Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Through-hikers, out-of-town volunteers, coronavirus education – early March experienced an upturn in activity on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Nantahala Hiking Club (NHC) president Mary Stone said that not only is the group still gearing up for A.T. Celebration 2020, but surprise volunteers and the pandemic have resulted in all hands on deck.
“We are already seeing many through-hikers, and our trail ambassadors have been out meeting them,” said Stone.
On March 9, the group was “thrilled” with the work achieved by a visiting volunteer group from Huntsville, Texas. The group of 21, including students on spring break from Sam Houston State University, as well as families and a child as young as 10, alerted Paul Dyer, NHC maintenance manager, a few weeks prior to their arrival. They drove 18 hours to Franklin because they wanted not only to enjoy the area, but to help maintain the A.T. Accompanying the group was Rev. Todd Tipton, campus minister for Sam Houston State University, as well as Steve Johnson, a 2016 A.T. through-hiker.
“Just in one day of work, they accomplished plenty,” said Stone. “They volunteered to tackle physically difficult work in a short amount of time.”
Stone said it is highly uncommon for volunteers from as far away as Texas to assist with trail maintenance.
The Texas group, according to Stone, worked on a section of the A.T. from Tellico Gap to Wesser Bald Tower. “They built 150 feet of side hills with cribbing,” she said, explaining that since hikers often walk on the lower side of the trail, it must be evened out by pulling down dirt with a Pulaski tool and then secured with measured sections of cut locust trees. “One group did a maintenance walk through Tellico Gap to the Jump Off, clearing downed trees, water bars (which allows water to run off), and checking the Wesser shelter and privy.
“We are always looking for section maintainers, also called trail monitors, to check three to four miles sections four times each year, and do what they can to clear the trail with our equipment, and then report to Paul if maintenance is more than they can handle,” Stone said. “We would love for more people in the community to commit to becoming section maintainers. We will train anyone who wants to help out.”
Franklin was the first of 49 towns along the 2,192 mile trail to be designated an A.T. Community. NHC maintains 60 miles of the A.T. every Wednesday at 8:45 a.m., volunteers meet at the NHC Club House at 173 Carl Slagle Road to plan maintenance and receive instruction from Dyer.
In an email received at The Macon County News, the Nantahala Hiking Club is following the ATC recommendation to “suspend all trail related activities for the next month” effective Tuesday, March 17. While unfortunate, this means NHC will not conduct hikes, meetings or group activities during March including Easter on the Trail and the Thru-Hiker Chow Down. The position will be reviewed in April. Obviously, individuals may hike. Groups or individuals who are going to hand out Easter goodies on their own, please report your work to Elena Marsh at firstname.lastname@example.org. Trail Manager, Paul Dyer, will continue with weekly updates to maintainers in his regular Monday maintainer emails.
Although much has been planned for the A.T. Celebration 2020, everything from free breakfasts for hikers at First Baptist Church to music and food at local establishments to library lectures, the current pandemic crisis has already affected activities and the A.T. Stone is speaking regularly to involved parties. “The information about the coronavirus is changing by the hour and day,” she said.
“The Appalachian Trail Conservancy was supposed to meet at a conference recently, with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Park Service present,” said Stone, “but instead we ‘met’ on a conference call and discussed issues. So far, the Trail is not closing, and we actually expect more young people to take to the Trail because of school closings. So we are going to post signs along the Trail and at shelters that offer common sense information, such as 1) if you’re sick, get off the Trail; 2) don’t share food with others; 3) keep a social distance from others; 4) keep hands clean; 5) and, just generally be aware.”
She added, “But probably one of the best places to be is out of doors. So we expect the Trail to be busy and through and section hikers to be stopping in Franklin.”
As of March 17, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is recommending hikers to camp separately instead of congregating in the established shelters along the trail.
For more up-to-date information about the A.T. and upcoming activities and events, check out discoverfranklinnc.com and nantahalahikingclub.org as well as Facebook pages for both.