“It reached a point where it suddenly hit us like why don’t we just go home and do what we love?”
For Sierra Fogal and Reed Confer — NEPA natives, NEPA sweethearts and all-around NEPA nature enthusiasts, a quick, post-college stint on the sunny coast of San Francisco was just not enough. Both grew up in NEPA – Sierra in Jim Thorpe / Reed in Dalton. What’s more, both grew up on the ski slopes, on the rivers, on the trails of Northeastern PA. The rolling Pocono Mountains, the cool, clear Lehigh River and snowy, Endless Mountain winters are, in a sense, in their blood.
And they’ve got the chops to prove it. Sierra’s family opened Jim Thorpe’s popular Pocono Whitewater, Pocono Biking and Skirmish Paintball over 46 years ago. Reed’s family has run Elk Mountain Ski Resort since as far back as he can remember. These kids, in many respects, were raised by the seasons. They came of age exploring the wild that surrounded them. And, when the time came, both took their leave to see if they could find that magic elsewhere. They couldn’t.
At 18, Sierra, with her sights set on Syracuse University, met Reed, a fumbling Keuka College intern at Pocono Whitewater (with eyes for the owner’s daughter). A bold move – he admits. Anyway, love ensued and endured and followed them back from a brief California sojourn. Next, a summer camp-styled wedding, two darling daughters and Ziggy – a trusty Golden Doodle. All that’s left, really, is for these two to bike or raft or paddle board off into the Pocono sunset. And I think that’s kind of the plan.
We caught up with Sierra and Reed at Pocono Whitewater headquarters in Jim Thorpe. There’s a love story here – two, in fact. One of a couple dewy-eyed kids finding their way in this world. And one about a place and a connection forged in that first glance at a river, or on the slopes during one of those thick, silent snowfalls. And, somewhere in all of that, we had to ask, Why NEPA?
How long have you lived in NEPA?
Sierra: Yeah, so I was born here, and I’ve lived here until I was 18 and then went away to college. I then spent a year in Africa working for the Government of Rwanda and then three years in San Francisco. And then I moved back in 2015. Altogether, I’ve lived here about 26 years.
Reed: Let’s think about this. I’m 36 now, so, if we count college, I was gone for about 10 years. So, it’s about the same.
What do you love about your town?
Sierra: Jim Thorpe is truly a gem. The way the mountains all come together – it’s just beautiful. And then, the access to the outdoors. It’s just unmatched. I can get on the D&L Trail and ride my bike, run, walk, walk the dog… whatever. I can be in the state park in five minutes. Sometimes, I just walk from my house down to the Lehigh River and put in with my paddle board. It’s so easy. It’s right there (laughs). So, I can use the State Park, the river, the trail. It’s really easy access to what I love to do. And you have that nice, little downtown, so you can get coffee, or a drink, or dinner.
Reed: It really is awesome. No lie. I mean we can literally walk from our house to the river and be fishing, kayaking and paddle boarding. We are just kind of shoved in here between two mountains. The commute to go mountain biking is like 100 feet (laughs). It’s so cool. We’re very fortunate to be here.
What’s your favorite NEPA restaurant?
Sierra: You know, I was actually reading through some of these Why NEPA’s and I was trying to come up with a good answer for this one, but I think I just have to say Molly’s. It’s always reliable. The food is great. It’s a laid-back atmosphere. And especially now, since we have two kids, it’s so nice to have this relaxed, reliable place to go for dinner. And it’s super convenient. So, yeah, it’s gotta’ be Molly’s for me.
Reed: I really don’t think I can pick my favorite. I do like Molly’s…Oh wait. I love Notch Eight. It’s pretty amazing.
Sierra: Yeah. Notch Eight has a really great rotating menu.
Reed: It’s just really fun. I mean it’s this great bar, but, honestly, the food may be better than the drinks. And their drinks are exceptional…
Sierra: Oh, Reed does have a favorite drink there. It’s called The Bottom B*@#h (laughs).
Reed: (laughing) Oh God… It’s so bad, but it’s so good. It’s fruity and girly and just shy of having an umbrella in it. And everybody makes fun of me for it. I guess the name kind of says it all.
What’s your favorite thing to do in NEPA?
Sierra: Be outside. Rafting. On a kayak. I love the river. I grew up on the river. I travel to different rivers around the world. We actually went to do a river for our honeymoon. It’s what we do. So, living here right by the Lehigh and being able to do the river whenever I want is pretty awesome. Of course, having a rafting company kind of makes that a little easier, right? (laughs). Yeah. The Lehigh River is my favorite thing to do… always.
Reed: I have to second that. The Lehigh is awesome. I love to kayak and raft and flyfish. I’ve really gotten back into that since moving back home. Also, the skiing is good. The mountain biking is really fun as well.
Sierra: And don’t forget Rail Trail biking. The thing about the Rail Trail is that we can take the girls. We can put them in little cabooses. It’s nice and flat.
Reed: Yeah. The Rail Trail is perfect for everybody. I love my mountain bike, but sometimes, jumping on my gravel bike and just cranking out 23 miles is so fun. And it’s right there.
What’s next for you?
Sierra: Personally, what’s next for us, I think, is just watching our daughters grow up. I mean, we’re done. Two kids. We’re happy with that. We’re excited about it (laughs). For us, it’s just fun to be around family. We always have a ton of family around – aunts and uncles and pseudo aunts and uncles. We’re just excited to raise the girls here and to teach them how to bike on the trail and bring them down to the river and to teach them how to ski. That was our childhood here, you know? We were always doing all of those things all the time, and it’s exciting, for us, to watch our girls have that same experience.
Reed: That’s definitely it. We were raised in such similar environments. I wouldn’t even want to imagine it any other way. First, just being able to introduce them to these outdoor activities at such a young age is really kind of special, when you think about it. Not everyone gets to do that. And also, I grew up at a ski resort, Sierra grew up here. We had so many people around us – the pseudo-uncles and cousins, like you said – it’s just this super fun tribe of people who love doing all of these things that we love to do. They’ll have all of these people lookin’ out for them. It’s really cool. And with a rafting company, we draw in people from all over the world, all walks of life.
Sierra: Yeah, we both learned a lot from our experiences growing up in this type of environment and we want our girls to have that same thing.
Where do you see NEPA heading in the future?
Sierra: I actually think Covid taught a lot of people in Northeastern PA and a lot of the nearby cities that they need the outdoors. And throughout those two years, especially, people came out to the Poconos and NEPA and they rediscovered just how many cool things you can do here. And now I think we’re going to continue to see that. People are looking for that balance in their lives. They realized that they need to be outside spending time in nature. On top of that, those people also happen to need places to stay and restaurants and things to do on rainy days. So, I think we’re inevitably going to see this area continue to grow as an effect of that.
Reed: Yeah. You nailed it. The value of these activities – biking, rafting, hiking, etc. – is far greater than, I think, we’ve ever realized. Northeastern PA, with all of this great nearby nature and activities and its proximity to bigger cities, is definitely on its way up. Just this area, specifically, we’ve got a new hospital coming in. We’re always seeing new homes going up and old homes being refreshed. That’s pretty encouraging.
Sierra: A big reason for me is the community. I really like working with my father. He started this company and this great community just grew around it. That’s a big one for me. And, of course, having family around and being able to do what we love around our community and our tribe and our families is very important to both of us. I think that was always important to us, but once we had the girls, it became that much more important. The other reason for “Why NEPA?” is because this is a very accessible outdoor experience. You don’t have to be an expert rafter or an expert mountain biker to come here and enjoy yourself. It’s very beginner-oriented and it attracts a very diverse clientele. And it’s really interesting to meet all of these different types of people from so many different walks of life.
Reed: Yeah. From the bottom of my heart, I think the opportunity is far greater here. When I think of California, and I loved living there too, but there was already an established industry there with so many different outfitters. I think that, here, we have a far better opportunity to affect more people, which, to me, is really cool. We watch it happen in front of our faces, in real time, every weekend.
Sierra: It’s almost like we’re this hidden gem, because nobody really thinks about it, but, you know, when you think outdoor stuff, it’s like I want to go to Colorado or California, but you literally don’t have to go that far. It’s right here… in NEPA.