Loved to death

Volunteer trail crews work to maintain Kentucky’s overused and deteriorating Red River Gorge

Jul 4, 2012 at 5:00 am
Loved to death

It’s spring in Red River Gorge: trees fully in leaf, mountain laurels and magnolias in bloom. The light is beginning to fall on the fields along the river, where the little town of Gladie once stood. The air, heavy with birdsong, is cool but warming quickly this Saturday morning.

Just before 9 a.m., a red pickup pulls up to the gate outside the Gladie Learning Center. Emblazoned on its bumper is the emblem of the Red River Gorge Trail Crew, an all-volunteer work crew that meets in the Gorge once a month — the second Saturday — to perform trail maintenance. The driver, Bob Moran, has been doing this for several years. We hardly get a moment to talk when someone else arrives and opens the gate. From there, vehicles trickle in until the group swells to 21 people.

The crew represents a wide swath of people who love the Gorge: one sports a leather cowboy hat with an American flag pin, several wear fleece, some blue jeans, but all wear sturdy hiking boots. It’s not uncommon to find folks who’ve been working with the crew for a decade or more. There is a common sentiment among them: “I’ve been coming to the Gorge for many years, and this is my way of giving back.” They come from Louisville, Lexington and as far away as Ohio to contribute.

Joy Malone, a U.S. Forest Service staff officer for recreation, appreciates their effort. Though the Daniel Boone National Forest (where the Gorge is located) has sporadically contracted out trail work over the years, she says, “Volunteers also provide valuable services to the national forests, and we feel volunteers help to establish solid relationships between the public and the Forest Service … Volunteers seem to enjoy the work that they do and value the opportunity to give back to their community and to the forest.”

What they “give back” is labor, in order to keep trails both functional and attractive. The fact is, the Red River Gorge is a highly traversed area, and the trails are no exception. Backpackers and day-hikers frequent it year-round, and, coupled with the weather, the impact shows: deteriorating trail grades, overgrown poison ivy, fallen trees blocking paths.

Until recently, the Red River Gorge and nearby Clifty Wilderness, both managed by the U.S. Forest Service, have had no official paid trail crews, instead relying on volunteers and a handful of individual forestry technicians to perform trail maintenance. But that’s about to change, according to Malone, as the Forest Service just recently announced plans to hire a seasonal, five-person trail crew for Red River Gorge.

Up until now, however, it’s been largely up to the one-weekend-a-month volunteer crew, whose work has proven invaluable over the years. Though diverse in ages and backgrounds, the volunteers all have a shared love of Red River Gorge and a willingness to work hard to maintain it. “The group is diverse, dynamic and nonjudgmental,” says volunteer John Kelley, “the perfect convergence of ideals and physical strength to get the job done.” He and his wife Becky, both in their 60s, have been volunteering in the Gorge for around 15 years. Members range in age, he says, from their teens to their 80s.

With the volunteers assembled in a rough circle in the lot, leaders Julie Dietrich and John Kelley run through safety information. Dietrich, in a green North Face fleece and orange bandana, reads off the sign-in list and deals with logistics, such as workman’s compensation, should anyone be injured. Kelley, his graying hair tucked under a pink bandana, inventories the tools the group will use for the day and explains how to use them. He also relays a few horror stories of accidents and how to avoid getting hurt. The crew will go in three different directions today: one group will measure the deteriorating wooden staircase to Double Arch, one of the notable sites in the Red River Gorge National Geologic Area, and the other two will clear fallen trees along the Wildcat and Swift Camp Creek trails in the nearby Clifty Wilderness.

Everyone dons a hardhat and grabs tools — pulaskis, loppers, a 4-foot crosscut saw. Rides and shuttles are organized, and everyone sets off, crossing the Red River, climbing the ridge toward the trailheads. Along the way, the groups pass many of the places Red River Gorge is famous for: Tower Rock, Sky Bridge Arch, Chimney Top, the Angel Windows.

John Kelley’s crew sets off along Highway 715 toward a narrow and twisting road that links Gladie with the Rock Bridge Recreation Area, the end point for today’s excursion. He’s splitting the group into two: He will take a few people down Wildcat Trail to clear trees and paint fresh white diamond blazes. Meanwhile, Dietrich’s group will focus on clearing massive fallen pines from the Swift Camp Creek Trail.

It doesn’t take long to see the enormity of the project. Even with more than a dozen people working, both the 2-mile Wildcat Trail and the nearly 8-mile Swift Camp Creek Trail are in dire need of maintenance. During an October visit to the site, it was impossible not to notice the trail’s problems: deteriorating and collapsing, overgrown with tangles of rhododendron, cluttered with wind-felled timber. Rain, alone, can do more damage in a single winter than any amount of foot traffic, and in much of the Gorge, trails act as occasional de facto streambeds at least part of the year.

Several members carry grubbing and hoeing tools, making scraping away overgrowth easier, though it still would require days to clear everything from seedling magnolias to blackberry to poison ivy. The volunteers clear what they can, but it proves time-consuming, and they soon decide to focus on removing the bigger obstacles: thick trunks that have fallen over the path — some fresh wood, some rotted. This is, of course, the cost of working one day a month — one constantly wrestles with nature’s efforts at reclamation, and it is easy to see how nothing can get done at such a pace. And this is only one stretch amidst more than 60 miles of trail in the Red River Gorge.

But the work is rewarding and, most of the time, fun. Though the primary goal is to clear and clean up trails, the added bonus is getting to meet like-minded people and spend a day in the Gorge. “What happens on Wildcat Trail, stays on Wildcat Trail,” someone shouts, prompting a roar of laughter. “Did you get that quote?” Dietrich asks, shaking her head.

Still, there is an undercurrent of battle fatigue. The nearly 26,000-acre Red River Gorge Geologic Area receives anywhere from 250,000 to 750,000 people a year, and it shows. As far back as 1971, Kentucky author Wendell Berry reported seeing “lavish blossoms of pink toilet paper” left behind by hikers, a common sight still today. Berry’s book “The Unforeseen Wilderness” addresses many of the problems inherent in maintaining a wilderness as a place where humans can go to experience nature. “What would it be like,” he wonders, “to experience the Red River unspoiled by men’s abuse and refuse? Perhaps those of us living now will never know.”

Wilderness ranger Jacob Moody, who has accompanied the trail crew today, tells of a recent expedition to remove garbage from Swift Camp Creek. The haul that day included 150 feet of black drainage pipe, as well as hundreds of melted votive candles from rock shelters where it is illegal to camp. That alone took up much of the day, and the creek, rock shelters and trails remain littered with all manner of trash: tires, camp gear, cigarette butts, bottles and cans. On this day, a large cooler is marooned on a shore of the creek. But litter is only the beginning.

Even more harmful than the ubiquitous garbage is the damage done to sensitive rock shelters, many of them cradling the federally endangered white-haired goldenrod, which is endemic to the Gorge. Given all this destruction, the Bluegrass Sierra Club recently warned in its trail guide “Hiking the Red” that this unique Kentucky landmark is in danger of being “loved to death.”


Red River Gorge Geologic Area, a National Natural Landmark, seems to exist solely for recreation. Local businesses cater to the influx of people filling their tanks and renting cabins. Rock climbers have carved out a small paradise here, with the massive list of climbs including such notable names as Funk Rock City, Jailhouse Rock or The Junkyard. Backpackers take advantage of the numerous trails, including an 18-mile stretch of the famous Sheltowee Trace, which passes through the Gorge, crossing the river and spanning Natural Bridge State Park. Compounding the problem of overuse is the fact that people simply don’t follow the rules: Illegal camps are common, with campers blatantly disobeying the U.S. Forest Service rules to camp at least 300 feet from any developed trail, 200 feet from water, and 100 feet from the base of any cliff. Car campers abound, filling up the three main campgrounds in the Gorge (including two in Natural Bridge State Park) on autumn days, not to mention the multitudes of primitive roadside sites. Kayakers and fisherman dot the river.

And though the effects of overuse are becoming increasingly apparent, humans have long inhabited Red River Gorge — for better or worse. According to Robert H. Ruchhoft, in his classic guidebook “Kentucky’s Land of Arches,” the Gorge’s human history may go back beyond 8,000, or even 12,000 years. Radiocarbon dating of artifacts establishes humans definitively occupied the Gorge around 3,000 years ago. At that time, the numerous rock shelters were home to a now-extinct band of Native Americans who left traces including “hominy holes,” small cups carved into rock where they ground nuts and seed, as well as petroglyphs, and even graves. The U.S. Forest Service is especially concerned about people treading heavily in these shelters given all manner of artifacts — including human bones — have been unearthed there.

Over time, the long-vanished tribe called the Adena Indians grew adept at plant cultivation, pottery and weaving. They adorned themselves with mica and copper, both of which were traded over great distances. Somewhere around 800 A.D., this culture disappeared, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that white explorers “discovered” the Gorge once again.

In time, the Red River Gorge was exploited for various resources including niter mining, where saltpeter — a crucial ingredient of gunpowder — was mined in the Gorge to feed gunpowder mills in Lexington, especially during the War of 1812. Following the Civil War, pioneers settled along the Red River and began farming. By the late 19th century, valuable timber was being extracted at a precipitous rate, leaving swaths of the forest nearly barren by the early 20th century. At that point, moonshining became the major cash cow of the Gorge; to this day, the ruins of an old whiskey still can reportedly be found in a rock shelter somewhere along Swift Camp Creek. The name “Moonshiner’s Arch” likewise testifies to this history.

“Archaeology is the study of human culture and history via the examination of the things people left behind,” says Kay Shelnutt, archaeologist for the Cumberland Ranger District. “Archaeological research is able to give voice to people who either left no written record or who are generally absent from the history books. Undisturbed archaeological sites are unique, one-of-a-kind time capsules. Some may contain very little information and others are internationally recognized in the professional archaeological literature as comprising a world hearth of early plant domestication and agriculture. These ancient seeds and plant remains found in several rock shelters in the Gorge are very fragile and easily damaged by soil compaction, fire building, etc.”

And that’s exactly what continues to happen. According to a 2008 report in Harper’s, camping in rock shelters and illegal digging are persistent problems, resulting in the whittling away of whatever history remains. It seems that just like their ancestors — who mined, farmed and logged their way through the Gorge — many visitors are out to get something, as well.

Wendell Berry describes this hackneyed approach to nature and, specifically, the Gorge. He relates the classic legend of one John Swift, who claims to have discovered silver somewhere in the Red River region. Later thrown in prison in Britain for supporting the colonists during the American Revolution, and having gone blind, he never again found the supposed deposit, though he stubbornly tried. Never mind that silver ore is not to be found in sedimentary rock such as limestone and sandstone, the predominant rock of the Gorge; this didn’t stop the overzealous from setting out on a fool’s errand to find it, destroying rock shelters in the process and possibly destroying the real gold that is there: the archeological history of the region.

The Red River Gorge has experienced an astounding recovery from logging, mining, bootlegging and soil depletion, yet tourism has caused its own brand of devastation. Traffic, for one, crowds the narrow roads on summer weekends. Tour busses empty out hordes of families and senior citizens at Sky Bridge, and hikers clog the trail to Gray’s Arch, two of the most heavily used areas in the Gorge. Garbage abounds. Illegal campsites are trampled to mud and later roped off by the Forest Service, creating bandaged eyesores. Names carved on delicate arches, the omnipresent roar of the Mountain Parkway, campfires carelessly left burning on ridges — the marring presence of humans is everywhere.

Still, one can’t simply demonize people. Stephanie Carson, a U.S. Forest Service volunteer who lives in the Gorge, today accompanies the trail crew with her camera, documenting the trip. She tells of a video posted on YouTube of a young couple carving their name into the sandstone of the Red River Gorge. Then she recalls hiking along the Swift Camp Creek Trail and coming across a man who had just killed a nest of vipers because he was frightened of them. Carson and her friends berated him for killing an animal in its natural habitat, considering he was the visitor. When he ended up pitching his camp on a nest of angry wasps, they couldn’t help but think it was poetic justice.

But she understands that, all fear aside, these are just normal people like anyone else on the crew today: “Not rednecks, not thugs, just everyday people.”

In 2011, Backpacker magazine ran a short article on the Red River Gorge that attracted some negative feedback, not least of which came from members of the crew. One Gorge lover posted his letter to the magazine’s editor on an online hiking forum, displeased at the lack of knowledge with the stretch of Sheltowee Trace the article described. It wasn’t so much the incorrect directions that peeved this reader, but rather the fact that the writer pointed readers to an excellent rock shelter to camp in by the unmarked trail to Indian Steps — a camping situation expressly forbidden by the U.S. Forest Service. The bumbling writing of Backpacker only serves to lead more people blindly into this amazing area without regard for its history, let alone its sensitivity.

In an effort to curtail the continued deterioration and destruction, the Forest Service earlier this month announced plans to hire a seasonal, five-person trail crew for Red River Gorge. Though the professional crew will make a big difference in the upkeep of the Gorge, the volunteer crew plans to continue monthly outings.

Volunteer Heather Turner has visited the Gorge since 1998, introduced to it by her grandfather who, in his 80s, is still an active member of the Red River Gorge Trail Crew. “I joined the Trail Crew to help maintain and protect it, so it can be enjoyed responsibly for years to come,” she says. She also became a trail crew leader this year, which requires special training.

“The main problems to address on the Red River Gorge trails,” she says, “are trash clean-up due to heavy usage of the trails, trail clearing, repair, and maintenance due to mother nature, and getting people to abide by the rules set in place so that it can continue to be enjoyed safely by everyone.”

When asked about the high usage of the Gorge, and the resulting trash, she says, “I don’t think there is any way to stop this without restricting access, which I am sure no one wants to see happen. There are a lot of good rules already in place in order to protect the people and to protect the Red River Gorge. If people would just follow those rules, then it’s a win-win situation. However, we all know that’s not always going to be the case …

“The trash is also a huge issue. I think some people have this mentality that someone else will clean the trash up for them, so why should they have to. If you trash the Red River Gorge, you are ruining it for everyone.”

With thousands of visitors each year, it’s no wonder the Center for Outdoor Ethics declared the Red River Gorge a Leave No Trace “Hot Spot.” It seems we’re still looking for the silver, only the ore has changed. It’s solitude we seek now, or communion with nature, but we have little regard for how much civilization we drag along with us. Like that fabled Swift silver mine, the real value of the Red River Gorge continues to elude us.