – right now, there’s a pint-sized mountain to explore.
Ed. Note: This article first appeared in our April 2015 issue.