Many of the Chattanooga area's hiking and mountain bike trails became beaten paths in a different sense on April 27, and the damage continued after that day of tornadoes and other vicious storms.
As Wild Trails executive director Randy Whorton pointed out recently, the storms of late April felled numerous trees throughout the area's forests as well as in residential areas, but they also "wounded" a bunch that went down during subsequent lesser storms and gusting winds.
Helping people whose homes were hit or blocked by fallen trees was the immediate priority for Whorton and his band of certified chainsaw handlers, but they eventually turned to clearing the trails. A similar responsibility fell to Noel Durant, the land manager for the Lula Lake Land Trust, which oversees one of the most beautiful wilderness sites in the area -- and one of those most affected by the storms.
"The hardest hit sections were Lula Lake, the Cumberland Trail from Edwards Point on Signal Mountain to Mushroom Rock -- that just got pummeled -- and the lower north slopes of Lookout Mountain," Whorton said. "And a good section of Stringers Ridge got hurt pretty bad.
"We had some sections where we couldn't figure out where all the trees went, but we also had areas where trees were stacked on top of each other 15 to 18 feet high."
The combination damage in the forests created dangerous conditions, and the clearing work was further hampered by the limited access. The experienced chainsaw operators go ahead of the rest of the volunteer workers and cut the trees into sections that can be maneuvered off the trail. There have been cases, though, in which trails were rerouted around trees and their massive root balls, Whorton said.
Durant said most of the heavy clearing has been done.
"The Lula Lake core property, including the lake and falls, had about 60-70 trees down," he said, "but the heaviest damage for us was in the conservation easement just to the south. All the trails were wiped out. We found debris all the way from Meridian, Mississippi."
Whorton acknowledged the sadness of the trail damage but noted a bright side.
"What was a dense canopy of trees in some places allowed minimal sunlight, and now it's full sun and you see for a mile instead of maybe 30 yards," he said. "At least for a number of years, some species of plants can thrive there that normally would not have a chance."
As with much of the post-storm help in non-wilderness areas, another positive aspect has been the willing work of volunteers. A Wild Trails group has been going out from about 4 to 7 p.m. every Thursday, and at least once a month a big group hits the trails to work.
"There's groups out all over the area," said Whorton, who praised Durant, Lance Steel and Jarrett Kinder in particular for frequent trail-clearing service.
The Chattanooga Hiking Club and the SORBA mountain bike group also have provided help, and the Cumberland Trail Conference and National Park Service "have been fantastic," Whorton said.
"And with everybody, it's been 100 percent volunteer work," he added. "The only money Wild Trails has spent has been for maintenance of some equipment. We probably haven't spent $100.
"But there's still a lot to do.