Howard McDonald Left Lasting Legacy on WNC Trails

With the onset of autumn in Western North Carolina, our mountains will soon enough be missing their vibrant foliage. So, too, will they be missing Howard McDonald.

Few individuals have had such an astonishing impact on WNC’s trails as did Howard McDonald. If you have taken a hike on the Appalachian Trail, walked a path alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway, or climbed to the top of Bearwallow Mountain, he had an impact on you, too.

Howard passed away late last month at the age of 89, but not before leaving our region with a lasting legacy that will better enables us — and generations to come — opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

I first met Howard in 2010 during the construction of the Bearwallow Mountain Trail. Howard was a member of the Friday Trail Crew from the volunteer-based Carolina Mountain Club (CMC). The CMC partnered with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) to construct what was then the first segment of the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail network.

Despite being in his mid-80s, Howard was not deterred by obstacles like steep slopes and frozen ground. Rather in spite of them, his work was of the highest quality — he built good trail that was both functional and attractive.

In the years since, Howard not only taught me much about constructing sustainable trails — paths that last forever if you build them right — he became a role model. He loved his family, he loved the outdoors, and he loved to work hard. And he left this region a better place than when he arrived. He will always be a hero to many, including me.

Born in 1926, Howard was a fourth generation Californian. Growing up, he was especially proud of how his father scrapped to keep a roof over the heads of his family through the Great Depression.

“In my father’s case, it was literally just a roof,” according to John McDonald, Howard’s son. “The house was so small that he and his older brother slept out on the porch.”

Howard developed an interest in ceramics in high school, and following service in World War II in both the European and Pacific campaigns, pursued its study at the University of Washington. There, he earned both his bachelors and master’s degrees in ceramic engineering.

After college he worked for Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane, where he invented a ceramic filter that enabled production of higher quality aluminum.

“Beer and soda cans used to be a lot thicker,” said McDonald. “His filter is a reason why they’re so thin nowadays.” Howard held four patents for the filter.

His career as a ceramic engineer brought him to Hendersonville with the Selee Corporation in 1981. As they did in Washington, Howard and his wife, Josephine, enjoyed hiking among the mountains. They fell in love with the region and decided to remain here after retirement.

Sadly, in 1991, Josephine died of ovarian cancer, devastating Howard.

“Our family was worried that he would become lonely and hide away,” said McDonald. “But then he threw himself into the Carolina Mountain Club. It became his second family”

Howard joined the CMC in 1992 and quickly got involved in trail maintenance and construction. The club maintains 93 miles of the venerable Appalachian Trail (AT). It has also built — and now maintains — 130 miles of the Mountains-To-Sea Trail.

As he did during a career as an engineer, Howard put the work ethic instilled in him by his father into the trails.

“Trail work combined his love of the outdoors and his love of hard work,” said his son.

According to Skip Sheldon, leader of CMC’s Friday Trail Crew with whom Howard most frequently worked, it also incorporated his passion for creating.

“Howard liked to build stuff,” he said. “He always had ambition and energy for any project.”

A skilled woodworker in addition to an engineer, Howard’s talent and passion were even better harnessed by the CMC when it appointed him to the position of “trails facilities manager.” It was a role that he embraced, fervently serving in it for more than a decade.

Howard’s contributions to trails became increasingly practical to those who hiked and camped among them. He led an effort to install bear cables at all 10 trail shelters along CMC’s section of the Appalachian Trail. These devices gave backpackers the ability to safely hang their food high out of reach of animals.

Implementing a new design for privies — or outhouses — at each of the shelters was another of Howard’s practical improvements for the AT. His effort to construct “moldering” privies better enabled human waste to decompose into soil, making the structures more sustainable and reducing the frequency that they need to be moved or replaced.

“He built bridges, too,” said Sheldon. “We used to make them with one or two logs. Howard started building them with three logs, and then he installed hand rails. That makes them much safer for hikers to cross streams. They’re more attractive, too.”

Howard’s contribution of which he was most proud was the construction of the Roaring Fork Shelter, a new three-sided lean-to on the Appalachian Trail near Max Patch.

Fellow crew members were not only impressed with the quality design of Howard’s shelter, but also at his ingenuity at devising a method to lower the thousand-pound logs several hundred feet down the mountainside — all while leaving no trace on the steep slope.

“Whenever there was a problem, Howard would get on it and figure out a solution. He loved a challenge,” said Sheldon.

Howard’s solution to transport the logs was a contraption made of several garden carts tied together, lowered with the aid of a rock-climbing rope. And while gravity aided the logs’ descent, the problem of retrieving the heavy makeshift cart was solved by tying the rope to the bumper of a truck and driving away.

“We did 47 loads on the cart, rebuilding it at least three times in the process. It took us two years,” recalled Sheldon. Howard, with the help of CMC volunteers and Appalachian Trail Conservancy, then spent nearly another year constructing the shelter.

I was honored to build more trails with Howard in recent years, including the Florence Nature Preserve Access Trail and the new Trombatore Trail, two more segments of CMLC’s Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail. One of his final projects was the construction of a wooden stile, a stepladder that enables hikers to safely cross over a barbed wire fence.

All in all, Howard donated more than 8,400 hours of service to WNC’s mountains across three decades — all so that each of us may continue to better experience them.

Said Sheldon, “What he loved the most was to do work where he could put his hands on it and know that it would be there after he was gone.”

While Howard McDonald may be gone, his impact certainly is not. Let’s honor and thank him by going for a walk on the trails — and cherish what he left for us.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.

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