‘Unwind and enjoy the outdoors’ and lend a hand
Barry Allen invites hikers to “come enjoy the outdoors” and lend a hand with maintaining one of north Georgia’s signature trails.
The Benton MacKaye Trail Association (BMTA) was established in 1979 to build and maintain the footpath from which it derives its name. The trail was completed in 2005 and stretches nearly 300 miles from Gilmer County’s Springer Mountain to Davenport Gap on the northern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The association’s work did not come to an end, however, with the realization of the goal of finishing the footpath.
Allen explained the forest service does not have the resources or manpower to maintain many backcountry trails in the area, so volunteers step in to provide sweat equity to help keep the routes in working order.
“(A) good trail doesn’t just happen. It takes the efforts of people like you to come out a few times a year and cut back the overgrowth, clear the blowdowns, dress the treadway and mark the trail so that many may enjoy that most pleasant ‘unencumbered’ travel,” observes the association’s website, www.bmta.org.
Allen oversees the BMTA’s Georgia trail maintainers, and the group helps to keep up about 80 miles of the Benton MacKaye Trail in Georgia and 12 in Tennessee.
“We draw heavily on volunteers from Atlanta area and north Georgia,” said Allen, adding many of the group’s volunteers are new retirees who move to the mountains and “now have time and are willing to help.”
The trail is split into sections, each with a designated maintainer who adopts a portion of the path and occasionally walks it to address small issues and create an inventory of needs. If there are bigger problems, such as erosion or downed trees from storms, they alert Allen, who coordinates a larger volunteer effort.
The Georgia maintainers hold work trips the second Saturday of each month. Activities performed on such outings include using swing blades and clippers to cut back weeds, cleaning out drainage ditches and digging out new sections of trail.
Allen said there’s “something for all ages,” noting there are volunteers in their 80s who regularly help with projects on the trail.
Some of the work can be physically demanding, so he also added, “We’d love to have some younger folks because those young backs do a lot of harder work.”
For the past year, much of the group’s efforts have been directed to rerouting the section of trail by Fall Branch Falls near Cherry Log. The new section has been built by hand and is expected to be completed later this fall.
‘It’s very fulfilling’
About six years ago, Allen began volunteering with the BMTA.
“I got involved as an offshoot of loving to hike the trail,” he recalled. “After enjoying a lot of the BMT, I looked for ways to volunteer.”
In addition to recommending volunteering with the trail maintenance trips as a means of giving back to the hiking community, Allen noted the work trips are educational. Over the years, he has learned from his fellow maintainers about the history of the trail, as well as information about the plants and animals found along its length. Also, he has completed several forest service-sponsored courses on such topics as chainsaw use and trail maintenance.
Allen also described participating in the maintenance projects as an opportunity for people to learn about areas of the trail and access points with which they are unfamiliar.
“It’s a way to unwind and enjoy the outdoors,” he continued. “It’s very fulfilling and gets (people) out of the house and enjoying the trail.”
Allen maintains the section of trail north of the trail’s swinging bridge near Georgia’s Highway 60 east of Ellijay and particularly enjoys seeing a “massive” old growth yellow poplar near the footpath.
He observed “different seasons bring different views” on each section of trail, allowing hikers to “see something different” every time they take a hike.
“You can’t encourage people enough to stay active,” Allen continued. “If you’re not used to hiking and you do it once or twice, you don’t get the full picture. Stay with it ... Make a habit of hiking a couple miles when you can. Do it often, and the more you do it, the more you get in shape.”
For more information about becoming a trail maintainer or to see details about upcoming work trips in Georgia, visit www.bmta.org. The site’s activities calendar also provides details about upcoming group hikes offered through the BMTA.