As leadership ages, Mountain Club of Maryland looking for new trailblazers

Reuben Dagold wasn't sure what he was going to do when he retired as a bureau director of the Baltimore City Health Department 11 years ago at age 62. He knew one thing.

"I told myself that I wasn't going to take on any responsibility," Dagold recalled.

The day after he retired, Dagold joined a group from the Mountain Club of Maryland for a hike through Washington Monument State Park. He had not hiked since he was a high school student at Poly, when two teachers had organized a moonlight hike.

That memory served as Dagold's inspiration nearly a half-century later. He wound up joining the Mountain Club of Maryland, the state's oldest hiking and outdoors organization. But his initial intention not to get too involved did not last. Dagold has served in a number of capacities and is now the club's president.

Therein lies the problem.

As Dagold and some of the club's most active members age, there is concern among its members that a club that predates the opening of the Appalachian Trail by three years — the Mountain Club of Maryland was formed in 1934 — might not be around forever. It needs an infusion of younger members to step into leadership roles.

"It's been a concern ever since I've been in the club," Dan McQueen of Columbia, a member for 16 years, said as he and a small group led by Dagold started an eight-mile trek through a portion of the Appalachian Trail near Myersville on Wednesday.

McQueen, 73, hopes things will turn around, as they have before.

"Somehow we always seem to survive," he said. "We go through periods of decline, and then we come back again. Something happens to reinvigorate the club."

This issue is not uncommon, say many involved in hiking, since it is usually retirees who have more time to help organize and lead hikes, as well as getting involved in other activities such as the upkeep and monitoring of national parkland.

Hiking in general was on the decline when the millenium began, as happened to other outdoor activities and sports such as golf and tennis. But according to Laurie Potteiger, information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conservatory, a 2009 documentary by National Geographic on the nearly 2,200-mile trail that runs from Maine to Georgia sparked an interest.

Between 2 million and 3 million people walked parts of the Appalachian Trail last year, Potteiger said, with "500 to 600" completing the entire length.

But Potteiger said clubs such as the Mountain Club of Maryland are facing the challenge of finding new members, and methods used to find them.

"I think that's a phenomenom that's occurred, and clubs have to change their strategy and recruitment methods," Potteiger said. "They have to be targeted to younger members of things such as Facebook."

Dagold acknowledges that while his organization has its own Web page, it hasn't figured out how to reach out through social media outlets such as Facebook or even Twitter. Dagold said that while the membership of around 800 is diverse, "most of those who organize hikes and other activities are in their 60s." The club's oldest member, 95-year-old Thurston Griggs, received recognition earlier this year from the National Park Service for 50 years volunteering his services.

Then there's Paul Ives. A member for more than 40 years, Ives is 85 and stopped hiking about three years ago "when my legs couldn't do it anymore". But Ives is still involved as the club's trail supervisor who makes sure the places where the club is hiking are well-kept. He was scheduled Saturday to be part of a cleanup of the Appalachian Trail portion that runs for 40 miles, the last 30 in Pennsylvania.

"We're all holding our breath to see what Hurricane Irene did," Ives said.

Ives said he joined the club at a time when new members needed a sponsor just to go on a hike, but as time went on, the rules were more relaxed. Given the competition these days from other outdoor activities and sports such as bouldering and orienteering, the Mountain Club of Maryland will take its members wherever it can find them.

Robert Bunch, 41, joined the club three years ago when he and his wife, a physician at Johns Hopkins, moved to Baltimore from Edinburgh, Scotland. Bunch, who builds databases for companies throughout the world, said he hasn't taken on a leadership role other than monitoring on the Appalachian Trail because he likes to keep his weekends free for his wife. He typically joins the Wednesday hike.

"It's the most social group we have; the Saturday group tends to be a little more hard-core," he said.

Through the friendships he has made, Bunch has done other activities, including a 320-mile bike ride this summer in Colorado with McQueen.

Kevin Deckard, a retired CPA from Reston, Va., recently joined the club despite belonging to several others in Northern Virginia, mainly because it offered weekday hikes. The Mountain Club general offers three hikes on Wednesdays, typically a fairly rigorous hike such as the eight-mile jaunt in Frederick County last week as well as shorter hikes in Baltimore County and Howard County.

Deckard, 57, said he has been hiking "since I was a child" but gets more of it these days.

"I think I've learned to appreciate the nature aspects more," Deckard said. "When I was younger, it was just a matter of seeing how fast I could do things."

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