How the AT Works: Volunteering Safely
“Aren’t you worried about getting hurt out there?” “What if you break your leg, and lie there for days before anyone finds you?” I hear these things a fair amount when people find out that I do volunteer work on the Trail.
I try to explain that the risk is higher driving to the trailhead than it is out in the woods, and for hikers with a reasonable amount of experience, most trail maintenance is at a similar risk level to their usual outing. But there are some tasks that volunteers perform that come with a slightly higher risk than just taking a hike–but don’t let that deter you from checking in with your local trail adopting club.
In terms of potential, serious long term injury, diseases from ticks are a definite concern, especially when working off-trail. While trail workers have the opportunity to shower off after a day’s work, like hikers they should take the usual precautions to reduce the likelyhood of ticks becoming attached–and seek medical help promptly if symptoms appear.
Since to a greater or lesser extent, government agencies are involved with the management of the trail, there are set procedures for working on almost any task. Therefore, in the A.T. world, certification is required to use chainsaws and crosscut saws (these are much larger than the small pruning saws most maintainers carry) when felling (cutting down standing trees) or bucking (cutting downed trees up into pieces). This is the only task performed by some volunteers that comes with mandated training and certification. Note that ‘certification’ implies that the holder has been trained and successfully passed testing to confirm their skills. Certifications typically expire after a given amount of time, and the holder must successfully retest to continue to hold that certification. ‘Training,’ on the other hand, does not necessarily include the testing of a volunteer’s skills and knowledge.
These certifications are required because the damage a chainsaw can to a human is well documented, both in the real world and in popular culture, and hospitals see over 30,000 visits per year from cut up home “sawyers”.
With proper training and appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) using a chainsaw is a reasonably safe activity. The big difference for Trail workers is that instead of cutting a few downed limbs in the backyard, they can be dealing with trees or parts of trees weighing many hundreds of of pounds, resting at awkward angles, often on sloping ground, and may be far from emergency services.
Chainsaw and crosscut saw training for certification emphasizes understanding and addressing the hidden forces present in trees and branches that are down and likely jumbled on top of each other as well as the basics of safely operating a sharp tool in the back country.
Of the thousands of volunteer hours spent on the A.T., actually operating a chainsaw or crosscut saw to cut large trees is a very small part of overall volunteer activity–but the risk of injury is fairly high and can be catastrophic–hence the rigorous certification requirements.
Interestingly, the same kind of work performed with an axe does not require certification. However, cutting through large limbs and trunks with only an axe is an arduous process (though it can be quite satisfying). Repeatedly striking the limb or tree, and chipping out relatively small chunks of material tends to release any hidden forces relatively slowly–unlike a chainsaw’s quick cutting action that can suddenly and unexpectedly change the equilibrium of a downed trunk or branch and catch the operator by surprise.
Another backcountry task with obvious risk is moving heavy objects–either dragging them on the ground or installing rigging for lifting and moving them to another location. There is no formal certification for this type of work (so far) and clubs rely on volunteers with training and experience, or by engaging a trail crew to perform these more specialized tasks. It’s definitely not on the typical volunteer maintainer’s list of skills.
Still, just dragging rocks and logs around the woods can result in some strain and crush injuries for the unwary or testosterone poisoned.
The majority of field work tasks are similar to what you would do in a yard or garden. Some digging, clipping brush with hand tools, painting, etc.–the bonus is, you get to do it out in the woods.
Occasionally a section of Trail requires operating a mower or string trimmer–with the usual homeowner precautions and PPE in place. Injuries are few, and generally minor, and can be managed with a small first aid kit.
Much of the field work volunteers do is directly on the footpath (and a well-travelled one at that). However, there is some off-trail work done on a regular basis that can ratchet up the potential risk. These are usually monitoring activities off of the footpath on lands adjacent to the Trail.
There are no treadway or structures (steps and bridges, for example) to get the volunteer to the site of a rare plant or to the boundary of the trail corridor. For boundary monitors in particular, while the line is usually evident enough to keep from getting lost, it traverses the landscape with complete disregard for any physical features such as cliffs, boulder fields, streams or swamps. Getting hurt on this terrain is easier to do and can mean a long wait for outside medical attention–it’s not always possible to get responders quickly to the victim in an off-Trail location.
Finally, there’s who you are working with. Most trail projects lend themselves well to a team effort. Members of the group can render first aid and assist in getting help. However as the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) Local Management Plan so elegantly puts it:
Freedom of action is one of the most appealing aspects of volunteer work on the Appalachian Trail. Some workers cherish solitude. Others thrive on company. Solitary work offers some exposure to risk that crew work does not, but the opposite can also be true. MATC safety standards should accept a volunteer’s personal willingness to trade some risk for some freedom, so far as is possible without endangering the wellbeing of others.
Personally, I enjoy working with a group of friends on a project–there’s great satisfaction in shared effort. But I also really enjoy working alone on “my” section of the Trail and boundary. I accept the slightly higher risks involved when working by myself in return for opportunities for self-contemplation and independence of action–but you won’t see me running my chainsaw without a helper.
So, as you wrap up your long hike, and wish you could be back on the Trail, consider hooking up with your local trail club. I think there’s sometimes a general impression that it’s a “closed shop”–that you need to know the secret handshake before you can join in. This is not true. Yes, trail work can tend to collect those of us with less-than-stellar social skills, and there is still a preponderance of grey, old guys. But don’t let that put you off. Once you get to know them, you’ll find a group of people with a high regard for the A.T. similar to your own–and if you can’t stand working with people who remind you of your parents, there are plenty of tasks that can put you deep into the woods well away from human-generated sights and sounds. Even if you live far from the Trail at present, it’s likely there are local trails and groups caring for them. Your experiences as a hiker will serve well, either as a team member or solo maintainer. Check it out.
Read the rest of the How the Appalachian Trail Works series.
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