Arriving at the Albert Pike Recreation Area, one of the first things I notice is the abandoned campground along Arkansas Highway 369. Geysers of green—plant life in its dizzying array of forms—well up from the ground to jostle for sunlight. Head-high weeds obscure benches, picnic tables and boarded-up restroom facilities. Since a tragic flash flood in 2010 that took the lives of 20 campers, the Forest Service has closed the campground to overnight use. The site’s present state shows what happens when something, even a “natural” area, is not regularly maintained.
The adjacent day-use area and its hiking trails are open, but the same sort of wildness now taking over the campground must be kept at bay. After all, people come to hike, not hack, through the Ouachita National Forest. Thanks to volunteers like Mark Davis, who lives in nearby Mount Ida, hikers can do so.
In the parking area, Mark exits his white four-wheel-drive pickup to greet me. A fit-looking 56-year-old with short hair and a heavily salted goatee, he looks the part of a hiker as he puts his arms through the straps of an Osprey backpack, cinching it against his Columbia Sportswear T-shirt.
For a day hike, he recommends the Little Missouri Trail, named for the river it parallels, as one of the most popular and scenic. It is one of several hiking circuits that form the Eagle Rock Loop in the southern Ouachita range, some 50 miles west of Hot Springs. We make our way to the trailhead and start down it.
“This needs to go,” he says, retrieving a piece of litter someone left behind. “My wife and I maintain this trail from the trailhead down to the winding stairs.”
That makes for about 3.5 miles of trail. In addition to litter removal, the work involves clearing forest undergrowth from the trail—“keeping a little corridor here through the brush and briars,” Mark explains. “We usually maintain late in the winter. And then we will come back after the first frost and brush everything again.”
Self-employed, Mark works part time in construction, taking on small remodeling jobs. A longtime avid hiker, he first got involved in trail work a decade ago on the Buffalo River Trail with Wilderness Volunteers, a nonprofit group that organizes “adventure service trips” on public lands.
Mark was initially motivated by curiosity about the trail-building process and the chance to meet others with a love of the outdoors. He subsequently worked projects with other groups, such as the Ozark Society and Friends of the Ouachita Trail, while building a circle of friends (including his future wife, Donita) through the BackpackingArkansas.com forum.
“We just kind of started organizing trail maintenance on the Eagle Rock Loop and Caney Creek Wilderness trails,” Mark says. “And we used the forum as our vehicle to get volunteers.” When prior volunteer leader Tom Trigg moved to the Delta region, Mark took over for him.
“Usually, after a day of trail work, you’re pretty well worn out,” Mark says. “You might only cover a couple of miles in a day, but the amount of energy it takes is way more than just hiking or backpacking. It’s always a nice feeling to know you left a section of trail better than you found it and that your work is going to make for a better hiking experience for others. A lot of people stop and converse with you as you’re working, and most let you know how much they appreciate your efforts, so that adds to the satisfaction.”
He tells me the Little Missouri Trail we are on was built in the 1980s by the U.S. Forest Service and the Youth Conservation Corps. The Forest Service classifies the path as a “more difficult” trail: unsurfaced, with elevation changes and water crossings. It doesn’t take Mark and me long to get our feet wet fording a narrow, rushing creek. Soon we’re in deep woods. I ask him if the bulk of maintenance work on these trails is done by volunteers.
He nods. “The Forest Service, they’ve lost so much funding, they really don’t have the resources to maintain, really, any of the trails … over the whole state.”
“I probably spend close to a month, throughout the year, doing trail maintenance,” he adds.
Regular volunteering has given Mark a sense of stewardship of the trail that mere recreation-seekers might not experience. When we encounter a fallen tree blocking our way, Mark stops to survey the scene. Tree removal is beyond his maintenance duties. The Forest Service has chainsaw gangs, but unsure when one might be sent, Mark ponders a re-routing of the trail. He points out a potential path around the obstruction as a future project. For the time being, we get low to the ground and pass under the tree.
With it being late summer, it’s not peak hiking season, though we do encounter a few other small groups. The forest is steamy and buggy, and I can tell I’m slowing Mark down as the trail ascends. But soon, we are rewarded with beautiful views of the Little Missouri below us, the water shallow and clear. The pebble-strewn riverbed shows through like a tile floor.
As we continue hiking, the trail descends to river level and curves around to the “winding stairs,” a spot famous for the large rock formations standing along the riverside. It’s a popular place for relaxing and swimming—a reward for the hiker to reach it.
With public funds short, the relatively easy access to such isolated places that trails provide depends on a partnership between Mother Nature, professionals of the Forest Service and, critically, volunteers like Mark. On the hike back, shortly before we reach the parking area, he spots a large piece of tarp jammed onto a tree branch. He frees it and carries it with us the rest of the way, stuffing it into one of the trash receptacles at the trailhead. As we part ways, he removes his pack and drives off. For Mark, today was just a quick, easy jaunt to show a reporter around. Before long, however, he’ll be back to do some real work.