by Katie Oliver, ATC Trail Crew Leader
Always Worth It: How I Fell in Love with Life on a Trail Crew
May 9, 2018
Ten degrees and snowing in the Grayson Highlands — not everyone’s ideal first backpacking trip. But I learned I love that weather to backpack. Afterwards, all I wanted was to go on another backpacking trip, so I started to explore how I could get myself out on the trail.
During my exploration of what jobs or opportunities were out there for me that would allow me to be backpacking, I ran across the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) webpage for volunteer crews. This was perfect for my schedule since I could volunteer for the weeks that worked for me. I didn’t know if I would like the work, though I had always enjoyed working with my hands and doing physical labor.
But as soon as we started working on building tread — my first week at Konnarock — I fell in love with trail work.
I loved watching a trail being made and working hard, shaping the earth into a path and getting to swing a Pulaski to dig and chop through roots. I also really loved working with other volunteers. On a trail crew you become a family; you really bond with everyone over how dirty you are, over cooking and doing dishes together, over the work you’re accomplishing and over watching the sunset. So not only did I learn I loved trail work, but I learned I loved being a part of the trail crew world. I began to identify myself as a trail maintainer. And now I spend my summers and falls working as a trail crew leader.
I eventually learned you don’t always get to watch the sunset on crew. Usually my hardest days are when the weather is bad. The particular day that comes to mind is from just last year, 2017, on Rocky Top Trail Crew.
We had an interesting season of weather up in the Smokies and had had to cancel a crew session due to a tropical storm that was supposed to hit the Park. Then, later in the season, we were out in the backcountry on day five of our eight-day session when we got word there was another tropical storm headed our way, bringing with it about six inches of rain and wind gusts up to 60 mph. So my co-leader and I made the call to pack up and hike off the mountain, which was extremely hard since not a single person in our crew wanted to leave.
The next day we headed out, and then it started to rain. It rained hard for the rest of the 11-mile hike out and I just remember being soaked to the bone and my pack and most everything in it being soaked, too. The Trail became a river and we were just sloshing through it. It was also pretty chilly once you stopped moving. I was just very thankful we were hiking out and not hiking in for the start of our session.
It was a pretty rough day, but it doesn’t make me want to stop working on a trail crew. For one, days where it rains that hard for that long aren’t very common. It’s also another great bonding experience; once everyone’s dry and warm again you get to talk and slightly embellish about what you just went through together. And it’s another memory, one that I’ll hopefully get to tell my grandchildren, about how I had to wade through water up to my waist for 22 miles in a horrible monsoon with some great people I got to hang out and work on the A.T. with for eight days.
In the end, no matter what happens, the crew session is always worth it. Not only do I get to become close with other crew members, but I also get to feel the satisfaction of helping to better the A.T. I know now that when I first joined an A.T. crew, I became a part of a long and storied history of volunteerism. From local trail maintenance clubs to the hiker who picks up trash along their journey, volunteers have been the soul of the Trail since its inception — and they will continue to be the best way to insure its future protection. When the A.T. needs major rehab or a relocation, joining a trail crew is one of the most fulfilling ways to experience that volunteerism.
Katie Oliver grew up in North Carolina and went to school at Lynchburg College in Virginia where she studied Exercise Physiology. During her sophomore year she volunteered for a week of Konnarock and then five weeks of S.W.E.A.T. Crew in the Great Smoky Mountains. After graduating college, Katie came to work for the ATC as an assistant trail crew leader in 2016 and 2017 for S.W.E.A.T. and Rocky Top Trail Crews. Earlier this season, she worked as a Ridgerunner in Georgia and will once again be returning as an assistant for S.W.E.A.T and Rocky Top Trail Crews.