By Shannon McGovern
Two weeks after a major snowstorm hit Rockbridge County, the lights are back on and the snow has melted.
But members of the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club (NBATC) are still hard at work clearing trails made impassable by fallen trees.
Saturday, four members of the club in white hard hats and work gloves and equipped with two axes, a rake and a chainsaw, spent seven hours cutting down and clearing wind-blown trees from four sections of the Appalachian Trail.
The trail runs from Hog Camp Gap to Route 60 at the Long Mountain Wayside.
The Natural Bridge club is one of 31 maintaining clubs whose volunteers oversee everyday maintenance of trails and shelters that make up the 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
The club oversees 90 miles of trails in Virginia year-round. The volunteers work in partnership with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, and the National Park and Forest services. The Forest Service lends the tools to maintenance clubs and oversees maintainers’ training and chainsaw and crosscut saw certifications.
Jason Hammer, 37, is the assistant supervisor of trails for the NBATC and oversees the Priest section of the AT, which stretches from Route 56 to the Priest shelter. Hammer hiked the AT in two parts between 2000 and 2001. His second trip brought him to Vermont where he helped a maintenance crew hiking in logs to make bridge crossings for flooded parts of trails.
Hammer was instantly hooked and joined the NBATC when he returned home.
Like all maintainers with an assigned section, he keeps tabs on jobs that need attention. His family’s real estate business keeps him too busy to visit his section more than four to six times a year, but it’s a responsibility he takes seriously nonetheless.
“A lot of us take pride in taking care of our section,” said Hammer.
Some members make it out more often, which Hammer attributes to the proximity of the trails to where maintainers live. He said in some states maintainers have to drive several hours to access their sections.
“We are lucky to be pretty close to our trail,” he said.
It’s an advantage that Norman Sykora, 66, has embraced in his 27 years of maintaining.
Now retired from working for the U.S. Postal Service, Sykora was president of the NBATC for two terms in the 1990s and again in 2008. Saturday was his fourth day working on the trails in a single week.
Earlier that week he surveyed a damaged outhouse roof and returned the following day to repair it. Five maintainers went with him, carrying all the tools and materials
they needed for the work. The ladder, Sykora said, is the hardest thing to carry in. Friday he was out again, moving rocks from the trail and fixing a water source problem.
Sykora won’t be paid for his work, but his long hours, along with those of all maintainers, will be recorded and submitted to the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Trial Conservancy. These records are referred to when the two organizations ask the government for matching funding for future projects.
Regular projects include clearing trees, trimming bushes, maintaining springs and making “water bars” to divert water flow away from the trails and prevent erosion.
Hammer and Sykora are both chainsaw and crosscut certified.
On Saturday, after assessing the areas for hazards, the two would hack away trees that were too big to lift and move with a chainsaw. Because of their certification training, they know which trees to cut and which to leave. Trees that lean or that are rotted are usually too dangerous to cut because the maintainers can’t predict how the trees will fall.
“Sometimes it’s better to let nature take care of it,” said Bob Kyle, 67, a Richmond resident who has helped with maintenance for more than 20 years and accompanied the crew on Saturday.
The NBATC’s 90 miles of trail cross through three wilderness areas, where volunteers must cut by hand with crosscut saws, rather than using chainsaws. Half of Kyle’s trail section overlaps with Hammer’s on the Priest, which lies within a wilderness area.
The Priest section is difficult to access, and the crosscut saw is awkward to hike with, but Hammer says it gets the job done.
Between their training and experience, maintainers develop acuity for identifying potential problems and hazards on the trail. Hikers who aren’t maintainers don’t necessarily notice trail obstructions.
“There’s a lot more to it,” Hammer said. “If you see rock stairs or something on the trail, it’s there for a reason.”
For example, water bars that divert water flow away from the main trail often cut across trails. Maintainers build the structures with thick branches or rocks, depending on what is in the immediate area. Rocks are better, because wood rots and has to be replaced, but rocks might not be conveniently accessible.
“Sometimes it’s about using what you’ve got,” Hammer said.
By the time they finish cleaning winter wreckage, springtime will bring with it a list of projects for the volunteers.
“It’s an awful lot of work just hacking up weeds,” Kyle said.
But the NBATC has hundreds of members who are up to the challenge.
“We are fortunate to have a lot of members who can go out year-round,” Hammer said.
For now, the NBATC holds strong at 360-400 members but young people are not joining AT clubs at a high rate, Hammer said. As older officers and members retire, there are few volunteers to replace them.