You don’t see them when you walk through the leaves on your hike. You won’t see them as you weave your way through an inviting crevice between two boulders to discover what lies beyond. Don’t look for them when pedaling towards a perfectly placed berm or you could fall off your bike. Just know that the people responsible for the thrilling run and the inviting passage, the people who are planning where you will walk and what you will see – they see you. These trail workers are the invisible architects who guide your interaction with the great outdoors.
In North America, trail designers and maintainers come from public and private groups, government agencies and community programs, and sometimes they are simply private owners. Together, their work over the past century has resulted in nearly 200,000 miles of trails on federal lands alone as of 2015. That’s four times the mileage of the US interstate highway system.
“They’re weavers when they weave a trail around that rock and that tree and over that hill,” said Erik Mickelson, an independent trail consultant who hosts Trailism, an information website for trail users. “They are sculptors when they carve a long, elongated, curvy bench out of dirt, masons or exterior designers in the way they move or shape the stones.”
Parc national du Mont-Mégantic in Quebec is known for its all-season trails and spectacular views of the 3,000-foot peaks of Mégantic and Saint-Joseph.
When infrastructure and conservation manager Camille-Antoine Ouimet set out to design the park’s newest Escarpements trail a few years ago, he wanted to focus not on the grandiose, but on the wide variety of mountain microenvironments. The multi-level path carved into the rock encourages hikers to linger at every turn. It was at a time when the trail got me stuck between two rocks that I started to wonder: who designed this?
“The main feature,” Ouimet told me, “was all these little cliffs and rocks and the diverse terrain that creates a feeling of being on a big mountain but also with an intimacy with this forest and this assemblage of rocks.”
“The diversity of the place was a blessing for the experience, but it was a big challenge,” said Ouimet. Upon discovering a protected fern species, for example, Ouimet had to alter the path of the trail to ensure that hikers did not affect the plants.
An important part of working on the trails is satisfying our love of nature while making sure not to suffocate it with misguided affection. So if the hard work Alexa Sharp puts into her job as the leader of an all-female maintenance crew in the Southeast Conservation Corps working in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest goes unnoticed, Sharp, 27, is dying. ‘okay with that.
“People go to these places to be in as natural a space as possible, to find peace in the natural world,” said Sharp. “It’s not about us as trail workers leaving our mark or anything like that. It’s about respecting the place and leaving it as we found it, but just a little more maintained and taken care of.
Trail use has tripled in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic struck in early 2020, according to data from AllTrails, a provider of participatory information on trails of all kinds. Even before that, tens of millions of Americans were benefiting from a trail system started in 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson told Congress that hikers, horse riders and cyclists were “forgotten men of the outdoors.” “. “For them,” he said, “we have to have trails as well as highways. “
Yet all of these explorers can’t help but affect the environment – and not always in a good way.
“There’s a double-edged sword when you create a trail,” said Kathryn Kolb, executive director of the Atlanta-based environmental group EcoAddendum, whose mission is to teach good stewardship of wild places.
“Green space is positive, wonderful for public access. The problem can be if this public access is done in a way that harms the exact resource they are trying to take advantage of. “
Overexploitation can “degrade the ecosystem and introduce invasive species,” Kolb said. An afternoon spent with a dog in the woods sounds bucolic, but it may not be so enjoyable for the wildlife whose living spaces have been deceived.
This is why trail construction involves complex and interlocking decisions aimed at minimizing the environmental effect of the trail while maximizing the user experience. Once a trail is constructed, maintainers deal with flooding, erosion, and human-created issues, which have a pernicious tendency to wander off a trail and wander through it. the fragile undergrowth of the forest.
Then there are more obviously blatant behaviors: hunting, foraging and graffiti. Trail workers are not law enforcement, said Chris Firme, a volunteer trail worker on the Appalachian Trail. That’s why forgotten outdoor enthusiasts might soon find modern surveillance cameras installed at the start of the trails.
“It’s like an ongoing battle,” Firme said. “Land managers are trying to find a way to mitigate it. “
Lynn Cameron was a 31-year-old research librarian at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., When she started hiking the AT 40 years ago. Soon after, she and her husband, Malcolm, began volunteering to tend the trails in the George Washington National Forest and the AT.
They would cut vegetation and clear ditches constructed to divert water from the trail. But her favorite job was cleaning up fallen trees.
One day, his team of four walked three miles through the woods with a chop saw.
“Two of us were sawing and my husband said, ‘Hey guys, there’s a rattlesnake on this log. We all stopped and looked, and there he was in a cavity.
Cameron said the crew got on with the job, but she was delighted by the close-up sighting of the rattle. It was something she would only have known as trail maintenance.
“If we were walking there, we wouldn’t have seen him, let alone spent an hour with him,” she said.
There was a time when a story like this would have made Joseph Dobbins nauseous. The 26-year-old from Dyersburg, TN, Dobbins joined one of the nation’s many youth conservation corps, modeled after the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At the time, about half a million young men worked in the forests, camps and trails, according to the CCC Legacy website. The program ended at the start of World War II.
The various state and regional conservation bodies that have since started operate on the same model as the CCC and rely on young people in search of a challenge. In California, recruits are promised “hard work, low pay, miserable conditions and more” on the corps’ website home page. Trail workers go deep into the woods, stay in tents for weeks, and sometimes are only supplied with what can be transported.
This kind of life was completely foreign to Dobbins when he started working on the trails in 2019.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I knew I would be out all the time, but I wasn’t mentally prepared to sleep in a tent, have a hand washing station, or poop outside. At first, I said, “This is too much. “
As the leader of the Black Ridge Parkway team, Indigenous people and people of color, Dobbins came to appreciate the life of an outdoor enthusiast. He takes pride in knowing the effect he and his colleagues have on someone else’s nature hike.
“We are definitely designing trails to go around tall trees, rocks, a stream. If you get out of the way, it takes you away from the experience we want you to have, ”he said.
Not all trail builders need a big budget or an army of volunteers. Debra Pearson of College Park, Georgia, entered the world of nature trails quite unexpectedly.
The 70-year-old retired schoolteacher lived in a house with half an acre of natural forest in the backyard, but admits she didn’t think much of trees until her neighbor sawed off those in his court. At the time, Pearson said, the neighbor thought the trees were sick and dying. Pearson sought the advice of an arborist and said the assessment was life changing.
She was told she had a thriving, biodiversity-rich forest on her property, so she built a small trail through her newly discovered treasure.
“I enjoyed the tree canopy, but in 2014 I couldn’t tell one tree from another,” she said. Uninvited, she then checked off the names of trees, bark structures, flowers, and plants that thrived in her garden. “It was such a great ride, a great evolution.”
Over the past decade, Pearson has hosted forest camps and art installations. The neighborhood children built more trails. Now she is like trail workers like everywhere else: she invites others to visit and enjoy.