We are gearing up for thru hiker season, and so is everyone else! Georgia definitely sees some of the most impact on the Appalachian Trail. There are many who attempt a thru hike, but do not make it out of Georgia. There are also many section hikers who start here in Georgia in the Spring but they may not make it farther North in the coming years. All in all, it is the mission of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club to try to help improve the AT hiking experience and lessen the impact on the trail. On trail resources are the main method to help others on the trail. This is in the form of five full time Ridge Runners, and volunteer Trail Ambassadors to fill in for the Ridge Runners on their days off. Last year was the first year there were this many Ridge Runners and Trail Ambassadors and it definitely made a difference. This post will cover what the goals of these positions are as well as the importance of partnership between other organizations here in Georgia, including Mountain Crossings.
Ridge Runners are hired by the ATC and serve as an on trail resource for hikers. They aim to educate hikers on Leave No Trace ethics and help them in any way they can. They provide information about the A.T. and its intended primitive experience, its location, regulations, and traditions. They work to encourage the best behavior on the part of hikers, to facilitate a positive Trail experience (particularly for those who are poorly prepared). They discourage and mitigate misuse of the Appalachian Trail and its environment.
In Georgia, there are five Ridge Runners total. Four are stationed at particular sites but also hike during the day, and one changes locations every night. This proved to be a good method as the sites and shelters the Ridge Runners stayed at were the most heavily used. One Ridge Runner stayed at Amicalola Falls and would check in thru hikers and offer pack shakedowns for those with heavier packs. This helped lessen the amount of items left on the Approach Trail and other shelters.
I was a Ridge Runner last year and was stationed at Springer Mountain for the majority of my patrols. Slightly more people seemed to start solely at Springer Mountain rather than the Approach Trail. Although you take a Forest Service Road to get to Springer Mountain, many more people are becoming aware of it and skipping the Approach Trail. One of my tasks was to count how many thru hikers, section hikers, and day hikers I came in contact with each day. This was beneficial to me because it forced me to have conversations with most people and it was beneficial for the ATC to learn the amount of people on the trail. There were some Saturdays where I saw between 200-300 people total! I was mostly interested in talking with the thru and section hikers because I wanted to make sure they were prepared and they also knew how to respect the trail. All in all, most hikers were fairly aware of Leave No Trace methods and I had faith they would carry them out throughout the trail. It was usually just a few people each day who had no idea what they were doing that would cause a mess.
Each day I would hike between 4-8 miles depending on where I felt I should go. I would clean up Stover Creek and Black Gap Shelters regularly while also interacting with hikers along the way. Having a clean shelter to begin with helps discourage others to leave their gear and trash there. I would also bury any toilet paper I saw, dismantle extra fire rings, and just let people know who I was and why I was out there! It was fun getting to hike and meet interesting people every day. At night, I would make sure to meet and talk with all the campers at the shelter and I would hang out with them. Being a former thru hiker, I could help answer their questions, while also slipping in Leave No Trace facts. People respond better to someone who they see as their friend rather than authority. I didn’t lecture people, I just had conversations with them. There were many other things I did whether I was working with GATC volunteers, the Forest Service, or local EMT. It was truly a great experience being able to help others and the trail.
I attended the Workshop for AT Partners where I was able to meet all the new Georgia Ridge Runners. They are a great group of people and I have no doubt they are going to be awesome!
Trail Ambassadors serve as volunteers for Ridge Runners on their days off. Their responsibilities are the same. The difference is, they are volunteers and are not getting paid! Trail volunteers are what make the Appalachian Trail possible. The GATC in my opinion has some of the best volunteers on the Appalachian Trail. They do so much work on the trail to help improve the trail for others and lessen the impact. While I was stationed at Springer last year, the trail maintainer for the Springer Mountain Shelter came out every single week. He was always in great spirits, even if he had to clean out the privies! I saw numerous other maintainers throughout Georgia and they were always happy to help the trail. Trail Ambassadors volunteer two or three of their days a week to be out on the trail and they receive the same training as Ridge Runners.
While the Ridge Runners and Trail Ambassadors stay on the trail, there are other organizations and people who help in many ways. The Forest Service has a Wilderness Technician who keeps track of the Ridge Runners and helps enforce some of the regulations in place on the trail, such as the bear canister requirement from Jarrard Gap to Neels Gap. Law enforcement is also very aware of the trail and available to help with any legal matters on the trail.
Local businesses such as hostels, outfitters, and shuttle drivers are also apart of this coalition. We want to help improve the trail and help hikers have a great experience. All the business that came to the Workshop this past week are willing to help the Ridge Runners and Trail Ambassadors and also help the ATC by also educating hikers on the trail and Leave No Trace Ethics. I know here at Mountain Crossings we try to inform hikers of the regulations on Blood Mountain (no fires and bear canister requirement from March – June) and we also slip in Leave No Trace ethics while giving pack shakedowns.
If you plan to go for a hike this Spring, keep an eye out for these Ridge Runners and Trail Ambassadors and be sure to say hey! Check the blog next week to learn about these Leave No Trace ethics I talked so much about!