If anybody should know the history, it would be McClung. He’s been running search and rescues in Graham County for 51 years, both as a U.S. Forest Service employee before his retirement and as a volunteer with the rescue squad, which he joined in the late 1960s. Over the years, McClung has rescued countless people who have found themselves in scrapes for a laundry list of reasons — but undeniably the most common cause of crisis was getting lost.
These days, that’s a lot harder to do. That’s because of a massive effort from the nonprofit Partners of the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness to install signs at trail junctions throughout the wilderness area — thus, the plummeting number of rescue calls.
“It has made a big difference, it sure has,” said McClung. “There’s been a lot of work done.”
Identifying the problem
The work was the result of a push from Dick Evans, an avid hiker and past president of the Partners.
In 2011, Evans was elected president of another trails group, the Benton MacKaye Trail Association, which supports the 300-mile-long hiking trail named after the creator of the more famous Appalachian Trail. He decided to thru-hike the trail’s route through Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina and was dismayed to find that many of the trail junction signs were either missing or so weathered as to be illegible. On one 43-mile section, there wasn’t a single sign to be seen.
“I did not have a problem (with wayfinding), but I’m pretty experienced in the woods,” Evans said. “But at the same time I could see there were some major problems for people who weren’t as experienced.”
When he returned from the hike, Evans asked the Forest Service what was up with the lack of signs. What he discovered was that the Forest Service was well aware of the problem but had no money available to fix it. So, Evans asked the Forest Service if they’d have a problem with the Benton MacKaye Trail Association raising the money — a suggestion to which the Forest Service, as could be expected, was quite agreeable.
Raising the money proved to be pretty easy. Evans called the results “staggering” — even now, years later, the group still receives donations for the project.
As it happens, the Benton MacKaye Trail passes straight through the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness Area, and as a Graham County resident and member of the Partners, Evans was well aware that section had plenty of needs in the sign department as well. So he brought the challenge to that group too.
The group was receptive, electing him president for 2015-16 and placing the sign project as a major initiative. Between the Partners and the BMTA, about $13,000 was raised to install 84 signs along trails and roads in the Cheoah Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest, which includes the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness Area. In Georgia and Tennessee, the BMTA raised an additional $17,000 to install signs along the trail’s route through those states.
Volunteers prepare to post a new sign on the Benton MacKaye Trail in Graham County. Donated photo
Installing the signs
Placing a sign may sound like a simple endeavor, but there’s more to it than might be expected.
While the cheapest signs might only cost $50, larger ones can be several hundred and a big sign the group bought for the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest cost $1,500. Shipping, posts and theft-resistant hardware also ran up the costs.
Signs posted on federal lands must adhere to a slew of regulations, and those regulations are different depending on whether the land in question is a wilderness area, national forest, national park or something else. For wilderness areas, especially, the rules are strict. Signs must be five-sided, made of natural materials like wood and may only point out directions — they can’t give mileages.
“We all agreed the easiest thing would be for the Forest Service to order the signs and us to just pay the bill,” said Evans.
But, before a sign could be ordered, they had to know what should be on it. This required hiking out to every trail junction that needed a sign — to scope out the area, determine where the sign should go and figure out which ways the arrows would need to point in order for the directions to be correct. Then the sign would have to be designed and ordered, and then installed during a separate wilderness trek. No motorized travel is allowed in wilderness areas, so rolling out on a mountain bike or ATV is not an option.
“One of the biggest problems we have is not really affording the signs, but the trip,” said Evans.
When the BMTA first started the project, it was careful to go slow with the signs, ordering only a few at a time.
“By the time we got up here to the Slickrock Wilderness, we had it down to a really good science,” said Evans. “We would get 15, 18 signs at a time and within a couple of months we’d generally have most of those up and in place.”
Now, only two signs are left to go. Those are both destined for the King Meadows Trail, a fabulously remote and overgrown trail in the Nantahala National Forest.
“It’s so remote that even the Forest Service folks haven’t been there in years,” said Evans.
That’s why it’s last on the installation list — “anybody that gets to that point, either they’re totally lost and the sign’s not going to help them or they know where they’re at,” said Evans.
Nevertheless, the volunteers will make the long trek to deliver the signs to their final destination.
Dick Evans (from left) and James Smith of the Partners of the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness and Jeremy Waite of the U.S. Forest Service receive a delivery of signs. Donated photo
A force multiplier
That’s the kind of dedication that earned the Partners of Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness a distinctive honor. The group received the 2018 Bob Marshall Award for Group Champions of Wilderness Stewardship, an award that the U.S. Forest Service bestows on only one recipient nationwide each year.
“I was kind of like, ‘Really? That’s impressive in itself just getting the nomination,’” said Evans of the news that his group was being considered. “Honestly I never thought we had a chance. I figured we were just too small and local and didn’t have enough impact.”
But the Forest Service thought differently, and the Partners brought that national award right back to little Robbinsville.
While the sign project had a lot to do with the winning, it wasn’t the whole story. The Partners do a lot more aside from procuring and installing signs.
Members have donated more than 2,500 volunteer hours since the beginning of 2017, working to develop and improve wilderness facilities, maintain trails, update interpretive and way-finding materials and help with wilderness inventory efforts. The group conducts a Junior Forestry School for teens interested in natural resource management careers, annually donates $2,500 so the Cheoah Ranger District can hire a Youth Conservation Corps intern, organizes a training program with the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards to certify wilderness volunteers in the correct use of crosscut saws and landed $12,500 in grants to restore trails that were damaged by wildfire.
“To use the military term, it’s really a force multiplier for the Forest Service, because they just do not have the staff to do all those things,” said Evans. “We’re able to step in and do it in what we would like to think of as a professional and competent way.”
About 200 people are involved with the Partners, with a core group of 40 and a subset of those who are even more committed to fulfilling the group’s mission.
To complete the sign project through Joyce Kilmer Slickrock, Evans himself hiked more than 125 miles, usually accompanied by two or three other volunteers. The project required several hundred hours of time, with that contribution expanding to well over 1,000 hours when including the entire Benton MacKaye Trail.
The result is a safer and more enjoyable experience for visitors, and a lighter load for the lifesaving volunteers at the Graham County Rescue Squad. Rescue calls often come through in the middle of the night or in the midst of bad weather, pulling rescuers away from their families to accept risk for the sake of others — and all that with no pay. In fact, volunteers must pay dues to belong to the squad, with no reimbursement for mileage or equipment.
“I belong to the Partners of Joyce Kilmer and am very familiar with the organization, worked with them a lot, and I’m sure they know that speaking for myself I certainly appreciate all the work and effort that’s been put into the trails,” said McClung. “I’d much rather go out and work on them in daylight as have to go out at night and hunt someone.”
Join the Partners
Partners of the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness is always looking for more people to help maintain trails, raise money and support its other initiatives. Find out how to get involved at