Volunteers Bring Hope & Trail Skills to Earth Day

By Katey Schultz

“Trails are like the highways of the Earth,” says Jarroh Passanisi, an 8th grade volunteer on Earth Day, 2017. Clouds gather and part around the summit of Mt. Mitchell, high above this trail crew workstation in Pisgah National Forest, where NC High Peaks Trail Association has partnered with students and staff from Arthur Morgan School for a day of work and good cheer. “I actually prefer trail work to hiking,” Jarroh continues. “It means that more people can come here and enjoy it.”

Enjoyment, along with education and preservation, are what this volunteer opportunity is all about. While NCHPTA Board Members John Whitehouse and Jake Blood, along with member Mark Evans, taught Arthur Morgan School teens the basics of debarking locust poles, installing waterbars, blocking social trails, and working trail tread, students several hours away at Clemson University were loading up in their van, headed north toward the highest peak in the Eastern United states. The end result would be a day that included 34 total volunteers logging 199 hours of work on the first half mile of the Mt. Mitchell Trail near Briar Bottom Campground.

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Isaac Kitchen (9th grade) and Rebekah McGill (9th grade) working on a water bar.

While Earth Day provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the natural world and renew efforts to preserve it for future generations, the work done by this day’s volunteers is part of a long-term, sustained effort to rebuild one of the most popular trails in Western North Carolina. Earlier this year, NCHPTA was awarded a $60,000 Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to renovate a portion of this in the Pisgah National Forest in Mount Mitchell State Park. As part of the grant, NC High Peaks must match $15,000, which can be provided by volunteer work. Future volunteer work days have been planned and a professional crew from American Conservation Experience will begin more technical trail repairs higher up the mountain later this spring.

Not long after lunch, 11 orange-clad Clemson undergrads—part of a new campus group called RISE, Residents in Science and Engineering—hopped out of their van and stretched at the trailhead. Their leader carried a humble, Rubbermaid bin labeled “VOLUNTEER SUPPLIES,” which included work gloves and a first-aid kit. Up-trail, AMS students organized themselves into groups, readying to teach the Clemson students about each workstation and demonstrate proper tool use.

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Clemson students at work under the guidance of NC High Peaks Board President John Whitehouse (left).

“You have to swing it like a golf club,” says Joseph Judson, an 8th grader instructing Clemson’s RISE volunteers. “It takes some time. I’m not very good at it yet but I’m getting better. Trail crew is really fun. It makes me feel good to do this.” He swings a hazel hoe back and forth to demonstrate how he’s changed the tread of the trail to redirect water and prevent pooling.

Lillian Kline, who is stationed as a “scout” on the uppermost portion of the trail being re-worked, informs passing hikers that work crews are nearby. She reflects on her day of volunteering: “This morning we moved dog hobble from the side of the trail and transplanted it into the social trails to block people from taking short cuts through the woods…I see the hard work now that goes into sustaining trails and keeping them nice for hikers to hike on.”

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Lillian Kline (7th grade) serves as a “scout” at the uppermost end of the trail reconstruction.

At the day’s conclusion, four water bars had been installed, several others were repaired, two steps were installed, and a social trail was blocked. “It is so exciting to see the passion of these young folks working so hard and enthusiastically to protect, maintain, and improve our treasured trails for all to enjoy. It gives me hope,” said Cynthia Blood, who, along with Sandy Whitehouse, prepared fresh lunch for the volunteers. To learn more or volunteer, contact info@nchighpeaks.org.

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End of the day, Arthur Morgan School staff and students, group photo.