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Wednesday, 23 May 2007 00:00

Trail head earns accolades

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Who is he:

Tobias Miller, who lives near Sylva, was honored this month as the 2006 employee of the year in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Miller is the trails foreman for the North Carolina side of the park. That makes him responsible for a 400-mile trail system and a couple dozen backcountry campgrounds. Before coming to the Smokies, Miller was a trail crew leader in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Job perk:

“Working in a national park and being responsible for the backcountry, I get to say, ‘I have to hike to the end of Deep Creek and look at a problem.’”

Worst time to hit a trail:

Right after a particular trail gets written up in a national outdoors magazine.

“Anytime one of the trails gets publicized in Outside or Backpacker, it’s like turning on a spigot — here they come,” Miller said. “It is amazing.”

Where he hikes for fun:

It’s hard to totally relax on a trail because he’s always noticing problems that need fixing.

“My wife has told me she won’t hike with me unless I keep my mouth shut,” Miller said. “I don’t go a lot in the park because it’s like going to work.”

The exception to that is Deep Creek. The flat trails and the creek for swimming makes for the perfect family outing with his 2- and 4-year-old sons.

Miller’s favorite hike is to Pinnacle Peak in the protected Fisher’s Creek watershed right outside Sylva. It’s close, quick and rewarding when he needs to get outside.

Favorite outdoor recreation:

Mountain biking is Miller’s favorite pastime, though it’s not allowed on trails in the park.

“You can really get in there and clear your mind because you are focused on riding your bike,” Miller said.

Biggest part of the job:

Trail workers in the Smokies spend most of their time wrestling with undergrowth that would quickly consume trails if unchecked. Armed with huge sickles, they attack the undergrowth Indiana Jones style. They also use weed eaters.

“That’s what’s unique in this part of the country. We are basically in a temperate rain forest,” Miller said. “If you didn’t maintain the trails here you couldn’t walk through them just from the annual growth. If you let it go for two or three years, you would lose it completely.”

All the rain also means lots of trees, which means lots of trees and limbs blowing down on the trail.

Who helps him:

Miller coordinates four trail bosses who in turn preside over different sections of the park: Cataloochee, Oconaluftee, Deep Creek and Lake Fontana. During the summer, 30 seasonal workers round-out the trail crew working anywhere from two- to six-month stints.

Sounds like a lot, but given the 400 miles of trail that need constant upkeep, it’s not enough.

“To me we still are not at the level we need to be to do it at the level it should be done,” Miller said.

Volunteers fill some gaps, both individuals through the Adopt a Trail program, or large groups that sign up for a weekend or week, such as students at Haywood Community College and Western Carolina University.

The trail crew also employs a carpentry worker, animal caretaker and barge operator.

Trail mascots:

A team of 13 mules and horses round out the trail team, explaining the animal caretaker on staff. The mule and horse team is used to haul heavy equipment and gear into the backcountry.

“It is a very historic skill. It’s not something you find a lot of, packing mules,” Miller said. “Running a string of pack animals is not easy, especially in a forest environment where tree branches and vegetation are constantly touching the packs.”

What he didn’t know about the job when he took it:

Miller and his crew are also the caretakers for numerous old cemeteries in the backcountry — about 2,000 graves in all. The Smokies wasn’t all vacant land when the park was created. There were homesteads and communities scattered across what is now the backcountry, along with small family cemeteries. (One near Smokemont has Cherokee language carved into the head stones.)

Descendents still return to the cemeteries periodically to pay respects and place decorations on the graves. So Miller’s crew keeps the cemeteries trimmed with a weed-eater and generally cleared of limbs and vegetation.

They also recreate an historical tradition known as “mounding the graves” — the dirt is turned up and mounded to look freshly dug.

There’s so many grave sites, each cemetery is done only once a year.

“All the visiting families know when their cemetery is going to be prepped for them so they can time their Decoration Day,” Miller said. “The week before,we go and make it look pristine.”

Favorite trail tool:

A grip hoist. A grip hoist is kind of like a man-powered wench that can move big logs and stumps. One end has a strap that is secured to something strong and stationary, usually the trunk of a large, solidly rooted tree. A cable goes around whatever you want to move. In the middle, a mechanical, hand-cranked wench winds up the cable, dislodging or moving the object that’s in the way.

Trail pet peeve:

“My biggest pet peeve with trail systems is initially improper layout – too steep and over the wrong terrain,” Miller said. Trails built right from the start require far less labor to keep up than trails poorly designed that continually erode.

Another pet peeve is lack of basic maintenance that lets a trail slip so far major renovation is needed to restore it.

“When I came to the Smokies I thought it was such a shame this trail system had been left to erode over t1he decades to where now you are left having to totally rebuild it,” Miller said.

Worst weather for trail work:

“The third day in a row of rain is when the ground completely becomes saturated and the creeks come up at a rate that is literally like pouring water in a glass,” Miller said.

High winds, especially after a rain, also deserve caution.

“Trees fall down left and right because the ground is saturated and there is nothing for the trees’ roots to hang on to,” Miller said.

Also, high ozone days. When there’s an ozone alert, the trail crews do less strenuous work and stay off ridges where ozone concentrations are typically higher.

Word to the wise:

“Folks should take advantage of their national park being right here,” Miller said. In the deep backcountry, Miller is more likely to come across hikers from another state on a pilgrimage to the Smokies.

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