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Trail Angels

Have you ever wondered how the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail remains a viable footpath? All along the trail, volunteers and agency partners engage in stewardship activities to maintain the Trail, its structures and its natural and cultural resources. This work includes keeping the footpath clear of natural overgrowth and blowdowns; fixing areas of erosion; building and relocating sections of the footpath; building and repairing shelters and other structures; and caring for overnight sites.

From May through October each year, six Trail Crews work on larger trail maintenance projects from Maine to Georgia. One of these groups, the Rocky Top Trail Crew, operates in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in some of the most rugged and ecologically diverse sections of the Trail. The group of volunteers sets up base camp and works for eight-day stints, backpacking in all of their supplies and tools for the week.

I recently caught up with several volunteers to talk about their experiences working with Rocky Top Trail Crew this past summer. Twenty-three-year-old Deshawn Johnson of Chicago had never set foot on the A.T., much less gone backpacking, but he was looking for a new and challenging experience. Jesse Smith, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wis., thru-hiked the A.T. in 2015 and was looking for a way to give back to the Trail. Ronni Gurwicz, a 24-year-old based in Jerusalem who dreams of hiking the entire Trail, was in an environmental internship in Chicago when he heard about the opportunity to volunteer with Rocky Top. And Katie Oliver — who, at age 22, is one of the youngest but most experienced of the crew members — served as one of the Rocky Top crew leaders, after first becoming involved in trail maintenance work when she was 19.

Check out the crew members’ responses to my questions below — after speaking with the​m, I’m ready to join an Appalachian Trail crew next year.

Alyson Browett, At-Large A.T. Community Ambassador

How did you first become interested in trail maintenance work?

DeShawn: I work for a restoration company in Chicago. We have installed water bars before, so I was excited to see how useful they can be on the Trail.

Ronni: I’ve been looking to do trail work for a while, as I work in conservation back home in Jerusalem. Since I was here, I thought it would be nice to get a feel for the local challenges trails face in this country.

Jesse: When I hiked the whole trail last year, I gained an appreciation for how much work and effort is involved in maintaining the trail, and I am excited to be a part of that effort.

Katie: When I was 19, I fell in love with backpacking, so I looked around for opportunities that would get me into the woods. I stumbled across the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s webpage describing Trail Crews in 2014, so I signed up. I’ve worked with Konnarock, S.W.E.A.T. and Rocky Top crews. This is my first year as a crew leader.

Was working with Rocky Top Crew your first time on the Appalachian Trail?

DeShawn: Yes! I found it very different from Chicago, but fulfilling.

Ronni: Yes, it was my first time on the A.T. and hopefully it won’t be the last. Hiking the whole trail is on my list!

Jesse: Trail work is something I always wanted to do. After my thru-hike, I’m more volunteer-oriented, and I’m trying to travel more, see the world and live simply. Trail work fit into that way of life for me.

Katie: No, I’ve done some weekend backpacking in the Grayson Highlands area and other parts of the trail, but most of my time on the Trail consists of working with trail crews.

What was your favorite part of working with a trail crew?

De​Shawn: My favorite part of working with a trail crew was the amount of bonding time we all had. I also loved the tamping and crushing part of trail building.

Ronni: Honestly, everything. It was wonderful. The views were beautiful and hiking on the trail back to camp at the end of the day — you can feel the trail and feel like you’ve accomplished something when the day is over.

Jesse: Spending time with everyone on the crew. It was an interesting group of people. The people from Chicago had never been in the woods before, so that was fun. Also, getting a lot done in a few days was a great feeling.

Katie: I love the volunteers. As a crew leader this year, I was able to spend 12 sessions with the S.W.E.A.T. and Rocky Top crews, so every week you meet new people from all walks of life. It’s a different experience every week — even if you do the same work, you’re with different people.

What was the most challenging part of working with the trail crew?

De​Shawn: The most challenging part was having to work through any weather condition. Some days were a little tougher than others, for sure.

Ronni: It was all a joy really. The hike in was pretty tough with all of the gear. But nothing was too challenging — it was all great.

Jesse: Working in the rain. It got pretty cold a couple of days.

Katie: I’d honestly say the lack of showers. By day six we’re ready to take a shower. Colder days with rain can be a little miserable too. The weather can be challenging, but you have to say to yourself, “You are doing an awesome job in the outdoors,” and not many people can say that.

Why do you feel this work is important?

De​Shawn: Because we help preserve the trails for the future. Many hikers who walked by were very appreciative of our trail maintenance. Hearing their compliments made me extremely happy.

Ronni: A couple of reasons. Trail work connects people to the trail, and a lot of people don’t realize how much work goes into upkeep on even a small part of trail. In my conservation work, I do a lot of theoretical talking about erosion, but working on the trail crew gave me a different perspective into implementing practices to stop erosion from happening.

Jesse: Having hiked the whole trail and seeing how many people use it, I realized there’s so much work involved in keeping it going. We have to make sure the Trail is there for future hikers so they also can have the experience I had as a thru-hiker.

Katie: There are so many people who love the A.T., and I love knowing we’re preserving the Trail and making sure people can hike on it for years to come. People thank you while you’re working, which provides instant gratification knowing you’re positively affecting other people’s outdoor time. It’s important to me that they have a place to come, to be in nature.

Do you have any words of wisdom for someone considering work on a trail crew?

De​Shawn: Know that you are making a difference. Though there are thousands of miles of Trail, we must continue to work on it one mile at a time.

Ronni: Just do it!

Jesse: Go for it! There’s nothing to worry about. You will meet great people and gain a new outlook and appreciation for life.

Katie: Definitely give it a try. I was a little nervous when I first volunteered, but it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. I know I’m making a difference for myself and other people.

Anything else you would like to share about Rocky Top Crew?

De​Shawn: I loved the crew leaders. They made the trip amazing. They kept us motivated, laughing, and working really hard.

Ronni: I didn’t expect it to be so fun and rewarding, so that was a nice surprise. I got to work with lovely people.

Jesse: I highly recommend working with a trail crew. It’s so much more than working in the woods — you get a lot of out the incredible experience. And you get to meet so many amazing people! Ronni, Katie, and I are currently on a road trip together because we had some free time. We even traveled up to Chicago to see our teammates from there!

Katie: If you’re considering trail work, don’t push it to the side and think someone else will do it —it can be a life-changing experience for you.