Original hikers lead the way

Summit Metro Parks
5 min readSep 8, 2022


Christy Counterman, Marketing Assistant

Bill Barnes’ 1966 Fall Hiking Spree Form.

In September 1964, the Akron Metropolitan Park District’s Green Islands newsletter invited residents to hike seven trails between October 1 and December 1 to earn a hiking staff. “Hiking,” said Park Director Dr. Arthur T. Wilcox, “is one of the best forms of outdoor exercise for young and old.” That fall, 1,530 local residents completed the spree.

Now, as Summit Metro Parks launches its 59th annual Fall Hiking Spree, the number of spree trails has grown to 13, although only eight are required to earn rewards. Novice spree hikers earn a hiking staff, while returning hikers earn a metal shield to “tack onto their staffs to display their status.” Longtime naturalist Bert Szabo is credited with creating the shield reward after seeing similar medallions on hiking staffs in European countries.

Five original hikers have certainly earned the right to display their status, as they have completed the Fall Hiking Spree for 58 consecutive years. Bill Barnes, who began hiking with his wife Jo Anne, was known for his volunteer service to the parks, beginning his park career in 1992. He donated thousands of hours at our nature center information desk and gift shop, worked with natural resources and the conservation department, was a volunteer photographer, guided the Towpath Trail golf cart tours and served as an event representative. He is perhaps best known for starting the Shield Assistance program, where he and other volunteers attach hiking shields to the staffs of those who have completed the Fall Hiking Spree. At each session, Bill would display his “home” hiking staff, with all of the shields from Summit Metro Parks, and his “away” hiking stick covered with shields form his travels all over the world.

Heritage Hiker Bill Barnes, creator of the Shield Assistance program.

In 1971, Joan Haby was already an accomplished hiker, noting she and her family had walked 305 miles since the spree began in 1964. She and her husband Larry began hiking before they were married, and Joan has completed all 58 years of the spree despite being injured in an auto accident. Children Charles and Karen followed in their parents’ footsteps, Charles first being carried along on his dad’s shoulders in 1969 (in 1970, he walked the trails on his own). In 1971, Karen was believed to be the youngest person to be awarded a hiking staff that year, at 13 1/2 months old, after riding in a backpack rack along the eight trails. The family tradition has carried on to a third generation, and you can find the Haby family at Fall Hiking Spree Kickoffs to get a head start on their next milestone year.

Joan Haby

As a WWII Army nurse stationed in Korea who later returned to Akron City Hospital to continue her career, Neva Ucker knew the meaning of the word challenge. Completing her 58th Fall Hiking Spree at the age of 100, with four generations of her family hiking along, was an impressive feat. As a Girl Scout leader in 1964, she saw the spree as an opportunity to teach her troop about nature, but soon after, she introduced her family to hiking. Son Eric took nature exploration to heart and became a wildlife officer. At Silver Creek Metro Park, Neva often sits on the benches along the trail to watch for wildlife, and she was happy to dedicate a bench at Tallmadge Meadows Area of Munroe Falls Metro Park to all future hikers. Back in the early years of the spree, she enjoyed the ledges at Virginia Kendall, which was then part of the Fall Hiking Spree. Now she is happy to discover Ledges Trail at Liberty Park to enjoy the mosses and ferns. When people see her hiking staff full of shields, they always ask what her favorite trail is. She can’t decide as she has special memories from all of them, but her favorite things on the trails are the people she meets enjoying nature. Her main goal then and now is to encourage her children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren to be nature lovers and she’s glad to be able to watch them enjoy the parks!

Neva Ucker (left) with friend and SMP Sales Supervisor Sharon White.

Jennifer Hoffman also comes from a family of spree hikers. She earned her staff in 1964 with parents Elmer and Marion Hoffman, who hiked the trails together for the first 35 years. Brother Brian joined in 1971 upon his return from Vietnam and has hiked for more than 30 years. Back in the 1960s and 70s, hikers had to do every hike on the list in order to receive their rewards, and only staffs were awarded to first-year hikers. The challenge of the O’Neil Woods and Hampton Hills climbs were monumental for little feet. Stream crossings were much more primitive then, with only stepping stones or narrow two-board bridges to help hikers navigate over the water. But sometimes on warmer days, splashing in a cool brook was preferred!

Jennifer Hoffman

Tradition is important for the Pier family, as Jennie Pier started hiking with her husband Russ in 1964’s inaugural year. Russ didn’t miss a year until 2012, and Jennie completed her 58th year in 2021 for the park centennial. Russ Jr. was born in the spring of 1967, and was carried along the trails that fall to earn his hiking staff, along with his sister. After Russ Jr. and wife Jennifer (not to be confused with mom Jennie) had children, they were carried along on the trails until they were able to hike on their own. Three of those kids (along with their parents) have not missed a year of hiking since 2000. The Piers cherish pictures of the family enjoying the lake at Virginia Kendall and visiting the ducks at Little Turtle Pond at Firestone Metro Park, one of their eagerly anticipated hikes.

Jennie Pier

Whether you are a longtime hiker or trying the spree for the first time, we hope you are inspired by these stories. Watch for these original hikers along the trail and congratulate them for continuing the legacy of the Fall Hiking Spree.



Summit Metro Parks

Summit Metro Parks manages 15,000 acres, 16 parks, three nature centers and more than 150 miles of trails. Find more at www.summitmetroparks.org.