Watoga Trail Report

Nancy Harris spruces up the signage along the Greenbrier River Trail in Marlinton. Photo courtesy of Sam Felton

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

A Legend in her own time
The overdue acknowledgment 

Some stories just need to be told – the author of all that is good calls out for it. It is easy in these days of turmoil to start believing that the world has only greed and corruption to offer.

The pause in our lives caused by this pandemic can be an opportunity for reflection. A time to look beyond those who proffer only darkness and pain, and focus on those who are the very best among us. Those who prefer giving over disruption, creation instead of destruction.

And just to be clear, when we are talking about volunteer workers, we are referring to people who give of their time and energy for no monetary compensation. For most volunteers, compensation comes in a myriad of forms, not the least of which is a sentiment that is often heard, “I just want to give back something.” 

That statement means different things to different people, but it speaks to something that is rarely demonstrated – gratitude. 

One of the volunteer trail workers at Watoga told me that he was grateful for a life well-lived, for his wife and family. He admitted that it wasn’t always easy, but he can always bring to mind someone who is worse off. 

This same man did overseas tours with the military, including Vietnam and Iraq; and he knew personal tragedy, yet he still found room for gratitude and time to “give back.”

Anonymous financial donors are not unheard of in the world of worthy causes, but publicity-shy volunteers are out there, as well. One such tireless volunteer has been seen performing near-daily maintenance on the Greenbrier River Trail for at least five years now, and yet few know her name.

It has been my experience that people of her caliber only wish to improve their world; often shunning the spotlight as they do so.

I first heard about Nancy Harris from Jody Spencer, superintendent of Watoga State Park. Shortly after the Watoga State Park Foundation was formed, Jody told me about this woman that he would see on the trail nearly every time he went out.

He said that she had an array of cleaning equipment strapped to her bike and was voluntarily cleaning the restrooms along the 78 miles of the Greenbrier River Trail. As it turned out, Nancy was just getting started and this service to the trail and its users would greatly expand over the next few years.

Although modest and shy, Nancy possesses the grace to allow her friends to acknowledge her for her dedication to the GRT and to let her know how much we value her.     

What follows is how one admiring friend of Nancy describes her contributions to maintaining one of the finest bike trails in the country.

She refers to Nancy as “The living legend of the Greenbrier River Trail.”

“Known to other trail users as ‘that woman you always see riding her bike,’ Nancy Harris averages 50 miles per day, five or more days a week. In retirement she has become the trail’s most devoted volunteer, helping maintain the 78-mile former railroad corridor, now a unit of the West Virginia state park system.

“Adjacent to the Greenbrier River, the trail passes through spectacular pastoral and woodland scenery, and Nancy’s knowledge of current GRT conditions and recreational opportunities are unmatched! 

“2018 was the rainiest year in West Virginia’s history, resulting in a landslide and several washouts of the GRT’s gravel surface. Nancy was one of the first people on the trail to identify where sections had become impassable. In frequent contact with state park employees responsible for the trail, she learned that the state did not have staff or funds to repair the damaged areas.

“Nancy immediately took the initiative, leading efforts to utilize GRTA funds to hire local contractors to quickly make repairs. In addition, the ongoing rains saturated the ground, causing dozens of large trees to fall across the trail from adjacent slopes. Utilizing hand tools, Nancy not only cleared several herself, but she also enlisted the aid of other volunteers to re-open these blocked areas for public use. 

Nancy’s volunteer activities in 2018 kept the GRT open for thousands pursuing healthy lifestyles: hikers, bicyclists, people in wheelchairs, toddlers in strollers, birdwatchers, runners, fishermen and swimmers. In addition to use by area residents, the GRT has become a destination for long-distance rail-trail enthusiasts and serious athletes who come to train and/or participate in competitive events.

“Without a doubt, Nancy continues to be a ‘hands-on’ volunteer for the GRT. Every week, she cleans two public restrooms on the trail, carrying all supplies on her bike. She will routinely cut and drag tree limbs from a tree, freshly fallen across the trail, creating an opening for people to get through until she can return with proper tools and other volunteers or park employees to clear the entire trail surface. Her ongoing involvement is an inspiration to others.

“Nancy’s positive, can-do approach certainly made a difference in 2018. In addition to trail repairs and ongoing maintenance, she was directly involved with planning, securing funds to purchase materials and helping construct two new shelters at mileposts 9.5 and 28.5, increasing opportunities for overnight trail use, as well as providing emergency shelter for people caught unprepared in severe storms. The GRT community has its trail back – repaired from major storm damage, and with two new shelters available, because of what Nancy did in 2018.

“Because of her incredible first-hand knowledge of the trail, Nancy is an invaluable board member with the Greenbrier River Trail Association (GRTA), a nonprofit organization that promotes the multi-purpose use of the Trail, and assists the West Virginia state park agency by raising funds for trail maintenance and facility enhancements. In that capacity, she has helped with grant writing applications, seeking cost estimates from contractors, and obtaining cash donations from private individuals.

“Nancy’s love of the GRT is contagious – her willingness to talk with folks along the trail, learning of their interests, answering questions – often leads to new volunteers among those she has befriended. She has built an informal network of people willing to help by donating time and/or money.

“The respect and trust Nancy has established with state park employees have strengthened that critical public/private partnership. Nancy is a true ambassador, building community support with her ongoing volunteer efforts for the Greenbrier River Trail. Her recent accomplishments only add to her considerable reputation: when Nancy commits, she delivers!” *

I met with Sam Parker of Droop Mountain State Park recently and he offered the following anecdote about Nancy.

“Nancy brings so much to the table in regard to the maintenance of the bike trail,” Sam said. “Her work is impeccable, she was using a toothbrush on a recent project to clean the routed-out letters and numbers before painting the signs and kiosks.

“She also has the ability to spearhead projects and get other volunteers to help. Case in point: just last week she and several other volunteers went out on the trail and painted three bathrooms. Nancy is such a great asset to the Greenbrier River Trail and the park system.” 

Nancy was a winner of the 2019 Governor’s Service Award for outstanding service to the Greenbrier River Trail.

So, the next time that you are out on the Greenbrier River Trail and you see a smiling woman riding a bike laden with tools, flag her down and let her know how much you appreciate what she does to ensure that we enjoy to the utmost our incomparable trail along the Greenbrier River.

Ken Springer

*This edition of the Watoga Trail Report would not have been possible without the finely chosen and heartfelt words of Lorrie Sprague. Thank you, Lorrie.

Thanks also to Jody Spencer and Sam Parker.

more recommended stories