Trail Ambassador

IMG_2028

Role playing exercise

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, February 20, 2015 — I’ve spent the past week gettin’ ready for love.  Oh, not THAT kind. I’ve been with a group of people training to assist hikers on the Appalachian Trail this year.  We love the trail and the people who hike on it.

Our base camp is a modern style house from the late 50s or early 60s owned by the National Park Service.  During the summer it is basecamp for the trail crews that work in the park.

Our mission is to educate hikers primarily on “Leave No Trace”™ principles, encourage them and help them in practical ways.

An estimated three million people walk at least some distance on the Appalachian Trail each year, so Leave No Trace is a big deal.  The national scenic trails, of which the AT is only one albeit the most famous, are being “loved to death.  The number of users continues to increase at a high rate.  Therefore, the impact on the environment from human footsteps alone is enormous.  Add their feces and urine, toothpaste, dishwater, dropped litter, abandoned gear, fires, animal disturbance and all the rest together and the sum is enormous.

Unfortunately, individual hikers fail to appreciate that their impact is additive to all the others.  That’s why Leave No Trace is more than Pack it in.  Pack it out.  Hikers are expected to plan and prepare for everything they might encounter on their hike.  Understanding how and where to camp prevents erosion and unsightly scars.  Knowing how to dispose of human waste properly is critical to preventing water contamination and disease. Respecting wildlife, fellow hikers and campers, leaving what you find undisturbed and generally being considerate round it out.

IMG_2032IMG_2033

Here I’m demonstrating how to hang a food bag in a way that is not tied to any tree.  Bears have learned to break ropes tied off to trees and feast on what falls to the ground!

Human food kills bears.  Once they become unafraid of humans, bears have to be trapped and moved, or worse, destroyed. They are magnificent animals.  Being thoughtless has sad consequences.  The AT-wide bear statistics weren’t encouraging.  Bear territory is shrinking and the animals are only trying to find food.

IMG_2034

Had a small bear encounter at the outfitter in Gatlinburg, TN.

IMG_2031

During the week, the Forest Service taught us a lot about hiker/camper psychology and methods to be persuasive without confrontation.  Nobody wants to hear that they are a screw-up.  Above all, we learned to count small victories.

IMG_2036

Then there’s the weather.  Minus 23 at altitude in the Smokies!  Holy frostbite Batman!!!  My gear will get me to -15F at best with a miserable night.  I’ve experienced and slept outside in -50F in Alaska and northern Minnesota.  I can’t carry that kind of gear over these mountains.  Best to stay in town when the weather forecast looks like this.

Today I drove to Hiawassee in north Georgia to visit a couple of hostels and assess trail and weather conditions.  There weren’t that many hikers around.  Several had been driven back to or into town by the subzero temperatures.  They said the snow wasn’t a big deal, but that there were a lot of downed trees to impede progress.

Ridgerunners/trail ambassadors carry large pruning saws to attack blowdown up to about a foot in diameter.  At a minimum, we can trim away the branches from a large trunk.  The going will be slow next week.  Can’t wait.

Tuesday the Georgia crew meets with the Forest Service and the local trail club for coordination.  Let the games begin!

IMG_2040 IMG_2041

Dick’s Creek Gap today.

IMG_1236

Same rock.  Better weather!

Back to the future

IMG_1327

February 14, 2015 — I’m packing up and headed for some training in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has a base camp there used for training year round and for trail crews in the summer.

I’ll be joining a group of ridgerunners.  Ridgerunners patrol in season the Appalachian Trail (AT) from beginning to end.  The onset of thru hiking season is just around the corner,  and it’s time to get ready.

My role is to test the use of volunteers to augment the paid seasonal staff.  The difference is that I’ll be there only for the month of March.  Everyone else is there for the duration of hiking season – until autumn.

The need for the test is that AT (and other trails) is expected to see a large increase next year in thru hike attempts in response to the movies “Wild” in theaters now, and “A Walk in the Woods” which will be in theaters before summer’s end.

ATHikers

Historical data establishes a direct correlation between increases in thru hike attempts and popular mass media about hiking or the AT.  Books, television, videos have done it every time.  Now we have Hollywood to help drive up the numbers next year.

My patrol area is the AT’s 78 miles in Georgia.  We walk five days and spend four nights on the trail.  The sixth day is off.  Of interest, we hike southbound (SOBO) for the purpose of meeting as many thru hikers as possible.  Once we reach Springer Mountain, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club shuttles us back north to do it all again.

Among our duties is to help hikers as we can, educate them on Leave No Trace™ principles and trail etiquette, pick up litter, do minor trail repairs, and report issues we cannot handle.  These hikes are not about miles.  They’re about the smiles.

The forecast isn’t friendly, at least for next week.  It’s going to be colder than a well digger’s backside in the Smoky’s.  So much so that we’ve been told that we’ll be spending our nights at the basecamp and none sleeping outside. Yea!  No sense practicing being miserable.

The weather in Georgia will probably whip back and forth between ugly and nice with huge improvements toward the end of March.  Still, the southern Appalachians are high enough that snow can fall into April, even when the temperatures in Atlanta and points south are cooking.

IMG_1236IMG_1196

I’m looking forward to some former stomping grounds.  Dick’s Creek Gap is just short of the North Carolina border and the northern edge of the patrol area.  Blood Mountain is in the center of the sector.  It’s got some interesting native American history with some ornery bear activity on the side.

I plan to blog daily, but publish them as every fifth or sixth day as time permits just like I did on my thru hike.  So stay tuned.  If anyone has read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods, you know this could be interesting.

Went for a walk on a winter’s day

IMG_1976_2

Compton Peak

Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park (SNP), Compton Peak to Jenkins Gap, Saturday February 7, 2015 —  Each inch of the Appalachian Trail has a human who is responsible for its upkeep.  These folks are called overseers.  Stewards would be more like it.

Overseers remove blown down trees, branches, clean and repair erosion control structures like check dams and waterbars, build new ones as needed, cut back vegetation that may harbor ticks and pick up trash when necessary.

As luck would have it, yours truly is about to become responsible for one mile of the Appalachian Trail from Jenkins Gap to the top of Compton Peak (SNP north district).  That’s AT northbound miles 957.4 to 958.7.  I’m about to become a proud papa.

This is a handsome section of trail if I do say so myself.  From the Jenkins Gap parking lot, it’s optically flat for about a half mile.  This part has been burned over in the past. I’m going to have to learn more about the fire.  Consequently it is infested with lots of vines and thorns. These will require a lot of attention.

The second half begins with a nice flight of stone steps leading to a sluice a bunch of us built two years ago.  The Sluice keeps water from a healthy spring from washing out the trail.  The grade to the top is gentle by any standard.  The treadway throughout has a minimal number of rocks.  Yea!  This isn’t Pennsylvania, you know.

IMG_2002

The trail section ends on top of Compton peak.

A blue blaze trail crosses the AT on Compton Peak leading west to a nice overlook and east to a columnar basalt formation which is one of the few on the east coast.  Eighteen months ago we built 68 stone steps to help make the trail to the basalt formation more passable and to help control erosion.  Judging from the tracks in the snow, it’s popular year round.

IMG_1999IMG_1998

The primary reason for building the steps to the basalt formation was a spring that washed out the trail.  Looks like we’ve got more to learn about water management.

IMG_1995

Columnar basalt.

The day was pleasant.  The temps hovered around 32F with zero wind.  The sun was mostly cloaked by heavy lead-colored clouds.

Without overseers, trails would quickly become impassible no matter whether they are in a state or local parks or one of the big ones in the national trail system.

IMG_1979IMG_1980_2

Before and after.

IMG_1991 IMG_1992

In total there were a even dozen obstructions that had to be removed.

IMG_1985_2

Jenkins Gap.  End of the line.