By Charlie Smillie, Wilderness Ranger
It’s a beautiful day in the Wilderness neighborhood, here on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
When my partner, Wilderness Ranger Nathan Mynatt and I set out for the Blue Ridge District Ranger’s Office about a month ago, I wasn’t without a few reservations. Part of our job was to further the education and outreach goals of the Wilderness program on the Chattahoochee. The only problem was, we’re both out-of-towners (and I’m a yankee from out west to boot). I must admit I was a bit worried that the communities of North Georgia would be reluctant to sit down with a couple of carpet-baggers to talk about Wilderness or much of anything else.
But I’m happy to report to you today that my initial fears were totally unfounded. Since day one, we’ve been welcomed warmly by locals, Forest Service employees, environmental advocates, hikers, and just about everyone in between.
On the advice of The Wilderness Society's Regional Director Brent Martin, we dropped by the office of Georgia Forest Watch (GAFW) about a week into the start of our duties. Of course, we’d lacked the foresight to call ahead and introduce ourselves, so when we showed up unannounced, Director Mary Topa and Outreach Coordinator Laura Stachler greeted us with an understandable degree of confusion. But they politely invited us in to sit down and chat. Within an hour, they had generously offered their conference room as an ad hoc office space, with access to internet, phone service, and even the use of their printers! A few days later, we were signed up to tag along for a few GAFW meet-up hikes and had begun planning a Volunteer Trail Clean-Up and Maintenance Project. (Quick side note: Mary, Laura, and Sherri, if you’re reading this, thank you, thank you, thank you!)
While we prepared for the Clean-Up on the 28th of June, we continued to enjoy the hospitality of the fine folks of Union, Towns, Lumpkin, Gilmer, Fannin, Habersham, White, and Rabun counties. Rural areas seem to have an unfairly xenophobic reputation. I’ve almost always found the opposite to be true. People from Blairsville to Gainesville and Ellijay to Ellicott Rock are quick to treat us as friends, logo’d khaki shirts and Forest Service SUV included.
I should also mention that it’s not just locals out in the Wilderness areas of North Georgia. People come here from across the region, country, and globe to experience the wild serenity of these mountains. Just a few days ago, I met a couple from Isreal on the Appalachian Trail near Blue Mountain. They were friendly and curious about my duties as a Wilderness Ranger and gave me a delicious Israeli honey-sesame energy bar as we parted ways.
When we did meet up with a few Georgia Appalachian Trail Club volunteers on the 28th, Nathan and I were humbled by the dedication of Dayton Miller, a twenty-year Section Maintainer of the Whitley Gap Spur. His friend Craig, also at the trailhead that morning has been maintaining the section between Tesnatee and Hogpen Gaps as a volunteer for over 40 years! Bob Williams, a high school teacher in Union who’s helped to integrate the Appalachian Trail into the local school curriculum, and Jeff Hayden, who had never before swung a swing blade, joined us for the day. Our crew brushed back the 1.2 miles of trail and lent Dayton moral support as he serviced the shelter privy. Most notably, using a shop magnet and a hazel hoe, Nathan and Bob removed about 150 pounds of nails from a huge fire scar atop Wildcat Mountain. We each grabbed one of five buckets of nails and gritted our way back to the trailhead as the clouds opened on us. Every so often we’d stop, standing in the pouring rain a bit longer to switch the heavy bucket to the other arm.
Soaking wet, we loaded up the nails and caravanned down to Blairsville for some of the much-heralded pulled pork from Jim’s Smokin’ Que. We promptly met a cheerful fellow in line who went by the name Run Bum, himself a very active trail maintainer.
The next day I charged up to Slaughter Gap in Blood Mountain Wilderness, refueled by a pile of barbecue and a long night’s sleep. Coming back down I met a couple from Blairsville who recognized me from Jim’s Smokin’ Que the previous day. They too were excited by the Ranger Program, and eager to share their expertise on their favorite hiking spots in the Southern Apps.
I am honored by how open and welcoming everyone has been. Leaving home in Montana to start something new in the forests of Georgia would seem a lot more daunting if not for the positivity that has greeted my presence at every turn. The communities that surround Wilderness and value the wild places I’ve worked simply contain some of the best people you’ll meet. Nathan and I are lucky to call you all neighbors.