Thursday, December 13, 2012

Take A Volunteer Vacation - Chimney Tops Trail in the GSMNP

Smokies Trails Forever Volunteer Week – October 2012

I’ve often thought about a volunteer vacation, spending a week doing trail maintenance in some exotic location I’ve always wanted to visit, returning some of the good that has been granted to me on trails by those who went before me.  But what is expected of a trail volunteer?  Was I strong enough?  Hardy enough?  Willing to be cold, wet, and exhausted?  For several years I scrolled through American Hiking Society’s volunteer vacations listings, daydreaming about Alaska and Oregon.  What do these ratings mean, moderate, difficult, strenuous, very strenuous?  I didn’t want to just pick up trash or trim vegetation, but could I lift rocks or dig new trail? 

Looking over the 2012 trip descriptions, a familiar phrase caught my attention:  Great Smoky Mountains.  Now this is something I know a little about!  I was familiar with the terrain, the weather conditions, and I could add a day or two at the end of the week (if I wasn’t too exhausted) and hike a little bit in my favorite place on earth.  I had heard of the Trails Forever program that sponsored the work and knew the trail that the crew was rehabbing.  The work was described as moderate so I could probably handle it.  So let’s go on a volunteer vacation.

Our crew gathered together for introductions on a Sunday afternoon.  We had a volunteer crew leader (Tina) and a GSMNP park ranger (Christine) to guide us through the week.  There were 10 of us in the crew, some from as far away as California, a couple of us from North Carolina, and others from Tennessee, Maryland and Illinois.  A great group of like-minded folks and we bonded very well as the week progressed.  And I was so thrilled to be in the Smokies I couldn’t stop smiling.  

The GSMNP provided an established camping site for trail crews, complete with a covered shelter with picnic tables, a refrigerator, propane stoves, and secure food storage.  We even had access to a hot shower and a washer/dryer setup, very unusual for most volunteer vacations.  Every day we were transported between our camp and the work site.

Trails Forever is an endowment for a permanent work crew to perform major trail reconstruction throughout the Park.  Volunteer crews like ours supplement their work.    

The project for 2012 and 2013 is the Chimney Tops Trail, a very popular and heavily eroded two-mile trail.  During the work season the trail was closed to the public Mondays through Thursdays. 

Some of the incredible work done by the professional crew.  These steps were built with rock pulled from the creek.  Take time to look at this website to see what wonders have been wrought thus far on the Chimney Tops Trail.

Our daily routine consisted of getting up before daylight, taking turns cooking breakfast and cleaning up (Tina had purchased all the food ahead of time and supplied menus), packing personal lunches and snacks, riding to the trailhead and hiking a little less than a mile up to the work site.  After work we rode back to camp, took turns at the showers and washing clothes, cooking supper and cleaning up. 

Smokies weather played a big role in our work week.  On Day 1 we were humbled by rain and had to quit after a few hours because we were eroding the trail with our own footsteps.  On Day 2 we skipped trail work altogether because of the wet conditions and Christine gave us a little tour of the main part of the Park, including hiking on Forney Ridge Trail, the Trails Forever crew’s project for the last couple of years, and a stop at Newfound Gap.  Day 3 and 4 were work days.  Day 5 was a wrap-up and slide show of our adventures, and then we all went hiking.

Making lunches in the morning

Cleaning up after supper (side note:  these two won this "vacation" in a contest - they had never heard of the Great Smoky Mountains.  We are so glad they joined us!)

Someone doesn’t like mosquitos

Our commute to work was pretty beautiful

Here, have some tools

Digging trenches for water flow

Looks great so far but we're not done yet

Busting up rocks

If you break a mallet you get your picture taken

Frieda knows how to relax on a break

Nice cribbing constructed by the Trails Forever crew – now we get to fill it up with rocks

Good job – now cover them all with dirt from the trench we will dig alongside it

Looking good, girls

Standing on our completed section

Looks like it’s been this way a long time?  Nope, only about 15 minutes

In the evenings we strolled over to see the elk hanging out in the fields by Occonaluftee Visitor Center.  During the night we could hear this bad boy bugling at challengers.

The week was hard work, but not awful, and incredibly rewarding.  I learned so much about how a trail is constructed and will always look at rock steps, trenching and cribbing differently.  I am looking forward to many volunteer vacations in the future. 

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.  ~ Harry S. Truman

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