Trail Maintainers of the Smokies and surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Reprinted from the Appalachian Trail News
with permission of the author

 Hail Hiker: We Who Are About To Dig, Salute You
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

Those who wish to work in other areas of the AT should contact Morgan Sommerville at 704 254 3708.

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