Last year, I adopted a section of trail with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club to become a volunteer trail maintainer. Since then, I’ve been to my trail three times to clear fallen trees, trim brush, clean water bars, and clean trash from campsites. These are all things that I could have done on my own without officially becoming a volunteer maintainer, but making it official is the best way to keep an immense trail like the Appalachian Trail in good shape. Here’s why.

TrailMaintenance

My section of trail is about 8 miles long, and each of my trips to maintain it has taken 1 to 3 days. When I’ve finished my work trip, I send a work report to the district overseer– the sections of trail that MATC maintains are broken into districts throughout the state, each with an overseer. Each overseer coordinates a handful of volunteers who do trail maintenance on a given section of trail. If no volunteer is responsible for a section of trail, as was the case before I volunteered, the overseer either takes it upon himself to do the trail maintenance, or tries to find more volunteers.

So when I took over my section of trail, that freed up the district overseer from having to make extra trips to my section, and he can now focus on making sure other sections are maintained properly. Even better, if I or another maintainer run into something we can’t fix with the tools we have, as was the case for many maintainers after 2015’s harsh New England winter, he can coordinate groups of volunteers to tackle the problems together.

You’ll notice I’m talking about volunteers, not paid trail crews. The fact of the Appalachian Trail is that the vast majority of trail maintenance is done by unpaid volunteers. Paid trail crews usually take on major work that requires technical skills, like building stone stairways, relocating large sections of trail, or building shelters (although volunteers often do much of the heavy work for those, too). The most common stuff that you might complain about while hiking through an overgrown or muddy section of trail– that’s volunteer work.

Volunteering comes with an obligation to visit your section of trail two, three, or four times a year in order to maintain it, and that’s also important. While tossing fallen branches off a trail that you’re hiking on is helpful, one can’t rely on casual hikers to stop and clear all the blow downs. It’s important to have one or more people who are responsible for a trail, who commit to those multiple trips each year.

I often hear through-hikers or people who appreciate them asking how they can “give back to the trail”, but few responses ever focus on what is absolutely one of the most important things you can do to help hikers. Volunteer to maintain a trail. If you can commit to three trips to the trail each year (which I know isn’t something everyone can do– that’s the reason I only started last year), look into volunteering. It’s not just something to do on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail– National Forests and National Parks often rely on volunteer trail maintainers also. Here are a few big ones:

Appalachian Trail (get in touch with your local chapter)
Pacific Crest Trail
Appalachian Mountain Club (NH, NJ, ME)
For National Parks, find the “Friends of…” website for the park (many National Parks have official Friends organizations that help raise funds and maintain trails)

We (the Guthook’s Guides development team) are alarmed at the increasing number of people stating their intention to hike without paper maps.

ELECTRONIC DEVICES AND APPS CAN FAIL.

IT IS A HORRIBLE IDEA TO RELY SOLELY ON A DEVICE OR AN APP AS YOUR SOLE NAVIGATION SOURCE.

There’s really not much more to it than that.

We love technology, and we love our customers who use our apps. But please carry paper maps with you — even if it’s just as a back up — when you hit the trail.

*This is the second in our series, “Know A Trail Club”.*

The Arizona Trail Association is the caretaker of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, an 800-mile trail that traverses the length of Arizona south to north from the Mexico border to the Utah border. This 21-year-old nonprofit organization has built and continues to maintain the national treasure that is the Arizona Trail.

About the trail:

azt_map

Location: entire length of the State of Arizona, south to north

Length: 800 miles

Season: All year, due to varied elevation. Desert portions are best for the winter and spring, while northern and high-elevation portions are best for the summer and fall. Desert portions to be avoided in the summer.

Use type: Hiking, biking, and horseback riding. About 70% of the trail is bike-accessible. 30% of the trail goes through wilderness areas, where bikes are not allowed. The ATA has suggested cycling routes around these wilderness areas.

How the trail is organized: There are 43 named “Passages” along the trail ranging from 8 miles to over 30 miles in length

Highlights: passes through 8 Wilderness Areas, 2 National Parks (Saguaro and Grand Canyon), a State Park, and various other county, state, federal and private land parcels.

Trail Description, south to north: The trail begins in grassland at the Mexico border and immediately heads into 9000’ mountains. The trail climbs and descends between 3000’ to 9000’ through “sky islands” (mountains in a sea of desert) before hitting low desert in the middle of the state, near the Gila River. This area has little shade and little water. The trail then heads up to the Mogollon Rim (separating southern Arizona from Northern Arizona) and the Colorado Plateau with its ponderosa pine forests. The trail then passes through the San Francisco Peaks area near Flagstaff and then through the breathtaking Grand Canyon. Finally, the trail goes across the Kaibab Plateau, and finishes in a sandstone wilderness at the Utah border.

feature_graphic

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In 2015 the Guthook’s Guide team worked with the ATA to build its official Arizona Trail navigational guide smartphone app for iPhone and Android. As we worked through the project, we found the ATA staff and volunteers to be dedicated, hard-working and open-minded — a great combination to ensure the long-term viability and relevance of the Arizona Trail.

I spoke with Matt Nelson, the executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, this week to find out more about the Arizona Trail and what the ATA is up to. Matt has a background in natural and cultural resource management and outdoor education. He has been the executive director of the ATA for five years.

Long-distance hiking on the Arizona Trail: “It’s Harder Than You Think.”

Thru-hikers make up a tiny portion of AZT use, but their numbers are increasing. Matt estimates that about 100 people thru-hiked the trail last year. Due to extreme summertime desert heat, Northbound thru-hikers hike in March to May, while Southbound thru-hikers go from August to November.

The fact that this 800-mile trail can be hiked in two months can be misleading to those looking for a medium-length hiking adventure. In fact, Matt says that the unofficial motto of the AZT is “It’s Harder Than You Think.” Even seasoned Triple Crowners (people who have hiked the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and the notoriously-difficult Continental Divide Trail) report that the AZT is the most difficult trail they have ever hiked.

Why so difficult? There is extreme weather and climate variation, severe daily elevation change, few resupply opportunities, little water, and the trail can be difficult to follow in some parts.

Water availability, in particular, is a real hazard in hiking the trail. Fortunately, the ATA has been collecting water information for the past 20 years and has assembled an outstanding water data set for those who want to hike the trail. Each water source is graded by reliability and seasonality. ATA board member Fred Gaudet makes this water data publicly available.

Solitude

There is a definite upside to the Arizona Trail’s difficulty and remoteness: if you’re looking for solitude, you will find it on the Arizona Trail. The trail goes through some very remote areas – some reachable only by hiking — with breathtaking views.

Resupply and Gateway Communities

Resupplying during a long AZT hike is difficult – resupply towns are often far from the trail and far in between. The ATA has partnered with 33 towns, or “Gateway Communities” to the benefit of the towns and the AZT’s hikers, bikers and horseback riders. AZT users are welcomed and encouraged to visit these towns.

gateway_communities_AZT_map

The ATA has also partnered with these 33 Gateway Communities through its Seeds of Stewardship program. About 1200 middle school and high school students from these communities participate each year in programs that get them out on the trail for trail work, species surveys, invasive species removal, and other projects.

Ongoing work of the ATA

The work of the Arizona Trail Association is accomplished largely through the work of its volunteers. Matt, who is the sole full-time employee of the association, wears many hats in directing the efforts of the organization. In addition to Matt, there are 8 additional part-time and volunteer staff to further coordinate the 1500+ volunteers who maintain the trail, install new signs, report trail conditions, conduct outreach operations, and much more.

The association has an Arizona Trail Steward program, where an individual, family, or organization takes charge of a 3 to 7 mile segment of the trail. The steward either maintains the trail itself, or, if the job is too large, reports back to the ATA what kind of work needs to be done. The ATA sometimes employs professional crews to maintain or rebuild trail in remote or damaged areas.

Getting Involved

The Arizona Trail Association has active and vibrant volunteer program and a number of events all year long. You can join the ATA at a number of levels, with each member receiving access to its detailed set of trail data.

Resources

Arizona Trail Guidebook

Arizona Trail App for iPhone or Android (navigational guide)

AZ Trail To Go App for iPhone or Android (current trail conditions)

Online Interactive Map

Printed Top Maps

Data book (available with membership)

At the end of last summer, I spent a week on the Pacific Crest Trail with some of my old through-hiking friends. They’d all met me as “Guthook” long before I started making apps for the PCT and Appalachian Trail, but on this trip I tended to go by my real name rather than my trail name. In the past few years, I’ve started to realize that sharing my name with a series of popular apps can be a little awkward.

In the interest of keeping some anonymity, I usually put old pictures of myself on here instead of new ones.

In the interest of keeping some anonymity, I usually put old pictures of myself on here instead of new ones.

On the first night of the trip, one of my friends was talking with a through-hiker who was camping near us. He was more interested in telling stories about his hike than hearing what we had to say, but when she mentioned that all of us had hiked the PCT or AT in the past, he got more interested in us, so my friend introduced everybody. “I’m Dinosaur, that’s Kentucky Blue, that’s Guthook, that’s Cough Drop, Squirrel, Tau.”

“Wait, The Guthook?” was his response. I didn’t hear the end of that from my friends for the rest of the week. They thought it was hilarious.

Though we passed about eighty through-hikers during that week on the trail, only three found out that I was “The Guthook.” My friends introduced me to one, one recognized me from earlier in the year, and one asked me if I knew Guthook (he was referring to the app), to which I replied, “Well, actually…”

I’ve had plenty more funny meetings with hikers on the Appalachian Trail in the past few years, too. I particularly like the “I thought you’d be much older” reaction (I don’t know why they would think that). Or, “I pictured you as a balding, middle-aged, fat guy with Cheetos stains on his shirt.” (I really don’t know why they thought that!).

That’s always pretty amusing, but I usually don’t like to meet current through-hikers as “The Guthook” because it changes the power dynamic of our conversations. When I’m talking with another hiker who doesn’t know my trail name, they tend to look at me as more of an equal, or at least someone not unlike themselves. I’m just a former AT and PCT through-hiker. But when they find out I’m “The Guthook”, the tone changes a little bit. Some of that could be my imagination, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

More than one hiker has called me a celebrity, which I totally disagree with, but that got me thinking of the nature of Trail Celebrities.

When I was first hiking the AT and PCT, there were Trail Celebrities like Baltimore Jack, Warren Doyle, Warner Springs Monty, Billy Goat– seriously accomplished hikers that everyone seems to know because they’re always on the trail and they are very involved in the trail community. Their celebrity is almost entirely limited to through-hikers and aspiring through-hikers, and they seem to really enjoy that. People enjoy hearing about them because they are so ingrained into the fabric of the AT and PCT.

Then there are the endurance athletes and adventurers, like Andrew Skurka, Jennifer Pharr Davis, and Heather “Anish” Anderson. These folks have wider appeal because they do things that are inspiring to the general public, but also to the specialized through-hiker crowd. Either way, they tend to be more focused on doing their own thing, rather than hiking the AT and PCT over and over again. People enjoy hearing about them because what they do is astounding.

Then there are three guys whose names everybody seems to know because our names are attached to maps and guidebooks, but very few people seem to know much of anything about us as people. AWOL, Halfmile, Guthook. We each have different levels of how much we let the public know who we are (I have this blog, AWOL has the book about his through-hike), but the average through-hiker seems to have much less knowledge about who we are than they would about Baltimore Jack or Billy Goat. I assume AWOL and Halfmile are perfectly happy with that. I certainly am.

When I first started this blog, almost seven years ago, I had dreams of being a “famous through-hiker,” known around the world for my epic backpacking trips. That didn’t work out. I don’t have what it takes to break records like Anish, or to trek alone for months in the Alaskan wilderness like Skurka– in fact, I haven’t been on a really difficult long-distance backpacking trip in more than five years, and I’m only now beginning to think of trying a few in the future. And, as my interactions with hikers in the past few years have shown me, I’m not really comfortable being any kind of celebrity, even if that means just sharing my name with my creation. Rather than becoming widely known for my explorations, a thing that I’ve created has become widely known for the usefulness it provides for thousands of other people. I much prefer it this way.

**This is the first in an interview series we are doing this year with hiking trail organizations.**

I had a lively conversation this week with Michael Kauffmann, founder and head of the Bigfoot Trail Alliance. Michael is largely responsible for the creation of the Bigfoot Trail (so-called for its location in “Bigfoot Country”, home of the mythic Sasquatch), and passionate about educating the public about the rich biotic and cultural history throughout the Klamath Mountains.

About the Bigfoot Trail:

Big Foot Trail Poster

Location: Northern California’s Klamath Mountains, with a quick dip into Southern Oregon, through 6 Wilderness Areas:

  • Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness
  • Trinity Alps Wilderness
  • Russian Wilderness
  • Marble Mountain Wilderness
  • Red Buttes Wilderness
  • Siskiyou Wilderness

Length: 360 miles

High Point: about 7800’

Low Point: Sea level, Pacific Ocean, at Crescent City

Highlights: passes through one of the most biodiverse temperate forests on earth, with 32 conifer species, more than 2000 plant species, and spectacular geologic complexity.

Bigfoot Trail Alliance Founder, Michael Kauffmann:

Michael is an outdoorsman, author and educator. In 2002 he took a hiatus from teaching and hiked the Continental Divide Trail southbound. To his knowledge, he was one of only two people to do a SoBo CDT hike that year. After his hike he was totally hooked on long-distance hiking. Upon completion of the CDT, he moved to Humboldt County in Northern California, eventually getting his Master’s degree from Humboldt State. An educator and ecologist, he has expertise in the region’s conifers, having written two books on the subject. In 2007 while discussing a potential Pacific Crest Trail hike with his wife, Allison Poklemba, she suggested he further explore the Klamath Mountains and create a long-trail locally instead. He took her advice and the idea of the Bigfoot Trail was born.

Creation of the Bigfoot Trail

An educator at heart, Michael’s biggest hope is that the Bigfoot Trail will introduce more people to the Klamath Mountains’ exceptional biodiversity and complex natural and cultural history. In 2008 Michael worked with Humboldt State botany professor John Sawyer (who has since passed away), to map out a trail that would capture the rich biological and geological diversity of the region. Professor Sawyer was the perfect partner for Michael, as he spent his academic career cataloging the flora of the Klamath Mountains. They put together a potential route that winds through the region, passing 32 confier species, and ultimately reaching the Pacific Ocean at Crescent City. In 2009 Michael hiked the route, and that initial route is in place today, though there is still work to do.

Creation of the Bigfoot Trail Alliance

Many of the existing trails that compose the Bigfoot Trail today were built in the 1930s and 1940s, and others have been utilized by Native Americans for millennia. In other words, these are old trails, and they need work. Recently Michael created a Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $14,000. These funds created the Bigfoot Trail Alliance, now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. With national interest in this new organization, the Alliance held its first board meeting this month (January 2016).

The Alliance is now working with the California Wilderness Coalition on its Northwest California’s Mountains & Rivers program and is partnering with the Siskiyou Mountain Club and the Forest Service to rebuild eight miles of the trail. It hopes to achieve National Recreational Trail status soon.

One of the Alliance’s long term goals is to create a citizen science project to study the effects of climate change on the Klamath Mountains’ biota.

Hikers are taking notice of the Bigfoot Trail. There is now a trickle of Bigfoot Trail thru-hikers each year, and traffic on the trail is increasing. Locals are enthusiastic about the project, with one group already volunteering to adopt a portion of the trail.

Big things are happened on the Bigfoot Trail. Join the Facebook group, and consider becoming a member of the Bigfoot Trail Alliance. Better yet, get out on the Bigfoot Trail and see what the Klamath Mountains have to offer.