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The casual weekend hiker traipsing through Shenandoah National Park might not give it much thought, but the "natural" hiking trails there require hours of work every month to ensure they remain passable.
Volunteers with the Vienna-based Potomac Appalachian Trail Club keep about 1,200 miles of trail in the mid-Atlantic region safe and passable for hikers.
The club also manages 34 cabins and 44 overnight shelters near hiking trails, publishes hiking maps and guidebooks, and organizes outdoor recreational events.
Many of the club's 6,500 volunteer members, such as John Schell of McLean, are avid hikers who decided they wanted to support efforts that have benefitted them.
"I've been hiking [club-maintained] trails for 35 years," Schell said. "I just thought one day that I ought to give back."
As a trail overseer for the club, Schell is responsible for maintaining his assigned section of the Potomac Heritage Trail, from Interstate 495 to the edge of Turkey Run Park.
"To me, it's fun work because you're serving the public and at the same time you're getting to do something that you enjoy," Schell said.
Bruce Glendening, a retired
Federal Aviation Administration employee who lives in McLean, coordinates the efforts of about 20 overseers in Northern Virginia, as well as other volunteers who assist with projects as needed.
"This is kind of my way of giving a 'thank-you' to the PATC," said Ruth Hansen, a Falls Church resident who regularly volunteers for Glendening's Thursday work crew to complete projects around the area.
Hansen's first exposure to the club was via the hikes it organizes regularly.
"I do it for the fitness and for being out of doors," she said. "Once I retired it was really nice to be able to pick up where I left off and get back out on the trail."
Maintaining a trail can involve tasks as simple as weeding and as complex as building stone steps, said Glendening, the club's Northern Virginia District manager.
"Everything we do for trail maintenance is to continue that path through the woods," he said.
Local forests often have problems with invasive plant species, which need to be cut back regularly.
Erosion also is a problem, especially in the trails closer to urban and suburban development.
"The water will seek the fastest path, and sometimes that's down a pathway," Glendening said.
To help control erosion, trail workers install walls and barriers along the trails.
Schell said he works on his section of trail about twice a month during spring and summer.
The club also works with conservation groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, to protect rare species. Glendening said PATC volunteers will reroute or modify a trail, if needed, to protect natural habitats.
PATC now has formal agreements to maintain trail systems and individual trails in a number of area federal parks, including Rock Creek Park, Great Falls Park and Prince William Forest Park. But the organization's history is strongly linked with that of the Appalachian Trail.
The club, founded in 1927, still maintains the 240-mile section of the 2,175-mile footpath that its members constructed in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It is one of 30 Appalachian Trail clubs in the country and its members were among the leading advocates for building the trail.
In the 1960s, club members, the majority of whom lived in the Washington area, decided to pursue additional projects closer to home, according to Glendening.
Today, the club's most skilled crews are those who work on the Appalachian Trail, although those crews also occasionally work on more complex projects in other PATC-managed areas.
"We're all the minor leagues compared to them," Glendening said.