It was 1975 when Nancy Grof bought her first pair of women’s hiking shoes from a Sears-Roebuck mail-in. Ten years earlier in 1965, Grof was one of the first members of the Akron Metro Parks Hiking Club, which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Now 83 years old and after five decades with the club, Grof has worn out many pairs of shoes.
In addition to scouring the Buckeye Trail, taking road trips to the Alleghenies or spearheading the Hiking Spree, the Akron Hiking Club has helped to expand public awareness of local wooded paths, along with paving many themselves. “In the beginning we were the trailblazers,” says Grof.
When John F. Kennedy saw the nation’s overall physical decline and “soft” Americans “neglecting their bodies,” he created the White House Committee on Health and Fitness in optimistic retaliation. In 1964, Dr. Arthur Wilcox, director of the Akron Park District at the time, took Kennedy’s influence and combined it with the incentive to illuminate dormant Akron-area trails. He knew a hiking club would accomplish both. The group took its first walk in June 1965.
With Donald Vogt at the head of the group, the then-named Akron Metropolitan Hiking Club took weekly treks around Whipps Ledges and the Findley State Park. Most hikes were three to four miles long. After a few years of hikes, members began bringing along scissors and shears, trimming the trails, removing fallen branches, posting blazes where there hadn’t been any previously. “But then the park system took over, because they realized how important it was to have walkable trails that people could enjoy,” Grof explains.
In the late seventies, the American outdoors industry shot up and national and state parks thrived. Outdoors apparel companies began making gear for women, something Grof recalls fondly. Hiking, she says, then became popular.
The Akron Hiking Club is currently led by Akron-native Jack Wenrick and it’s bigger than ever. The club now has over a hundred members — a few of them have been there since the beginning. Before joining the club in 2010, Wenrick spent his off-hours from his 39-year career at B.F. Goodrich exploring the Brecksville Reservation, flying out to Red Rock or Bryce Canyon on vacation time. As president, Wenrick brings his knowledge along to advocate the club’s original mission — to open up closed eyes to local trails. “Some folks may just not know about them,” he says. “Once they learn about the great parks and trails here — and if they’re interested in the outdoors — they’ll start using them.”
Climbing to the peak of top-hiker status isn’t like climbing a mole-hill. It’s born out of repeated habit. “We hike four hikes a week, twelve months a year,” Wenrick says.
Wenrick, along with his pathfinder Roy Kress, has steered the club all over the place. They’ve even ventured into places they maybe shouldn’t have been. “How do you explore if you don’t go off the trail?” he questions.
With a constantly-improving trail-quality, the club is tromping different grounds than they were during the LBJ administration. Streams now boast bridges over them; water fountains sit beside restroom hubs; enthusiasts don CamelBaks and eat Powerbars during breaks. Amid all the accidents and falls throughout the years—from broken jaws to fractured arms—the danger of the nature hike isn’t stopping either Wenrick or Grof anytime soon.
“ We were all always gung ho about hiking,” Grof says. “I mean, man, I wouldn’t miss a hike for anything! When my sister got older, she would say, ‘Nance, aren’t you hanging up those shoes, yet?’ I’d say, ‘No, I’m still hiking.’”
But as of last year, Grof has needed to take a hiatus from the four-times-a-week club hikes, off doctors’ strict orders. Instead of walking weekly through the Cuyahoga Valley, Grof is bound to the indoors, chained to her oxygen tank. In anticipation for an upcoming “Firestone Hike,” Grof decided that she would make plans to join Wenrick and others, even if that meant treading a few miles behind. In retrospect, with over 15,000 miles clocked in to her name, she has probably paid her dues.
Still, Grof’s determined to hike once again. She’s bought new pairs of shoes for the occasion—three to be exact.
“ Now,” Grof says, “I’ve got to get back to wearing them out.”
/ Editorial Intern Mark Oprea is a recent graduate of Kent State University.
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