by Ann Farrar
I love hiking on the AT (actually, I love hiking anywhere in the mountains). In the past, I loved doing maintenance on the AT, and now I enjoy documenting the maintenance work done by many of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club (SMHC) volunteers. I never realized how much work was involved in keeping the trail passable until I became a volunteer AT Trail Maintainer in the late 90s. The SMHC maintains 100 miles of AT – 70 miles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and 30 miles in the Nantahala National Forest.
The last Saturday in January, I went with Dick and others to replace a log bridge and remove some blowdowns on the AT in the national forest. Franklin LaFond, the SMHC AT Maintainers National Forest District Manager, coordinated the activities for the day. Dick, Franklin, Taylor Weatherbee, Bill Pyle, Randy Bullock, and Lamar Powell (Trail Name: HOPEFUL) participated in the work crew. It was a fantastic crew that got a lot of great work done, as you will see in this blog and when you hike the trail. Volunteers adopt a section of the trail to maintain and we were working on HOPEFUL’s section of trail.
We started our hike from the Fontana Village Marina parking lot, hiking south on the AT, to the work location, which was just below Walker Gap
The area highlighted in blue in the map above is where we hiked in and replaced the bridge. The next map shows a satellite view of the mountains with our trailhead, route, and work location.
One of the things I love about hiking in the winter is seeing out since the leaves are gone. On this trip, we were able to see the Shuckstack Fire Tower, the bridge on Hwy 28 over the Little River, and Fontana Dam.
The "old" bridge:
Before we started working on the bridge, the Sutton family came through -- Josh, Cassie, and "Little Man" Harvey, and they are thru-hiking the AT. You can learn more about their thru-hiking journey by following them on YouTube and Instagram. Just search for "Live Sutton" and share in their journey. They were such a delight to meet! Dick and I will definitely keep up with their progress through YouTube.
And they are the last hikers to cross the old bridge, so check out that moment in the video below!!
Once we arrived at the worksite, the locust logs prepped for the new bridge needed to be moved. Back in November, Franklin, Dick, Taylor, and Bill cut down a dead locust tree and prepared the logs for the bridge replacement. The tree was cut down, two big logs cut for the bridge, and two smaller logs cut for each sill log. Also, they are debarked and leveled on one side. Of course, you can’t be lucky enough to have a dead locust tree right near your construction site. Instead, they had to haul the logs down the hill. Following is a video showing how they accomplished it! They are a pretty remarkable group of guys.
Bill had straps custom made to use when hauling big logs. It made getting them down the hill much easier!
Of course, if you are Franklin and Bill, and the logs aren't too big, you put them on your shoulder and carry them down!!!
There are so many steps to putting in a new bridge. Once all the materials are near the construction site, Franklin debarks the last log. Leaving the bark on the log increases the chance of insect infestation, which may increase the moisture leading to mold and premature rot.
Next, Randy prepared the site for the sill logs so they are level in the ground. Then Taylor, Bill, and Dick tweaked it once the sill logs were in place.
The next video shows Dick, Taylor, and Bill cutting the sill logs so the bridge logs will lay flat and level.
Bet you thought we were almost finished, but NO! When they are satisfied with all the logs’ placement, LONG galvanized spikes are used to anchor the logs in place. HOPEFUL drills the holes for the spikes, Dick applies oil to the spikes, and Franklin, Taylor, and Bill pound the spikes into the logs. Whew!! What a job!!
Finally, the new bridge is finished!! And what an improvement!! I was the lucky one to take the first trip across the new bridge!! Woo Hoo!!!
But don’t think for a minute that their work was done. Oh no, there was a dead oak tree near the bridge and trail that was waiting to fall (called a hazard tree). In true Trail Maintainer style, the danger was averted, and the tree was cut down!! Check out this thrilling video!!!
As we were hiking out, there was one remaining blowdown that needed clearing. The before picture:
After this, everyone packed up and headed home. I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I always am with the hard-working volunteer trail maintainers. They are genuinely dedicated to doing their job safely and having a fun time while working. Everyone worked well together, and it was delightful spending the day with them! Since I cannot work on the trail any longer, this is the next best thing for me: documenting the great work they do!!! I think I have found my niche for this phase of my life as a trail maintainer because I really love being out on the AT volunteering and giving back to the hiking community. Hope you enjoy the blog and be sure and thank the volunteers when you see them out working on the trail!!
If you are interested, below is a short video of our hike route, including the location of the new bridge.