At the Parksville Lake Campground in the Ocoee Ranger District of the Cherokee National Forest, there remains no trace of a crew of American folks who have united, from as far away as Alaska and as close as the Ocoee River’s nearby bank.

Participants of an inaugural 2011 Wilderness Trails Stewardship Conference have intermittently packed up and parted ways for Memorial Day Weekend and will regroup on Tuesday afternoon at Big Creek Ranger Station, located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This unique and memorable educational experience has been offered expense free to its first 25 registrants and made possible by Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (S.A.W.S.) and The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (A.T.C.).  Camping is being provided free of charge by the U.S. Forest Service.  Women and men eat together, work together and share close quarters while in the classroom, in the field and at base camp.

Bill Hodge, S.A.W.S. director, explains, “We made sure that this conference was free. We don’t want to burden people who are willing to give up one or two weeks of their life to come out here just to pick up these skills.  The Forest service played a big role in making this happen.  I know we are all leaving here with certifications and some technical skills, but the people who are here are one of the highlights.”

Group training has resumed with wilderness skills content that includes Trail Leadership, Leave No Trace and Incident Management training.  A fun and unforgettable first week has included two days of Wilderness First Aid training and certification, a one-day session on Wilderness History and Legislation and two days of Cross-cut Saw training and certification.

At the beginning of week two, conference attendees straggle into A.T.C. Base Camp, the headquarters of the Southern Wilderness Elite Appalachian Trail (S.W.E.A.T.) Crew, which plays a vital role in managing trails of the A.T. and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

S.W.E.A.T. crew leaders, Jameson Demiglio and Mateo Romano prepare for a summer where they will lead eight consecutive crews, overseeing volunteers (including me) who will arrive from all over the country to maintain The Appalachian Trail corridor.  The Wilderness Trail Stewardship Conference has been opened to S.W.E.A.T. Crew volunteers.   Certifications and skill sets acquired here will play key roles in this summer’s A.T. maintenance.

Early afternoon, everyone congregates around a couple of picnic tables.  Class training starts with the vital component of trip planning and preparation.  Andrew Downs, Appalachian Trail Resource Manager for Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee explains, “Our work is very physically demanding, perhaps some of the hardest labor you will ever perform.  Being in good physical shape will certainly help you maintain a good attitude.  You also need social skills that will enable you to get along with fellow volunteers in often trying times”.