The ebb and flow of seasons. From sunny summer, alive with blooms and sounds, to dormant winter, cold and still — at least, that's how a large part of the country sees it. But the rhythm of outdoor sports in Chattanooga beats to a different drum. A winter with soft edges and a summer when heat can stifle make Chattanooga a uniquely great place to be a sports enthusiast year-round. For example, the city sits at the receiving end of the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) system of river dams — Chickamauga, Watts Bar, Hiwassee. With a mission to support economic development such as tourism, the TVA puts some man-made clockwork into the ebb and flow of our rivers. In short, it gives us whitewater.
"During the summer, at least every weekend, they're releasing water into the Hiwasee and the Ocoee," says paddleboarder, kayaker and swimmer Allison Crush. "That gives everybody a great summer playground." The Ocoee, once the site of Olympic slalom races, often pops up on national top-10 lists of most popular whitewater sites. And Crush meets the whitewater with one of her many kayaks.
"The greatest thing about whitewater," Crush says, "is you can do it year-round."
In competition season, Crush is an endurance swimmer. She earned the Tennessee Triple Crown Gold award in 2019 for swimming all three of the Tennessee River's largest endurance swims in the same year. She did a 12-hour, 21-mile swim from Catalina Island to the California mainland. Next year, Crush plans to take on Arizona's 4-day, 40-mile open-water SCAR challenge on Saguaro Lake.
"Long endurance stuff is a different kind of mindset," she says. "You have to be comfortable in your own head."
Many swimmers move to indoor pools around November, according to Crush, who characterizes indoor-pool swimming as "staring at black lines." But it turns out that winter rains bring a bonanza of whitewater opportunities for resident paddlers, even after the TVA whitewater season is over. After a good winter rain, Crush takes to her paddleboard and a dry suit (keeping everything warm except hands and face) to enjoy the outdoors.
Where do summer sports go in the winter?
"It's really beautiful in some of these remote creeks and canyons in the winter," Crush says. "It's gorgeous. North Chickamauga Creek is absolutely amazing, a little jewel basically right here."
According to Crush, winter in the area also brings out whitewater enthusiasts with a high tolerance for cold.
"There's this whole community that does downwind paddling," she says. "And they're crazy — it's a big rush."
In contrast, it's high-heat tolerance that allows Cecelia Wigal to enjoy cycling throughout the summer.
"I like the heat; a friend of mine doesn't like the heat," she says. The friend will drop out when it's too warm. Meanwhile, Wigal thinks nothing of taking on a 100-mile bike ride in the heat of summer, especially if she's riding on open roads where she can get "free air conditioning," as she puts it. Still, though she doesn't care much for the cold, winter doesn't stop her from cycling either. She does have an indoor training bike for the coldest days. But she can often get outdoors by switching to her gravel bike and riding off-road trails.
"People do gravel all year round," Wigal says. In winter, open roads can create an unbearable wind-chill factor. Shifting to gravel mitigates the cold. "It's hotter because it's closed in. You can dress for 30- or 40-degree weather on gravel." She adds, "I kind of like it when it's snowing,"
In that quirky appreciation for confrontational weather events, Wigal is joined by runner Dayna Smith, who likes to run in the rain. "It changes things up," Smith says. "It brings out the kid in you — playing in the rain. Your shoes just get very wet, and you have to dry them out very carefully. Running shoes aren't cheap!" Wigal and Smith both cite natural beauty as the main reason to enjoy outdoor sports in all kinds of weather.
Smith spent this past summer training for her first marathon in October. The training was a lot more work than she expected, and she needed every day to train. So where Wigal keeps a bicycle trainer at the ready for really bad weather, Smith has a treadmill she calls Trusty.
"When it gets cold-cold — 30 and below — I stay inside."
Wigal and Crush seem to have an endurance gene. They excel at multiple sports and move constantly among different activities.
"I grew up as a runner; I was an overactive kid, ran with my brother," Wigal says. "Then I found a bicycle." When injuries cut her running career short, she had already found swimming through competitive triathlons, and having competed in high school, she had developed strong training habits.
For Dayna Smith, however, competitive running snuck up from behind. At 40, she found herself out of shape with health issues. "My doctor said, 'I can put you on some medicine, or you can get off your rear end,'" Smith recalls.
She didn't fall into a love affair with running — she started out simply walking.
"That was pretty boring," she says.
So she upped the pace to jogging.
It Takes a Community
It wasn't until some friends convinced Smith to run a 5K for charity that her love for running began. "It was just so much fun!" she says. The community spirit gave her a new perspective on running.
And she's been running ever since. She, and often a friend or two, will squeeze in a long run after work on a Friday, where scenery is also part of the appeal — from the cute downtown shops of an urban run to the greenery of a run along the Riverwalk.
"Last week, I did my 17-mile on the Riverwalk," she says. "It was a lot of fun because you're along the river, and it's beautiful."
This year, after 17 years and seven half-marathons, Smith began training to run her first marathon. Her 17-mile run along the river was part of the training.
Conquering 12-hour swims or 26-mile runs would suggest that endurance sports are for solitary types. But on the contrary, most of these sport enthusiasts cite community as part of their sport's appeal. While they train intensely for competitions, they also bike with a group, run with a buddy or swim long distances with a support team that follows nearby, providing nutrition for energy — what Crush calls "a floating buffet of sorts" — from a kayak.
"I generally have some amazing friends and community," Crush says, "and I've got a great husband who supports all of the crazy stuff that I do."
Having just completed her second Tennessee Triple Crown this year, Wigal swims with a group of swimmers as moral support. And she also cycles with two local groups: the Chattanooga Bike Club and the Velo Vixens. Both these groups meet regularly to go on "no-drop" rides, such as the North Chattanooga Hills route, that are open to anyone — and no matter the skill level, no rider is left behind.
But it's true that in sports like open-water swimming, it can be harder to keep the community together in the winter, usually considered off-season — though fellow swimmers do reconvene for social gatherings or for group swims at the pool.
Sometimes, Winter is Better
Obviously, Chattanooga is not the destination playground of snowmobilers or skiers. And because the region attracts most of its tourists in the summer, the area's exciting outdoor sports tend to be considered "summer sports." They're often overlooked in the winter.
This is a mistake, according to Mike O'Mara, head climbing guide at High Point Climbing and Fitness downtown.
"Most people don't realize that winter is actually the rock-climbing season here," he says.
Through the summer, local climbers are more likely to stay in the air-conditioned gym. Besides the tourists, who keep O'Mara busy guiding climbing tours, the only other people climbing in summer are, as O'Mara puts it, "diehards" who "don't mind suffering through the humidity, the heat, the snakes and bugs and things that like to sting and bite and burn you."
As someone who shapes tours for all skill levels, from the curious novice to the climber looking to up-skill, O'Mara considers winter an ideal time for beginners to try the sport. Without tourists, the gym is less packed, and O'Mara has more time to set up outdoor rock-climbing experiences. In winter, he's able to introduce new climbers to the crisp air and expansive views of Sunset Rock.
One other sport obscured by its own summer success shines even more brightly in winter: caving. Like High Point, the local cave tourist attractions are open year-round and are a lot less congested in winter. And yet these caves maintain a comfortable 58 degrees all year, according to caver Anna Pearce. This isn't the case in all caving locations, as Pearce found out the hard way. Visiting caves in Wyoming, high on a plateau, she met a more hostile environment in caves that can average closer to 30 degrees.
"[It was] my first time ever having to wear microspikes [for ice]," Pearse says. "I was wearing wool-based layers, neoprene because we were getting wet, too. I could barely move. We were doing very technical rope work. It was kind of a scary experience. I got back and got a fleece suit."
Like O'Mara, Pearce appreciates winter's absence of pests as well as plants like poison ivy. And, according to Pearce, winter is the ideal time for "ridge walking."
"Ridge walking," she says, "is when we're looking for new caves that haven't been discovered yet."
Most caves don't have nice trails leading to them.
"With the majority of the caves we visit, we have to do some bushwhacking," Pearce says. "In the winter, we are able to see these cave entrances more easily."
They can also spot clues to possible new caves, like the "blow" of moisture that might be seen seeping up from underground.
As part of Dogwood City Grotto, Pearce also has strong community support around her sport. Cavers cave together. But she is smitten with caves for their own sake as well, claiming she caves "24/7."
"I literally moved up from La Grange to Dalton [Georgia], so I could be closer to caves," she says. "I'm obsessed with every bit — the science, the sport, seeing stuff that people in this world will never see. It's changed my life and made me a better person."