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Life and Religion

Gone camping: Living for opportunity in the great outdoors
Adventures led to outreach through nonprofit
Published Thursday, January 21, 2021 11:00 am
by Ashley Mahoney

Keith Cradle, director of youth/juvenile services for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, has learned to embrace the great outdoors through camping.

This is the year to get outside.

Just ask Keith Cradle. He has been exploring the natural wonders of North Carolina for a decade, but if you follow his Instagram, @keithcradlephd, you may have noticed an increase in hiking adventures that made you green with envy.

Cradle took the time to document his adventures in 2020, with the help of friends, including photographer Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.

“It was never anything I thought was special or different,” Cradle said. “It was like, ‘hey, I’ve got some friends. We love to hike. We love to camp,’ but we just weren’t very good at it.”
Camping and hiking seemed appealing as an inexpensive hobby, but with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

“You don’t realize there are pieces of gear that are a little bit better, a little bit warmer, a little bit lighter,” Cradle said.

While the images make the journey across mountains like Grandfather and Morrow look graceful and effortless, the beginning a decade ago was filled with first-time hurdles. Cradle and a friend went out with a single tent, and two sleeping bags, or as Cradle put it, “just the basics.”

“For us, it was really about really wanting to grill,” he said. “That first night that we went camping, not recognizing that the ground starts to suck the heat from your body, how hard the ground is, we had a miserable time. We didn’t sleep and we just couldn’t wait for the sun to come up so we could get out of there. I distinctly remember us driving home, and being like, ‘man, that sucked, but let’s do it again. But how do we find a better way to do it?’”

By day, Cradle is director of youth/juvenile services for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office, where he helps orchestrate re-entry and youth development programs. He is also an author, a board member for local cultural arts organizations, such as The Bechtler Museum and a podcast host. The way he puts it is #Nevernotworking.

Cradle always has a new project or goal, and his love for camping and hiking is no different. Cradle formed a nonprofit,   Camping with Cradle, to encourage middle and high school-age students to live a healthy and active lifestyle. The goal is to target summer 2021 or 2022 for the launch, pandemic permitting.

“Once I formalize all of that, I am really going to be able to help out underserved and underexposed kids to camping and to backpacking,” he said. “Hopefully they will take the experience and want to continue to do it long term, along with life development, coaching and skills will all be part of that experience.”

Cradle frequently travels internationally, but when COVID-19 hit, his 2020 plans had to change. It resulted in more time in North Carolina state parks. It led to more time to curate the experience for people to see that nature is nothing to be afraid of.

“It can be fun,” he said. “You can have an amazing time, and you shouldn’t be afraid of nature and being outdoors. Folks don’t have to love it, but before people say, ‘I would never do that,’ you at least have to try it.”

Several years into the experience, Cradle’s essentials include a tent, sleeping bag, backpack, a good headlamp, because darkness does not play along the side of a mountain below the tree canopy, a good knife for eating and cutting, a good compass and a first aid kit.

Speaking of eating, what exactly does one eat while camping? It depends on the type of camping, Cradle explained. Car camping allows for the use of a cooler, where you can grill and bring perishable foods. However, backpacking is limited to what you can carry, and may trend toward dehydrated meals or require little to no preparation.

“When you are backpacking, you don’t have the gourmet glamping experience,” Cradle said. “No one is hauling around a 3-pound cooler full of food for two, three days. You are looking at more dehydrated meals, cans of tuna, noodles—things like that. I love peanut butter. I tell people, ‘think about things that are in your cupboard that probably utilize water or don’t need anything special to get made.’ Companies are making great meals now. The dehydrated meals of 10-20 years ago are not the dehydrated meals that folks are consuming now.”

Cradle also advises booking campsites in advance, which can be done through the North Carolina State Parks website. The only potential congestion would be if everyone turns to state parks the way they did last year due to the pandemic. State parks will close when they reach capacity, but if you have a reservation, you don’t have to worry about everyone else trying to get in.

“For what North Carolina offers, the prices are not that bad –12-20 for a site,” Cradle said. “You definitely want to book in advance. When you think of everything that happened last year with COVID-19, the outdoors became an outlet for a lot of people. Sites were booked weeks and months in advance.”

As 2021 unfolds, Cradle is looking at exploring beyond North Carolina to South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. His goal is to one day hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, which he may do for his 50th birthday. He still has four years to plan.

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