Lenny and I maintain a piece of the Appalachian Trail which borders North Carolina and Tennessee. From Asheville, North Carolina, we drive an hour to our section, work for about six hours, and drive back in time for dinner. As you can readily see, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park the A.T. is not that accessible.
The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, the club that works on maintaining trails through the park, realized that much of their section was just too difficult to reach for their average trail maintainer. That's not too surprising, as the trail maintainer would have to backpack into the site, spend the next day working on the trail and a day walking out - four times a year.
That's where the SWEAT Crew (Smokies Wilderness Elite Appalachian Trail), managed by Andrew Downs, trails resources manager for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Southern Regional Office, comes in. The SWEAT crew works on 33 miles in the Smokies that are the most difficult reach: You have to walk in at least five miles.
Since the Smokies is managed as a wilderness area, the crew can't use chain saws and so must depend on cross-cut saws and willing muscles. The group is limited to ten people at one time: eight volunteers and two paid crew leaders.
The SWEAT Crew spends a week at a high-country base camp in tents set up around a shelter. The typical volunteer is 18 to 25 years old. According to Mr. Downs, volunteers join because they want to get experience - that's probably key - and a leg up on their resume. Volunteering with ATC looks good. It's also fun, and there's a sense of adventure, but it's also hard work.
A typical week looks like the following:
Day 0 - The volunteers show up at Base Camp, a lovely house donated to the park by Friends of the Smokies. The group has an orientation where crew leaders look over the gear that the volunteers have brought. ATC has top-of-the line loaner gear because they want to set people up for success. If you show up with just your clothes, they can lend you everything else.
Day 1 - The crew hikes up to the campsite. Everyone is carrying at least 60 pounds, includinge eye protection gear, gloves, shin guards, saws, loppers, swing blade, food, and communal cooking gear. The group sets up their tents, hangs the food, and digs a latrine. They also learn radio protocol.
Days 2 to 5 - The next four days are work days - clear a section of trail and remove blowdowns using cross-cut saws. The project for the summer might also include replacing steps, or rerouting a small section of trail. Near the top of the park, there's no need for bridges. The challenge is usually the other way: lack of water, as in the middle of the summer water sources might dry up. Bears can be a significant nuisance as well.
Day 6 - The group walks out and back to the trailhead.
Food is very important in the outdoors. A Base Camp coordinator buys and organizes the food. Each person grabs his/her own breakfast and lunch. Dinner is cooked communally.
Before you can join this crew, Mr. Downs interviews each applicant over the phone. "I try to tell applicants that's it's hard in at least five different ways," he says. "But we also want them to have a good time and come back."
Mr. Downs explains that there are certain red flags that he listens for when talking to potential volunteers. They include:
1. I want to lose weight.
2. This is my one hike a year.
3. He also worries about those who need to borrow a lot of gear. Crew members may not want to take their pristine tents and get it muddy and wet for the week but if they don't have any backpacking gear, that's a potential problem.
4. When asked their favorite hike, an applicant might talk about a hike that is too easy.
Steve Epps, a student in his final semester at Maryville College, Tennessee, studying environmental studies, joined the SWEAT crew last summer as a full-season volunteer. He also helps maintain a section of the trail around Fontana Dam.
"I first heard about the SWEAT Crew from a fraternity brother two years ago, but I didn't think I was prepared enough to join," says Mr. Epps. "However, with a year of backpacking and trail work under my belt, I signed up for SWEAT last summer for the whole eight weeks and loved every minute of it. Since I live in Knoxville, the Smokies has been my backyard my whole life. SWEAT was just a perfect fit for me, and I would certainly do it again in a heartbeat."
About a quarter of volunteers are older and many are retired. Gary Eblen is not a retiree; he is the outreach coordinator for Diamond Brand Outdoors, a locally owned outfitter in Western North Carolina.
Gary, in his 60s, worked in summer camps for many years before moving to Diamond Brand. "The SWEAT Crew attracted me because it has all the elements from my old days at camps. The group experience, eating together, the camaraderie. You're living in the Smokies for several days. What could be better than that?" he says.
For Gary, the hardest part was the walk in and the walk out, carrying 60 pounds. In the last 30 years he's focused on getting the typical weight of his backpack down. But once he's out with the trail crew, hefting a 60-pound pack, he's one of the slowest. And yet, Gary says that "once we started clearing the trail, we older guys smoked these younger people on working with swing blades. Younger people have to learn how to pace themselves."
About 40 percent of the crews are women, and they work shoulder-to-shoulder with the guys. That might be because women self-select themselves out way before applying for the SWEAT Crew, so you only get the most prepared and fit. Also, 65-year-old men will apply, but not many 65-year-old women have that kind of confidence.
Sometimes young people see an older retired person working hard and feel that they should be able to do the same thing: "I'm in my 20s; I should be able to do this." The young person doesn't realize that retired people on this crew do trail maintenance week after week with their home club almost all year long.
Those who qualify for the club soon develop a strong bond, according to Mr. Downs.
"To me", he explains, "why people come back is most important. There's a sense of family and camaraderie which is easy to establish in the backcountry. It's a great way to build a resume, get important work done and see one of the most remote sections of the A.T. The A.T. is under a national and international microscope. We need to keep it in good shape."