SHINING ROCK WILDERNESS, N.C. - The young, athletic hiker dashed along a trail here when he spotted what looked like two U.S. Forest Service rangers.

In fact, Tom Bindrim and his wife Joan Lemire, were not rangers, but uniformed volunteers who help the rangers keep order in these scenic 18,000 acres just off the Blue Ridge parkway.

Bindrim said this hiker was typical of many of the people they encounter up here.

"He was booking it. He was a jock - that's the only word you could use," Bindrim said. "We waved at him. He pointed ahead and said, 'This way to Cold Mountain?' and we said, 'No it's not! You're going 180 degrees wrong!'"

"Boy, did he deflate in a heartbeat."

"He came to a full stop," Lemire added.

For two decades, the retired couple has spent countless days crisscrossing these mountains, gaps and knobs to greet people, remind them of the rules and even trim weeds along the trail. But most of the time, they find themselves giving directions.

Bindrim talks about hikers the way that Yogi Berra might: "Many of them think they're somewhere, but they're not."

'We'd be lost without them'

Bindrim and Lemire are part of a growing core of volunteers that help the U.S. Forest Service serve the public in more ways than its budget would allow.

In the Pisgah Ranger District alone, there are several hundred volunteers who worked about 45,000 hours last year, District Ranger Derek Ibarguen said.

"We have a very large volunteer program here compared to some of the other districts," he said.

That's partly because of its infrastructure - which includes not only a visitors center near Brevard, but also the Cradle of Forestry historic site -and partly because this corner of North Carolina has attracted a lot of retirees looking to give back.

Both the visitors center and Cradle of Forestry are staffed by volunteers, and the district also works with a half dozen volunteer groups that help maintain the 380 miles of trails, he said. A local gardening group helps tend the ground of the visitors center, planting milkweed to attract monarch butterflies.

Since the Volunteers in the National Forest Act in 1972, almost 2.6 million volunteers have worked about 105 million hours to the U.S. Forest Service - a labor contribution worth more than $1.3 billion - mostly in areas of recreation, trails and wilderness.

In the Francis Marion National Forest outside Charleston, Forest Service employees joined with other government agencies and 67 volunteers to haul away more than 34 tons of garbage last February, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Michelle Burnett.

During the 2013 fiscal year, 406 volunteers contributed 8,428 hours during the past year - an estimated $180,035 in donated labor - and that is expected to rise when this fiscal year's numbers are tallied.

Jannah Dupre, the Francis Marion's recreation program manager, said volunteers give of their backs and hearts to make the forest's services and facilities better.

"They greet our visitors, assist in teaching our environmental education classes, lead nature walks and paddles, help keep our facilities clean, build footbridges and brush our trails," she said. "In all honesty, we'd be lost without them."

'Who are these people?'

Bindrim and Lemire were leading a Sierra Club hike in 1993 when they encountered a ranger who told them of the rules and then popped an unexpected question: Would they consider helping him out by being a sort of uniformed presence?

Their decision came easy. "To me, the mountains are like coming home," Lemire said. "It's my home. I love it."

"We'd be up here anyway," Bindrim added. "It's one of our favorite places."

At least four rangers have come and gone since then, but the couple continues on. They even introduced themselves on a trail to a previous ranger who had a bewildered look on his face.

"Nobody back at the station told him he had a couple of volunteers up here," Bindrim said. "He wondered, 'Who in the heck are these people in uniform?'"

They figure their upper arms are more toned than the arms of most people their age, because they often break up fire rings by tossing rocks into the woods. Fires are prohibited in the wilderness area.

Increasingly, the couple spends their time cautioning hikers and campers about the area's growing black bear population.

Last Memorial Day weekend, Bindrim and Lemire had their own first encounter, as a black bear batted around their food, which they had secured in a bear-proof sack about 100 feet from their tent. The bear left frustrated.

"We've been asked before, 'Will the Forest Service try to relocate these bears?'" Bindrim said. "We stifle a giggle and think, 'Where would you relocate these bears to from a wilderness?'"

Although their badges and hats make it clear they're volunteers, the average hiker cannot tell them from the real thing.

"One guy saw us, and he stopped dead in his tracks and said, 'I ain't never seen a ranger up here,'" Bindrim said.

"I didn't pop his bubble."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.