Volunteering on the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail (or the A.T.)

It conjures up mythical images of thousands of miles of wilderness: thousands of miles of wilderness and skinny, beardy men…

The Appalachian Trail, for those that haven’t heard of it, snakes up the east coast of the USA, through 14 states and a variety of terrains. It is one of the most famous long distance hiking trails in the world and one of the oldest, the first section created in 1923.

The skinny, beardy men are through hikers, an almost legendary group of people who do the  2,180 mile, six month hike from Georgia to Maine. There are many types of through hiker, but all have one thing in common: completing the grueling trail in its entirety. Some do it over years, a week at a time; some in several sections of a month each; while the most hardcore do it in one go – all 2,180 miles. After that distance, eating less calories than they burn and little time for the extravagance of haircuts and shaving it’s no wonder they are so skinny and hairy at the end…

Literature “Review”

I first heard of the Appalachian Trail in the Bill Bryson book “A Walk in the Woods”. After reading it I resolved myself to walking the Trail, probably not in its entirety, but certainly setting foot on it for some length. That opportunity came in 2010 when I had three months free prior to going back to University. After much searching for overseas volunteering opportunities I stumbled across the ATC (Appalachian Trail Club), the organisation that maintains the Trail. On their website was an advert for trail volunteers: free food and board in return for hard graft and sweat maintaining the Trail. I jumped at the chance!

Views from the Trail in Maine

On my way!

A month later I was on the plane winging my way to Boston, the first stop on my journey. Each state had it’s own trail crew and I had chosen to volunteer with the Maine trail crew. They administer the most rugged and remote sections, including the longest uninterrupted section, the “Hundred Mile Wilderness”, a section of the Trail just before the terminus at Katahdin that takes seven days to cross, with no town or roads to break up the distance.

After arriving at Boston I hopped on a coach for the four hour trip to Bangor, Maine. Base camp for the Maine ATC that year was a farm in Garland, a small “town” an hour from Bangor. The accommodations during off days were small permanent tents, situated in a field behind the main, slightly rundown, house where we ate. The town was situated on a lake where we would spend our first day back from the trail washing off in the cool, calm water – when we weren’t using the makeshift rope swing that is. After a week of no washing it was refreshing like nothing else.

The Trail in sight

My first sight of the Appalachian Trail was at Baldpate, three hours east of Garland. It was the hardest section the MATC was maintaining that year and my first week hiking in a while. We shouldered our 35kg bags and did the 3 hour hike up to the basecamp, needless to say I was knackered after that. Luckily we only had to do that once a week.

On work days we would be up at 6, crawling out of our tents as the sun was rising, and heading up the trail to do essential maintenance. We would take picks, shovels, iron bars and pulleys to move rocks and soil to create rough steps up the side of hills or create water bars to channel water from the paths. All this was done amongst the backdrop of tall pines and the occasional glimpse of hill and forest through the trees. At four we would pack up for the day and head back down to camp, make dinner and head to bed soon after dusk, ready for the next day.

Some finished work

What’s for dinner?

You never realise how much food you eat until you have to carry it. This is especially true when you are all working hard, burning so many calories. It is the reason the through hikers end up so slim at the end of the Trail and it’s the reason we could make a hill out of four days worth food.

While working at Whitecap, where I spent the next (and last) three weeks, the amount of food and equipment we had became a running joke, with through hikers and week travellers always amazed. They had walked three days from the last road. Had we walked all that way with all that!? “We’re really fit”, “We rode ATVs up”, or my favourite, “We got a helicopter in.”

It was always a bit disappointing for them when we told the truth; we had a 45 minute ‘off piste’ hike from a logging road where we were parked up.

What’s that noise?

One night in the second week at Whitecap I had a visitor. While asleep in my tent, I woke up to some loud noises outside. The shuffling and snapping of dead twigs indicated it was big, and very close. “Uh oh, I still have my trail mix in my bag!” If it was a bear it was probably be coming for that. I wasn’t equipped to fight a bear… The tent wasn’t going to give me much protection either. Stuffing it deeper into my bag probably wouldn’t have made any difference but it made me feel better anyway.

Eventually there was a different noise: the grinding of vegetation between teeth. It was a Moose. There was certainly relief in that realisation, until it occurred to me the three foot high tent wasn’t going to stop an eight foot moose if it decided I was in the way. Luckily it wasn’t interested in saying hello and moved off, avoiding my tent on the way. We heard it again the next evening. A quick search by torchlight didn’t get us a glimpse. Finally the day after, we saw it eating nearby while we were preparing dinner. It was a magnificent large male with a full rack of antlers. Moose. List. Check!

Some of the other wildlife in the woods

It’s the weekend!

At the end of each week we would head back down the trail, get back in the van and head back to base camp ready for ice cream, fresh food and a hot shower.

The month I spent there was very different to anything I had done before. The comradery between both volunteers and interns was great, the scenery stunning and the wildlife so different to that in the UK. I learned a lot that summer, from how to move a rock the size of a dinner table with just iron bars to the finer points of rope swings. If this is a place you are interested in going, consider volunteering. You will leave with a feeling of accomplishment greater than any you will get from ‘just’ hiking.

Resources

The A.T. clubs look for volunteers every summer to help with trail maintenance. A great starting point however is the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. They manage the overall trail and have huge variety of links and articles to help you understand the trail and the clubs that run each section. Their website is http://www.appalachiantrail.org

There are many clubs that run parts of the trail, however I chose to volunteer with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. Their website can be found at http://www.matc.org

 

About The Author

A Geologist by trade, Andrew loves travelling and photography, especially to wild and natural places. He needs to pay for it by working full time so until he and Verena can travel the world full time he has become a specialist in creating as much travelling time as possible from their annual leave.

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