If you live in the Asheville area, then you’re probably familiar with outdoor and environment reporter, Karen Chavez. Chavez’s award-winning reporting for the Asheville Citizen Times and USA TODAY Network is a favorite of outdoor enthusiasts in Western NC. We’re lucky enough to count Chavez as a friend of Darby’s and work with her to share stories from our local clientele that may be news for our community! But Karen wasn’t always a reporter, and this month we got to chat with her to learn about her fascinating background, favorite stories she’s reported, as well as what’s cooking these days while homebound.
We have to start every interview with a very Asheville question: what’s your birth sign?
You’ve been an outdoor and environment journalist with our local paper, the Asheville Citizen-Times (ACT), for many years. How did you get your start in journalism?
This is my 20th year with the ACT. I got a degree in environmental studies at Binghamton University (formerly SUNY Binghamton) in New York. It’s a long story after that – my career path has been anything but linear – but I traveled the country and wound up going to graduate school at the University of Montana to study journalism. I worked at papers in Montana, Idaho, and Arizona before coming to Asheville.
Funny, I was an editor at my high school paper, at the Bronx High School of Science, but never did a bit of journalism in college. I instead became deeply involved with the burgeoning environmental movement. But I think journalism, writing, storytelling and truth-seeking was always in my blood.
What’s the most memorable piece you’ve ever written?
The most memorable piece … that’s kind of like a “favorite child” question.
Working at a small paper, all of us reporters at some point cover everything, not just stories on our beats. I am proud of my work covering breast cancer and helping to bring 3D mammography to Asheville in 2014.
I loved meeting Daniel White, aka the Blackalachian, and documenting his amazing story hiking the Appalachian Trail solo, with no hiking or camping experience.
A heartbreaking story, one I’ll never forget, is that of the Henry brothers. Both were CNAs here in Asheville, both in their 30s, both contracted COVID-19, both were in the ICU at the same time, and held hands as one of them died.
We heard through the grapevine that you used to be a park ranger? What a cool job! Where were you placed?
After college I interned with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), an awesome way for college students or recent grads to get into environmental careers. I worked as an interpretive and resource management ranger with the National Park Service on the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, where I did water quality monitoring and canoed the river on the NY-Pennsylvania border, talking to folks about river ecology and boating safety.
I also worked in the publications division of Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming, where I wrote in-park newsletters, the Buffalo Chip and the Wolf Tracker! This was in the mid-90s when gray wolves were first reintroduced to the park. It was an exciting time, following the movements and activities of the wolf packs. I also contributed to other park publications and scientific journals..
My last post was as an interpretive ranger at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah and Arizona, which most people know as Lake Powell.
There are surely some park ranger stories people wouldn’t believe – what was the craziest experience you had as a ranger? Or the other side, what was the best moment you had as a ranger?
Seeing grizzly bears in the wild in Yellowstone for the first time was for sure one of the most shocking and special moments for this NYC kid. And hiking the endless backcountry, not seeing anyone for days, and seeing wolves – through binoculars at a very safe distance – as well as being trapped in park housing when a bison or elk herd decided to take up residence outside our front doors.
All those experiences left me with an awe for nature, its magnificence, and ingrained in me this sense of obligation for humans to protect it.
On the other hand, there is a lot of unglamorous work as a park ranger. Such as having to repeat the same safety warnings hours on end.
I watched people walk up to bison and try to pet them, walk up to bubbling, boiling-hot geysers, right past the Do Not Enter signs, and once saw a woman try to place her toddler on an elk’s back. These are massive, wild creatures that can and have killed people who got too close.
Glen Canyon was perhaps the most challenging. The desert summer heat was often well over 100 degrees. I remember it once reaching 112. While on some days my job was to ride a raft down the Colorado River with visitors and lead hikes to ancient petroglyphs in the red rock canyons, much of my time was spent directing boat traffic while standing on a concrete launch ramp, breathing gas fumes, wearing a swelteringly hot ranger flat hat, telling people they couldn’t poop on the lake shores, and dealing with agitated tourists.
Where’s your favorite way to recharge and reconnect?
I love to hike. I love our mountain ridges and rivers.
What song/artist is on replay for you right now, or if you’re into podcasts, what have you been listening to lately that we should check out?
I’m not much of a podcast person. I have been enjoying Brandi Carlile, the Lumineers, Ray LaMontagne, Nathaniel Rateliff, definitely on the loop is Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” I’ve also been into my ‘8os comfort music like Pat Benatar, Tina Turner, Poison, Cinderella, U2, UB40, Def Leppard, of course the soundtracks to the “Karate Kid” and “St. Elmo’s Fire.” I also like Alicia Keyes, Lizzo, Marc Anthony, Beyonce … I’m not a music snob, I love it all.
With the Outdoor Economy Conference coming back to WNC this October (virtually of course), what do you see as the most pressing topic within our local outdoor community?
I believe the coronavirus pandemic has hit some parts of the outdoor economy especially hard, like hiking, fishing, and other guide services, rafting companies, and retailers. They’ll need to figure out how to get back on track. I think the industry as a whole will need to address the realities of climate change, the increasing heat, fires, flooding, and the droves of tourists heading to the mountains to escape the rising temperatures.
I also believe making the outdoors accessible to everyone is essential. For too long, the outdoors has been a whites-only space. All of us, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indigenous, low-income, those with physical disabilities, pay for public lands and have been largely left out. I recently wrote a story about a new business called Black Folks Camp Too. The CEO, Earl B. Hunter Jr., was the emcee at last year’s Outdoor Economy Conference and will speak this year.
97% of visitors to national parks are white and 96% of national forest visitors are white. That does not reflect our population and needs to change.
Hunter shines a light on a troubling statistic – 97% of visitors to national parks are white and 96% of national forest visitors are white. That does not reflect our population and needs to change. I’m excited to see diversity, equity and inclusion will be a featured subject, with Teresa Baker as the keynote, this year.
Say we’re living in a post pandemic world and budget wasn’t a constraint, where would you go for a vacation?
First, the motherland, Perú, to hug my many relatives I haven’t seen in decades. Then Scotland, Italy, New Zealand, and Saipan, national parks in Hawaii and Colorado and Maine.
Since we’re all home cooking and getting take out, can you share with us what your go-to quarantine meal has been or a new recipe you’ve tried that you’re loving?
I’m neither an adventurous eater nor cook. I don’t eat meat. I like to eat healthy. My go-to these past months has been making a big pot of quinoa and mixing in olive oil and goodies like Kalamata olives, garlic, red onions, tomatoes, feta cheese, and other veggies. Each night I’ll eat some with a side of sautéed spinach or kale and a protein like a fried egg, beans, or veggie burger.
You write A LOT, but let’s flip it and hear about what you’re reading right now.
“The Home Place,” by J. Drew Lanham, a beautiful sense of place story; “Love and Ruin,” by Paula McClain. She writes historical fiction and I’m obsessed with her; “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson and I’m eyeing the new “Once I was You” by Maria Hinojosa; and The Washington Post and New York Times, daily necessities.
You’re an Asheville superstar, what does it feel like to have your words syndicated and appear in papers like USA Today?
Thanks but I’d hardly say I’m a superstar! I do think legitimate journalism is a noble profession, however, and I’m proud to be a very small part of it.
Tell us about an upcoming project you’re excited about?
Sept. 15-Oct. 15 is Hispanic Heritage Month. I’m featuring profiles through this time on WNC Hispanics working in outdoor and environmental careers, because there are so few of us, and I think it’s important to highlight the important work and contributions of Hispanics in environmental protection.
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I have no idea. But what I was surprised to learn about myself was that I actually danced the Viennese waltz at the Diana Wortham Theatre last year in front of 500 people! I was part of the Dancing with the Local Stars benefit for the American Cancer Society, but I am NOT a dancer, and it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.
Anything else you’d like to share that we didn’t ask today?
I’m an unapologetic mask wearer. If you believe in science, and believe in stopping the coronavirus scourge and believe in protecting your fellow humans, you will also wear a mask. I think we should be a little more considerate of each other. We could all be a little kinder.