By Jamie Swinnerton
While some people may have celebrated New Year’s Day warm in their beds, over 800 hikers braved the frigid temperatures to join what might be the biggest First Day Hike in the nation. Across the country, state parks hosted the public on the first day of the year in an effort to get people outside and into nature, to start the year off with a little exercise and fresh air. Here in Tompkins County, at least 837 individuals from across the region (and even from nearby states) flocked to Taughannock Falls State Park in Trumansburg for the First Day Hike tradition.
The effort to bring so many people, from across New York state and beyond, was not a solitary one. The event was made possible by the organization or sponsorship of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), Cornell Campus-to-Campus, the Ithaca Tourism Bureau, and the organizers of the 5k Chili Challenge, Gary and Wendy Cremeens, among others.
“They’d had fairly low attendance at Taughannock Falls, so, talking to Josh [Teeter] (with OPRHP), I’m like, ‘How can we help? We want to promote active transportation but also people getting out there and being active.’” said Gary Cremeens, organizer of the 5K Chili Challenge and an instrumental part of the First Day Hike 2018 success.
Several years ago, Cremeens and his wife jumped head first into a more active lifestyle after having weigh loss surgery. But having the surgery doesn’t guarantee the weight won’t come back, so Cremeens and his wife started exercising regularly. Now, Cremeens and his wife run the weight loss surgery support group through Cayuga Medical Center, encouraging others to get into a more active lifestyle as well.
Part of that lifestyle was starting the 5k Chili Challenge, also located at Taughannock Falls State Park, back in 2006. They were partially inspired after running, competing and volunteering with Finger Lakes Running. But the 5K Chili Challenge isn’t the only thing Cremeens and his wife do as part of being active. Back around 2012, Cremeens and his wife were introduced to the First Day Hike, and have since made a hike at the falls a monthly event as educational as well as active events. In the years following they would help bring bigger and bigger crowds to the falls for the annual First Day Hike as one of their active lifestyle events.
“This past year I contacted the National Parks Service and said ‘Do you guys take metrics? How do you measure who’s the largest hike?’” Cremens said. But those metrics weren’t very easily available. The Parks Service told him they measured it by hashtags.
“So, I took several hours, and they agreed that safely we can assume we were, in 2017, the largest First Day Hike east of the Mississippi,” Cremeens said.
This year, Cremeens was determined to make it even bigger. In order to get a more accurate count of how many people showed up, the official number of 837 is based on how many people participated in the raffle that was organized specifically to get people to the hike. But Cremeens thinks there might have been more than 1,000 people at the falls.
Both New York State Parks and Cornell University donated the raffle prizes, which included round-trip tickets to New York City, and useful outdoor equipment.
During the event Cremeens used the Ithaca Tourism Bureau Instagram account to do interviews and take video of the event participants. People he spoke to came all the way from Rochester and Fulton in New York, and several were from Pennsylvania.
“We really have people from a 250-mile radius that are coming to this event,” Cremeens said. “It’s humbling.”
Cremeens is already planning for how to make next year an even bigger event. The First Day Hike hashtags are still being used, so it’s still not certain if the Taughannock Falls First Day Hike crowd was the largest in the nation for this year.
“But it’s not about the volume,” Cremeens said. “It’s about getting people together.”