My husband, Lenny, and I are the proud adopted parents of a section of the Appalachian Trail. For seven years, we've maintained 4.9 miles of it, from Devils Fork Gap to Rice Gap, located north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and south of Hot Springs. It's not a spectacular piece of trail — no historic cabin, shelter or outstanding view. It's a long piece to maintain, though it doesn't seem like much when we hike it.
At least four times a year, we drive to "our" section, which is about an hour from Asheville. We leave a car at each end of the section, because we don't want to walk those 4.9 miles twice, loaded down with a Weed Eater, clippers, sheers, handsaws and garbage bags.
In February, we get our marching orders from our Carolina Mountain Club trails supervisor, Don Walton: "Get out there and check your A.T. section. The thru-hikers are coming."
The club takes its responsibilities seriously, maintaining 400 miles of trail, including 92 miles on the A.T., and nine shelters. Though we're considered a small club (a mere 1,000 members, more or less), we treat trail duties as if we were a large company, dividing up the labor into specific tasks. Lenny and I do the grunt work: We clip brush, clean water bars, pick up garbage and take out small blow-downs (fallen trees). We also paint blazes using glossy white exterior paint; the can says its paint is guaranteed for 25 years, but we have to refresh the blazes every few years. From Maine to Georgia, the entire A.T. is maintained by volunteers this way.
When we encounter a downed tree too big for our Silky saw, we call in the reinforcements — the CMC trail crew that wields chain saws. Year-round, CMC crews go out Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to do the heavy trail work. Most of these guys — and they're mostly guys — are well past the usual retirement age, averaging 70 years old. Many of them worked behind a desk for decades, and now they want to build things.
Bears have been active at several A.T. shelters lately, so Howard McDonald, CMC's trail facility manager, put a volunteer crew together to install bear cables, used to keep food out of reach of the animals. Funds from North Carolina A.T. license-plate fees cover the equipment costs, he explains, adding, "Frustrated bears and hikers playing Tarzan have caused some damage, but we're fixing them and strengthening them to prevent this from happening again. We have a very good system that the hikers like and will last for many years."
By early summer, blackberry canes can overwhelm swaths of trail. Since WNC is a temperate rainforest where such things grow easily and abundantly, we can't leave a trail untended for long, because in a few years, the trail would be so overgrown that we wouldn't find it again. So we need to keep such growth in check.
Walton says: "Adopting a trail is like adopting a highway. You get your own piece of real estate with magnificent views. You don't have to have great experience or powerful tools. You're the eyes and ears of the trail. You do what you can and report what you can't do. You work at your own pace."
For all this work, I get my reward when I meet hikers on our section. I stop them long enough to introduce myself. "Trails don't maintain themselves," I tell them. "Volunteers maintain trails. That's how the whole A.T. gets taken care of." In exchange for listening to me, I volunteer to take out their garbage. They're surprised at the offer: The usual trail magic is another piece of chocolate or granola bar. But when I hiked the A.T., getting rid of trash was the most annoying part of the trail routine, I recall.
Maybe I'm judging my A.T. section too harshly when I say it's not a spectacular trail. This plain duckling has some unusual features. It wiggles compass-south when you hike A.T. north. In May, the trail explodes with wildflowers; I've counted over 45 species, and I'm hardly an expert. There's plenty of intriguing evidence that people lived here before it was incorporated into Pisgah National Forest, including a two-grave cemetery and barbed-wire fences for cattle. The section also hosts the remains of two cabins that have been dismantled, the logs tumbled down over white, metal kitchen cabinets. Last year, we hauled out a white toilet. The cabinet remains are probably considered artifacts by now, since they're over 50 years old. A nameless waterfall has a large log across it, guaranteeing that its photo will probably never grace the pages of a calendar.
So on reflection, like all trail sections adopted by volunteers, my piece is interesting, good-looking and certainly above average.
For more information and to volunteer for trail work, go to www.carolinamtnclub.org, look under "Maintenance" and click on "Schedule."
[Danny Bernstein, a hike leader and outdoor writer, is the author of Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]