WALDEN'S RIDGE-Leah Turner took off her gloves and flexed her fingers in the cold, damp air.
"My hands are sore," she said with a grin. "This is a lot harder than I expected."
Building a segment of the Cumberland Trail sounded glamorous on the alternative spring break list at their colleges, said Turner and other students. They worked last week in sprinkling rain and sleet atop Walden's Ridge between Soddy-Daisy and Dunlap, Tenn.
For a month every February and March, college students from all over the country come to East Tennessee for a week to blaze a trail. This year the work began Feb. 27 and will end March 26.
Last week, Turner and 71 other students from five Midwestern universities and about 11 adult volunteers dug, leveled and cleared a little more than a mile of trail - rock by grueling rock.
The segment will connect two already-finished portions of what eventually will be a 300-mile trail from Signal Point to the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line. About 170 miles are complete, but not all sections are contiguous.
"As hard as it is, I'd sign up again," said Turner, a junior nursing student from the University of Pittsburgh. "I like this project because I feel like I'm leaving a lasting impact."
The students get food and lodging at the Dogwood Lodge church camp near Soddy-Daisy. The cost to the Cumberland Trail Conference for housing and feeding the students is paid by grants. The conference is a nonprofit group that builds and maintains the Cumberland Trail, which is the backbone of Tennessee's Cumberland Trail State Park.
"This is our busiest week of the year, when most of the schools' spring breaks occur," said Marleya Pendleton, the conference's office manager and grant writer.
The students build trail on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. They have Wednesday off to rest and see the sights, Hook said.
Some students will get college credits for service learning, but most are just volunteering.
Last week, Cumberland Trail Conference Director Tony Hook and Gary Darnell, an adult volunteer and conference board member, showed University of Pittsburgh students Anna Coleman and Hannah Feroce how to slope the newly dug trail to help water drain away from the footpath.
Coleman and Feroce considered several options for their spring break.
"I picked here because I'd never been to Tennessee and I wanted to see it," said Feroce, a freshman who is studying to become a speech pathologist.
"The work is harder that I expected, but there's nice scenery, so that makes up for it," said Coleman, who is studying to be a linguist.
Pitt senior and English major Keith Gillogly, of Buffalo, N.Y., said this is his third working spring break. In the first two, he volunteered to help build Habitat for Humanity homes in New Jersey and Georgia.
"Volunteering is more fun than the beach, and you meet a lot of great people and gain a heck of an appreciation for hard work and labor. I never really realized the work that goes into making a trail. It's all handmade," Gillogly said.