by Matt Scott
The Appalachian Trail is the ultimate walk in the woods: from Georgia to Maine it covers over 2,100 miles of forests and mountains on the east coast of the United States. Earl Schaffer was the first to complete the trail in 1948 and also the oldest when he repeated his trip, for the third time, at the age of 79. There are many others following his footsteps at this very moment: as of this year almost 6,000 people have ’thru hiked’; completing every step of the trail. The majority of people, however, use the trail just for day hikes or short walks. In peak season over 16,000 walkers can be found on the trail in a single day; that’s over seven people for each mile of footpath.
From the rolling green hills and trees of New England to the mighty Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, the trail is set through the most stunning and beautiful scenery that this side of America has to offer.
The Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) is the body responsible for conserving this trail, which is popular with walkers from all over the world. Since 1925 the ATC has organised work teams, recruited volunteers, raised money and promoted environmental protection to ensure the trail can be enjoyed for future generations.
The Green Mountain Club is a division of the ATC and responsible for the 125 mile stretch of the trail that runs through Vermont. Impressed by the beauty of the area I volunteered to help out for a few weeks. My reward for doing so: a tent in the wood, free food, and all the peace and quiet I could want, as well as the satisfaction of knowing that my work will help others enjoy this part of the world.
On Sunday morning the Greyhound bus from New York City dropped me off in Danby, Vermont; just a short walk from the Green Mountain Club’s base camp. Danby is a small town just outside the skiing area of the Green Mountains. The skiing areas of New England attract thousands of skiers in the winter season, but hikers make up the majority of visitors to this area during the summer.
A teenager from Pennsylvania, Julie, immediately started talking to me as I made my way into the camp. It was ‘totally cool’ and ‘so awesome’ that I had come all this way to work here. The Green Mountain Club often welcomes workers form around the world but I was the only foreigner on the camp that week. Julie was travelling the east coast with her two brothers, Ezra and Sam, they were all university students and looking for a different way to spend their summer break. Jo and Bob, both from North Carolina, had thru hiked the Appalachian Trail in 98 and Andy, a retired fireman, was spending his summers working the entire trail; he had already worked with the Smoky Mountain trail crew and after a few weeks in Vermont he was going to volunteer in Maine. There were also the group leaders, Dave and Martin, enjoying the outdoors before they went onto college.
Early Monday morning we drove into the forests of Vermont to set up of our ‘spike camp’; pitched wherever we found a spot in the forest. After a short walk from the car park, we broke of into the forest to find a suitable place; I chose the top of a nearby hill for a view of the surrounding area.
Our work site was to be on a mile long stretch of the trial, following the banks of Baker Pond, about thirty miles outside Rutland. The work that was needed was immediately apparent as the group went for a short walk: huge patches of deep mud, fallen trees and over grown bushes had to be climbed over or pushed through, and all had to be improved over the next week.
I volunteered for the job of ‘sorting out the mud’. A patch of boggy ground, large enough to swallow a bus, was dug out; rocks and base soil was put in its place to ensure the problem wouldn't return. In the worse places wooden bridges were placed over the mud so people could pass: a simple and very effective way of getting over this obstacle, but it also meant hours of digging in the boggy ground to reach a stable foundation.
After the third day, it was possible to walk over twenty meters of the trail without getting a foot wet, the relief on passing walkers was obviously clear as they no longer had to jump form place to place, push through bushes, or put up with the discomfort of wet muddy feet for the rest of their day’s walk. My feet however, would stay wet and muddy for the rest of my time here.
The part of the trail I moved onto next was more challenging than a little mud. Set in a steep bank the trail crossed a large stream; a few original stepping stones had failed to do their job and the river was almost impassable as the water stretched over three of four meters; the mud even further so. In order to fix this the trail had to be moved about five meters up hill and a cross drain - a large series of stepping stone which would form a bridge - would be placed in the water; some rock steps would be built in the bank to help walkers reach the new trail.
We had simple directions from Dave: ’if you can move the rocks on your own, they're too small. If two of you can move them, they’re still too small. If I help you then its probably OK, if we all help, then that’s a good job.’
In three days we collected over ten boulders, one alone taking the best part of a day to move from the top of the hill. The rest was simple, a little digging and filling to put the rocks in place and we would be done; yet I was due to leave the next day.
A week later I finally packed my bags and made my way to Chicago, it had taken that long to complete the work we had started as a group. I did not have to stay but the big city did not appeal as much after the solitude of my tent in Vermont.
Many of the group stayed on for a few more weeks to complete work in another area of the State. Julie and her brothers continued their way to ‘wherever’ and Jo and Bob were already planning another long walk. I simply left Danby with aching muscles and several blisters to remind me of what I had achieved.
The ATC can be contacted at www.atconf.org
About the Author
Matt is originally from the UK and has travelled extensively in the US and four other continents. He is an outdoor enthusiast and a keen writer and photographer; his work has appeared in many magazines and websites.