I’m still amazed at their perseverance in those adverse conditions. It wasn’t the fact that Paul and Richard spent more than a full day with a handsaw cutting through the old-growth spruce blocking the trail. No, it was their tolerance of the bugs that impressed me most.
Of all the places for a tree to fall across a trail, the giant had picked a shady, wind-protected, bush-filled bug haven as its final resting place. In the few short minutes I spent helping at this site, I acquired dozens of nasty welts, despite wearing a bug net and having every bit of skin “protected.” On the list of selfless acts I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, Paul and Richard’s clearing that spruce off the trail in Kootznoowoo Wilderness on Alaska’s Admiralty Island ranks near the top. But they aren’t the only ones making personal sacrifices in order to make your trails better.
Each year, the American Hiking Society (AHS) arranges dozens of Volunteer Vacation trail maintenance projects, like the one I joined on Admiralty Island, with land management agencies across the country. I was part of a six-person team helping National Forest Service personnel clean up the cabins and trails on this island. During most of my ten days on Admiralty, I got scythe duty: walking up and down the trail system clearing away the mad rush of plant life that wells up each spring, threatening to reclaim the narrow footpaths carved into this wild place.
It’s dirty and hard, but trail work needs to be done. In my opinion, everyone who uses America’s trails and backcountry has a moral obligation to do something to help keep these public gems in tip-top shape. You might fulfill your responsibility by letting your congressional delegation know that you’d like to see them appropriate more funds for maintenance. Or you could adopt a policy of picking up any trash you see along the trail, in addition to leaving no trace yourself. Or you could donate money to one of the many trail organizations across the nation, all of which have a backlog of wish-list projects simply waiting for the funding.
Or you could do what I did last year, and volunteer your time and energy on an organized maintenance project. In 1999, the AHS Volunteer Vacation program includes 65 projects in 24 different states. Virtually every level of difficulty and work type is available, from simple front-country, camp-based “cleaning” projects to true backpacking-style trail building and repair in the backcountry. None of the Volunteer Vacations cost you much more than the expense of getting to the trailhead (a $60 registration fee to AHS and a voluntary food contribution are the only associated fees). You’ll find this year’s full schedule of projects on the Web at www.americanhiking.org/vol_vacations/99Schedule.html, or you can call (888) 766-4453, ext. 115.
Volunteer Vacations aren’t the only organized way to help maintain our trail system. Back in 1992, Backpacker and AHS got together to promote a concept called National Trails Day (NTD). This day-June 5, this year-features literally thousands of events across the country, all centered on trying to bring awareness of trail issues and the importance of these trails down to a local level. I can virtually guarantee that at least one event will be happening in your neighborhood this year, so there’s no excuse not to participate. (And, yes, you’ll find Backpacker staff at events across the country, since we are once again a national sponsor of NTD.)
While NTD features everything from outdoors festivals to organized hikes, my favorite events center on expansion and maintenance of the trail system. Last year, for example, 89 volunteers in Laurel, Delaware, removed 35 tons of trash from the Greenway Corridor, cleaning up a significant dayhiking site. In the backcountry, 169 volunteers paid $10 each to work on trail maintenance and cleanup of 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s despite the fact that it rained the whole day. Imagine 3,000-plus other events across the country, from cities to wilderness, and you’ll get an idea of the difference we all can make in a single day. Think of it as Leave Negative Trace Day. To get involved with NTD this year, call AHS at (888) 766-4453, ext. 605, to find an event near you. Or go to www.americanhiking.org and follow the NTD links.
But don’t stop there-your support of our trail system shouldn’t be limited to a single day or “vacation.” Every local trail group can point to a backlog of maintenance projects, and constantly looks for volunteers to help out. Here on the East Coast, Backpacker staff volunteers to maintain a section of the AT near our offices. Every local trail council and wilderness protection group I’ve talked to has plenty of volunteer needs. Just last week I had the chance to hike the Bay Area Ridge Trail in California and talk to several of the Trail Council officers. It’s a spectacular trail that’s only half complete, with plenty of opportunities for volunteers to help (call 415-391-0697).
Finally, don’t forget the major conservation organizations. The Sierra Club, for example, has both Activist Outings and Service Outings to consider. The Activist program centers on learning about an environment you’re visiting and what you can do after your hike to help keep it protected. The Service program features trail building and maintenance trips similar to AHS Volunteer Vacations. While these trips are more expensive than the AHS versions, if you’re younger than age 25, you may qualify for a Sharon Churchwell Fund stipend, which reduces the cost considerably. To find out more about the Sierra Club offerings, check its Web site at www.sierraclub.org/outings/national/index.html and click on the Trips by Type link.
In short, options abound for those who look. For 10 days last spring, six volunteers who looked suffered through bugs, rain, and some really hard work on Admiralty Island, all to improve the backcountry experiences of people they’ll never meet. And you know what? Not only did we get “feel good” vibes from doing the right thing, but we had a lot of fun in a remarkable place.