When Crisler Torrence realized his favorite trail system was on private property — and that it belonged to a land developer — he decided to do something. Working with the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, he set out to save the 65 acres on the side of Lookout Mountain from St. Elmo's encroaching crawl.
His quest seemed as formidable as the mountain's shadow.
As 2019 drew to a close, after years of laying the groundwork, LMC and the property owner struck a deal that left the conservancy with HOW LONG to raise HOW MUCH.
It was a tall task, to be sure, but Torrence refused to give up. A nearly lifelong paddler, and now a small-business operator offering guided adventures through Rock/Creek, he's accustomed to the level of faith and determination it takes to best seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
His conservation quest was successful, but just like on the river, it took a community.
>>> The paddling community is so different than the biking or climbing community. You end up in a different place than where you started, so you have to have a partner in crime. And if something goes down, you've got to depend on other people to save your ass. You want to know you can count on them.
>>> Paddling is what brought me to Chattanooga. Two days after I graduated high school I started as a raft guide [on the Ocoee]. It brought me out of my introverted shell.
>>> We bought a house in St. Elmo because we knew other guides with houses there — five other raft guides. We joke that St. Elmo is where raft guides go to retire.
>>> My wife told me, "You're going to think the house is OK, but you're going to love the trail system." Living in St. Elmo for me is all about the access to Lookout.
>>> The mountains of Chattanooga always captivated me.
>>> My wife moved me to Florida for two years. It was a hellscape of sadness and urban sprawl for me. I saw St. Elmo heading that way.
>>> Robyn [Carlton of Lookout Mountain Conservancy] understood better than me that the wheels of justice turn slowly. The whole time I was starting to give up on the idea, she was still developing a relationship with Greentech toward access. We've developed a great working relationship that we all hope we can continue.
>>> When they decided to sell it, they came to LMC first. They gave us a price point that was not astronomical and was appraised appropriately.
>>> I said, what can I do to raise money and awareness for this? I can show people in St. Elmo and Chattanooga how cool this trail is. What started in my mind as a simple day hike spun out of control in all the best ways and turned into a fundraising festival in St. Elmo Park. I used the vendor connections I made through Rock/Creek to get items for a silent auction. People with food trucks brought them by. The Woodshop got musicians to play. It had all the high school fundraising efforts of a cake walk and silent auction. We raised $12,000.
>>> Thank God for foundations. The Tucker Foundation and Lyndhurst kicked in at a foundational level to allow us to get within an achievable amount. Then I started beating the bushes.
>>> Once people saw our objective was achievable, the outpouring was insane. People have been putting the "saint" in St. Elmo.
>>> Half the people I called on were all river people that nestled down in St. Elmo. It spread from there like the Lorax — a few people will care a whole lot and that's how you get things to change.
>>> The tentative closing date is the end of March. Then LMC has to do all the land trust actions: getting it tax exempt and getting it in a conservation easement.
>>> Wild Trails is a great partner. They're ready to start right away on trail access improvements. The infrastructure was definitely not made professionally or well. The entrance behind [St. Elmo Park] will be a lot better, not as steep and erosion-inducing, with the right amount of switchbacks to make it beginner-friendly. When you start out there now, the first 100 yards get your heart pumping and there are a few places to slip and bust your butt.
>>> There's a potential opportunity to tie it into the national park. I would love to see some other opportunities and not just hiking — biking, bouldering — but it's all kind of TBD.
>>> I read that you're supposed to be 49% anxious and 51% anticipation. I'm right there. That's also why I paddle so much.
>>> The next step for me is finalizing all the workings of the [guide] business. I saw a need to take more people outside so they could easily explore what makes Chattanooga the best town ever according to Outside magazine.
>>> It's all about half-day adventures so you can fit it in. I'd love to take it to all of the things that make Chattanooga the best town ever: climbing, caving.
>>> The trips max out at six people. I want it to be a smaller-scale, personal experience. It allows me to spend more time with them and develop that relationship.
>>> One dollar from every booking goes to support a nonprofit partner. I believe the point of recreation is to inform the need for and to fund the need for conservation and show them why it is they should care, why they should vote and why they should donate to keep those places wild and accessible.
>>> I studied religion at UTC, I have a bachelor's in religion and philosophy. The river has become my religion. It reminds me there are things that are bigger and more powerful [than me]. I need that sometimes.