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Monday, August 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Love is out there: From rafting and dog walking to fishing, outdoor passions bring couples together

It’s a worn and torn cliché with numerous iterations: The couple that runs together stays together. The couple that … climbs … hikes … swims … etc.

Fill in the blank with your preferred outdoor activity. But beyond making good marketing fodder for outdoor companies, there is some truth in the adages.

Shared outdoor activity is a net positive.

“You experience vulnerability when you’re out in the wild,” said Melanie Morlan, a marriage and family therapist in Spokane. “Those things lead to a deeper sense of trust and caring and security.”

That’s become even more important in a manic age fed by ubiquitous technology and social media, she said.

“If you want to have a really healthy intimate marriage, you have to engage,” she said. “And that means not watching a movie. Not just looking at your phones together. Not just staring at something together.”

Outdoor pursuits are not the only way couples can nurture this quality of a relationship, but they’re an effective one.

“You have to be face-to-face,” Morlan said. “If you’re rock climbing with somebody and you’re belaying, you’re looking at each other. You’re connecting. It’s very intense oftentimes to be doing an activity in nature.”

Outdoor activities also spur new adventures and experiences.

“Novelty-seeking behaviors are healthy,” Morlan said. “It’s stimulating and it’s renewing and it’s invigorating.”

Morlan routinely encourages couples to find an outdoor activity that they can do together, one that challenges them and forces them to rely upon one another.

Below are profiles of seven couples from the Spokane area who either met in the outdoors or for whom the outdoors play a vital role in their relationship.

These stories highlight the ways shared outdoor passions can strengthen a relationship. Whether that’s guiding guests down a Class 5 rapid or patiently searching for birds.

Finding the seasonal rounds

LaRae Wiley and Chris Parkin pose for a photo in People's Park in 2017. The couple’s “typical” date is walking their dogs through the park or through Riverside State Park. (Courtesy of Laurken Kendall)
LaRae Wiley and Chris Parkin pose for a photo in People's Park in 2017. The couple’s “typical” date is walking their dogs through the park or through Riverside State Park. (Courtesy of Laurken Kendall)

Thirty-five years ago today, they kissed for the first time among the breezes of the Pacific Ocean. In 1984, two kids from Eastern Washington, LaRae Wiley, 55, and Chris Parkin, 53, met at Western Washington University. The couple’s first dates were long walks through Larrabee State Park.

“She was using all the powers of nature to get it done,” Parkin said of their courtship. “And it totally worked.”

The two moved back to the Spokane area after a year at Western, both graduating from Eastern Washington University. They had a family and started their careers.

During that time Wiley, a member of the Arrow Lakes Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes, started to reconnect with her native heritage.

She learned Salish and explored her ancestral lands, learning to follow the seasons, whether that was picking huckleberries or digging for camas.

Parkin, a white Irish kid from Deer Park, followed his wife.

“Reconnecting with the land and having Chris do that with me, and having our family do that with me was super powerful,” Wiley said. “It connected me with my ancestors.”

But that came with its own challenges. For Chris, it was painful to discover the hidden genocides committed by his ancestors.

But it also helped them grow closer. Watching Wiley reconnect with her heritage added another dimension to their relationship and made him fall “in love with her all over again,” he said.

Now the two follow the seasonal rounds, picking berries with their children and grandchildren.

And they still walk.

“Our typical date, to this day, is just taking the dogs to the river,” Parkin said. “Either to the confluence at Riverside State Park or People’s Park.”

The Raft guides

Peter and Betsy Grubb pose in front of the Salmon River near Riggins Idaho in 1999. (Courtesy)
Peter and Betsy Grubb pose in front of the Salmon River near Riggins Idaho in 1999. (Courtesy)

The outdoors, particularly rafting, have been central to Betsy and Peter Grubb’s marriage. The two, who are both 61, met on (or at least near) the river when Betsy started working as a guide at ROW, two years after Peter and his brother founded the company.

“I was never one that was going to sit at a desk,” Betsy said.

That was 1982. Their relationship really got going when a bus broke down full of guests on their way to a day trip of the Salmon River.

Improvising, Peter hitchhiked to Grangeville to try and rustle up another vehicle while Betsy made sandwiches on the side of the highway.

Peter returned with a truck, the guests got in the cab and Betsy and Peter sat in the back “on top of this huge mound of gear,” Betsy said.

“It was that particular episode and minicrisis that got the spark going,” Peter said. “I think when you have a stressful situation that turns out well, and you work as a team together and find a solution, that just leaves you feeling good.”

The two were married and have run and expanded ROW Adventures into a worldwide guiding service. The company celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Working in the outdoor industry, especially a seasonal one like river guiding, came with its challenges. For instance, after they had kids, the stress increased with Peter gone for days and weeks at a time on trips.

“Trying to manage a relationship and raising your kids and running a business together has got to be up there in the top tier of stress on a relationship,” Betsy said.

But the two worked through it. They both said working with the other during stressful situations, like a broken bus, helped strengthen their relationship.

“There are Class 5 rapids in a marriage,” Betsy said. “But downstream it cools out and you keep going. Hopefully, you gain skills on Class 2 and 3 and 4, and when you get to Class 5 you have that background and capability of getting through.”

Tying the fly

Zach Smith and Annie McCurdy pose with their dog Petra in Fernie Canada in 2018 while fly fishing. (Debbie McCurdy / COURTESY)
Zach Smith and Annie McCurdy pose with their dog Petra in Fernie Canada in 2018 while fly fishing. (Debbie McCurdy / COURTESY)

Two months after meeting his future wife, Zach Smith, 28, found himself high in the mountains connected to his future father-in-law by a rope.

Smith was with Annie McCurdy, 25. The two had met rock climbing just months before.

“I reached out to him to find a partner and that shortly ended in a relationship,” she said.

After they started dating, McCurdy’s father, a longtime area climber, asked if they’d want to go on a multipitch climb in the Cascades.

“I think he wanted to make sure my anchor-building skills were up to par,” Smith said.

Three years later, the two are happily married.

While climbing remains a beloved hobby for both, their true passion is fly fishing. They started fishing together shortly after the Cascades climb. Now they regularly catch steelhead on the Clearwater and pull trout from Rocky Ford.

Those shared hobbies have been nothing but beneficial.

“I’d have to say we probably spend more time together than most couples,” Smith said. “Purely based on the fact that every weekend we’re in a car together.

“I’ve trusted her with my life how many times now?”

From fish guts to love

John and Lisa Whalen pose in front of the day's catch while salmon and halibut fishing in Ninilchik, Alaska. (Courtesy)
John and Lisa Whalen pose in front of the day's catch while salmon and halibut fishing in Ninilchik, Alaska. (Courtesy)

When John Whalen, 63, first met his future wife, she was covered in fish guts.

“She was a vision of loveliness in rain gear and pigtails and fish guts,” he said.

Lisa Whalen, 59, was working at the docks in Bellingham while in college. John was working for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Lisa wanted John’s job, checking salmon that came off the boats to see if they’d been tagged. She approached him one day. Lisa ended up getting a different job, working as a travel agent, but the two did go on a date.

“For one of our first dates, we rented a canoe and went up to the Upper Skagit and did a winter canoe paddle down looking at bald eagles,” John said.

Since then, the couple has hiked, skied and biked. But they always seem to return to the water, whether it’s fishing for halibut in Alaska or boating on Washington’s rivers.

All that traveling and adventuring has helped them grow together, Lisa said. Traveling outside your comfort zone, she said, forced them to learn to adapt on the fly.

Hard rock sobriety

Megan and Zachary Holt stand with their children Ezra, left, and Harper on July 22, 2017 at the Deep Creek climbing area. (Courtesy of Serra Barron)
Megan and Zachary Holt stand with their children Ezra, left, and Harper on July 22, 2017 at the Deep Creek climbing area. (Courtesy of Serra Barron)

Megan Holt wasn’t “a textbook alcoholic.”

But she “didn’t have a kill switch” when it came to drinking.

“When you have to grow up a bit and start a family, you realize your weaknesses can make or break your family,” she said. “Alcohol was a weakness for me.”

Megan has been sober since October 2014. That sobriety is largely because of two influences, climbing and her husband Zach Holt.

Together, the two stopped drinking, started a family and doubled down on their love of climbing.

“For me, climbing is important to my sobriety,” Megan said.

And it’s an important part of their relationship. The two train and climb together, both noting that being married to your climbing partner means it’s never hard to find someone to rope up with.

“Having that same passion just keeps it more exciting,” Zach said. “We talk about climbing. We watch climbing. We read about climbing. We study climbing. Then we mostly go climbing. It’s something we can both look forward to amongst parenting and working full-time jobs.”

Their two children, Ezra, 2, and Harper, 3, now join them on many adventures.

“We’re here at the (climbing) gym as we speak,” Megan said during a recent phone interview. “And our kids are lifting weights.”

The runners

Robert Thompson, left, and Ryan Oelrich walk through Palisades Park in the winter of 2015. The couple was celebrating their engagement in one of their favorite Spokane parks. (Courtesy of Kris Ogren)
Robert Thompson, left, and Ryan Oelrich walk through Palisades Park in the winter of 2015. The couple was celebrating their engagement in one of their favorite Spokane parks. (Courtesy of Kris Ogren)

When Ryan Oelrich, 36, is stressed out and overworked, his husband Robert Thompson, 36, reminds him to get outside.

“Rob is the one in our relationship that is always reminding me that we need to get outside,” Oelrich said. “Take a break from work. Outside is just this therapeutic force.”

Thompson added, “This time of year, it’s really easy for couples to sit at home and watch rerun of ‘Game of Thrones.’ ”

The two love watching television as much as anybody, but rafting and running in the Spokane area is a central part of their relationship, and one of their favorite things about living in Spokane.

“We can go for a run in Riverfront Park and meet at O’Doherty’s after,” Thompson said.

A toothbrush leads to marriage

Lannie Smith, middle, and Rocky Ross peer through binoculars at a Red-Cockaded woodpecker at the Piney Grove Preserve in Virginia. (COURTESY / Courtesy)
Lannie Smith, middle, and Rocky Ross peer through binoculars at a Red-Cockaded woodpecker at the Piney Grove Preserve in Virginia. (COURTESY / Courtesy)

Lannie Smith and Rocky Ross’ relationship started in the dumps.

The two met in 1983 on a rafting trip in Hell’s Canyon. It was a big trip, nearly 30 people, Ross said.

The group ran out of dry bags, so Smith put her stuff in garbage bags wrapped tightly together to keep the water out.

Unfortunately, someone mistook Smith’s personal items for garbage and threw it away.

“It was a five-day trip down the Hells Canyon and all she had was the clothes on her back,” Ross said.

Smith added, “Yeah, he asked me why I was wearing my prescription glasses at night.”

When Ross realized what happened, he was impressed.

“It was just unbelievable (to me) that she was so tolerant,” he said. “I loaned her my toothbrush and that locked me in.”

The couple got married in 1984. The two continued to raft, scuba dive and travel. Recently, they’ve picked up a new outdoor passion – birding.

They travel extensively looking for birds.

“When you’re birding, you’re a team,” Ross said. “You’re with each other all the time.”

“To have somebody who loves the same things that you love, I think increases your love for each other,” Smith said.

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