This August, Proactive-AHW became a member club of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. That same month we had the privilege of hiking alongside the Trail Conference’s Communications Assistant Heather Darley.
She invited us to tour the trail work being done on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) on the 2-mile stretch of the Bear Mountain Trails Project.
The project, lauded as the "most ambitious rehabilitation of the A.T. ever conducted", was nearing completion and saw more than 3,000 volunteers donating 85,000 hours over 14 years.
The Proactive crew arrived at the Bear Mountain Inn to meet Heather and hit the Trail. The day was notably hot and it brought
some haze, but we were still expecting excellent views on our way up Bear Mountain to the summit.
The craftsmanship along this stretch of Appalachian Trail is immediately apparent: remarkable stonework, clear blazes, and many vistas and photo opportunities along the path. This section of trail the most heavily used of the entire A.T. and is visited by over 2 million visitors each year!
Our hike was leisurely, and we took many breaks for pictures and to chat. Heather's passion for the trails is palpable through both her words and her resume. Her fascination with the outdoors started in her freshman year at college.
"The first hike I remember was my freshman year at Ramapo College, hiking at Ramapo Valley County Reservation to Hawk Rock. It’s a very short and slightly steep hike that kicked my butt the first time I hiked it.
I remember thinking while struggling to find my breath, 'why would anyone do this? Can I even do this?' Growing up, I was never extraordinarily athletic or competitive, and I always had a hard time pushing myself with conventional sports.
I quickly fell in love with being in nature and challenging myself in such a new and adventurous way. Hiking came to be something that made me feel limitless and wild. I found a space to truly be myself and forget about the worries of everyday life."
Heather went on to earn a degree in Environmental Studies from Ramapo College. After graduating she took a job for about a year, but it didn't fulfill her passion.
"It left me feeling so disconnected from what I loved and slightly depressed - that’s when I applied for a second job working part-time as the Trail Conference’s Assistant Invasives Program Coordinator.
While in school, I was aware of what the Trail Conference was, but I had no idea the passion, dedication, and care that open space and trails require until I became more involved with the organization."
Her part-time position with the Trail Conference was fulfilling and spurred Heather to get more involved.
"Having an outlet to work and contribute to protecting public lands helped me to find purpose and direction during such a significant transition in my life.
No matter how hectic and exhausting working 65+ hours a week was, it was worth it to know I was a part of this legacy bigger than myself that was preserving trails and wild areas.
Eventually, I was able to apply for a full-time position as the Trail Conference’s Communications Assistant."
Her desire to get more involved was based on a simple principle:
"I’m a firm believer that if you’re passionate about something, you should do everything you can to protect it. That’s how I found the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.
Trails and open space require a lot of care, and their protection depends on the passion and dedication of the adventurers who enjoy them."
We continued our hike and took the old Appalachian Trail up to the top to enjoy the views from the summit. We passed a portable tool storage area, a reminder of the thousands of volunteers' efforts, near the last portion of the trail to be finished. We spent a good amount of time taking in the same views that so many A.T. thru-hikers have enjoyed over the decades and taking pictures.
The doors of the Perkin's Memorial Tower were open, so we went inside and took in the views from the top floor observation deck. There were wide windows on each side above a labeled, blown-up panoramic picture of the landscape out ahead, making it easy to identify the peaks and ranges in the distance.
The historical references, artwork, and architecture of the tower got us asking Heather who her favorite historical figure was.
"Theodore Roosevelt, of course!" This would be the same answer that most of the Proactive crew would give.
We carefully went beyond the barrier and toured the unfinished A.T. on our way back down the mountain. Seeing the work that still needed to go into this small final section before the project would be complete put the immensity of the work into even finer perspective.
Eventually, we arrived back on the grounds of the Bear Mountain Inn. Before we all left, we visited the Bear Mountain free Trailside Zoo - an excellent way to end the day.
On September 27th, the final stone step was placed on the Appalachian Trail at Bear Mountain, completing a project that has been 14 years in the works. It was a proud moment for all of the volunteers, the Trail Conference, and Heather herself.