Reprinted from the Appalachian Trail News
with permission of the author
Hail Hiker: We Who Are About To Dig,
By John M. Hartigan
Have you ever wondered who makes the trails so nice to walk on? You
didn't think the 2100 miles of the AT just grew that way did you?
Actually, it's folks just like you and me. If you are interested in
reading about the benefits and rewards of being a trail maintainer
on the AT, try John Hartigan's piece on the subject. Or even take
it one step further and volunteer yourself!
Often, while hiking
in places around the world, I had wondered about who it was that kept
the trail I was on in shape for me to hike. I usually surmised that
some government agency kept a cadre of workers around to take care
of the occasional downed tree that blocked the trail. The weeds I
simply ignored. Foot traffic and the benevolent "god of hikers"
kept them at bay. Probably moles dug those grooves called "coweta
bumps" that seem to carry water off the trail. I thought it nearly
miraculous that nature had somehow created a "water bar"
to direct water from the trail. Especially when the water bars were
constructed of stone. Ignorance is truly bliss.
The steps were what finally did me in. I was enough of an engineer
to understand that stone steps in a woodland trail were not natural.
Someone put those stones in place for my benefit, to make my passage
through these woods a more pleasurable experience. Not only did someone
haul those stones, but someone selected stones of a rather precise
fit. Whoever it was also took the trouble to hew out the hillside
so each stone would fit. I owed them, whoever they were, a debt of
gratitude. Trail maintainers have added a great deal to my life.
Most of my hiking had been done solo or with my own family. It was
when I relocated to East Tennessee and found the Smoky Mountain Hiking
Club that I developed an appreciation for trail maintainers. Many
of the club's hikers were also maintainers and it was not long before
I was being invited out to see what goes on on trail maintenance days.
Although most of the chores, taken on by maintainers, are what you
would call hard work it is not just about hard work. There are great
benefits and the benefits far outweigh the efforts involved. For one
thing you are outdoors, in a woods or forest or on a mountain on a
regular basis. The exercise is a bonus. Nothing makes you feel quite
so good as to get out and get some real exercise, especially if you
do it on a regular basis. Hikers and joggers may exercise their legs,
but maintainers exercise legs, arms, shoulders, and backs (some days
even fingers are involved).
Then there are the people. The other maintainer volunteers are almost
always like minded people that you get to spend time with as you work
along your trail. Of course there are the people using the trail,
the hikers and tourists (especially on the AT within the Smoky Mountain
National Park) you encounter as you perform your tasks. These encounters
can be a real treat.
My wife and I, both members of the SMHC, maintain a section of the
Appalachian Trail that starts at Newfound Gap and extends 1.7 miles
north. We go out to work as often as we feel like it (and occasionally
when emergencies demand it) and we work as long as we are comfortable.
The chores we do there range from weed cutting to removing blown down
trees to reconstruction of damaged trail segments and clearing or
repairing water bars. In the process we educate visitors, chat with
"through hikers" and occasionally even render first aid
or other assistance to other Trail users.
One group of tourists we encountered were from Poland. They were amazed
to find unpaid volunteers doing menial tasks "for the government".
They were so impressed they photographed us at our tasks so they could
take the pictures home. We've also met hikers from Germany, Austria,
India, China, Japan and Korea not to mention people from many states.
Our very favorite question arises when tourists, huffing and puffing
from the unfamiliar stress of the trail, come upon us and gasp,"
How much farther is it?". That's a pretty hard question to answer.
Maine? I don't think so.
Probably the most rewarding encounters are with the "through
hikers". These people are nearly professional hikers. They have
a keen appreciation for a well maintained trail and don't mind telling
you, "you're doing a great job here". Frequently they stop
to chat, depending on their day's itinerary, and fill us in on the
status of the sections they have just come through. This information
is relayed to our area leaders who can then direct the attention of
other volunteers where they are needed.
The duties of a trail maintainer vary with the level of effort or
amount of energy you have to invest. Some volunteers are simply spotters,
hiking a section of trail and reporting trouble spots like downed
trees or unusual erosion spots. Others limit themselves to cutting
weeds while others get into the heavy chores like trail relocations.
Some get chainsaw training (There is a short period each spring wherein
maintainers are allowed to use chainsaws, in the park, to remove the
winter's blow downs) and work at removing downed trees that block
the trial. There is room for all levels of effort. (If you haul a
chainsaw in 5 or 6 miles it is nice to have someone else carry the
gas and oil).
There are other benefits to maintaining. For instance in summer, when
blackberry canes begin to encroach on the trail, volunteers get out
and drive them back with slingblades and hand powered weed whackers.
Any frustrations you have been building up, throughout the week, are
released completely as your blade slices through those "canes".
Here is a task where you can see the immediate results of your efforts.
If you have great frustrations to deal with try taking a Pulaski (combination
ax and grub hoe) to an old cedar stump. Wow!
The residual winds from hurricane Opal, in the early 90s, caused massive
destruction along the AT. It was not until the 1997 season that we
finally repaired the last of the trail damage on our section. (The
nearby downed trees will remind us of Opal for many years to come).
One problem occurred when the rootball of a giant fir tree ripped
a hole, twenty feet across, in the trail. We put some of the trunk
of a downed tree to use by shoring up the banking with it and then
using the remaining downed trees to fill the hole. It took four of
us all day long to move those logs into place and then back fill the
hole. Today you can't tell there ever was a problem there. As a matter
of fact we found one tourist family pushing a baby carriage up the
trail after we finished.
We (The SMHC) observe National Trails Day by organizing a large trail
maintenance outing (June 6 for 1998). Using whatever promotional avenues
we can afford we invite as many as will come out to spend some time
with experienced crew members and get a taste of maintaining. There
is a large cadre of experienced volunteers who are dedicated to helping
others get involved. No matter what level of effort you opt for, if
you come out to help, you will be properly trained by section leaders
who have lots of experience.
Those who wish to help are assigned to work with an experienced crew.
Everyone is trained at the activity they elect. Weedwhackers get trained
on the tool of choice. Chain saw operators must be certified through
classes offered by the National Park Service. After you gain enough
experience, to feel comfortable working on your own, you'll be assigned
to your own section if you want that. Some volunteers choose to work
as part of a crew rather than on their own and that's OK also. There
is always plenty for everyone to do.
Volunteers who wish to help maintain the Appalachian Trail within
the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or in the Nantahala National
Forest should contact Phyllis Henry, 564 Baker Street Seymour, TN
37865, Phone 415 577 2604, email HENRY@sworps.csw.utk.edu.
Those who wish to work in other areas of the AT should contact Morgan
Sommerville at 704 254 3708.
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