When you venture deep into the wilderness, far from Richmond, it’s good to surround yourself with individuals who are mentally tough.
A few summers ago, Joey Parent, an assistant director at VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program, and I were picking our way down an isolated creek not far from Durango, Colorado. The setting was spectacular – 400-foot cliffs lined a gorge with pristine water that offered continuous paddling action. As whitewater enthusiasts, these are the conditions that Richmonders dream of when they travel outside of the James River.
I peeled out into the current to follow Parent when suddenly he scrambled for a small space of slack water lining the bank of the stream. He hollered at me to eddy out and stop in the midst of the moving water, but there was no space available. Turned upstream and unable to grab any nearby rocks in a last-ditch effort, I was swept backwards through a small crack between two rocks. The sliver of available space was big enough for water to crash through, but too small for my boat to penetrate upright. In a matter of seconds, the situation got tense.
Being wedged tightly, body folded forward against the top of my kayak, and surrounded by water, I let go of my paddle and somehow managed to wiggle through the small gap. Parent had already sprung into safety mode and was right there to get me ashore. He quickly secured my boat and was somehow able to find my paddle that was swept downstream. Parent’s plan worked – as his plans always do – and our adventure moved forward without having to scale the 400-foot sheer wall to exit the gorge.
It was at this moment that I realized Parent wasn’t just your average outdoorsman in RVA – he is the type of levelheaded leader who can offer a collective cool in any moment a situation goes sour. He would probably be the only person equipped with an ATV carburetor repair kit if ever on an ATV adventure and the machine went kaput! He is the guy who delivers an educated solution to just about any problem, anywhere at a moment’s notice. Everything he needs for any given situation is in his backpack or on his person: food, clothing, military knives, mace, cooking equipment, compass, flare, tent… You need it, he’s got it. This guy’s got so much great gear that he could probably survive the apocalypse.
And he can do all of this because he’s at home when he’s outside.
Based in Richmond, Parent’s outdoor accolades extend far beyond our Colorado excursion. Anyone who has spent time with Parent at the VCU Outdoor Adventure Program will attest to his skills far beyond paddling and what he brings to Richmond as a whole. Just as comfortable on two wheels as he is on the water, Parent has logged numerous multi-day bikepacking adventures, here in the United States and abroad, which have had the outdoor adventure world talking about his skills. Perhaps the most impressive, however, is what he is creating for Richmonders wanting to get outside and explore the outdoors.
As with many outdoor enthusiasts, Parent’s sense of adventure dates back to his younger years. “Both my parents were involved in the outdoors,” he explains. “Both were paddlers and got me involved in whitewater canoeing when I was really young. In fact, I don’t ever really remember getting in a boat for the first time. Being outside has always been a part of my life since I can remember; I’ve always carried a survival planning guide with me wherever I go out of habit! When I came to college I realized it was who I was, not something that I just did. It was part of my identity.”
It was in VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program that Parent quickly realized that he wanted to make a career out of outdoor recreation. After graduating from VCU, he moved to Knoxville where he earned a master’s in outdoor recreation at the University of Tennessee. Soon after, Parent ventured across the country to guide rafts and run expeditions in Idaho and Montana. Luckily for Richmond, he came right back where he started: the Outdoor Adventure Program at VCU.
Quickly settling back into life in Richmond, Parent’s vision and experience have helped grow the Outdoor Adventure Program to provide low-cost, activity-based outdoor trips, including whitewater rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, canoeing, caving, hiking, backpacking, and skiing. “The facility that houses the Outdoor Adventure Program is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream,” explains Parent. “In total we offer over 225 trips and activities serving over 2,000 students each year. Everything from destinations like Iceland, Colorado, and Everglades to local afternoon paddling on the James and rock climbing at Manchester Wall.” He says that VCU has one of the first programs in the country to offer an extended bikepacking trip and he proudly recalls logging 200 miles on the Palmetto trail in South Carolina with students. Among his favorite programs is the campus bike shop, which lends tools and rents bikes (30 mountain bikes and 30 road bikes) to students.
In 2014 Parent helped VCU launch Footprints on the James, a new class designed to expose students to the importance of the James River watershed. Designed as a collaborative, experiential learning opportunity, the class combines faculty from the VCU Biology Department, the Center for Environmental Studies, and the Outdoor Adventure Program. While backpacking and canoeing through the watershed for five weeks, the program offers a unique opportunity for students at VCU to learn about human history and natural history – and how the two have shaped each other. The class begins at the headwaters of the James River near the Blue Ridge Mountains and proceeds by foot, canoe, bateau, and kayak through the watershed and down the river back to Richmond.
Between organizing activities for others to enjoy the great outdoors, Parent uses Richmond as a home base for his own recreational pursuits. In recent years, he has completed two noteworthy events, the Trans North Georgia and JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit, which have earned him bragging rights within the outdoor community. For those in the know, the Trans North Georgia, a bikepacking route that winds through the mountains in Georgia, offers some of the most challenging forest roads, single track, and pavement around. In total, Parent climbed more than 70,000 feet in about 350 miles.
“To put that into perspective, Mount Everest is 29,000 feet. So it is almost like climbing Everest twice,” he explains. Previous to his attempt at the race, no other rookie racer had ever finished the course. Parent finished the race in his first attempt (along with one other rookie) in a time of 2 days, 16 hours, and 54 minutes, tying for sixth place. “I slept for about three hours each night,” explains Parent. “The last 50 miles were pretty dicey … after two and a half days of racing, I was getting really exhausted. I started seeing flashes and colors. Basically, I was hallucinating.”
JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit is equally agonizing. Located just outside of Yellowstone National Park in Idaho, this bikepacking trip spans 200k in the snow during the month of January. “This was the first snow race that I have ever attempted and I learned a lot from it,” Parent modestly says. “I finished in around 24 hours, which is pretty presentable for a southerner who lives at sea level.”
Beyond his work at VCU and crossing the finish line at grueling bike races, Parent makes it a point to save time for bikepacking trips to remote locations as far away as Iceland where he recently covered more than 550 miles. The use of a 4×4 rental iceland will most likely be required for many looking to travel to the remote regions themselves. Along the way he captured photos of his journey around the volcanic islands, which were published in a handful of cycling publications.
Having seen a number of the world’s most sought-after outdoor destinations, Parent always returns home to Richmond. “Growing up outdoors I always envisioned myself living in the mountains and being somewhere I could get out and do all the things that I enjoy so much. Maybe three or four years after I left, I started to realize how great a place Richmond is for someone involved in the outdoor community,” Parent says. “There are a lot of wonderful people here in Richmond who support what is happening and it’s all right in our backyard. I live half a block from the trail system and the river. I can ride the trail to work every day and go paddling or climbing in the afternoon. I don’t know anywhere else like it.”