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On the Move with the Forest Striders

In June of 2017, The Forest at Duke’s Department of Resident Life released a fitness survey to residents, providing community members an opportunity to provide feedback about health and wellness activities they hoped to see on (and off) campus. Prior to this survey, a few people had approached Sheri Sampson, Fitness Program Manager, to ask whether The Forest had any formal walking groups.

“They were probably thinking more about on-campus walks,” Sheri admits. “And I said, ‘No, but that’s a great idea!’ So we put two questions on the survey.”

The questionnaire asked, among other things, whether residents would be interested in an on-campus walking group as well as an off-campus hiking/walking group. Sheri was excited to find that there was an overwhelming response to those two questions in particular.

“Up to that point, we had hosted group walks to Duke Gardens or a greenway, but it wasn’t anything regular, and it wasn’t a named group,” she explains.

What’s in a name?

Shortly after the survey results so clearly illustrated what many residents were after, Sheri put steps into motion to make off-campus hikes a twice-a-month activity. On the first official hike – a visit to the Riverwalk in Hillsborough in September 2017 – the group discussed possible names for themselves. Sheri admits that she’s not sure who gets the credit, but residents suggested and agreed on “Striders” for the off-campus hikers and “Walkie-Talkies” for the Saturday morning on-campus walkers.

“[These names] seemed like the perfect fit, so we adopted them right away,” Sheri recalls.

One of the Striders makes her way uphill at Pilot Mountain during the group’s day trip in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Sheri Sampson)

When the Striders’ hikes became a regular appearance on The Forest’s monthly activities calendar, five or six residents dutifully registered for each Wednesday walk. This was largely dependent on the weather and the time of year. Hikes planned close to a holiday season or that fell on a particularly cold or hot day were not usually as well attended.

It didn’t take long for Sheri and the Striders to find a rhythm to their routine. Soon they were planning two hikes a month, year-round – a schedule that ultimately stuck and still holds true today. The group takes no breaks in the summer or during the colder months.

“We’ve really only had to cancel two hikes in all of that time,” Sheri says. “One time it was pouring down rain, and another time, it was 30° and only one person wanted to go, but she didn’t want to be the only one.”

Common ground

The Striders come from a variety of backgrounds, but virtually all of the hikers have enjoyed a life of active adventures. One Strider’s father took her and her siblings camping and hiking on the weekends when they were growing up. Another member used to lead Girl Scout hikes over the course of 5-6 days and taught the girls to make their own sleeping bags. Yet another was in the Woodsman Club in college and helped keep a section of Maine’s Appalachian Trail clear and well-marked.

One couple has experienced “heli hiking,” which involves being dropped off by a helicopter in remote places that are not otherwise easily accessible to hikers. A Strider originally from New York is used to another kind of hiking altogether: nearly every day of her youth, she walked upwards of 20 blocks in the city and knew the incline and downward slopes of the pavement quite well.

Watching the Striders discover the common ground they share is one of Sheri’s favorite things about venturing out and about with the group: “They might not be neighbors, they may never have been in the same program or class together inside the community, but they find that, ‘Oh! You like to be outside? You like to hike, too?’ It’s just a good feeling to know that you’re bringing people together to do something good and fun.”

Striders’ adventures near and far

In just the few years since their inception, the Striders have visited a great many places. Their feet have taken them on journeys as close as the path alongside the Caring House in front of The Forest, yet carried them on rugged trails as far as Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain.

Such experiences are nothing new to the Striders, who have all enjoyed spending time in nature throughout their lives.

Striders Kay and Ralph Nelson enjoy time together at Pilot Mountain. (Photo courtesy of Sheri Sampson)

“We have always hiked as a family from when our kids were little and have done a lot of hiking in national parks around the country,” explains dedicated Strider Kay Nelson. “At this time in our life, we both enjoy cruises and find ourselves hiking or at least walking about in most ports. We tend to choose excursions which involve hiking or walking tours.”

Last summer, Kay and her husband, fellow Strider Ralph Nelson, hiked several times in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and enjoyed an all-day walking tour of Anchorage on their own. “When we moved to The Forest, we were delighted to find the Forest Striders so we could keep hiking here and get to visit some very beautiful areas locally,” Kay remembers.

Ralph agrees. “We enjoy Forest Striders outings and walk about 45,000 steps a week to keep our FitBits happy,” he says. “We are creatures of the forest as well as residents of The Forest.”

Making friends

Striders join the group not only to continue their adventures but to meet others who share their same passion for nature and exercise. “When I retired, I found a group that got together weekly to hike locally, and I knew I would miss it, both for the exercise and the chance to socialize with others,” member Ken Parker shares. “[Hiking is] a great way to get to know more people.”

Most Striders walk in pairs and very few go off on their own. “With a big group, there are just all different speeds,” Sheri continues. “It’s a mix. But we do always pick a meetup time. Then there may be a group of five, a group of three, a group of two… They kind of pair up based on what they’re interested in.”

Residents who have met and befriended others through the group sometimes even plan additional hikes in the community.

Asked about his fondest memories with the Striders, Ken remembered a visit to the North Carolina Art Museum campus in Raleigh. “I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it very much, because I remembered it as being mostly paved walkways,” he admits. “But then I had in mind a particular part I wanted to see. My map reading was faulty, however, and we got off onto an unpaved part. [Suddenly] I was having a nice conversation with someone I had just met, and the whole experience was different from what I had expected – the best kind of adventure!”

It’s all in the details

Of course, besides good company and beautiful scenery, there are health benefits in being involved with the Striders.

A recent study at the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, published in June 2019, found that those who spend two hours a week in green spaces (like local parks or hiking trails, for example) are significantly more likely to report good health and psychological wellbeing than those who don’t.

Like antidepressants, exercise affects brain chemicals by increasing levels of serotonin, nerve cell growth factor, and endorphins in the brain. Interestingly, green exercise (that which is performed in nature) is shown to improve self-esteem, heart rate, blood pressure, and other major functions of the body.

Staying safe and keeping the pace

With Sheri as their guide, the Striders have kept safe on the trails and go at their own comfortable paces. They are encouraged to wear sneakers or hiking boots, while trekking poles or walking sticks offer a little extra stability as they make their way over uneven terrain.

Strider Ken Parker makes his way down the trail atop Pilot Mountain. (Photo courtesy of Sheri Sampson)

When it comes to ground rules, Sheri only has one: if a Strider wishes to hike alone, they must keep Sheri’s cell phone number on them so that they can call her in the event of an emergency. Otherwise, the group is very flexible. “We try to keep things very much a ‘see what you want to see, do what you want to do,’” Sheri explains. “There’s no pressure to stay with the group or go at a certain pace.”

For most outings, the Striders tend to stay within a 40-minute drive of The Forest, unless they go on a day trip, in which case they travel a bit farther within the state of North Carolina for their hikes. For any given excursion, anywhere from 6 to 15 hikers attend outings. Sheri says the faces of those hikers may change, depending on the event. The Striders tackle one paved path each month, as well as one rugged dirt trail. Some participants come with their walkers and find it easier to stay on paved, even pathways.

What’s next for the Striders

Sheri and the avid Forest hikers have many adventures planned for the year to come. On Wednesday, February 19th, they’ll return to the Hillsborough Riverwalk, a popular destination with lots of fun shops and other sights to see along the way. Weaver Street Market, located along the path, gives the Striders an opportunity to pop in for a treat or a coffee to take back on the bus for the return trip to The Forest.

In 2018, when the Striders visited the Riverwalk on Groundhog Day, the hikers joked that it would be funny to see a groundhog. Lo and behold, before the end of their walk, they saw a woodchuck peeking at them in the grass!

Indeed, it seems to be these little things, these magical discoveries, that make the Striders’ time on the trails so unforgettable to each of the group members. Ralph Nelson, a long-time environmentalist, says that his best memories with the Striders consist of seeing small children and college groups enjoying the great outdoors, as well as “climbing trails along cliff faces that scare me to death and reveling in the discovery of the animals and plants of the forest.”

Ralph continues, perhaps speaking to the delight the rest of the Striders take when they engross themselves in the heart of nature: “I do enjoy seeing the beauty and eat-or-be-eaten reality of what we still have in nature. The lemurs, rescued tigers, ducklings in the pond, spring songs of the birds, and the flowers now beginning to emerge provide hope that nature’s resilience will continue to bring joy to the world.”

Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

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