SURF CITY – The annual membership meeting for the nonprofit volunteer group that supports the 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail and a planned weekend of excursions are expected lure to the area this spring hundreds of visitors from across North Carolina.
Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail announced that registration is open for the 2019 MST Gathering March 22-24.
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is a footpath from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks. The trail, according to the MST Friends, represents a partnership involving local communities and trail groups, land trusts, federal and state land agencies, private landowners, the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation and the Friends. The trail is part of the state parks system, but segments of it are managed by different agencies and local governments.
The Friends’ mission includes trail building and maintenance, promotion of the use and care of the trail and providing information such as printed trail guides, trail improvements, advocacy and fundraising. The event is planned as a mix of showcasing for the first time coastal segments of the trail and the historic and natural attractions here, promoting the trails and the Friends’ organization, and providing help for the community.
Betsy Brown is the outreach manager for the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. She said this will be the third year of the organization hosting a weekend-long gathering, but the first in a coastal setting. The first two events, including the kickoff for the trail’s 40th anniversary celebration in March 2017, were held in Elkin, which Brown described as “a great example of a trail town.” The celebration’s success, drawing 350 Friends that first year, sparked the idea of an annual gathering.
“We realized it was a really great way to show the trail off to our membership,” Brown said.
In Pender County, the trail route crosses what the Friends call “special places,” such as Moores Creek National Battlefield, the Holly Shelter Game Land and the beach attractions in Surf City.
The event, however, is more than just a showcase for the roughly 270-mile Coastal Crescent Trail, which was designated as part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail by the North Carolina General Assembly in a unanimous vote in June 2017, it’s also an opportunity for the Friends to serve. Because of the timing of event, amid the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Florence, organizers said they have an opportunity to be “purposeful partners in the rebuilding of our trail communities.”
Brown said the group was still putting together plans for service excursions during which attendees can work to repair or improve segments of the trail, such as those at Moores Creek Battlefield, or other nearby areas. There could be as many as 30 to 40 sawyers arriving for the event to clear the trails and help with whatever is needed, she said.
“Our trail workers love working on the trail, but they just want to be helpful,” Brown said.
Pender County was selected from a dozen communities across the state who responded to a request for proposals to host the event. Brown said site visits helped narrow the choices.
“The Surf City-Pender County area was the right place this time around,” she said, adding that much work had gone into developing trails in the eastern part of the state, both the long-planned Neuse River segments and the more recently realized Coastal Crescent Trail, which traverses the southeastern part of the state. She said that for more than 40 years, the trail was envisioned as a route along the Neuse River, until 2017 when the General Assembly agreed to add the Coastal Crescent Trail.
– Betsy Brown, Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
– Betsy Brown, Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail
“It’s on an equal standing with Neuse River route,” Brown said. “The timing (of this year’s gathering) was perfect to bring as many folks as we can to the coast and showcase what makes this area so beautiful and special.”
She added that hikers who have walked the entire trail from the mountains to the coast often become emotional when they reach the crest of the dunes. “We’ve had so many hikers who have just burst into tears when they see the ocean. They’re really moved by it.”
Tammy Proctor, tourism director for Pender County, said the site selection for this year’s event was important in various ways.
“It means a lot to us that they selected us,” she said. “It shows we have a lot to offer. We view the trail, the Coastal Crescent segment, as an economic development driver. This is the first time that the gathering has been on the coast, so we’re real excited about the folks that will come to the coast, instead of the mountains.”
Proctor said that the Friends’ desire to help rebuild trails and offer other help was also significant for the community.
“We have a lot of folks who love the trail but haven’t built a trail before,” she said. “The fact that they are coming in to build and rebuild and train, they are offering us a lot in return.”
Proctor noted that the coastal trail may also offer more for trail enthusiasts of all abilities. She said some of the more challenging trails in the mountains are better suited to “billy goats” and climbers rather than walkers, whereas in Pender County, “The Surf City bridge is probably the only elevation they’ll see.”
But the attractions here are worth seeing and several are planned excursions during the event, including the Friday, March 22, reception at the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, where members are to meet Director Jean Beasley and learn about the center’s work to protect, rescue and rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtles, educate the public about the plight of sea turtles and meet a few turtle patients.
Also, a portion of Coastal Crescent Trail is called the Land of History, which winds through the Moores Creek Battlefield, the only national park in southeastern North Carolina.
And visitors can choose to paddle parts of the trail, either on kayaks or stand-up paddleboards, she added.
“We have so many natural resources that you can take advantage of,” Proctor said.
The Friends announced their selection during the Pender County Board of Commissioners’ meeting in May. Hurricane Florence slammed the coast in September. In Surf City, about three-quarters of homes were damaged in some way and the town hall was destroyed.
The Friends coordinated with county officials after the fall storms to be sure the community was still able to host the event.
Proctor said the state of local accommodations had improved since the storms and several were ready to open immediately afterward.
“We’ve got the accommodations,” she said, adding that bed and breakfast inns as well as hotels and motels are open. “It’s not what we would have had last year at this time, but a lot of folks like to camp, and we have some excellent campgrounds on the Intracoastal Waterway.”
The Friends’ annual meeting is set for 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, March 23, and is to include reports on progress to build, maintain and promote the MST, various workshops and recognition of hikers who have completed the trail and outstanding volunteers. Walker Golder, director of the National Audubon Society’s Atlantic Flyway Coast Initiative, is the planned keynote speaker.
Also, at sunset that day, the Friends plan to hike as a group over the new bridge to Surf City.
At 9 a.m. Sunday, March 24, a guided hike in Holly Shelter with the Coastal Plain Conservation Group’s Andy Wood, who has spent decades working to protect rare and imperiled plants, is planned that will highlight the transformation after a devastating peat fire in 2006 and explore the longleaf pine savannah.
Other events include the following:
- Guided hikes in Stone’s Creek with lead volunteers that work in that area.
- A hike on the beach section of the MST with the 2018 class of trail “completers.”
- Demonstrations on how to build a bowstring bridge with lead volunteers from Onslow County and how to do geographic information system mapping with Surf City’s GIS technician Mike Dickson.
- A journey along Topsail Island with Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin as he shares the island’s history.
- A paddle along the Intracoastal Waterway with guide George Howard.
Also, members are to work with Surf City Parks and Recreation staff to build a kiosk and trailhead for a trail at the town’s community center and help with a beach sweep cleanup.
Most of the excursions require pre-registration but all are included in the registration fee, except the Intracoastal Waterway paddling trip.
The Gathering is a membership event, Brown noted, but new members are welcome. Membership fees start at $35 and the weekend event fee is $75 with additional, lesser fees for spouses and children.
Front page featured photo: Danielle Marple/Friends of the MST