With a hiking pole in one hand and pruning shears in the other, Ron Dobra picked his way along the Appalachian Trail, snipping overhanging branches and making note of eroding soil. For the past 20 some odd years, he has helped maintain the popular hiking trail, which spans from Georgia to Maine and is seeing more foot traffic each year.
“The entire length of the AT — 2,200 miles — even though it’s a national park, is maintained and kept open entirely by volunteers,” Dobra, 68, of Greenville, said. “So without volunteers there’d be no Appalachian Trail.”
The vast majority of Appalachian Trail in Maine — 267 miles of 282 miles — is maintained by volunteers of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. Each MATC maintainer is assigned a small section of the trail, usually 2 to 4 miles long, and is responsible for keeping that section in good condition.
In recent years, despite the increasing popularity of the AT, the club has struggled to find enough maintainers to cover every section of the trail in Maine.
“I was told that once upon a time … there was a waiting list for people who wanted to be section maintainers,” Dobra said. “You couldn’t just walk in and get one. You had to be put on a waiting list. Well, that’s not the case anymore.”
The MATC divides the trail in Maine into five districts, each about 60 miles long. Dobra is the overseer for the Whitecap District, which starts in Monson and stretches north into the famous 100-Mile Wilderness, the most remote section of the trail. As overseer, Dobra is in charge of 34 trail maintainers — or he is when all his sections are full.
He currently has four sections of the AT that aren’t being maintained, and he’s having a tough time finding people to adopt these sections of trail.
“Volunteerism is a tough thing,” Dobra said. “You’re committed to two or three trips a year. We expect that. And it’s not always the case that people can keep that commitment up for a long period of time.”
Committing to the trail
A retired Greenville music teacher and experienced backpacker, Dobra signed up to be an MATC trail maintainer in 1994. Having hiked the entire AT a few years before, he thought it would be nice to give back to the trail that offered him so many wonderful experiences.
“It occurred to me that I lived in Maine, I like to hike, [so] this was a natural thing for me to do some work,” he said.
The AT enters the state of Maine in the west by traversing the state’s Mahoosuc Range, then traveling through Mahoosuc Notch, a deep gap littered with giant boulders. Many hikers call this stretch the toughest mile of the entire trail.
Welcome to Maine
The trail then strikes east and north, traversing the state’s most rugged terrain, to end atop the state’s tallest mountain: Katahdin.
Dobra’s section of the trail is on Barren Mountain in Elliotsville Township. The 2,670-foot-tall mountain offers stunning views of the region, and it’s not far from his home in Greenville.
“Once you get your section, you get possessive of it. You get some pride in keeping it up,” Dobra said. “You talk to other hikers who tell you how well the trail is maintained in the state of Maine, and it makes you feel good.”
As overseer of the Whitecap District, it’s Dobra’s job to help the trail maintainers in his area with big projects, such as bridge construction or lean-to repair, and assign new trail maintainers to sections of the trail. When someone expresses interest in becoming a maintainer, Dobra meets with him or her to discuss the job.
“I insist on going out with them on a walk through, so I can get a sense of if they’d be a good fit for the section,” Dobra said. “We talk about the needs of the section. Some are in good shape, and some need a lot of work.”
If he thinks the person is a good fit for the trail section, he offers them the MATC trail maintenance agreement form. When that’s signed, Dobra arms the new trail maintainer with “the bible” of trail maintenance — a small, green spiral-bound book titled “Appalachian Trail Fieldbook: Maintenance and Rehabilitation Guidelines for Volunteers.” The book, convenient for carrying in a backpack or pocket, outlines all one needs to know about constructing and maintaining a trail.
“It’s not rocket science,” Dobra said. “We’re cutting brush, basically, and painting blazes, and those can be learned pretty quickly.”
MATC trail maintainers are expected to work on their section of the trail two to three times per year, starting in early in the spring, as soon as the snow melts. The spring trip is all about clearing blowdowns (trees that have fallen across the trail because of winter storms) and water bars (ditches that prevent erosion by directing water off trail).
During the summer, much of the trail work consists of cutting back encroaching plantlife. Every once in a while, maintainers need to replace old signs and freshen up the AT’s tell-tale white blazes, painted rectangles on tree trunks that help hikers navigate the trail.
“I love being out there,” MATC trail maintainer Patty Harding, 55, of Levant said. “It keeps me in shape. I don’t have to go to the gym.”
Harding maintains the south side of Barren Mountain while Dobra maintains the north side.
“When Ron told me that one side of Barren Mountain was open, I was thrilled,” Harding said. “That’s my favorite mountain in the whole wide world. Any chance I get, I skip out there and take a day or a few days to hit the trail.”
For big projects, Harding often teams up with fellow AT maintainer Richard Welsh, 65, who summers in Monson. For the past four years, he has maintained 3 miles of the trail from Route 15 in Monson to Leeman Brook Lean-to.
“It’s a lot of fun, particularly if you go out with a group or something,” Welsh said. “There are a lot of work trips that need to be done that involve groups of people going out and spending a day on the trail.”
“The other day we were up on Columbus Mountain doing a project,” Harding said. “I had a chainsaw on my shoulder, and some hikers came by and right away they gave me a handshake and a ‘thank you.’ They didn’t even ask any questions.”
Wrapping up the season
The forest was aglow with the bright yellow leaves of birch trees on Oct. 13, when Dobra hit the trail to hike to Wilson Valley Lean-to. The blazes needed to be freshened up, he noted, but that would have to wait for another day. He had signs to replace and a shelter to inspect.
“Lots of [trail maintainers] like to make the last trip in the fall,” Dobra said. “It’s a nice time to hike. Colors are out. And you meet a lot of thru-hikers finishing their hike coming up from the south.”
This year, the AT is seeing more visitors than ever before. An all-time high of more than 3,000 people attempted to hike the entire trail this season, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the trail has become increasingly popular for day hikers and section hikers.
Every boot leaves its mark
At Wilson Valley Lean-to, Dobra was impressed by the state of the shelter. Using a rake, he fished a bottle out from under the lean-to and cleared the fire pit of a few burnt cans and paper plates. He left the best for last: the privy. Dobra lifted the lid, glanced inside, then quickly shut it, letting out a groan of despair. It was nearly full.
Because of the increase in foot traffic, one of the big problems the MATC is facing is overflowing outhouses. For the past few years, the club has been working to replace the old pit outhouses with above-ground composting, two-seater outhouses. But the new privies cost about $3,000 and take about 500 volunteer hours to install at these remote campsites.
“The very first one was built in my driveway three summers ago,” Dobra recalled. “We’ve never done this before.”
The MATC is managing to replace about two per year, but there are about 40 privies located along the Maine length of the AT. In the meantime, special MATC privy crews have had to empty the old outhouses. Regular trail maintainers are not expected to deal with the problem on their own.
“That’s just kind of beyond the commitment,” Dobra said.
For information about the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and how to become an Appalachian Trail maintainer on a section in Maine, visit MATC.org.