elderly hikers

Pictured are, from left: (front) June Smith, Gracia Slater, Marti Kucera, Muff Lyons, Louis Schweizer and James Presley; (back) Lou Kucera, Walter Burnett, Bob Lantz, Ted Moody and Joe Lovedahl. They make up the Hardy Hikers, a group of hikers with a dozen members age 80 and over. Not pictured is Claudette Krizek.

By Beth Lawrence

 

When Bob Lantz joined the Hardy Hikers he was surprised to see the group being led by someone at an advanced age. Co-founder Roy McClure was an octogenarian.

“He was in his 80s, late 80s, still hiking,” Lantz said. “We were amazed by that because we were in our early 70s, and here was somebody in their late 80s leading us.”

Thirteen years later, Lantz is in his 80s and still taking forays into the Western North Carolina mountains, but he’s not the only one. The Hardy Hikers now boasts not one, not two, but 12 octogenarian hikers.

McClure and Muff Lyons formed the Hardy Hikers in the early 2000s. Since then, the group has grown from two members to approximately 50.

Lantz and his wife, Joyce, joined the group in 2008 after they moved to Jackson County.

“We wanted to see Panthertown, and we had heard you can get lost there,” he said. “We were scared to go by ourselves. Then somebody we knew said, ‘Our little group is going to hike.’ So, we got on their email (list), and we went with them.”

The Lantzes were already avid hikers having hiked many of the trails on the Tennessee side of the Smokies but rarely the eastern side. So, they stayed with the Hardy Hikers and began hiking weekly.

The informal club meets every Wednesday to hike a planned trail. Each January the group holds a potluck supper to schedule all hikes for the coming year.

“Some of us, myself included, never plan doctor appointments or car repairs or anything on Wednesday,” said June Smith, 80. “There are about six or eight of us who, if we’re not in bed sick, we’re on the trail on Wednesday. The most we have on a Wednesday would be maybe 15 or 16.”

Smith and her late husband, Newt, became members in 2007.

Membership is loose with some hiking a few trails a year and others showing up faithfully every Wednesday to hike. Some trails are repeats of favorite hikes; others are new discoveries.

The Lantzes have averaged as many as 40 a year.

A few hikes are in and out trails, meaning hiking there and back to where your car is parked, but others are much longer. Often the club takes a shuttle to a drop-off point and hikes a full trail or series of trails to a pickup point.

When the group encounters others on the trail they are met with surprise and admiration to see so many older hikers together at once.

“The hikers that are out there more than a mile away from the trail head, they’re generally fairly fit people that are somewhat younger,” Lantz said. “Everybody talks and it isn’t uncommon for one of them to say, ‘How old are you?’ That person will say “I’m 77…a couple of them over here are 80,’ and that always does get noted. It isn’t uncommon.”

For many members the meet-ups are more than a chance to exercise.

“It provides a social outlet as well as adventures into the nearby mountains and the appreciation of the mountains,” Lantz said. “When we had our 25th wedding anniversary, we’d been married in Hawaii, so we said we were going to go to Hawaii. The other people in the group said, ‘Can we go too?’ Eighteen people in this hiking group went to Hawaii.”

The Smiths have taken camping trips with members of the group planning hikes together as part of the adventure.

“I just have friends in this group that I wouldn’t have had otherwise; I would never have met them,” Smith said.

The camping trips are usually twice a year to places like Cataloochee or Table Rock State Park in South Carolina or Cloudland Canyon State Park in Georgia.

Though he is a lifelong hiker Lantz, now 84, never imagined he’d be hiking well into his 80s not even when he saw McClure accomplish it.

“I don’t think I looked ahead that much,” he said. “It was all I could do to keep up with Roy, so that was my focus.”

Though the hikes may be shorter, the group is still going.

Smith believes the fact that they are avid hikers who meet regularly, and the friendships formed in the group are what has kept them all going into their 80s.

“We kind of laugh at ourselves because in the early days when I first joined this group, most of our hikes were like eight to 10 miles,” Smith said. “We have noticed in the last few years that those long hikes are not as popular as they used to be. We’re now more like a five to six mile hike.”