Goin’ Down South

Leon Sinks, Appalachicola NF, FL

The fall of 2000 brought about some major changes in my life. After working at a couple of different locations as a trail builder, I had become unsure of the long-term prospects for that type of work. One unexpected phone call would change that, The call came from the Forest Service Liaison for the Florida National Scenic Trail. They were looking to start a trail crew program and wanted to know if I would be interested in leading a crew of six individuals during the winter of 2000-2001. Most trail programs I was familiar with ended in September or October at the latest because of the difficulty in building trail in winter conditions. the winter time, however, was prime trail building weather during those months. Cooler temperatures and generally much more pleasant conditions made September through March the best time to work in Florida. I jumped at the opportunity, boarded a Greyhound bus and headed towards Tallahassee.

Live Oak forest

Florida would prove to be a pleasant surprise. I had expected most of Florida to be a suburb of Disney World, but was glad to see an abundance of natural beauty and wilderness protected in the state. My primary work location would be within Appalachicola National Forest with most of my efforts centered around the Bradwell Bay Wilderness and the adjoining Sopchoppy River. In Bradwell Bay, we would be removing blowdowns and performing general cleanup from a fire and along the Sopchoppy, we would be constructing 15 bridges over seasonal flood-prone areas. The crew I led consisted of five college age adults who would spend three or six months working on the trail. Our base camp was a three room mobile home at the Forest Service work center near Crawfordville.

Sunset on the Gulf Coast

Florida also presented a new challenge. I always loved the mountains and had pictured myself always being near them. Florida’s high point is only 345 feet above sea level; in other words, Florida is flat. It is also a sub-tropical ecosystem. There would be new varieties of trees, plants and wildlife that I would discover. An alligator is not something you would run across in the mountains.

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Springer Mountain, Georgia

Bill Irwin and myself

During the latter part of the 80’s and well into the 90’s, I worked in a Christian retail store in El Paso, TX. One day an older gentleman walked in asking for the book buyer. He had just written a book about hiking the Appalachian Trail with his dog. I was not a hiker then so I had no connection except for hearing about the AT as a child on trips to the Smokies with my parents. There was nothing out of the ordinary about this man except for the fact that he was blind. It was my first encounter with Bill Irwin and his faithful companion Orient. It would be over 10 years before our second encounter.

A few days before Halloween 1999, I had stopped at Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap. It is the only building which the AT goes directly through, not to mention a great outfitter on the trail that has helped countless hikers over the course of its rich history. On the day I stopped in, many of the staff were talking about someone who would be stopping by shortly for a visit. Bill Irwin was in the area and was coming by. I didn’t miss the opportunity to meet him again, albeit under considerably different circumstances. My first meeting with him was the first time I had ever heard of anyone thru-hiking the Trail. Now, I found myself spending more time on it, and helping to maintain other trails as well. I too had caught the hiking bug.

Springer Mtn, GA; Halloween, 1999

Three days later, on Halloween night, I was atop Springer Mtn. Georgia. I had seen the northern section of the Trail, had hiked various places in the middle, and now I was at the southern terminus. All that was left was to fill in the gaps. A thru-hike was not financially possible at that time so I relished in spending time as a section hiker. The AT had become a familiar place for me and over the next few years, I would find myself constantly returning to its peacefulness. I would work on it and live on it. It had become a part of me and I of it.

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The Itch

NC/GA State line near Bly Gap

By the fall of 1999, I had been at MRNRA for over a year, and was beginning to feel the urge to move on, but the time wasn’t right. I honestly felt that I had enough experience to start applying for other paid positions. They would come in time, but the urge to spend time hiking in new places loomed large. So after leading a few crews during the late summer and early fall, in late October I set off to hike the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail. I had seen the northern end of the trail; now it was time to see the southern end.

View from the summit of Trey Mountain, Chattahoochee NF, GA

On October 20, I was let out at Winding Stair Gap, a major point in the road that runs between Franklin and Murphy NC. I would hike from here southward ending atop Springer Mountain, in the heart of Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. There were plenty of views to be had as well as nice, graded trail to hike on. Many places still stand out in my mind from that trip-Standing Indian Mountain, Bly Gap, Plumorchard Gap Shelter, and Trey Mountain. I met several hikers during the eleven days I was out, a couple of whom are still friends to this day. DG, a hiker and trail maintainer from Maryland, would help me out on a future hike in 2001, and we would swap stories through the years.

Plumorchard Gap Shelter

Although the hike lasted eleven days and covered 109 miles, it would be the final three days and 30 miles that would provide the most lasting memories. It would be an area that I would come back to several years later, spending over a year working, living and playing on the Appalachian Trail. The only building that the AT goes directly through would play a big part in that future, but it was on this trip that I met once again a legendary hiker and his dog. The first time we met, I had not even dreamed of hiking and had never heard of thru-hikers. Our first meeting was nowhere near the Appalachian Trail. It was in the desert southwestern city of El Paso, Texas.

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Lost And Found

One of the most somber tasks of anyone who works in the backcountry is that of finding someone who has become lost. It is the hope and goal of every individual on a search and rescue team to bring back that person alive and well. To search for hours or days for a missing person and then to have the mission switch to one of recovery creates a stress in the rescuer that often can not be put into words. Nobody wants to carry a dead body out of the woods. Unfortunately, it does happen all too often because many people fail to take the necessary precautions and plan adequately for their adventure.

The first time I was ever tasked with searching for a missing person was while working at Mt. Rogers. I had never had any formal training, but since I was at my cabin in the backcountry, I was the most logical choice. I was ready to settle down for the night and, as usual, my USFS radio was on. It was my only contact with anyone not on the mountain. One of the law enforcement officers (LEO’s) contacted me and informed me that an individual had left Grayson Highlands State Park earlier that day on what was supposed to be a short day hike. He was an older gentleman and when he failed to return his wife became nervous and alerted the authorities. The State Park contacted the Forest Service and I became the first responder. It was well after dark, and for reasons unknown, there was a reasonable belief that he could be close to my cabin. I felt comfortable enough with my night hiking capabilities and proceeded south on the AT from the cabin. The Scales, a historical cattle weighing station, now a Forest Service camping area, was less than a half mile away and I had been asked to look for him in that area and if I did not find him, I was to await the arrival of the LEO at that point. With no moon out that night, my flashlight could be readily seen and anyone who knows me knows my voice can be fairly loud. As I hiked I called his name, stopping every so often and waving the flashlight around the landscape hoping it would act as a beacon. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at The Scales and there was one lone gentleman asking for directions back to his car!

He had become turned around on the trails of the high country, and without a map and dark nearing, he arrived at The Scales and decided to wait. When I found him, he was in good spirits, albeit a little confused. He insisted that he could find his way back if I simply showed him a map, but with no flashlight and no water, I was not about to let him wander off by himself alone. The LEO, had instructed me, after I found this person, to have him wait at The Scales and I could return to the cabin. I chose to wait until the LEO arrived to make sure that this gentleman did not strike off on his own. It was about 45 minutes before the LEO arrived to take him around to the State Park. He seemed to wonder why I was still there. A few days later, when I was in the office for some business, the LEO thanked me for waiting around and said he was glad I did. If I had left as instructed, neither of us were sure what the outcome might have been.

My first search, although somewhat benign, was a successful one. It would be many years before I would have another opportunity to take part in a SAR and it would involve much different circumstances and many more people. Luckily, I have never had to carry a body out. I pray I never do.

PS.-Because the task of search and recovery is such a somber one, I have chosen not to include any pictures in this post. Rather, I hope the words will peak for themselves and will cause everyone who keeps up with this blog to think about their level of preparedness.  -Jim
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Leading A Trail Crew

One of the first crews I worked with.

One of the first trail crews I worked on was with the Appalachian Trail Conference’s Konnarock Crew. Since they were based out of the Mt. Rogers Work Center near Sugar Grove, VA, it was the perfect option to learn some of the basics of trail construction. My supervisor asked me to spend a week working with them in order to learn “from the experts”. During  the first week of each season, the Konnarock Crew works on the AT within the MRNRA. During the week I spent with them, we did a substantial amount of tread rehabilitation and installed new log waterbars in the section just north of Damascus. It was a week filled with fun and memories and over the years, I would hear stories of people who volunteered their time with the Konnarock Crew, only to return year after year to experience the satisfaction of hard work and camaraderie.

Spreading gravel to harden a multi-use trail

After that week with Konnarock, I would go one to work with several other volunteer crews from the Sierra Club, and American Hiking Society. There were friendships made during those weeks that continue to this day. One of the greatest challenges came when I had the opportunity to lead my first crew. We would spend some time on a multi-use trail on the side of Iron Mountain. The trail had experienced severe erosion and was constantly muddy in one particular section. We installed a lateral drain with native timber, then hardened the trail with load after load of gravel. After a dozen years, it is still performing the job it was meant to-providing a durable surface for bicycle travel while moving water away from the trail itself.

This was the first project I worked on as a trail crew leader.

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Learning A New Set Of Skills

One of the pair of boots from Technica

I spent the first couple of months at Mt. Rogers becoming familiar with the trail network. On average, I hiked about 8 to ten miles per day and the route I chose was up to me. It would not be uncommon for me to hike out to Elk Garden and back, as this would cover a lot of the high use areas. On one of those trips, I met a group of outdoor gear representatives who were on a dealer outing. Once they found out what I did, I spent the weekend with them at their invitation. They took an interest in what I did, and as a result offered to outfit me with some gear. Mountainsmith provided me with a nice backpack and Technica kept me in boots. Some of those people I met on that day continue to be among my closest friends.

By the fall, I had a pretty firm grip on the trail system and was eager to learn more skills as well. I was asked by the Forest Service backcountry recreation tech if I would be interested in learning trail construction techniques. I jumped at the opportunity and was provided with a couple of different books on trail construction and design. I spent my free time poring over those books, learning different terms that soon would become almost a second language to me. I spent the better part of a week with my supervisor looking at trails that needed work and coming up with plans for repairing them. A lot of my initial training took place on the job. I was teamed up with another volunteer who had more experience and he passed on some of his knowledge to me as well.

Briar Ridge, between Mt. Rogers and Elk Garden

Most of the trail work I performed early on was primarily maintenance type activities such as cleaning out waterbars, removing blowdowns, and doing some tread maintenance. Many of the trails in the highcountry received a lot of abuse from the heavy amount of equestrian use. Some of the trails had seen very little in the way of upkeep, and erosion was a major problem. With my new set of skills, though, I set out to tackle the most difficult projects, and as much as I was able, to improve the conditions for the visitors to the backcountry.

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A Cabin In The Woods

The State Historical Marker for Mt. Rogers at Elk Garden

My first assignment as a full-time volunteer at Mt. Rogers was that of a backcountry ranger. My area was bounded by Elk Garden to the west, Fox Creek and VA 603 to the north, Grayson Highlands State Park to the south, and the forest boundary to the east. My job was to hike the trails and make visitor contact, passing along information to visitors and render assistance where needed. My home in the backcountry was a one room cabin about 1/2 mile north of The Scales, a fenced in area popular with hunters, blueberry pickers and any other soul brave enough to make the journey up the five mile 4WD road that led there from the valley below.

The Lincoln Cabin,  as it was known to a few old-timers, is a one room cabin that the forest service uses to house their volunteer backcountry rangers. It has propane lights and cooking stove and a wood stove for heat. It sleeps four and at times, space can be tight. There is an adjacent building that is used for trail crews and provided additional space for the backcountry crew. We would get our water from a piped spring and  the forest service had built a vault toilet for use by volunteer staff. Although it was located about 50 feet away from the Appalachian Trail, it was so well hidden, most hikers I have talked to over the years never knew it was there.

The front of the Pine Mountain Cabin (Lincoln Cabin). Pictured in front are two people I worked with who were with the Student Conservation Association.

Even though I had the cabin to sleep in, it was not uncommon for me to camp out on any given night. I could hike out to a certain area for the day and pitch a tent for the night, then hike back the next day. Having spent the better part of the year already hiking and camping in various locales, I was accustomed to sleeping in my tent. When the weather was nice, I would, on occasion, forego the tent and sleep under the stars. After living a somewhat transient existence for most of the year, it felt good to finally be in one place for an extended period. I found, too, that for $15.00 per day, I was able to eat fine and thanks to the abundance of blueberries, haw apples, and that prime southern delicacy called ramps, I could supplement my grocery purchases with a little foraging. It was a different existence than what I had been used to, but for where I was in my life, it just felt right.

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Into The Great Wide Open

One of the many ponies found throughout the Mt. Rogers High Country

Damascus Virgina is a small community just across  the Tennessee state line. There are several trails that go directly through the town limits including the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, Bicycle Route 76, and of course, the Appalachian Trail. Although it’s status as the AT’s friendliest town can be debated by many, it is nonetheless a primary stop for those doing a thru hike. W and I chose this as our starting point and we would spend the next several days hiking through some of the best scenery Virginia has to offer.

The AT at the intersection with Beartree Gap Trail

We spent the first couple of days climbing and descending several smaller mountains before we would reach the heart of Mt. Rogers NRA and the surrounding highcountry. Once we reached Whitetop Mountain and the Grayson Highlands, I knew we had made the right decision to hike in this place. I had seen several Appalachian Balds over the past couple of years, but what the high country around Mt. Rogers had to offer was truly unique. It has often been described as a slice of Montana set in the middle of the southern Appalachians. The broad expanse of grassy land was  interspersed with many rock outcroppings, the most spectacular being Wilburn Ridge. I was especially enthralled with the wild ponies that the Forest Service uses to help keep the balds clear. The Appalachian Trail also traverses Grayson Highlands State Park, creating a large C shaped portion of trail. By the time we reached the Fox Creek Trailhead, we had seen the best of Virginia. I had also made a very important contact during our hike as well.

Fat Mans Squeeze on Wilburn Ridge

A few days into our hike, we met the ridgerunner, an individual whose job it was to hike the same portion of trail we had just hiked once a week, performing visitor contact and shelter and maintenance upkeep as well. I mentioned that I had just returned from a month-long hike in Maine and was not ready to deal with the world back home in Tennessee. When I asked him if he knew of any job opportunities in the area, he suggested I check with the Forest Service. After our hike was complete, I stopped in their office and spoke with a person who was their dispersed recreation technician. He was responsible for all the trails in the backcountry. When I explained my situation to him, he suggested that I might want to work as a backcountry ranger. It would be volunteer position and he offered fifteen dollars a day and a place to stay. Considering what I had just seen the past few days, I eagerly accepted and by the end of that week, I had gone back to Tennessee to pick up some personal effects, and drove back to Mt. Rogers. This would be my home for the next couple of years.

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Back Home Again

RestLess- Mt. Katahdin to Gorham, NH 1998

By the middle of August, 1998 I had hiked from Mt. Katahdin in Maine to Gorham, NH, a distance of about 300 miles. Money was becoming slim so it had come time to go back to the real world, get a real job, and carry on with life. The dissolution of my marriage had been a tough time in my life but the past year had provided a time of healing and I felt I was ready to get back to the daily grind. One day after stepping off the trail, I was on my way back to Tennessee.

Although I had fallen in love with the Maine’s North Woods, I missed the southern Appalachians, my home for over 20 years. It had become familiar territory as a result of my hikes in the Smokies and the surrounding area. I wasn’t so much drawn to Sevierville as much as I was drawn to the mountains close by. After returning home, I used some of my time to visit areas that I had not been to since leaving earlier that spring. It felt good to be back in the mountains where my hiking had began.

Over 900 miles of trails thread through the Smokies

It didn’t take long, though, for discontent to settle in. I thought that I should try to settle down again, but as much as the mountains drew me, there were many other things that repelled me. Being a popular destination for tourists, the traffic in Seveirville and the adjacent communities had become unmanageable. Even the backroads that the locals had used for years, were now becoming clogged with cars bound for Dollywood and outlet malls. It was then I knew that I had to find another place to settle down at.

A friend and I had done a couple of local hikes in the area, but the suggestion had come up for us to go somewhere else to escape the throngs of tourists. We both looked at maps, and having thru hiked the AT a few years earlier, my friend had made the suggestion that we should travel to Virginia and check out Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. I had never been there before, and everything I heard about it piqued my interest.

“Sure, why not?” , was my reply, and less than one month after I left the trail in New Hampshire, I was on my way to another place, filled with new adventures. Without realizing it, my life was about to take on a whole new direction.

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One Adventure Comes To An End…

Mt. Success

The last couple of weeks of my hike through Maine were filled with climbs and descents of numerous mountains, both named and unnamed. The biggest thing that stood out to me was Mahoosic Notch, a mile long rock  scramble through a narrow mountain passage. I never took any pictures of the Notch; it had a horrible reputation of taking anything that wasn’t packed tightly inside your pack. Those of you who have been through here know what it is I speak of.

Journal Entry August 8, 1998; part 1

The Mahoosic Range, on the other hand was spectacular. With its vast open views, I found it to be one of the more inspiring places. It was sitting on top of Mt. Success, that I composed one of my last journal entries while on the trail that summer.

Journal Entry July 8, 1998, part 2

I had spent over a month on the trail hiking through some of the best scenery in the east. Within a couple of days of my journal entry, I would find myself heading back south. Towards Tennessee once again, in an attempt to reestablish myself in the community. I would fail miserably, but a month later I found myself not only being thrust beyond my comfort zone once again, but embarking on a path that would decide the course of my life for many years to come.

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