Offbeat activities are the new norm at Pipestem State Park
PIPESTEM — Visitors to West Virginia’s Pipestem State Park have no shortage of unusual ways to spend their time.
In addition to the usual park fare — hiking, fishing, sightseeing, horseback riding — Pipestem’s guests can try their hands at Murbles, slack lining, gaga ball, disc golf and radio-controlled car racing.
“It’s all about giving our guests variety,” said Kim Hawkins, the park’s activities coordinator. “Our superintendent, Dave Caplinger, wanted us to offer some things that aren’t going on everywhere else.”
By all accounts, Caplinger and Hawkins have succeeded. For not much money at all, they’ve significantly expanded the park’s list of recreational activities.
The expansion began two years ago when Caplinger took a long, hard look at the huge concrete slab that housed the park’s ice-skating rink.
“The rink had never worked right and it wasn’t getting used,” Caplinger said. “So I started thinking about ways we might use it.”
Inspiration struck one day when he encountered a group of local folks playing with radio-controlled cars in one of Pipestem’s large paved parking areas.
One of the players, Marvin Purdy, said he thought Caplinger was going to chase them off the lot.
“Instead, he asked us what it would take to turn the ice rink into a NASCAR-style oval R/C track,” Purdy said.
The track went into service in November 2012, and has since been joined by a dirt track built by a group of local R/C enthusiasts.
“We’ve got the best of both worlds,” Purdy said. “We can race on the oval or we can race on dirt.”
Murbles, slack lining and gaga ball debuted at Pipestem earlier this year.
Murbles are grapefruit-sized solid-plastic marbles that weigh about half a pound apiece. Their name comes from their inventor, Murray Kramer, who loosely based the game on traditional marbles and the age-old game of bocce.
“One player tosses out a white ball, called the ‘point ball,’ no more than 30 feet away in any direction,” Hawkins explained. “The players then try to toss or roll three colored balls as close to the point ball as possible. Any balls closer to the to the point ball than the opponent’s closest ball are awarded a point apiece.
“The cool thing about Murbles is that you can play in a defined area, or you can take the game cross-country all over the park. Generally our guests play in the fields near our campground.”
Slack lining involves balancing on a long nylon ratchet strap strung between two trees.
“It’s not as easy as some people make it look,” Hawkins said. “I went online and saw some YouTube videos of people slack-lining, and some of them were doing crazy flips and stuff. Believe me, most people do well just to balance on the strap without holding onto the overhead grab rope.”
Some slack lines don’t have overhead ropes, but Caplinger and Hawkins felt that most campers’ lack of experience at the activity called for a safety-first approach. Both of Pipestem’s slack lines are set low to the ground in case someone falls off.
“People of all ages seem to be drawn to the slack lines,” Hawkins said. “I think everyone can remember trying to balance on stuff when they were kids.”
The park’s gaga ball pit sits in a grassy field just 30 yards or so from the treeline where the slack lines are located.
Gaga, which in Hebrew means “touch-touch,” is a tamer, much less violent version of dodge ball. Play takes place inside an octagonal low-walled wooden structure. Players slap a rubber playground ball at the other players’ legs. Contestants must leave the pit if the ball touches them anywhere below the knee.
“Most people aren’t familiar with the game, but once they try it, they can’t seem to get enough of it,” Hawkins said.
Superintendent Caplinger said the beauty of the new activities is that none of them cost much money to put in place. “The most expensive by far was our 18-hole disc golf course, and that only cost about $7,000,” he said. “We try to add activities that can easily be absorbed into the park’s budget.”
The disc golf course, located beside Pipestem’s scenic par-3 conventional golf course, has attracted what Hawkins calls “a steady clientele” since its installation last year.
“We have season passes available for people who play the course regularly,” she said. “It has gotten pretty popular. We ran a fall tournament last year and a spring tournament this year, and they attracted a good many players.”
Hawkins’ next idea for the disc golf course is to hold a night tournament using glow-in-the dark Frisbees. “We hold night golf tournaments on our regular par-3 course, and those fill up fast. I figure the night disc tournament will, too,” she said.
Pipestem’s next forays into unusual recreation will employ the “go big or go home” philosophy.
“We’ve made a human ‘Sorry’ board,” Hawkins said. “You not only play the game, you are your own game piece. We’re planning to do the same thing with Monopoly, and if I can find a way to make the pieces light enough, I want to come up with an oversized Jenga game.”
The overall goal, Hawkins said, is to create a list of activities large enough and unusual enough to pique guests’ interest and get them outdoors.
“I call it ‘getting them some vitamin N’ — N for Nature,” she explained. “I get a lot of calls from people asking if we have Wi-Fi. I like to get those people outside and away from their computers for a while. I want to see us all outside and playing together.”