I’ve been running trails for over a decade at this point – taking full advantage of the beautiful network of community trails in whatever place I called home at any one time. I’ve been blessed with immaculate trails, including Frederick, Maryland where I ran at Woodsboro Community Park in high school and on the Appalachian Trail in my current ultrarunning days, the well groomed trails of Historic St. Mary’s City where I went to college, and Washington, D.C. and the world famous Rock Creek Park that I currently call my backyard.
For years, I didn’t pay any attention to the work that went in to maintaining trails, especially trails that are vulnerable to overuse or weathering. I naively assumed that all trails just held up on their own, perfectly designed to withstand years of foot traffic and whatever weather events Mother Earth threw their way.
Little did I know.
My path to enlightenment began in 2014, when I first noticed intense erosion issues on some of my favorite stretches of trail in Rock Creek Park. What began as minor annoyances at a little wash away in the center of the trail escalated to dangerous footing issues over time as more and more of the trail washed away, creating a mini valley where the trail used to be. Runners and hikers started using more and more of the outside edges of the trail, expanding the footing into the vegetation on either side. It was a mess.
Finding a Community
I’ve written about this before, but one of the things I’ve felt I really lack living in DC is a tight knit community of like-minded outdoors-folks. I have friends that have never heard of ‘hiking pants’, don’t know the first thing about camping, and couldn’t run a mile even if they tried with all their might. I have other friends who care about the environment, but only in their day job. I am blessed to have a few folks in my life who dabble in a bit of everything I love, but are often busy or travelling for work, leaving me often alone to explore the outdoors.
I joined the DC Road Runners as a way to expand my running circle. That group was a blessing in disguise, and I still consider those that I trained with in 2016 as some of my closest running friends. After all, they saw me trip on nothing and tumble to the ground countless times, sweated our body weight in water in the hot July and August summer days, and stuck with me as I struggled through my pelvic recovery.
But I wanted more.
I began researching groups that work in and maintain the trails I recreate on every day. Through some intense google searching, analyzing different activities I could engage in, and frequency of events (I wanted something that wasn’t every weekend), I found the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club – DC Crew (PATC).
This group goes out once per month in partnership with the National Park Service to maintain different sections of Rock Creek Park trails. It took me a few months to work up the courage to email Alex, the leader of this club (I suffer from pretty extreme introversion) and then it took me another month or two to work up the courage to actually show up.
But once I did, well, the rest is history.
National Trails Day
This past weekend was my fifth trip out with the DC crew (we didn’t do work over winter). It was a big weekend as we were celebrating National Trails Day.
National Trails Day is an annual event hosted by the American Hiking Society to connect more people to the trails and local clubs, through activities such as trail maintenance, trash cleanups and more.
The DC crew partnered again with the National Park Service to maintain a section of the Battery Kemble Trail in the Palisades, DC (a glitzy section of DC with some rad trails that are park of the RCP system). We had three major tasks at hand: install new water bars, regrade the trail to encourage water flow into the nearby meadow, and install new fencing around said meadow to reduce the number of neighborhood dogs playing in this restored ecosystem.
Wanting to learn some new skills in the manual labor department, I quickly volunteered for the regrading activity, which involved a lot of pickax swinging, trench digging and wheelbarrow moving. I spent the morning turning the existing soil to drop the elevation of the trail on one side, scooping mounds of soil to raise the elevation on the other side, and digging trenches on the lower elevation side to encourage additional water flow down and away from the trail, into the meadow.
This work is so rewarding. I get to learn so many new skills related to trail maintenance, including exposure to all sorts of different tools and techniques, and the fun exercise of brainstorm novel solutions to complex hydrology problems (though, to be fair, my hydrologist mind was screaming that we didn’t have maps of how water flowed in this little valley, to best design the water bars and trail elevation, but that’s beyond the point).
The best part of working with PATC though? The community and knowing that what we do each month makes the trails stronger and more resilient, so that more people can get outside, and experience the trails that make DC so unique.
I have met so many interesting and engaged individuals through this club. They are so willing to work with me to teach me how to use a tool, what the best method for achieving my task is, and most importantly, putting up with my weak upper body.
I would encourage any trail runner out there to find a group in your community that does something similar to PATC. And if one doesn’t exist, see how you might be able to start one. It has been such a blessing to me, and I can’t wait for next month’s event!