Raised in a small Utah farming town, Karli Brophy, 23, of Norfolk, grew up loving the outdoors. But she has always had an extreme fear of water. “Terrified doesn’t even express how afraid I am,” she said. When she was 12 years old, she faced her hear of water for the first time.
Karli went on a hiking trip to Zion National Park in Utah with her friend, her friend’s dad, and a few other adults. She remembers being excited and nervous during the two-hour drive to the park since this was her first 10-mile hike and there would be some climbing involved.
“I drenched my body in bug spray and sunscreen, adjusted my backpack, strapped my shoes a little tighter, grabbed my friend’s hand, and headed down the trail,” she said. The girls wanted to be in the lead to show the adults they could handle the hike, Karli said.
They walked and walked and walked, surrounded by vibrant rainbows of color—reds, pinks, oranges, and black—patterned in the rock. Once her foot slipped when she was rappelling down the first big obstacle. “My heart stopped,” Karli said. When both her feet touched the ground, a huge smile erupted on her face.
“That is a high I will never be able to verbally express to anyone,” she said. “The knowledge of accomplishing something so huge—it’s a feeling that is incomprehensible until you’ve completed the task yourself.”
Deep within a canyon, Karli felt on top of the world—until she saw her first “swimmer,” hiker’s code for water too deep to wade through. “Terror had never been so abundant in my heart,” she said. “I just knew I was going to die in that stagnant pool of doom.” She announced that she was absolutely not going through it, but it was too late to go back. “My friend’s dad told me I could do it,” Karli explained. “We counted to three and did it together.”
Just a few minutes later, the group came upon a second swimmer, this one with a waterfall. Terror filled Karli again. “Sometimes fears just don’t go away no matter how many times you face them,” Karli said. “And you know what? That is OK. Accept the fear. Keep a strong heart and get through it.”
Karli said she still cries every time she has to face water, but every time she faces it, it makes her like the hike that much better. “Take life one fearful moment at a time,” she said.
Here in Tidewater local women willingly seek adventure and physical challenges daily. They also guide and watch others face fears and challenges. Though in different decades of life, their adventurous outlooks are the same. These confident women are ready to take on what life has to offer. Here are their inspiring stories.
JUST YOU AND NATURE
Karli started dance classes at age three and loved jazz and hip hop, especially the challenge of dance and how flexible it made her body. Today she’s an avid rock climber.
As one who faces her fears on a regular basis, she empathizes with others whose battles with fear can often hold them back. “Fear isn’t a weakness,” she said and noted that people are often scared of things until they try them. Afterwards, they have a sense of accomplishment. “Just doing something once can change your perspective and life,” she said.
Karli recalls her first rock climb as extremely difficult, but it taught her to approach challenges like solving a puzzle. “It’s just you and a rock and you have to get up it. You have to listen to yourself. It’s exercise for your brain and body,” she said.
Karli was on the drill team in high school before taking on more challenging sports. She grew to love the canyon colors of Utah and California. “From fire red to deep orange, it’s almost like you’re on a different planet,” she said.
She moved to northern California and became a high ropes director and rock-climbing instructor. At a Girl Scouts of America camp, she guided underprivileged women and taught them outdoor skills. Karli said she loved helping them feel empowered through their achievements.
Karli’s passions include hiking, climbing, camping, rappelling and slot canyoneering. In slot canyoneering, imagine two mountains very close together, Karli explained—so close that you might have to squeeze sideways to get through them. Slot canyoneering requires lots of rappelling: sliding down top to bottom. In the process of traversing the terrain, your busy life—work, cleaning, cooking, looking after your child or pet—just fades away, Karli says. “It’s just you and nature.”
Adventure sports give women self esteem, Karli said, because solving problems makes us more confident. Time alone is an added bonus, she noted. As you concentrate on the task at hand, you release responsibilities and stresses.
Adventure sports also give you a chance to lead, she said. “You probably know someone who isn’t familiar with that sport and you can introduce them to it,” she said.
She and her childhood friend embarked on college together and rock climbed weekly. “I can’t even count how many people I took on their first climb,” she said. She also took on sky diving a few years ago and continues to enjoy it.
Karli and her husband live in Norfolk. Until last year, she worked as an outdoor specialist at Greenlife Adventure Sports. Now a recruiter for Caliper Inc., a Virginia Beach staffing agency, she’s studying to be a college professor. With that job, she’s looking forward to having summers off from work to travel and fit in lots of adventures.
“I’ve always seen life as an adventure,” said Kema Geroux, 51, of Virginia Beach. She grew up in Montana where outdoor activities are a way of life. A springboard diver in high school, she now enjoys hiking in the woods, going to the beach with family, and kayaking. “Anything outdoors,” she said. As general manager of The Adventure Park at Virginia Aquarium, which opened in May, Kema gets to work outdoors and enjoy daily adventures.
Kema ran Virginia Beach City Schools’ ropes and initiatives course for 14 years. The adventure-based education program was used for team building among school staff and students in grades six through 12. Through team games and personal challenges, participants applied skills—communication, collaboration, and problem solving—which prepared them for a successful future.
People would often ask if they could bring family to the ropes course or have a birthday party there, but the school system’s course was not set up as a family program, Kema explained. The questions planted a seed, however. Two years ago she and her friend, Wendy Tompkins, who is now assistant manager of The Adventure Park, began looking for options to offer such challenges to a wider group of people.
“We discovered that the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center was looking at the same thing,” Kema said. The decision was made to move forward—with the park slated to be built on land owned by the Virginia Aquarium Foundation. After reviewing proposals, the foundation chose Outdoor Venture Group of Connecticut to design and build an eco-friendly zip line and aerial adventure park for all ages next to the aquarium in the trees above Owls Creek.
As manager, Kema draws on her previous career with the school system’s ropes course to ensure guests have a positive experience on the trails, as the various paths at The Adventure Park are called. “I’ve always been a firm believer that when people experience adventure outdoors, it creates a stronger sense of caring for and connection with that environment,” Kema said. The Adventure Park and the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center share the same mission.
Joan Barns, public relations manager at the Aquarium, said the park is a natural fit and reinforces their conservation message. It also offers a unique way to enjoy the grounds. “It’s a great benefit that people who are drawn to the park might also be drawn to the Aquarium’s Nature Path,” she said. And it gives visitors a new dimension to their walk in the woods. It’s fun for them to look up, stop, and watch climbers up there, Joan said.
First-time participants may be a bit hesitant to embark on the trails, which range in difficulty from beginning to challenging. But after a safety briefing, Kema said she often sees a visible sigh of relief from moms: “Their shoulders relax.” With state-of-the-art equipment, there’s never a time when you’re vulnerable in the air, Kema explained. “With that type of assurance, it gives you permission to do something that might be totally outside of what you’d normally do,” she said.
Kids seem to understand the safety system more quickly than adults, explained Kema. “After the first couple bridges, they’re telling their moms what to do.” Seeing that reverse relationship is rewarding, she said. She likes watching moms discover that their kids are more capable than they had expected.
Kema and her husband have three children. In addition to their support, she’s thankful to have had adventurous, supportive women in her life who were great mentors. “I think the lives of women and the expectations of what is possible have evolved since my, and certainly my grandmother’s generation,” she said.
When you step outside of what feels comfortable, a lot of good can happen, said Kema. “If you stay in comfort for long, you forfeit a possibility of self discovery, growth, and experiencing the world from another viewpoint,” she said. “The park can awaken people to the idea that they are capable of more than they thought.”
Kema said that people might discover their adventure at The Adventure Park, but she’d really like them to take that feeling home and apply it to other parts of their lives. She thinks that everyone can use a little adventure. Deciding you want to do something different and taking a step in a new direction is an excellent start.
WRAPPED UP IN RIGHT NOW
Isa Cohen, 31, of Virginia Beach, was raised in a family that loved sports and adventure. Her mom, who still competes nationally in water skiing, introduced her to swimming early and water skiing at age 6. She sloshed through miles of water parks with her dad. They always dove down the highest water slides, she said. Her family lived in Pennsylvania until she was 14, but she always loved the beach. Now as the owner of Tula Adventure Sports in Virginia Beach, Isa is living her dream of constant beach adventures.
“Adventure sports have always appealed to me,” said Isa, who enjoys a range of adventure activities: mountain biking, snowboarding, surfing, paddle boarding, and kite surfing, to name a few. When she’s paddle boarding, her 93-pound golden doodle dog, Bruce, loves to come along for the ride.
In high school, Isa competed in water skiing, slalom and trick skiing. She taught wake boarding through summers in college and still enjoys teaching.
Now Isa owns Tula Adventure Sports, a paddleboard water sports company specializing in paddle boarding lessons and excursions. They offer a full schedule of events, including a popular daily downstream excursion from the shop to First Landing State Park. Isa loves seeing women try something new. “It’s super rewarding to see someone else get as excited about their accomplishments as you do! she said”
Isa recently participated in a Kite Surf Pro Tour competition in Hawaii. The off shore winds, cliffs and reefs were intimidating, she said. “Every time I launched my kite it was like a survivor mission,” she said.
When she talks about a perfect day “kiting,” Isa sounds like she’s recalling a fond dream. “You walk onto the beach, check conditions, your board under one arm, and your kite under the other. You see buddies who beat you there, the wind is blowing your hair back, and you’re smiling ear-to-ear,” she said. “Set up quickly, so you can get on water as fast as possible. Look at the waves, anticipating your moves. Cut super fast across the water, thinking, ‘I made it.’ Go down wind, kite along a couple streets, help each other land out your kites, wipe the salt water off your faces, and talk about how awesome it was!”
During moments like this, you’re so wrapped up in “right now,” Isa said. “You don’t think about what you dealt with all day or your strains for tomorrow. It’s really relieving.”
Adventure sports are important, Isa said. “Trying things that scare us helps us realize we can do it. It helps you build a life of independence as a strong woman who knows you can handle whatever is thrown at you.”
Isa sees a lot of trepidation from first-time clients. You remedy that with information, she said. Many women who inquire about skills needed for paddle boarding or kite surfing think it’s about strength, Isa said. It’s got more to do with finesse and going through the steps to learn it properly, she explained. Once informed, they’re much less intimidated. “They realize it’s not too hard,” Isa said, “and they think ‘I can do that.’”
For more information, visit:
• The Adventure Park at Virginia Aquarium
757-385-4947 or 757-385-IZIP
• Tula Adventure Sports
Mary Ellen Miles is a freelance writer who lives in Virginia Beach.