On a recent Saturday a group of men gathered on Bruce Glendening’s back porch, cracked open a round of beers, and discussed the day’s work.
The conversation jutted off into several directions, most of them hiking related. They talked about water bars and soil erosion. They talked about meeting brave souls along the Appalachian Trail, who were hiking the entire length with nothing but a blanket and a metal cup.
The men, all members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), had just finished a day of trail building on the Potomac Heritage Trail, located on the border of McLean and Arlington near Chain Bridge.
"I got involved because I enjoy hiking so much. I thought I would get involved to give something back," said Loudoun resident Bill Spach, who helped train some of the other club members. "After you walk a section of trail you worked on, it's like, ahhh. It’s a real sense of accomplishment."
IN APRIL the group finished a set of stone steps along the trail, to help hikers cross North Glebe Road. The steps allow hikers to pass under Glebe, instead of forcing them to jump over a metal guard rail and dash across the busy road.
"The most dangerous part of backpacking is crossing a road," said Jeff Gowdy, from Alexandria. "Hikers get eaten by bears, like, never. But people die from car accidents all the time."
To lift the staircase boulders, between 300 and 600 pounds each, PATC members rigged a system of steel cables and lowered them down a steep hill face.
For permission to build the stone staircase, the club had to go through the National Park Service. Finding the park employees initially unresponsive, the group took some alternate routes.
"Congressman [James P.] Moran’s office staff helped immensely in getting the stone steps done," Glendening, from McLean, said. "They just mentioned it and the light went on with the National Park Service bureaucracy."
Glendening said the National Park Service spends a lot of time on its larger assets, like George Washington Parkway, or on tourist attractions, like the Arlington House.
THE STONE STAIRCASE is reminiscent of projects built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the federal work programs set up by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Glendening said.
"On a lot of trails you can still see the rock crumbling from the 1930s," Spach said.
Glendening first learned about the Potomac Heritage Trail while walking his dog. He ventured out of his wooded backyard one day, and noticed the blue blazes. He had to do some research to find out more about the trail. And even though he is proud of the Potomac Heritage, Glendening said he's glad not everyone knows about it.
"I don’t want it to become another Billy Goat’s Trail," He said, referring to the popular trail at Great Falls Park, also maintained by PATC.
"This is not a tourist attraction, that’s what makes it special," said fellow club member Jim Sperry.
The Potomac Heritage Trail starts at Theodore Roosevelt Island and follows along the Potomac river for 10 miles, ending near Cabin John Bridge.
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club is a volunteer club, founded to build the Appalachian Trail in the late 1920s and early 1930s. After the Appalachian trail was finished, the club chapters stayed intact, maintaining the Appalachian trail and other nearby trails. In the 1980s, noticing that many of its members lived in the Washington Metropolitan area, the club started taking on projects in and around Washington D.C.
And now that the club owns 30 cabins in the Shenandoah, available to club members at cut rates, club membership has ballooned up over 7,000. Around 80 percent of the members are from the Washington area.
Of those 7,000 members, though, only around 1,000 are active in trail building, trail patrol or cabin upkeep, said long time trail builder Bernie Stalmann.
"If you like doing things in an outdoor setting," Glendening said, "this club is for you. We do a lot of different activities — building cabins, shelters, trails."
The volunteer group meets at its headquarters, 118 Park Street S.E., in Vienna. For more information visit www.patc.net.