Families spending time together can seem like a thing of the past. Everyone's busy these days, or maybe the cultural age gap just continues to widen between parents and their kids. Whatever the reason, these three Chattanooga families have found a way around the problem by jumping-rafting, biking and climbing-clean over it. And they do this by adding one simple ingredient to their time together: the great outdoors.
The Von Canon Family
Johnny Von Canon probably doesn't remember his first experience on a raft-he was a 3-month-old sitting in his mother's lap when it happened. The youngest Von Canon at 4 years old, Johnny and his older brother George, 9, caught the outdoor bug from their parents before they even knew what hit them. "It was a part of our life beforehand," explains dad Kelly Von Canon. "So it kind of just fell into place with us-it wasn't something we had to try to do."
Kelly is a former river guide and his wife, Julie, a long-time camping enthusiast. True to style, Kelly popped the question to Julie while floating down the Kennebec River in Maine. The family continues to venture out on the water and George is already displaying a growing skill when it comes to anything water related. "George Paddleboards the whole river-the Hiwassee and the Tennessee-and Johnny will ride with him," says Kelly. "He's gotten really good at reading the water ... and Johnny's time is coming. You can tell."
Having been raised on regular family camping expeditions growing up, it's Julie that advocates for the annual camping trips, says Kelly. Each year, Julie's parents took the family camping in the Smoky Mountains, and she continues that tradition with George and Johnny. "I've never missed a year since I was 4 years old, and now I'm 41," she says. "My parents did it with us, so naturally we did the same thing. Hopefully they'll do the same thing and we'll all be together.
"We really enjoy the state parks; they have su chawesome family-friendly, neat and clean campgrounds," adds Julie of parks like Cloudland Canyon, Fort Mountain and Amicalola Falls.
Kelly says the family also takes a lot of weekend trips to places like Rails to Trails and the Buffalo River in Arkansas. "It's just good, healthy family time. You get to share a lot of cool experiences together," he says. "Each generation needs to experience the outdoors now that technology is on the rise. You want to be able to leave all that stuff behind. You can't really do that anymore with the iPhone, though," he laughs.
And, of course, no foray into the wilderness would be complete without the family dog Ryder. "Sometimes he hops on the paddleboard with me," says George. Kelly adds, "The dog's gotta go with us; we can't leave him every weekend."
And the Von Canon boys don't only excel on the water; there isn't a sport the two, put together, don't play, including baseball, soccer, football, golf, and basketball. The whole family mountain bikes-Johnny learned to ride at 3 years old. George even recently picked up the unicycle as a side hobby, along with Kelly.
When asked what their favorite activity is, George chimes, "Everything." Johnny follows with, "Mountain biking," but then quickly corrects with, "I mean, everything!"
The Wheeler Family
In the beginning, it was a mountain bike that brought Trey and Michelle Wheeler together. "I wrecked it," laughs Michelle, who was walking her trashed bike home the day a friendly dog ran up to meet her-along with its owner Trey.
When they said "I do," the Wheelers had plans to travel the nation and even hike the Appalachian Trail. Two months later, they found out they were pregnant with Crosby. Thus they began to custom-fit their adventures for three ... then four, five and six. Now, playing is a major part of the Wheelers' lifestyle. "The dishes and the laundry stack up the weekends we take off to play," says Michelle, now a wife and mother of four outdoorloving children.
Until Crosby was old enough to splash around in the water himself, he spent his time napping in unused kayaks and guitar cases. "Crosby's been around the outdoor lifestyle since he was born," says Trey. "Michelle even paddled in a white water rodeo when she was five or six months pregnant." Crosby, now 19 and an honors student at UTC, swam competitively from the age of 5 to 18, rides mountain bikes and has just started rock climbing. "Most of the time when I was running I was on the trails," he adds, and, growing up in Signal Mountain, he had plenty of trails to run.
His younger brothers and sister followed suit. Garrison, 13, favors cross-country running and says, "I like getting out into the woods. It's just really fun to go to new places I've never been before on the trail. The trail seems to be different every time I go."
Eleven-year-old Sullivan, aka "Sully," says he also likes to swim, ride his bike and paddleboard, and 6-year-old Calloway spends her time swimming between her brothers' paddleboards, practicing her cartwheel and hiking with the family. "She'll hike with us and that doesn't mean daddy's carrying her," says Trey. Calloway has even tried her hand at problems on the climbing walls at Tennessee Bouldering Authority.
And it's all about family interaction, from the good times, like vacations; to the bad, like when Garrison fell off a small cliff during a mountain bike race; to the funny, like when Crosby tricked Michelle into riding the 12-mile loop on Raccoon Mountain instead of the 2-mile loop.
Trey and Crosby have even competed in the 12 Hours of Tsali mountain bike race three years in a row. "It's really cool to be able to do that with your kid, and what are we, 23 years apart in age?" muses Trey. "Last summer we got down to the coast. To have the whole family out there on paddleboards-it was an amazing experience." Though their active life was unplanned, the Wheelers know it was never a mistake.
"When you are around people that are in an active community, it's going to be a positive impact," says Michelle. Trey adds, "It's taught us a lot. With six of us, it takes a concerted effort to make it happen. We've learned to work together and help each other-to act as a unit."
The Fox Family
John Fox remembers exactly where he was standing when he realized his daughter Anna was a better climber than he-on a crash pad at TBA in St. Elmo. The now 14-year-old Anna was climbing a problem on the most angled wall at the time, which she was mastering with natural grace. "I looked over and was like, 'Oh,'" he reminisces. Most kids get into climbing because of their parents, but for John and Barbara Fox of Sewanee, this was not the case. It all started when Anna, at 4 years old, told her dad she wanted to try a climbing wall while visiting the Chattanooga Market one Sunday. "Earlier in the day she had been wearing her Disney princess dress," John laughs. "We had never climbed or thought of climbing. Now they are both way better than us."
By "both" he also means his 11-year-old son Evan, who just completed his first difficult lead climb in mid-June while on a camping trip at the Red River Gorge. On weekends, the entire family makes the drive to Chattanooga for the kids to train at TBA with climbing coach Kasia Pietras. Both of the Fox children have already climbed in national competitions and plan to continue the sport. "It's always been their choice," says John. "It's really cool because they continue to like it."
From a parent's perspective, John and Barbara say they appreciate the culture of climbing. "It's just a totally different vibe when it comes to competition," says John, describing a moment of admiration when he saw Anna cheer on a fellow climber who was potentially about to knock her out of a competition. "Climbing in general, it's problem solving and fitness and sometimes it's courage if you're scared. It's also learning to support other people and almost seeing how you're supposed to treat other people," explains John.
The first time Anna belayed Evan, though both parents admit they were completely freaking out, was a proud moment for John and Barbara. "It was about the two of them building trust for one another," says John. "There's a lot of that extra touchy-feely stuff. Plus, it makes them feel ridiculously strong."
"I like that there's a giveback factor to it too," adds Barbara. "Both kids are card-carrying members of the Access Fund, and they've cleaned up trails with the Southeastern Climbers Coalition."
John adds, "It's about stewardship for them in the sense that if this is the world we are going to play in, we are going to take care of it as well. That's a great lesson for them." And living in Sewanee affords them plenty of space to play, from Foster Falls to the domain of The University of the South. Though Friday nights at TBA remain "family night," says Barbara. "Until they realize that we are hopelessly un-cool," laughs John.
"I think as long as we're buying dinner we're OK," Barbara assures him.