It’s the kind of work convicts once did on chain gangs.
Getting dirty is guaranteed.
A group of local retirees relish the opportunity to experience much of the same hard work chain gangs experienced, even sometimes smashing a few rocks.
The group gathers Wednesday mornings and arm themselves with rakes, sling blades, cross cut saws, double bit axes, mauls and shovels. The same tools chain gangs became intimately familiar with. But no ball and chain holds this crowd together. They can go home anytime they want.
It’s the Nantahala Hiking Club’s Trail Maintenance Crew. They are the volunteers who maintain the 58.6 miles of the Appalachian Trail that meanders from Clay County through Macon County to Wesser in Swain County. Since 1968, the Nantahala Hiking Club has had a volunteer trail maintenance crew that saves the U.S. Forest Service around $100,000 a year. Or put another way, the local trail maintainers donate 4,000 to 4,500 hours a year in labor.
The group can only use hand tools inside a wilderness area. No motorized tools or chain saws. There are 12 miles of Appalachian Trail in the wilderness area in southern Macon County. The local club is one of 31 trail maintaining clubs along the 2,180 mile long trail that traverses 14 states. Nationally, these clubs donate 200,000 hours a year to keep the trail open for the estimated two to three million people who visit the trail yearly.
With the precision of a military maneuver, the crew gathers at the clubhouse in Cartoogechaye around 9 a.m. to plan the day’s work. They decide where they are going, check the weather, gather up the tools they will need, estimate how long it will take them, work out the transportation and double check the equipment they will lug in on foot. The crew generally has from eight to 12 people. Sometimes they have as many as 17. The weather has to be terribly rotten to keep them from going. If the weather does turn bad, the crew spends the morning maintaining their cache of tools.
During the summer months, Saturday maintenance crews go out as well as the regular Wednesday crew.
Most of the Nantahala Hiking Club’s trail maintainers are retired. Occasionally some folks who are not retired join the crew. The work of the trail maintainers is varied. They build water bars on the trail, cut pathways through fallen timber, move rocks, build bridges, refurbish and build shelters. They paint white blazes that mark the AT and the blue blazes on trees that mark side trails.
They have built privies at shelters. The violent winter weather and the severe winds from summer thunderstorms have left a lot of timber blown down across the trail. The sawyers have been trained by the U.S. Forest Service in the use of cross cut and chain saws. They receive a certificate for completion of the two day course.
“It’s a sense of giving back and a chance to hang out with others who love the work,” said one of the maintainers when asked why he devotes so much time to maintaining the trail. It’s also a good way to stay in shape. It’s been estimated a day’s work on the trail can burn up to 6,000 calories.
Each year between 1,800 and 2,000 hikers start out to hike the entire trail. About one in four completes the entire trip. The gain in elevation is equal to climbing Mount Everest 16 times.
The Town of Franklin has worked with the Nantahala Hiking Club and now sponsors the annual April Fools Trail Days. The club also supports the local school system through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Trail to Every Classroom Program which brings the AT into the classroom and by leading student hikes.