Mountains to Sea to You
Take a hike! Literally.
This Saturday, June 5, is the 18 annual National Trails Day. It's a day to celebrate the great outdoors and take on a trail or two with your family and friends.
There's a group of hikers in our area that is taking on a trail in a different manner. Volunteers, many of them from the Chargers and Rechargers hiking club, have been meeting regularly to help create North Carolina's Mountains to Sea Trail (MST).
When completed, the Mountains to Sea Trail will include 15 miles of hiking trail in Watauga County and 16 miles of trail in Ashe County. Volunteers working on the trail hope to have all 31 miles in both counties ready for the public by this October.
"Allen DeHart started flagging the trail in 1997," said John Lanman, task force leader for the local Mountains to Sea Trail volunteers group. "The project really started picking up speed three years ago. Statewide, the trail will eventually cover 950 miles. About 500 miles of that is now useable trail. Our part here in Watauga County will be a great addition to the trail."
Two weekends ago, Lanman led a group of more than 10 volunteers as they cleared a section of the Mountains to Sea Trail about 100 yards from the Blue Ridge Parkway between Blowing Rock and Boone. Using rakes, hand-saws and chainsaws, the volunteers cleared the trail while doing minimal harm to the native trees and flora. Much of the work being done this spring is repairing the trail from damage created by the Dec. 25, 2009 ice storm that felled many trees and broke large branches off of others.
"This is a big push weekend on the Mountains to Sea Trail in Watauga and Ashe County," said Shelton Wilder, art instructor at Watauga High School and MST volunteer crew leader. "People are coming from across the state to help us with the recovery. Next weekend, we will be working in the Thunderhill area in Blowing Rock, with some volunteers working north and some south."
Despite running parallel to the Blue Ridge Parkway, you would never know that the Mountains to Sea Trail is near the roadway from your vehicle, because the forest is so thick in this part of the mountains. Some environmental scientists have dubbed this part of America a "temperate rainforest" because of the high amount of rainfall and the incredible diversity of plant and tree species.
"Because this part of the trail is on the Parkway corridor, we have to get permission from the federal government," said Kate Dixon, executive director of Friends of the Mountains to the Sea Trail, a group that organizes the various local volunteer efforts.
The finished Mountains to the Sea Trail will be the fulfillment of a dream that Allen de Hart had nearly two decades ago when he first founded the project.
"I've spent a lot of time on this part of the trail," said the 84-year-old trailblazer de Hart. "Here we had to create a route that avoided elevation changes and avoided sensitive plant life. We wanted it to be as scenic as possible but in the process create a minimum of destructiveness to the soil and plants. We have strived to make it look like it was a natural trail in the forest."
When walking along the MST, one gets the feeling of what Daniel Boone must have felt when he first blazed a trail from the east into these mountains nearly 250 years ago. The air is damp and the spring "green-ness" of it all makes the little orange trail flags stand out in sharp contrast. If you follow the entire 15 miles of the trail in Watauga County, you will see waterfalls and mountain creeks that you never knew were there.
The local Mountains to Sea Trail effort got a boost last year when the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority provided funds for the project. That money was used to hire professional crews to clear some of the trails. One project leader estimated that the use of professionals to clear some trails accelerated the project by two or three years.
This year, all of the work on the trail has been done by Friends of the Mountains to Sea volunteers.
"I've got about 35 volunteers that I contact via email," Lanman said. "Usually, we'll get about five to 10 of those people per day to come out to work on the trail. The group started when Chargers and Rechargers contacted Allen de Hart about getting involved with the Mountains to the Sea Trail.
"At the end of last year we had 10 miles of the trail in Watauga County ready to go, then after the Dec. 25 ice storm, we had no trails to speak of. We had to start all over again to recover ice storm damaged parts of the trail."
Indeed, some parts of the trail had the trunks of entire trees blocking the pathway after the storm. Slowly but surely, elbow grease and chainsaws are clearing these obstacles from the MST.
Lanman stated that the local chapter of Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail has tentative plans for a dedication ceremony in October.
The Watauga Task Force of the MST will work on the trail on Thursday, June 17, and Saturday, June 19. The group meets at 8:30 a.m. at the mini warehouse next to the Deep Gap Post Office.
Crew leaders will supply the gloves and tools, and volunteers are asked to wear shoes with a good grip that they don't mind getting dirty and/or wet. Currently, the project has volunteers who range in age from 14 to 84.
For more information, contact crew leaders John Lanman at (828) 963-6901, or Shelton Wilder at (828) 264-5317.