Interview: Joe Miller on Adventure Sports in the Carolinas

Joe Miller
Joe Miller (photo by UNC Press)

Joe Miller, author of Adventure Carolinas: Your Go-To Guide for Multi-Sport Outdoor Recreation, shares the joys of exploring adventure sports for both novices and experts alike.

Q: This book covers sixteen different adventure sports. What do they have in common?

A: They test the participant. For the beginner in particular, they test both curiosity and willingness to push oneself. And continuously they test one’s comfort zone. You’re a mountain biker, you’ve been riding the beginner trails, you come to the fork where you’re confronted with a choice: more beginner . . . or an intermediate. A whitewater kayaker comfortable on Class II water is invited on a trip with a couple of Class III runs. A 5.7 climber confronts a 5.8 wall. The challenges are continuous—and invigorating.

Q: Who is this book for? Did you have a particular kind of reader in mind?

A: I’m targeting the person who has dreamed of diving a sunken U-boat, or mountain biking a twisty trail in the Pisgah National Forest, or paddling his or her way down a mountain creek, but thought, “Nah. I could never do that.” My goal is to tell you that you can. All the reader needs is a spark of adventurous spirit. The book will, hopefully, ignite that spirit and push the reader into action.

Q: You call the Carolinas a multi-sport mecca. What, if anything, makes the Carolinas better than other states for these sports?

A: The geographic diversity and the weather. We have the Atlantic Ocean—and some of the best wreck diving in the world. We have the sounds—and some of the best windsurfing and kiteboarding in the world. The Southern Appalachians are ideal for mountain biking and whitewater paddling. And with very few exceptions you can do it all year round.

Q: In your experience, is age truly a factor when it comes to learning a new sport?

A: No. If you think it is, then just go to the trailhead for a popular mountain bike network, or sign up for a rugged group hike, or take a whitewater paddling class at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and see who shows up.

Adventure Carolinas: : Your Go-To Guide for Multi-Sport Outdoor RecreationQ: How much of this book is focused on North Carolina activities and how much is focused on South Carolina activities?

A: About three-quarters of the activities are in North Carolina and one-quarter in South Carolina. It varies by activity, of course. There’s equal representation on flat-water paddling, but very little coverage of rock climbing in South Carolina because there’s only one legal venue. The coverage is dictated by opportunity.

Q: Have you ever found yourself in a tight spot when pursuing one of these sports and what did you do?

A: Years ago, Aram Attarian, an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at N.C. State, took me climbing at Stone Mountain State Park in North Carolina. It was my first time on a wall, and about midway up the 600-foot face, I completely ran out of holds—or more accurately, confidence in the holds immediately above. It was the first time (and, I believe, the last) that sitting in a cubicle looked pretty good. How did I get through? Aram was patient and coached me through. Plus, he said Stone Mountain didn’t have a helicopter that could pluck me off the wall.

Q: Out of all the sports mentioned in this book, which currently has the fastest growing number of participants and why?

A: I would say Backcountry Exploration, essentially backpacking and day hikes into more challenging terrain. The reason is that hiking has really taken off in the state, and as these hikers become more comfortable in the woods they become more interested in exploring deeper into the forest.

Q: What is your favorite place to go rock climbing in the Carolinas?

A: At my level, which is ground level, Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina. I’ve yet to advance to lead climbing, and the top rope options here are numerous and, again from my level, challenging. Plus, there’s always a good vibe at Pilot. The other climbers are supportive, and the hikers who wander by are curious and, regardless of how green a climber you are, they think you’re pretty cool for being a climber.

Q: Most people think of mountain biking as a young sport. Is that true?

A: Nope. I’m in my fifties and mountain bike. Go to any race—from the weekly series in Charlotte to the epic mountain races of 50, 60 100 miles in the mountains—and you will find the majority are riders in the 35 to 55 age range. It’s a great workout, gets you out in the woods, and there’s no denying that full suspension bikes have extended the riding lives of us aging riders.

Q: What is the best place to go flat-water paddling?

A: The coastal plain region of North Carolina and lowlands of South Carolina have some of the best flat-water paddling around, from lazy blackwater creeks to endless swamps to the open waters of the sounds, paddlers have an almost endless variety of paddle options.

Q: What are some key safety measures you would advise for some of these activities?

A: These are all safe activities, provided you pay attention and respect them. Rock climbing, for instance, is seen by many as pretty dicey. Yet it is so focused on safety, through training, equipment checks, and simple focus, that it is perhaps the safest activity in the book. Likewise whitewater paddling. If you go through the proper training, bring the five essentials (they’re in the book), tune into the conditions and don’t paddle at dangerous water levels, and focus, you should be fine. One of the goals of this book is to put your mind at ease by showing that so much is in your control.

Q: Have you ever attempted to go whitewater paddling on the Gorilla in Asheville, North Carolina, which you describe in your guide book as “bodacious”? What makes this particular place so special?

A: Pardon? I thought you’d asked if I had ever attempted The Gorilla (capital “T,” respect the beast). I once hiked into the Narrows and watched some highly talented—and safety conscious—paddlers execute the run. Talk about focus. They all exited above the run and scouted it very carefully. A few didn’t like what they saw and portaged around it. No one gave them grief, either. These were paddlers at the top of their game. It was great to watch!

Q: What do you think attracts so many people to ziplining?

A: The opportunity to do something out of their comfort zone that, deep down, they know is safe. That initial moment when you drop off and are momentarily in free-fall before the line catches? That’ll make you feel alive. And afterward, knowing that you pushed yourself and did it—that can have a big impact on your life down the line.

Q: Can you talk about the cost involved in these sports? Which are more affordable and which require a larger investment?

A: For most of these activities, once you decide to dive in there’s typically a sizable equipment investment up front, then it’s mostly transportation, sometimes food and lodging. For mountain biking, you need a bike, obviously. Bike-specific clothes and shoes, a hydration system. You can easily spend $1,500 to get in (or as little as $700 or as much as your checkbook allows). But after that, it’s mostly a matter of getting to the trails. Ride with three buddies, split the gas and you’ve got a pretty cheap day of fun. It helps, too, if you can do basic maintenance and repairs. Scuba diving, on the other hand, requires a sizable initial investment, and regular costs for travel, lodging, food, air, boat to the dive site. But you know what? If you’re into it, it is well worth the investment.

Q: Do you have any final words of advice for those ready to try one of the sixteen sports in your guidebook?

A: Follow the suggestions in the book for how to sample a sport and simply give it a try.

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Joe Miller is an outdoors and fitness writer based in Cary, N.C. He is author of Adventure Carolinas: Your Go-To Guide for Multi-Sport Outdoor Recreation and Backpacking North Carolina: The Definitive Guide to 43 Can’t-Miss Trips from Mountains to Sea. Follow him on Twitter @JoeAGoGo.