From the way Potomac Appalachian Trail Club officials were talking last week, you'd think great stretches of the treasured walkway had washed away into the Shenandoah Valley.

"It looks like somebody pushed the panic button," said Walter Wells, a stalwart of the 3,000-member club.

"Reports of our death," added Frank Albini, "were greatly exaggerated."

This was the good news after Wells, Albini and almost 40 other hikers convened on the Blue Ridge last weekend to tackle damage done by the great floods of November.

Most carried a National Park Service flood-damage report written before the waters receded. It indicated stretches of the main trail and blue-blazed side trails were "completely washed out," or "dangerous, not negotiable," that bridges were "weakened and undermined" and sections up to 1,000 feet long were "severely eroded."

The reports were so troubling, PATC put out an urgent holiday-season request for volunteer workers that was broadcast by several Washington-area radio stations. That's how the big crowd, four or five times the normal complement for winter work crews, came to be standing around in the high-country cold Saturday morning, awaiting assignments in the war against nature.

And how did they feel when the weekend was over? "I hate to say disappointed," said PATC organizer Jane Bergler, "but what I saw (in damage) was not awesome in any sense.

"The initial word we got was that there was more than a million dollars in damage; that favored trails had been completely wiped out," Bergler said.

What she found, taking a crew of 16 to the Lost Mountain area to work on a 4 1/2-mile section she regarded as particularly susceptible to erosion, was "a couple of really bad spots where we ended up doing some serious, heavy work, but not a general problem."

Similarly, Dave Sherman, heading up 21 volunteers working the section from Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap, found four areas of serious erosion, the worst a 150-yard washout he expects a six-person crew could repair in two days.

While the PATC volunteers expressed relief at what they found, Bergler and Sherman both said major efforts still will be needed to bring the trails back to snuff once the ground thaws in the spring.

Meantime, the Park Service is holding to its assessment that it will need $1 million to repair damage done to the 300 miles of trail in Shenandoah National Park, and officials were meeting Monday to map strategy for seeking funds and to set priorities for the work.

"The problem with the Appalachian Trail itself isn't that bad because it's at the top of the mountains," said Chief Ranger Larry Hakel. "It's much worse on the side trails where the water rushed down. For example, we lost a whole mile of the Little Devil Stairs trail. There isn't a trace left."

And Ranger Keny Slay, who met with volunteers at Thornton Gap on Saturday, said, "We feel if we don't do something now, we'll have twice the problem when the spring floods come."

While Sherman and Bergler led their weekend work parties on the high trails, they did send a few volunteers down into the valleys. Sherman sent me to the popular White Oak Canyon trail, along with Susan Bradford, Lisa Danley and veteran PATC volunteer Jim Finucane, who brought a well-used chain saw. Try as we might, I'm ashamed to report, we found not much to do.

There was a nice washout near the top, maybe 50 feet of serious erosion a foot or two deep, a description of which Bradford entered in her official notes.

We were two miles farther along the trail, which follows the Robinson River's pristine headwaters down the mountain, before we hit the first major stream crossing. Oops, no bridge.

Happily, the water was low enough that we could hop from rock to rock. Hakel said the bridge will be a priority item on the Park Service list, since the crossing is just above the first of six steep and spectacular waterfalls and he doesn't want anyone washed over come spring.

A half-mile farther we found a blown-down pile of trees blocking the trail. Finucane spent 30 minutes getting the chain saw started and 10 minutes cutting out the brush.

A mile farther down a large red oak blocked the path, which Finucane dispatched after considerable effort. And that was it for White Oak Canyon.

Sherman said by Sunday evening his crews had cleared 24 blowdowns off the Appalachian Trail central section from Thornton Gap to Swift Run Gap, and the entire stretch, except for minor bypasses to skirt erosion, is now open.

"I don't want to downplay it," said Sherman, "but the damage to the Appalachian Trail is not, thank God, what I'd expected."