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Hikers Help Clear Falls Lake Trail

July 20, 2008

By Joe Miller, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Jul. 20–Jeff Brewer prepped his 60 or so volunteers early Saturday morning for the day ahead: watch for ticks; drink lots of water because it’s going to be hot; be careful with those axes and bow saws. Oh, and there’s this irritated landowner. With six rottweilers.

“Let’s try not to irritate him anymore,” requested Brewer, president of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

What brought the volunteers out on a steamy July day was the prospect of pushing the Falls Lake Trail past the 40-mile mark. About three-quarters of a mile of tree roots, rocks, leaves and fallen branches kept the trail from extending from the dam northwest up Falls Lake to Santee Road, about three miles beyond the Rolling View Recreation Area.

The Falls Lake Trail is part of the 900-plus-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a work in progress that will one day make it possible to hike from Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border to Jockey’s Ridge on the coast.

On Saturday, the focus was on this three-quarter-mile stretch.

“People think you just go out and build a trail, that you throw a mattocks over your shoulder and go to work,” said Allen de Hart, an authority on North Carolina’s hiking trails and founder and treasurer of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

In fact, trail construction is surprisingly involved.

First, a proposed trail route is flagged, then approved by whoever manages the land. Along Falls Lake, that’s a complicated matter. The Army Corps of Engineers has ultimate authority. But various other entities, including the state Division of Parks and Recreation, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and Durham and Wake counties, also have a say.

Once the route is approved, Brewer and company go through with a variety of tools — from chainsaws and loppers (big scissors to chop smaller tree limbs) to mattocks (a two-headed ax and digging device). When Brewer is satisfied that the trail is passable, he touches base with the Corps for permission to promote it as open.

Returning the favor

Some trails — the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, for one — have handbooks that cover all aspects of trail construction, from maximum grade to how high blazes should be on the trees. The FMST relies more on common sense.

“We build the trail as natural as possible, with as little erosion as possible,” says de Hart.

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail — like most trails — is being built by volunteers, who are motivated in a variety of ways.

Sherrie Faries took her first backpacking trip last year at age 49 and liked it so much she decided to spend 46 days on the Appalachian Trail this spring.

“This is my way of giving back,” she said while taking a break from routing the trail around a sweetgum tree.

Saturday’s appearance was happenstance for Tim O’Brien, a recent graduate of the N.C. School of the Arts in Durham. “I was at REI buying sunglasses yesterday and saw the flier,” O’Brien said.

For others, the motivation was more basic.

“Some people come for the chicken biscuits and coffee,” said volunteer Will Farmer. Realizing that a well-fed worker is a productive one, volunteers loaded up on free Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks before heading out.

Alas, by mid-afternoon, the biscuits were fading, the steamy weather taking its toll.

“You work behind a desk all week and come out here on a day like this and it’ll just whip you,” Brewer said when it became clear the volunteers would fall about a quarter-mile short of their goal.

“We’ll get it on the next workday,” he promised.

The next Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail workday is scheduled for Aug. 23. See www.ncmst.org for information.

joe.miller@newsobserver.com or (919) 812-8450

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