Working for play: Trail groups pass forest stewardship to the next generation
The woods are quiet on a cool Saturday morning in late March. There’s no wind swaying the still-bare trees or the rhododendrons clustered along streambeds. In this, one of the most remote trails of the Shining Rock Wilderness of Pisgah National Forest, the only sound comes from the occasional squirrel plowing through the bed of fallen leaves or bird sounding its call through the woods.
But then a soft buzz begins to float through the air. It pauses briefly, replaced by the sound of voices. A group of three is clustered around a fallen log, probably 2 or 3 feet in diameter, that’s lying across the faint path of the East Fork Trail. They analyze its position on the mountainside, its angle of contact with another trunk below the trail and the severity of the slope. Finally, trail crew volunteers Scotty Bowen and Richard Evans start up again with the crosscut saw, and the buzzing resumes.
The instrument looks like something that belongs more in a 1930s photograph of Civilian Conservation Corps workers than in modern-day use, and indeed, the steel blade and wooden screw-on handles do date back to that era. The zzzz zzzz, zzzz zzzz of the saw’s metal teeth biting wood resumes, chips littering the trail as the cut gets closer to the center of the trunk.
“There’s something really nice about the simplicity of just having the saw, slinging it over your shoulder,” explains Jill Gottesman, outreach coordinator for The Wilderness Society’s Southern Appalachian office. “Because you don’t have the incredible noise of a chainsaw, it’s like the log is telling you what it’s doing with different creaks and groans.”
Reading those creaks and groans accurately requires a crosscut sawyer certification, proof of the know-how needed to saw so the log doesn’t break away and flatten somebody, shift downhill to trap the saw in its crack or snap outwards to injure a sawyer or bystander. It’s an old-school skill, but it’s one that comes in handy when out on a wilderness trail crew.
“Part of the [Wilderness] Act states there is not to be motorized or mechanized equipment, and a chainsaw is motorized and mechanized,” Gottesman said. “All the work to maintain trails in wilderness areas is done with hand tools, and it’s all done with people power.”
In Western North Carolina, volunteers provide the bulk of that people power. The Pisgah and Nantahala national forests include 66,550 acres of wilderness, and that area contains far more miles of trail than the U.S. Forest Service has the capacity to maintain. So, the Forest Service relies on people like the group of 16 from the Carolina Mountain Club and the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) that spread along the East Fork Trail that Saturday in March. Volunteer crews clear away fallen trees, trim overhanging branches and rebuild eroded or shrinking trail tread.
Two groups, one purpose
CMC is a long-standing organization with a history going back to the 1920s, while SAWS was just founded in 2010. But both groups have the same goal: to keep the wilderness experience available and to drum up enthusiasm for maintaining it. And both groups are looking to the next generation to keep that hope alive.
“The reason why the Wilderness Society created SAWS is because the volunteer clubs that maintain trails, they’re getting old,” Gottesman said. “This is a whole lot of work, and we weren’t seeing the next generation of stewards. We just wanted to create a vehicle for wilderness stewardship training.”
So, SAWS came to be. Just four years after its founding, the program now has 45 units spreading from northern Georgia to the Shenandoah Valley, including one in Western North Carolina. In addition to year-round trail work days and weeks, the organization offers summer employment and internships, alternative spring break programs, educational presentations at colleges and universities and the Wilderness Skills Institute, an in-demand event held each May that offers free trainings to people who do trail work on public lands. This year’s program is already full.
This particular CMC trail crew, led by Becky Smucker, was born from a similar need. Six years ago during her tenure as CMC president, Smucker noticed two things: the organization’s other seven trail crews met weekdays when people with professional jobs couldn’t participate, and there also didn’t seem to be many women involved. So, Smucker decided to head up a crew where that wouldn’t be the case.
“I really felt like we needed a trail schedule that would be possible for young folks to help us carry on the tradition,” she said. “We also, frankly, had very few women in trail maintenance at that point, and I was interested in having a crew where women felt welcome.”
Smucker’s presence certainly does that. A petite, 62-year-old lady with curly gray hair, Becky Smucker is obviously at home among the trail tools. Her conversation is peppered with sidebars giving instructions to volunteers still learning the ropes, and she’s happy to discuss the relative merits of various brands of Pulaskis, hazel hoes and axes.
Of course, there’s more to Smucker’s job than fording thigh-high streams with tools in hand, hiking up trails with 10 percent inclines and swinging metal implements to turn rock-laden dirt into a solid trail tread. She also has to coordinate with the Forest Service to keep the group’s volunteer agreement up-to-date, send out paperwork to new volunteers, report hours and attendance and obtain release forms from the volunteers. Usually, that comprises about two hours per week, but this particular venture required nearly eight hours of planning and 57 emails. It’s the first time that CMC and SAWS have planned a group venture, but both groups are hoping for it to happen again in the future.
“I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but I enjoy it,” Smucker said. “I don’t think I’ve come out at the end of the day and not enjoyed myself.”
Building trails and teams
At the moment, Smucker is working with a handful of volunteers hefting dirt tools against an eroded section of trail. Over time, soil has moved down the steep slope, filling in the trail tread until it’s barely there. The volunteers are hard at work cutting into the earth above the trail, removing rocks and creating a path wide enough to actually walk on.
“Make sure you clear all the leaves away first,” Smucker instructs the crew.
Leaves incorporated into the trail bed eventually rot, allowing the soil to slide away. It could be years before this section of trail gets any more attention, so it’s important to make every stroke of work count. Smucker also keeps an eye on the angle at which the mountainside above the trail angles into the tread and where the rocks are being tossed as they’re unearthed from the path.
Of course, the goal of all of this is to build a trail that will make the hiker’s experience more enjoyable while also limiting impact to the wilderness. Trees are trimmed more on the upslope side than on the downslope, encouraging visitors to hug the mountainside rather than sending dirt crumbling downhill, causing erosion. User-made trails are covered up, and the designated route around obstacles such as streams and fallen trees is made obvious so hikers don’t feel like they have to create their own path.
There’s more to building a trail than meets the eye, but Smucker’s job is a delicate balance of guiding her crew to do quality work and ensuring that they have a good enough time that they come back. It’s not an easy task.
“Melding a group of varying people into a cohesive team, teaching them the things they need to know, but giving them enough freedom that people can do the things they enjoy doing,” Smucker said, listing the priorities she juggles constantly on the trail.
While it needs to be done right, the program’s sustainability also depends on the job being fun.
“If you don’t have fun you won’t come back, and we need you to come back,” SAWS director Bill Hodge said.
For Mel Braswell, though, that balance is just right. Braswell drove 86 miles that Saturday morning, traveling all the way from Johnson City, Tenn., to reach the trailhead near Sunburst Campground by 9 a.m. But she had no complaints.
“I sit inside all day,” Braswell said. “That’s why it doesn’t bother me in the least to get up at 5 a.m. to be outside.”
She’s been a member for three years, and over the course of Saturdays spent working in the woods, she’s gotten her share of both fresh air and friends.
“You get to know people on the trail quickly, and kind of intimately,” Smucker said.
There’s no hiding behind makeup and pretense out in the wilderness. Everyone gets dirty and sweaty, automatically striking down a whole laundry list of social barriers. This particular trip drew people as diverse as Bianca Andre, a UNC-Asheville student who came out to fulfill community service hours for her degree, Ryan Jourdan, a young professional native to Indiana who’s into hiking when he’s not mountain biking, Brenna Irrer, the SAWS volunteer coordinator from Cullowhee and Tom Thomas, a retiree who’s president of Backcountry Horsemen of North Carolina. But they all have one thing in common: a love of the outdoors and a desire to be good stewards of the public land they use.
A sense of ownership
“It really gives you a sense of ownership,” Jourdan explained.
After working on a trail, you begin to notice things you never did before — the stone steps that someone with a strong back had to heave into place, the cut in a giant fallen log that’s just wide enough to walk through, the level path that somehow exists amid a slope’s 30 percent incline. These aren’t features that appeared by accident, you realize. Rather, they represent the hard work of someone who cared enough to spend a Saturday in the woods, slinging a hazel hoe so that future visitors could have an enjoyable, low-impact wilderness experience.
“You can hike in a place,” Gottesman said, “but then when you actually take the time and the effort to care for the trail itself and give back to that area, it creates so much of a stronger connection to that place.”