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Alaska to Appalachia: One family’s ties to WCU

john riddle

John Riddle

By Chaz Lilly

When John Riddle came to Western Carolina University, he was worried about the change in lifestyle he would face. Growing up in the village of Galena, a remote town of around 500 people in the Alaskan wilderness, he knew his unique experience would bring different challenges than the average freshman.

“I knew that it was going to be very overwhelming, and it was, but the rural location and small town feel of Cullowhee definitely eased the blow,” he said.

Also, John found comfort in the green forests and biodiversity of Western North Carolina.

“Everywhere I looked was very lush dense forest. Very different than the kind of forest up in Alaska,” Riddle said. “It seemed like there were living things everywhere. I remember my first day, all I did was walk around turning rocks, finding snakes, salamanders and all sorts of insects. I ended that first night sitting beside the clock tower watching a praying mantis.”

Weeks away from graduating, John will soon have a degree in natural resource conservation and management.

“I have fallen in love with this program over my past four years, and don’t think there’s a better fit of a major for me out there,” he said. “Having the Smokies and a multitude of national forests close by made WCU a prime location to dive into my major.”

Soon, Riddle will set out for a job working as a wildland firefighter.

“It’s bittersweet to leave this place but now I get to go out and use the information I’ve learned here to build a career,” he said. “I loved my time as a Catamount. Having such easy access to my favorite hobbies like backpacking, hiking, rafting and critter hunting really helped me grow my passion for the outdoors. If I went to a college that didn’t seem so outdoor oriented, I guarantee you I would have been a completely different person.”

It also helps that Riddle is not the only one in his family to have attended WCU.

In 1985, his father John Riddle Sr. walked into Brown Hall and saw, for the first time, the woman he would marry. Her name was Tara Garrett.  

“I saw this incredibly beautiful young lady going through the lunch line.  I couldn’t get her out of my mind,” he said.

As a freshman from Atlanta, he waited days to speak to Tara. She was outside playing hacky sack when he finally found the nerve. He jumped in the game to show off his skills and to ask her out.

“That hacky sack circle where I met John during the fall of ’85 was not the first time I laid eyes on him,” Tara said. “He first caught my eye while snaking through the long line at the campus bookstore, both of us waiting to pick up our new textbooks. He was a cute blonde with jean shorts and hiking shoes. I came from New Jersey and didn’t know a soul. So, when a few days later this cute blonde boy joined our hacky circle, I was excited.”

Since that day, the two have been side-by-side. 

“Our first date was at the Pizza Hut just down from the old Speedy’s,” John said. “Speedy’s was our second date. Our third was a climbing trip to Devil’s Courthouse. They were already in the process of releasing Peregrine falcons up there at the time.”

The pair spent the next four years sharing a love for the outdoors through backpacking, practicing with the canoe team, birding and climbing. 

Eventually, John and Tara graduated in 1989 with degrees in therapeutic recreation. They were married that same year. Then, the two would embark on adventure. They left Cullowhee for an extended backpacking trip in Western Montana and never looked back. Over the next several decades they worked and studied in Montana, South Carolina, Wyoming and Idaho.

They also had three kids – Julia, John and Joe. In 2012, the family settled in remote Alaska.  

“The rural Alaska lifestyle was good for the kids. They learned to hunt, split wood and to travel in the remote center of Alaska. They also played a lot of basketball and ate a lot of moose,” John Sr. said.

Riddle family

From left to right: Julia, Tara, John and John Sr. and Joe.

When it came time to choose a college, all three of their children returned to Cullowhee. They chose to continue the family tradition and study at the place where their parents met.

“It is always very hard to say goodbye and send your child off into the world,” Tara said. “We took comfort in the fact that Western North Carolina felt like a second home to us and WCU is a safe, comfortable campus that we felt our children would all love and fit in with its outdoor nature.”

Julia, the oldest child, said she was excited and nervous to move out of the Alaskan wilderness and into, comparatively, “the big city” of Cullowhee.

“I thought it would be incredibly hard to move to a place where there were more people in my dorm building than where I was from, but the community at Western made the jump easy,” Julia said.

She added that the First Ascent wilderness orientation program – where incoming students spend time camping, rafting and climbing – helped with the transition.

“I met people there who became close friends, my best friends,” she said. “It left a great first impression. Seeing the campus with its brick buildings tucked into all the green didn’t hurt either. It was such a fun way to start college.”

Julia earned a degree in parks and recreation management, which she immediately put to practice. After graduation, COVID-19 had limited her opportunities, but she found seasonal work at the Nantahala Outdoor Center and Cataloochie Ski Area.

“One of my professors, Callie Shultz, introduced me to seasonal work. I absolutely loved it and have been doing it since,” Julia said. “I’ve been able to travel a lot, which I am very grateful for. I was even able to spend a winter traveling Europe, which was a dream come true.”

Julia set the trail for her two younger brothers to follow.

The youngest sibling, Joe, is still a few years from graduating, but he said if he ever has children, he will encourage them to check out the Appalachian mountains for a place to study.

riddle house

The Riddles home in Alaska.

“We couldn’t have been happier with WCU and our children finding fulfilling experiences like we did,” John Sr. said. “We’re proud, grateful Catamounts.” 

Currently, John Sr. is the principal of a small school in an Inupiaq subsistence village on Barter Island on Alaska’s North Slope. However, John and Tara say they see themselves coming back to Western North Carolina.

“As we get up in years, and after 35 years of marriage, Tara and I look forward to returning and to walking, once again, among the trees on the most beautiful campus in the world. To me, there isn’t a place on Earth as beautiful and as ecologically diverse as the country surrounding Western Carolina University,” John Sr. said.

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