Couch, a 69-year-old retiree from Anniston, can’t deny it. At a recent ceremony in Mobile honoring the work he and an army of volunteers have done for the Alabama Scenic River Trail, Couch used the opportunity to put a congressman on the spot to find funds for more campground spaces nearby.
Couch’s latest focus is Saturday’s Terrapin Tri-County Adventure Race, a multi-sport event combining 6 miles of trail running, 1.5 miles of paddling and 38 miles of pedaling. The “tri-county” part comes as the course covers parts of Calhoun, Cherokee and Cleburne counties. It also calls attention to three tremendous outdoor recreation assets — the Pinhoti Trail, the Chief Ladiga Trail and the Terrapin Creek Canoe Trail.
The experts say first-time races of this nature typically attract between 20 and 30 participants. As of late last week, more than 50 competitors from Alabama, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and elsewhere had registered. Couch expects another 20 to sign up before the start of the race. Not bad considering the late entry fee is $90. (Information for late registration can be found at: www.alabamascenicrivertrail.com.)
Yet, even before the starting gun sounded, Couch did a masterful job of wrangling support, both money and time required to pull off 45 miles of competitive racing. According to him, he (a.) raised almost $20,000 from contributors to help cover the costs of the race and (b.) assembled 145 volunteers to lend a hand.
The race is part of a string of successes Couch, himself an avid paddler, has enjoyed since early 2007, when he first convened several outdoor enthusiasts to promote Alabama’s rivers. The trail’s 631 miles cover the Alabama, Coosa, Tensaw, Tennessee and Cahaba rivers, as well as the Mobile-Tensaw delta and the Terrapin, Hatchett and Weogufka creeks. He and his friends had a very simple idea: Alabama is blessed with awesome natural beauty that ought to be enjoyed and shared with the wider world. So, let’s start sharing and encouraging folks to enjoy it.
In three short years, the trail has taken off. The New York Times, USA Today and the Associated Press have done features on it. In a press release, Grey Brennan, Alabama Tourism Department marketing director, said, “Since the opening of the trail we have seen an increase in tourism along the river and the media attention has been phenomenal.”
On a personal note, I recall when Fred shared his idea with The Star’s editorial board. When asked if the trail had plans to create a promotional website, Couch indicated he’d yet to consider it. Visitors to the www.alabamascenicrivertrail.com will now note the site is a 2009 winner in the American Trails Winning Website Awards.
Such is the soft-spoken and easygoing way of Fred Couch. He gets things done.
Late last week, I asked him the secret of his success. “It’s dogged determination, and I’m not a quitter,” Couch said. “I believe that what I’m doing has good purpose, and fortunately others who have worked with me and are working with me think the same thing.”
Couch starts meetings of the river trail committee with a prayer “asking God’s blessings.” Couch adds, “So far, He’s been very nice to us.”
By his estimate, Couch puts in six to seven hours a day working on trail/triathlon business, calling into serious question his definition of “retirement.”
When spreading the gospel of ecotourism across the state, he carries a lengthy economic impact study on the financial benefits of catering to people’s desire to get outdoors and do something. The prospect of “bringing millions of dollars” to a community usually gets the attention of local politicians and civic leaders, he said.
That realization is slowly dawning here; not that local runners, cyclists, paddlers and others haven’t been touting the message for years. Anniston City Hall, however, has been late to the party.
The prospect of the city helping develop a network of trails on the Coldwater Mountain nature preserve languished for more than 10 years. Fortunately, a coalition of representatives from the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Club, the Anniston Water Works and Forever Wild found a way around the city’s foot-dragging. The good news is that work on the trails could begin soon thanks to a $150,000 federal grant funneled through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.
By the time it’s completed, the mountain’s 4,000 acres are expected to be home to 60 miles of trails, making it a premier locale for mountain biking in the Southeast. (And all those out-of-town bike riders eat in restaurants, stay in motels, gas up their cars, buy groceries and so on.)
Other good things are happening. In Jacksonville, a side trail off the Ladiga is set for an official opening next month. Just up the trail a bit, work continues on the impressive refurbishing of Jacksonville’s old train depot alongside the Ladiga. Then there is the phenomenal growth of events like the Woodstock 5K, the Sunny King Criterium bicycle race in Anniston and the Cheaha Century ride. All three have seen giant leaps in regional participation.
Each project, each event builds upon a foundation, one that brings prosperity to the region and perhaps more than that even.
“When they come here from afar and see the beauty and challenge,” Couch says of triathletes, “they will tell many others of our hospitality and revisit many times, bringing their families, too.”
Carmine DiBiase, a runner and bicyclist from Jacksonville, thinks “our society is gradually coming to realize that it is pretty much done with mindless consumerism, which is expensive and never satisfying. It leads to one dead end after another, and it makes us fat and unhappy.”
He adds, “The countryside in this part of Alabama is breathtaking. I’ve seen the number of cyclists grow steadily over the last five years, which is about how long I’ve been cycling here.” That growth, in turn, is making these natural resources “increasingly a part of the identity of northeast Alabama.”
When that happens, the community will owe promoters like Fred Couch, Brooke Nelson of the Woodstock 5K and Mike Poe of the spring’s cycling events a very big thank you of our own.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.