Within minutes of leaving the trailhead, a dense hardwood canopy of beech, poplar and ash gather to form enormous cathedral walls occasionally pierced by sunlight thrusting downward and sideways, laser-beam style to a forest floor covered with trillium, violet, anemone, hosta, and bloodroot. If you are willing to walk a few miles, you will traverse an assortment of creeks, modest waterfalls, and eventually, an open meadow of low-cut grass, golden in the winter, but otherwise a shamrock green. The meadow serves as an oversized welcome mat fronting a seemingly endless array of mountains so grand and blue, you may need to sit momentarily to take it all in.
On walks like this, when I find myself totally conscious of the fact that much of my pleasant day has been made possible by volunteers who work fervently to design, build, and maintain many of the trails I walk on, I feel humble and grateful. I’ve been wanting to learn more about these behind-the-scene superheroes so I decided to get in touch with a few local conservation groups to learn how these trail blazers practice their craft.
I contacted groups working in North Carolina and spoke with trail builders from local hiking clubs and land trusts as well as larger groups that oversee trails spanning multiple states.
My first contact was with Kyle Obermiller who works for the Triangle Land Conservancy. The conservancy is about to open 600+ acres of forest and trails in Orange County. Kyle is working with other TLC staff members and volunteers to get that property ready for a grand opening later this year. “When it comes to trails, the toughest challenge is bad weather,” says Kyle. “Inspiring volunteers on a cold and windy day can be difficult and sometimes projects are put on hold until work locations are clear of potentially dangerous conditions.” Kyle is responsible for 16 miles of trails located on almost 5,000 acres of protected meadows and woodlands in central North Carolina
Over on the western part of the state, if you ask Pete Petersen, Councilor for Trail Maintenance for the Carolina Mountain Club about his biggest challenges, he would mention recruiting and training volunteers. The club maintains about 450 miles of trail primarily in the Pisgah and Nantahala Forests, but also in state parks, along the Appalachian Trail, and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. That many miles require an army of people working on various projects ranging from routine trail maintenance to more rigorous duties such as trail building, renovation and restoration. A variety of tools including chainsaws, light and heavy-duty winches, weed eaters, Hazel Hoes, Pulaski’s, and loppers are typically used. Building bridges, repairing shelters and putting in stone or log steps are a few of the more interesting tasks involved. There is also a crew working in wilderness areas using non-mechanized tools. When asked what keeps volunteers coming back to such challenging work conditions, Pete says, “the satisfaction one gets from working in the outdoors and completing projects cannot be beaten. Considerable camaraderie exists within each trail crew.”
Tom Weaver, Trails Facilities Manager with the Carolina Mountain Club, credits much of their success to about 100 active trail maintainers grouped into seven trail crews, with each crew having a seasoned leader. “We average over 50 people out working on our trails each week, says Tom. “Some of our projects can be very challenging. Installing a new or replacing an existing bridge for example can require building materials to be transported a great distance through mountainous terrain to the site. The length of span to be bridged needs to be accurately assessed. Sometimes the availability of usable materials nearby is considered. Locust trees are our first choice for the bridge supports as they are very dense and last a long time. Finding nearby trees of sufficient length and thickness to bridge a span ranging from 10 to 25 feet is not easy though. Moving large logs safely requires a lot of muscle power, rollers and/or mechanical hoists. A combination of these resources is also needed to get one end of the first log across the span. Support logs are typically used on either end of a span and rebar might be used to hold everything in place. The depth of the span and the amount of water flowing under the bridge determine whether railings are needed.”
Working with rocks to create steps or low water crossings brings similar challenges. Weight is an obvious one when considering safe movement from where they are found to where they are needed. As you can imagine, rocks are not as easy to move as logs and adjusting them to the configuration needed is another challenge. Rocks placed on a trail must be stable so that anyone stepping on them does not cause movement.
Long and challenging trails such as the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail otherwise known as the AT depend a lot on local volunteer groups like the Carolina Mountain Club who maintain much of the North Carolina section of the AT. Working in tandem with these groups, especially when working miles from a trailhead requires special equipment and crews that can set up camp for multiple days and nights, is the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). With a bigger spending budget, the ATC can assign experienced paid staff and enthusiastic volunteer trail crews to a project. These crews can spend up to a week in remote locations like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Trail crews follow a 200-page book of standards partly based on research in recreational ecology so we have learned what works and doesn’t work and can quickly address special situations,” says Chris Binder, an ATC trail specialist who supervises trail crew leaders.
On an outing closer to home in the piedmont section of the state, I ran into Fred Dietrich, a volunteer with the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Fred coordinates volunteer work along the Eno River in Orange and Durham counties. He and a work crew were about to patrol a 5-mile section of trail in the Eno River State Park. I decided to tag along with hopes of getting a closer view of a typical volunteer workday. While cleaning up debris from a recent storm and hand-sawing two fallen trees blocking the trail, Fred brought to light the decision-making that needs to happen when planning repairs to a trail. There are miles of trails along the Eno River within protected lands surrounded by a densely populated area. He explained that most of these trails are subject to flooding, ground saturation, and heavy usage, making trail maintenance challenging. In most cases, trails can be repaired along their current route using durable materials such as rock and soil. In some cases rerouting the trail is the preferred option, making the trail more sustainable and more enjoyable to hikers. Fred is thankful to have an abundance of local individuals, youth groups, and non-profit groups that provide volunteer time for this work. A very engaged organization is the Eno River Association, which is celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. Their Trail Stewards Group also carries out crucial maintenance of park trails by having individuals walk their favorite trail frequently, doing light maintenance as they go. This effort not only helps keep the trails in good shape, it also gives the more than 1000 volunteers a sense of ownership in the park. When asking Fred how he feels about working on a project as grand as the 1,200 mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail, he answers in a very casual voice, “I don’t think of this work as maintaining some great trail system. My emphasis is on making the local trails accessible to the local community. The fact that many of these trails link together to something much larger is an added bonus.”
During my walk with Fred’s crew, we come upon a large rock assembly jutting out over and into the river. There are many boulders strewn about here forming rapids and humble waterfalls. Compared to the quiet we had been experiencing in the forest, the gushing of the water introduces drama and excitement. Interspersed with the fast water are large pools with sunlight bouncing off their rippling surface, adding a visual splendor to the stage. I find myself breathless. I spot a large flat rock perfect for sitting and contemplation. Here I bid farewell to Fred and his crew as I nod toward the sparkling waters. The crew continues on and I become acutely aware that I am the only human within sight distance, possibly farther, and I drift into euphoria. There is a resident blue heron on this section of the river and wonder if he will be gliding over the water today during my break. Whether he decides to come out or not, I am totally content in this moment and also looking forward to enjoying the freshly swept trails during the remainder of my walk along the river.