Hard Corps: Hiking and Maintaining Trails with the Carolina Mountain Club

Walking down the Baxter Creek Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Becky Smucker stops to quiet down the group.

"Listen," she says, "That's a black-throated green warbler." Twelve gabbing, stomping hikers break on a dime. The woods are silent except for the warbler's zee-zee-zoo. If I'd been hiking by myself, I would never have heard this bird—let alone identify it.

Smucker, the leader of today’s outing, created a complicated shuttle hike. From Asheville, North Carolina, we carpooled to Big Creek in the Waterville section of the Smokies, consolidated in about half the cars, and drove up the dirt road to Sterling Gap. We climbed up to Mount Sterling, a steep ascent that left a 20-minute spread between the first hiker and the last. On the way down, about half the group took the Baxter Creek Trail, while the other half bushwhacked down an older, more challenging route that is no longer maintained. The early arrivers returned to Sterling Gap to bring back all the cars.

Most hikes are not that involved. But if all the logistics made my head swim, I didn’t have to worry about it—I was on a Carolina Mountain Club (CMC) hike. Smucker and her co-leaders planned and checked out the route; I just walked, socialized, identified flowers, and listened to birds.

As the African proverb goes, “If you want to go faster, go by yourself. If you want to go farther, go with a group.”

CMC’s Beginnings

CMC will celebrate its centennial in 2023, not that far in the future. The club started as the southern chapter of the Boston-based Appalachian Mountain Club. When its members realized that their dues were going up north to maintain the huts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, they formed a separate club. In 1931 CMC united with the Carolina Appalachian Trail Club, founded to complete segments of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) on the North Carolina–Tennessee border. CMC at the time had about sixty members with twenty-five to thirty of them active.

Now we have over a thousand members, all over North America, but mostly concentrated in the Southeast. The club is based in Asheville, perfectly located between the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains, including Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 feet, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi.

We Hike

“CMC offers a variety of hikes, suitable for the season,” says Gregory Bechtel, the chair of the hiking committee. “We hike Sundays, Wednesdays and most Saturdays year-round.” The club offers over 175 day hikes a year and a few backpacks, all led by volunteers. With over 500 different hikes in the club database, most hikes are not repeated more than once every two years.

Tom Bindrim and Joan Lemire, married over thirty years, met on a CMC hike.

“Newcomers,” notes Tom, “can connect with like-minded people and learn what hiking opportunities exist in the area. With time, the club can become part of their social life.” Besides hiking with the club, they volunteer as uniformed rovers, helping hikers find their way in Pisgah National Forest, another popular club destination.

Marriages and other relationships have flourished in hiking clubs. Looking in from the outside, some people may think outdoors groups are really singles clubs. In my experience, they aren’t. Yet if you’re looking to meet active people, you’re in the right place. At least you know the folks you’re walking with have gotten up early and put themselves together on a Sunday morning. They’re physically fit and less likely to smoke or have other unhealthy habits. That’s already a pretty good start for a relationship.

Kathy Kyle came on her first CMC hike on New Year’s Day 2007 where she met many hikers including Michael Cornn. They were married less than a year later and became one of many CMC couples. Now they hike regularly with the club, regardless of the weather.

“Before I joined the club, my sister would come down in the summer and we’d hike together. We found a map on the CMC website. With the club, hikes are planned. It allows you to go places where you usually wouldn’t go. Before I joined CMC, I did only a couple of trails in the Smokies. Now I’ve explored a lot more.”

On a January morning, the temperature was 6 or 9 degrees, depending on which thermometer you used. But eleven hikers started on a 10-mile hike in Dupont State Recreational Forest, intent on seeing frozen waterfalls. The state of North Carolina created Dupont Recreational State Forest, a hybrid between a park and a forest, which recognizes the importance of recreation while still doing the quiet work of a forest. Dupont’s history went from chemical industrial site to potential vacation houses to an outdoor mecca for hikers, bikers and fishers. Six waterfalls are the highlight of the forest, and the reason the state saved it from private development.

Carroll Koepplinger, who’s 88 years old, is the poster “child” of the ageless hiker. A retired union organizer from the Midwest, Carroll was not an exerciser until he retired and moved to Asheville about twenty years ago. He started going to a fitness center and soon discovered CMC.

“I credit hiking and mountain biking for my current good health. If you don’t have good health, what do you have?” Carroll says. He may have slowed down a little but still comes on all-day hikes, which are usually at least 10 miles. His humor, however, is as sharp as ever. “I have to remember that I’m not 75 anymore,” he says.

What about trail breaks/separations/pit stops/bush breaks/bush stops? They’re all euphemisms for the fact that there are no toilets in the woods. With a small informal group, you can go off in the woods discreetly and then catch up. Many hiking clubs, on the other hand, opt for announced trail breaks every couple of hours. The leader will say, “Men around this corner, women go in the woods down the trail a little.” I prefer this organized system.

We Dig in the Dirt

CMC hasn’t forgotten its origins in trail work. Besides maintaining over 92 miles of the A.T., the club is responsible for 140 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), a trail which traverses North Carolina from the Smokies to the Outer Banks.

The trail crew recently completed a 2.2-mile signature piece of the MST out of forest land that winds along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This section at over 6,000 feet in altitude was a challenge, requiring over 6,000 hours of work over a six-year period.

The CMC trail crew cut down trees, crushed rocks, removed roots, and moved dirt. Almost all the volunteers are over 60 years old, many much older. They come out week after week to work on this piece. Most trail workers aren’t hikers and have no desire to walk other parts of the MST. They’re here to build, not walk.

At 6,000 feet above sea level, the season is short, May to October, and depends on the Parkway being open. In the winter, the freeze-thaw cycle plays havoc with the trail surface. Rocks pop out, trees fall, and water and ice are all over the trail. The first job in the spring is to clean up after winter.

Volunteers come out every week because digging in the dirt is good, fulfilling work, where you can see results. Most crew members had stationary jobs during their career years and now want to build stuff. But trail builders keep stressing the camaraderie. Several members drive almost three hours one way from Charlotte to work for the day.

Skip Shelton has been the crew leader for three years. Originally from Minnesota, he worked as an engineer for DuPont Imaging Systems most of his career, much of it locally, before the site became DuPont State Recreational Forest. He’s a big man who knows how to uproot a rock and move it safely.

“There’s lots of muck when you move rock and build water bars. We were in mud up to the tops of our boots a while back,” Skip says. A water bar is a diagonal channel across the trail that diverts surface water off the walking path. But it takes more than strength and trail-building knowledge to motivate a volunteer group. Since trail crews accept all comers, it’s up to the leader to assign work that a person can handle safely.

The Future of CMC

Occasionally, CMC try to recruit younger members. We have a meetup site, which brings in the Generation Xers. Most come on the half-day Sunday afternoon hikes, which start at noon or so. But we rarely hold them.

As a past president always says, “As long as we get a new crop of 50-year-olds every year, CMC will be fine.”

Photo: David Anderson