Editor, Montgomery County News
Over 30 people made the trek to the top of Suck Mountain Friday, April 21 for the dedication of the Ouachita National Recreation Trail Shelter System.
The shelter system is comprised of 12 shelters built by the Friends of the Ouachita Trail (FOoT) in partnership with the United States Forest Service. FOoT President Bo Lea thanked a host of volunteers and forest service employees who were a part of the project. Rain threatened to ruin the dedication service, but they were able to complete the ceremony before the rain came.
The shower gave those in attendance an opportunity to see firsthand just how well the shelter offers protection from the elements, with everyone gathering underneath the shelter as the rain came down.
The project began with a cold overnight stay at a trail shelter on the Appalachian Trail according to retired Forest Ranger John Archer. He recounted an overnight stay in a shelter while participating on a Boy Scout hike as the seed for the Ouachita Trail Shelter Project.
The shelters seemed to always be a part of his life after moving into a career with the forestry service. As the years went by he gathered building plans and incorporated them into his own shelter project. The opportunity to bring his plan to fruition was realized when he moved to Jessieville and went to work in the Ouachita National Forest. He saw a need for a series of shelters on the Ouachita Trail and reached out to fellow ranger Tom Ledbetter for help.
Ledbetter gives all the credit to Archer who he sees as a visionary in the forest service. He shared how Archer had asked a college student who was working with them on the project to draw up some designs for structures and landscaping. Over the years they have been able to utilize these plans on projects. The first nine shelters were built in the 1990s and were a learning experience.
They sited that the first few shelters were built as they went with little planning. Eventually an engineer was involved and they were able to complete the initial project. With 265 miles of trail winding their way through the Ouachita National Forest from Oklahoma into Central Arkansas there was still a huge need for shelters along the trail.
The Forest Service partnered with the Friends of the Ouachita Trail (FOoT) in an effort to build a dozen new shelters along the western arm of the trail. The project began in 2013 and FOoT president Bo Lea stated that he expected the project to take between 10-12 years to complete. Due to the hard work of FOoT members, the Forest Service and a host of volunteers the project was completed in three years.
The project began with the Foran Gap Shelter in March 2013, taking about four and a half days to complete once they started construction. From there they built four along the trail in Oklahoma. Lea stated that Robert Cavanaugh was able to obtain a grant covering the cost of the four shelters in Oklahoma. They had two years to build the structures so they set to work.
Cavanaugh remarked that he didn’t see how they would finish two in two years, much less four. He added that the worst that would happen was they would have to return some of the grant money.
By the end of 2013 four shelters had been completed with three more completed in 2014. The final shelter was completed on Suck Mountain in November 2016. Norm Brumm was one of many volunteers Lea thanked. Norm served as the construction lead for the project. He also recognized Ron Mayfield who worked every day on all 12 projects.
Cavanaugh attributed a lot of the success of the project to Bo Lea and his wife Brenda. Lea became president of FOoT just as the project was getting starting and was a key player in the quick completion of the project. Lea also thanked Ranger Ronald Collins for his help with the project. Collins cleared paths to many of the shelter sites. He also thanked Tim Oosterhous and the rest of the Mena/Oden Ranger District for their help in the project.
Lea announced that the entire project was completed without one hour lost due to a work related injury. He thanked the forest service for their help in fostering a safe work environment at each construction site.
Norm Wagoner, the Ouachita National Forest Supervisor was also on hand to thank everyone for their hard work. With the completion of the current shelter project you can now traverse the entire length of the trail without a tent. Shelters are located about 10 miles apart on average.
Each shelter provides a raised floor to sleep on, a picnic table and a fire ring. The visitor log at the Suck Mountain Shelter records a variety of stories from people who have stayed since its completion in November of last year.
Lea stated that with the completion of the shelter project they will be able to focus more time on trail maintenance. They have recently officially adopted the Womble Trail as well so there will be plenty of work to do.
If you are interested in the work FOoT does on the Ouachita Trail and the Womble Trail you can check them out on Facebook, or online at http://newfriendsot.org.