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It takes a bit of time to get from the idea of a new trail to actually feeling your wheels spinning on the hard-packed dirt. At Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, North Carolina, it’s a process that’s taken at least half a decade so far.

Our Trail Care Crew project last weekend plopped us smack dab in the middle of the process, but at one of the more fun parts: trail building. After years of planning – which included conceptual design, mapping, gaining support from the university and the community, writing and winning grants, buying tools, flagging trail – the university, led by Josh Whitmore, our host and associate director of Outdoor Programs at WCU, was ready to put tools in the ground.

With a Recreational Trails Program grant and other grants totaling almost six figures under his belt, Josh went to work finding a trail contractor who could build the planned 7-mile trail system with machines. Josh and Trail Dynamics, the chosen trail contractor, engaged in a hybrid-contract. This means that volunteers will help prepare the terrain for construction and help finish the built trail so that it’s suitable for recreation. In the middle, there will be heavy machinery to cut dirt and sculpt the trail. A hybrid of human and machine labor.

While building trails with just hand tools is fun and rewarding, it’s not always the most efficient use of time and resources. This scenario exposes volunteers to the ins and outs of trailbuilding, but leaves the heavy lifting to the pros. The finished product will be a trail that’s sustainably designed and built, but that the local volunteers and WCU students can say they put some sweat equity into.

When we arrived in Cullowhee, the 7-mile trail had been designed and laid out with surveyor’s tape (we call it rough-flagged). Every ten to twenty feet an orange flag hung from trees, marking the general trail corridor. Our Saturday afternoon TCC consisted of clearing this corridor with 60 volunteers from WCU, the local IMBA Chapter, Nantahala Area SORBA. This means creating a path through the woods through which the trail building machines (like mini excavators, SWECOs, Ditch Witches) can get through.

Our hardy group of volunteers cleared about three quarters of a mile through the trail, quite an accomplishment. We raked leaves and other organic material 6-8 feet to the side, cut small trees out of the flagged tread (at about knee height, so they don’t obstruct passage of the machine and the machine can pull them out of the ground), cleared branches out of the trail corridor, and raked away any other obstruction or debris so that the machine can see the ground and mineral soil, and focus on building a trail that flows through the woods. Once the corridor clearing is done, the next few months will see machines coming to construct the trail (by the contractor), and then hand finishing of the trail (by the volunteers).

Thank you to WCU and Nantahala Area SORBA for hosting a successful TCC visit. There’s still lots of volunteer work to be done prior to the trail building machines arriving to cut the trail tread. If you are interested in volunteering, contact Josh Whitmore at WCU or Nantahala Area SORBA.

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