The country's most well-known footpath, the Appalachian Trail (AT), stretches for 2,190 miles along the ridges and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, from North Georgia to Maine, attracting between 2 and 3 million backpackers and day hikers each year. The majority of the trail is maintained by volunteers and seasonal crews managed by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and affiliated hiking clubs. The volunteers beat back brush, build drainage canals and reroute sections when necessary to ensure that the popular trail is open to hikers.
Of all the dedicated crews responsible for maintaining the AT, the SWEAT Crew is the most revered in the Southeast. SWEAT (Smokies Wilderness Elite Appalachian Trail) is responsible for maintaining the AT in the backcountry of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the trail runs for a little more than 71 miles along the ridgelines that divide North Carolina and Tennessee, offering some of the toughest hiking on the trail’s entire path.
“It’s a stiff section of trail,” says Stephen Eren, the ATC’s trail facilities manager. He hiked it from end to end himself in 2014. “Hiking in the Smokies is one of the reasons people quit their thru-hike.”
Frequent elevation changes, consistent rain and the remote nature of the trail inside the park, which is managed as a federally designated wilderness area with few roads, make backpacking difficult. The Smokies section has the highest elevation along the entire AT (6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome) as well as some of the most remote stretches of the footpath along its corridor due to large swaths of roadless areas inside the national park.
Hike the entire 71-mile section through the Smokies and you’ll spend almost half of that time above 5,000 feet in elevation. Members of the SWEAT Crew face these challenges daily. There are other trail crews that work in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, for example, focuses on sections of the AT closest to trailheads. But SWEAT is responsible for maintaining the sections of the trail that are too far removed from roads for other volunteers to reach.
“It’s a unique crew that backpacks all of their gear and tools several miles into the backcountry, then spends six days working and camping,” says Eren, who manages the Appalachian Trail Conservancy trail crews in the Southeast. “They’re doing a much-needed job. The park service has paid trail crews, but they’re busy with the other 800 miles of trail inside the Smokies. SWEAT is the only crew taking care of the AT backcountry in the park.”
The SWEAT Crew is comprised of two crew leaders and six to eight volunteers who sign up for one-week work stints. The crew’s season runs from the first week in June to the last week in August, and they work in six-day “hitches,” spending one day backpacking their gear into a remote location and four days hiking and working a specific section of trail before backpacking down to their basecamp, a ranch house near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
In a single work week, the SWEAT Crew will hike up to 50 miles, sometimes while carrying a 50-pound pack loaded with their camping gear, hand tools such as rakes and axes, and a battery-powered bear fence, which is essentially an electric wire the crew runs around their camp to keep bears at bay.
“Bears are curious animals by nature,” says David Underwood, the SWEAT Crew leader. “And in the Smokies, they’ve become habituated to campers, so they’ll explore a tent even if there’s no food in it.”
But it’s not the bears that Underwood and his crew worry about most. It’s the undergrowth and the water. The Smokies are a temperate rain forest, receiving more than 60 inches of rain a year. It’s essentially a jungle with dense rhododendron and bushes that will swallow the trail if left alone. And if the jungle doesn’t swallow the AT, the rain will wash it away.
“We’re always cutting back brush to keep the corridor open, and we’re always maintaining the drainage on the trail,” Underwood says. “You want the water to move as quickly off the trail as possible. If it stays on the trail, it picks up speed and you have the erosion that causes visible roots and rutting.”
This is Underwood’s second season on the SWEAT Crew. He had a career in social work, but a thru-hike of the AT in 2013 set Underwood, 50, on a different course.
“I’ve been trying to find my niche since that hike, and these two seasons on the SWEAT Crew have been really fulfilling,” Underwood says, although he can’t quite put a finger on why he loves the work so much. “It might be the challenge. When we go to work, we’re not jumping in a car and running across town. We’re climbing a mountain. It’s arduous. But then there’s also the serenity of the wilderness. There’s so much to be acquired from that. It’s very therapeutic.”
MaKenzie Haymaker, 24, is Underwood’s assistant crew leader. This is her first season on SWEAT, but she’s spent the past few years doing seasonal crew work all over the U.S., first in Virginia, then in Carlsbad Caverns and Yosemite National Parks, and Arizona. “It’s a great lifestyle, following the warm weather and being out in the field,” Haymaker says. “I like it and working with the ecology and being in different environments.”
Working on the SWEAT Crew is Haymaker’s first experience in the Smokies, which she admits has been a bit of a challenge. “The Smokies are something different. There are lots of elevation changes and hills to climb. And lots of rain,” she says. “But once you embrace that it’s raining, and realize you’re playing in the rain and solving these puzzles, it’s fun.”
If you’re interested in volunteering for the SWEAT Crew, or any of the ATC’s trail crews, reach out the ATC here.