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.
The annual Trail Conference Gala will be held on October 18th and will celebrate the momentous achievement ahead of a grand opening celebration in the spring.
Heather shared some advice for anybody looking to live their passion and embrace their love of nature:
"I recommend to anyone looking to follow their passion or find a career protecting the outdoors, find an organization that aligns with your values and volunteer.
Apply for a part-time job if there’s an opening. Every spring, the Trail Conference recruits seasonal part-time stewards and trail-building AmeriCorps Conservation Corps crew members.
Chase your passions, and protect the land you love."
Proactive: Do you ever listen to music while hiking?
Heather Darley: I’ve actually never listened to music while hiking. I like to be in tune with my surroundings and let nature’s sounds prevail.
PA: What is some of your favorite music?
HD: I listen to all different kinds of music from classic rock and folk to country and rap. I like to give all genres of music a chance, since there are so many talented musicians!
PA: What would you say is your favorite art medium?
HD: It’s so difficult to pick a favorite! Currently: photography. I’ve had passionate phases of music and writing.
PA: What are you passionate about other than the outdoors? What would somebody be most surprised to know you are passionate about?
HD: I enjoy weightlifting / powerlifting. I think it’s another one of those things that I enjoy doing things I never thought I could do.
PA: Do you have a pet? Tell us a little bit about them…
HD: I have two dogs, and they’re my babies! Bella is an 8-year-old boxer. She’s the sweetest girl you’ll ever meet. And Flint is a 10-month-old pit mix. He’s such a little character! Sometimes he’s shy and quiet, and others he is wacky and wild! (Sometimes a personality type I see in myself!)
My dogs inspire me to get outside every day. They have a lot of energy, and they love hitting the trails. If I ever hike without my dogs, I feel like I’m missing a limb!
PA: Have you hiked outside of the Northeast? Where are some of the places you've visited?
HD: When I was 19, my two best friends and I took a road trip to Los Angeles, and along the way we stopped and did short hikes at Red Rocks, the Grand Canyon, Valley of Fire, Muir Woods, and outside of L.A.
PA: What are you aspirations? What do you hope to accomplish during the course of your life?
HD: Wherever the future takes me, I aspire to always have the opportunity to give back and support the causes I care about.
PA: What is your favorite hike, outdoor location, or region? Why?
Plateau holds a special place in my heart because it was the first time I actually felt like a true hiker. The Devil’s Path was one of my first backpacking experiences. My first attempt was in winter 2014, and it was one of the most challenging hikes of my life. Due to limited daylight, wet socks (even my spare pair), and a too-heavy pack, we had to bail after Sugarloaf Mountain.
In summer 2015, I returned to the Devil’s Path determined to complete it. By the time I reached Plateau Mountain, I was exhausted but elated. I hadn’t been crushed by Indian Head, Twin, and Sugarloaf. The two-mile stretch of trail hiking at elevation allowed me to recharge, recover, and complete the rest of the Devil’s Path. Experiencing those highs and lows and not being defeated by them, made me feel like I was a real hiker.
When I think of Slide Mountain, it feels like my home away from home. In the summer of 2017, I volunteered as a summit steward for the Trail Conference. I would sit on the summit of Slide for entire weekends talking with hikers about their adventures and best practices for protecting their favorite forever wild lands. Sometimes I would be alone for hours on end, enjoying the feeling of literally being in a cloud or the mist of the rain, or have to sprint down the trail from the threat of thunder.
And other times, I would have the company of my boyfriend (who also worked as a steward), and we would chat with hiker after hiker, group after group, about their plans for their day and where they would be hiking or camping. Some weekends Connor would be assigned to be at Giant Ledge, and we would hike down each night to camp together. Holiday weekends meant hiking up and down Slide three times. I’ve probably hiked that trail about two dozen times, and I still love every step of that hike.
PA: What is your most memorable trail experience?
HD: There are too many memories to choose from!
My favorite experiences include hiking Mount Marcy, part of the Cranberry Lake 50, Devil’s Path, and whenever I have the chance to volunteer with a trail building crew. There’s something so humbling about building a trail that’s going to be there for the next generation to enjoy and explore.
Visit www.nynjtc.com for more information about the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.
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