Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Week 12: August 4-8, 2018

Crew 2: Thomas Knob to Rhododendron Gap Rehab

click here for the complete photo album

Week 12 is done, and with that the Konnarock Volunteer Trail Crew officially brings its 2018 season to a close. To finish off the season, Crew 2 embarked on one final journey into the unmatched beauty of the Mount Rogers High Country, a true jewel of southwest Virginia. Just a short drive from Konnarock’s Sugar Grove Base Camp, the high country is an unforgettable landscape which made the perfect frame for Crew 2’s last project.

The project work picked up where the crew had left off on Week 11 - rehabilitating a degraded section of trail between Thomas Knob Shelter and Rhododendron Gap. A combination of heavy hiker traffic, volatile weather patterns, soil type, and relative lack of tree cover make this stretch of trail highly prone to erosion.

Another problem is the presence of many user-created trails that branch out from the actual A.T., gradually widening the area that hikers walk on and increasing erosion over the long term. The presence of the famous free-ranging pony herds (managed to help to graze the landscape) provides an additional pressure on the trail. On Week 11, Crew 2 began by repairing some existing rock staircases and closing side trails. For Week 12, much more time would be devoted to installing new rock steps.

The week began by backpacking into the high country via Massey Gap at Grayson Highlands State Park. Following the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail for about 3.5 miles eventually led the crew to their campsite just north of Thomas Knob Shelter. Meanwhile, the staff from the U.S. Forest Service’s Sugar Grove Work Center shuttled the heavy group gear (coolers, tools, water jugs, etc) to the site using UTVs.

 Thanks to an especially large crew, camp setup didn’t take long. To protect food and smellables from bears and ponies, the kitchen area was enclosed within a small electric fence, also courtesy of the Forest Service. Less than a quarter mile from the work site and featuring sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, this campsite could not have been a more idyllic spot to end the season.

Work began on the first day as soon as camp was assembled. Due to the large group size, the crew split into two smaller teams to work on separate sections of trail. The lower section group worked on several projects, including extending a rock staircase which was initiated in 2017, in order to create a more sustainable structure that would not wash out. Others in this group worked on installing several more rock steps at strategic locations where erosion had been taking its toll over the past year.

The upper group began addressing a particularly damaged section of trail that had not received any attention as of yet. In addition to being overly steep, this section had been widened far beyond its original boundaries. Exposed rocks jutted from the ground at random points, making the trail altogether unpleasant to walk on and contributing to the tendency for hikers to walk to the side. The plan for this section was to reinforce the tread surface with a series of stone check dams and steps, accompanied by massive “megalodon” gargoyles and plenty of junk rocks piled on the sides to narrow the corridor back to a sustainable width.

Between the two teams, an enormous amount of rock construction lay ahead. Most of the crew was made up of alumni volunteers, though, and everyone rose to the challenge with enthusiasm. As always with this type of work, much effort was devoted to quarrying rock with the help of the staple rock work tool, the 18-pound steel rock bar. Gracefully manipulating leverage with the help of fulcrum rocks and the occasional sling, crew members were able to unearth some truly gargantuan rocks this week.

Team-carrying the massive hunks of mineral with nets was a task that often occupied eight people at a time. It’s no stretch to estimate the weight of some of these rocks at over 500 pounds, and some surely came closer to 1000. One came to be nicknamed “the Volkswagen” since it seemed to be a large as a small car. On some of the larger rocks, additional “strategery” was employed by laying rock bars on the ground and allowing the heavy rocks to skid on top in order to reduce friction.

Meanwhile, other crew members were constantly employed in digging holes for the aforementioned boulders. Gathering bag-fulls of smaller crush rocks from the gravelly surface of the trail kept several people busy at all times as well. When it came time to set each step, particular care had to be given in maneuvering such large rocks into the proper position. Rock bars again proved to be an especially helpful tool when laid like tracks into the hole, allowing a massive rock to slide into place without collapsing the banks of the hole.

One would think that suitable rocks would eventually run into short supply, but the crew continued to hunt down sizable rocks throughout the week with great success. In one case, crew members discovered a rock which appeared to be too large to move. Unwilling to give up, they employed the rifting hammers to split the gigantic rock in two! The rock split so cleanly that it ended up being used for two separate steps.

When it came to gargoyles and junk rocks, size was paramount but shape was no concern - in fact, the uglier the rock, the better for this purpose. Inspired by the famous prehistoric shark species, these fearsome-looking gargoyles were dubbed “megalodons” and laid across the edges of the rock steps, effectively closing off the possibility of hikers walking around the steps. Smaller rocks were piled around these behemoths, ultimately defining the proper trail.

Crew 2 was able to work three full days, in addition to two shorter days on either end of the week. The morning of the final day proved to be an epic final push, made significantly more challenging by the arrival of a serious rainstorm. At this critical moment at the end of the week, with several partially completed steps needed to be solidified, the rain posed a real challenge by making the ground soggy and filling up holes with water.

Most crew members ended up covered in mud as they struggled to make the finishing touches to this project in order to leave it in a stable state for hikers. Gravel on the trail surface had been exhausted by this point, so several people had to work hard to make crush the old-fashioned way - with sledgehammers. Luckily, the rain didn’t last more than an hour, and Crew 2 stabilized the trail at the last moment - in what has become classic fashion.

The crew week wasn’t all hard work though. After the work days, the team was able to enjoy the beauty of the area around the campsite. Nightly campfires provided opportunities for s’mores as well as many gripping games of Werewolf - which featured some of the most scintillating strategy seen all season. One evening, a herd of ponies paid a visit to the camping area, so the crew was able to observe these graceful creatures up close while the evening sun illuminated the horizon far enough to see the distant, towering peaks of North Carolina’s Roan Highlands.

As always, the crew ate exceedingly well. The week’s menu featured fan-favorites like “Taco Dress-up,” BBQ bacon burgers, and pesto pasta with sausage. As an added bonus, the crew leaders each cooked breakfast one morning: Brian made a heaping stack of pancakes loaded with fresh picked high country blackberries, while Josh prepared a pot of creamy grits with fried Spam on the side.

Also, for the second time of the season, volunteers took the initiative to prepare no-bake cheesecake as a rich treat for the crew on the final evening. It’s safe to say that Week 12 has come the closest all season to exhausting the contents of the jam-packed coolers. Luckily there was just enough food to keep everyone full and satisfied until the end of the week.

At the end of this final crew week, the Forest Service UTVs once again rumbled into camp and loaded up with the bulk of the crew’s equipment. A few crew members were able to hitch a ride, while the others backpacked out along the horse trail one last time. It was truly a successful week. An incredible amount of work was accomplished, and the rocks moved were the biggest of the whole season. The improvements made to this small section of A.T. will benefit thousands of hikers by increasing the longevity and stability of the trail.

Many thanks must be given to the fantastic volunteer turnout this week. A big group of volunteers really makes a difference in the amount of work that can be accomplished in one week. Special thanks to Camp Coordinator Becky, Forest Service Volunteer Jan, and Mount Rogers Ridgerunner Kyle for coming out and working a day with the crew this past week. Everyone worked extremely hard, but furthermore had great attitudes and made the work as fun as it was demanding.

The A.T. could not be what it is without dedicated volunteers like these. Being the final week, the thank you is extended to all of the season’s volunteers. The season featured many challenging projects, but impressive work was done each and every week.

Another big thank you goes to the Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club, who once again provided a daily “camp sitter” for Week 12 - and also helped host the end of season potluck back at Base Camp! It is always a privilege to collaborate with the maintaining clubs, whose members provide the front line of year-round, routine maintenance to the trail.

An end-of-season thank you to Camp Coordinators Janet and Becky for providing stellar food and logistical support, as well as keeping Base Camp tidy all season long. The U.S. Forest Service (especially our local staff at the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area) also deserves much gratitude for all of the support they provide to Konnarock - on Week 12 with UTV support but also throughout the season in myriad ways.

2018 has been a fantastic season: fun, safe, and very productive. No doubt many more successful seasons lie ahead for Crew 2, and Konnarock more broadly. For those readers who may have enjoyed reading about the exploits of Crew 2, please consider sharing the blog, telling your friends, or maybe consider volunteering yourself if you have not done so. It’s always inspiring to see the variety of people from different walks of life who come together to work for the maintenance of this one special trail - and YOU, too, could be one of those people!

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader

Week 12: August 4-8, 2018

Crew 1: Jerry Cabin to Big Butt Relocation & Rehab

click here for the complete photo album

HOO-YAH! Week 12--We made it! Crew 1's final week of the season ends on a high note with great work, lots of laughs and good times to remember. Jerry and I had a wonderful group of volunteers to finish out the season with.

It was nice having volunteers who we had worked with during previous weeks and also one who had never experienced trail crew before. An awesome mix of people making the week full of hard work and fun. We had Leah (1000 volunteer hours completed), Alec (Adult Male BBQcubian), Billy (Liver Musher), Pat (livin' the good life), Ruth (most confused witch), Rebecca (privy lover), Rich (Konnarock crew leader for life) and Abigail (loudest apple chewer)--Thank you to each of you for making the last week so awesome!

One last crew meeting to let everyone in on the project ahead, which was our second week doing the Jerry Cabin to Big Butt Relo & Rehab near Erwin, TN. One last time loading up all the tools necessary to get the trail work busted out, and the camping gear to make our home at Buzzard Rock once more. Each moment of this week has felt bittersweet, so I tried to soak up every second and not wish anything away, even the difficult uphill hike back to camp everyday.

To start out our final week we took a little excursion to The Appalachian Caverns, to see some really cool caves 200 feet below the surface we walk every day. With an entertaining tour guide and some pretty amazing sites down below, it was a once in a lifetime experience. We hopped back in the vehicles and headed to downtown Erwin, TN, for a generous lunch at the Hawg-N-Dawg BBQ, on the Carolina Mountain Club. Thank you CMC for lunch and showing your support to Konnarock! To our delight we also got to get some ice cream next door at "What's the Scoop!" What a treat! What a fantastic way to start the week.

Feeling grateful, Crew 1 drove on down the road to Rocky Fork State Park where we started our long, slow and very careful ascent up the 10 mile forest service road. After days of rain here in Erwin, putting chains on the Konnarock van was needed and ensured a safer drive up the road. We made ourselves at home on Buzzard Rock, setting up camp, tents, and the kitchen where we then made our first killer meal of pesto sausage pasta.

Heading out on the trail for work our first day, we felt fresh, clean and excited to do some trail building. The volunteers enjoyed the 2.5 mile trek to work immensely! With PPE on and tools at the ready, we had the crew get to work in 2 separate groups. One with me, finishing up some log steps on the relocation we dug last week while the other group started digging the other relocation on this project. Some volunteers who had never set a log step, had plenty of opportunities to build and learn some new skills, which was super cool.

We had Leah on crush duty and made all we needed to be able to stabilize the steps we built. Holes were dug, logs placed, stakes hammered in, crush pounded in and new log steps now lay on the trail that would make the AT a little longer! We had volunteers do some finish work on the trail that was dug, clip roots and dig a drain before celebrating this new relo with some blaze painting!

Painting a blaze is a rare, extremely awesome opportunity that some may never get to experience. I was grateful to paint blazes twice this season. Ex-Konnarock crew leader, Rich, couldn't believe after all the years he's worked, he never got to paint a blaze, and his daughter, whom is setting foot on the AT for first time, gets to paint one! Both loved being able to paint a new blaze and open up this new section for people to walk for generations.

The crew walked together painting a few blazes and then we worked on closing the old section of trail, adding some check dams into it to slow the water down and slow erosion.

We enjoyed some BBQ burgers, beans and watermelon for dinner and enjoyed Smore's by the fire that evening.

On Day 2, Crew 1 (a little messier and a little sore) made the trek again through the marshes, briers, rhododendron thickets, and the bog of eternal stench, to put in another hard day's work out on the trail. Digging on the second relocation section continued after a little sidehill instruction. Heads down, tools in the dirt while Jerry and I worked on felling a tree to use for log steps in this trail.

Once the tree was cut up, volunteers hauled them down to the trail and started debarking with a draw knife and perseverance. The steps would go in two different spots along the trail, so we split the crew up and had everyone working on either setting logs, making crush, debarking, or cleaning up the back slope and the tread of the relo.

We paused work for a bit in the early afternoon to let a thunderstorm pass. The crew then chugged along, step after step, making a better hiking experience for all. We also put some log crib in on both sets of steps to hold in crush and support the outside of the steps. The steps were all crushed in after driving wooden stakes as far we they would go. With the steps complete the crew got to brushing in along the outsides of the trail, leafing the trail and putting some rocks, logs, and branches to keep hikers on the steps/trail. The old trail was now closed off and the work for the day was done. We were visited by Ben Barry from SORO who came out to check out the progress that was being made.

After a long hike in the woods, carrying some tools with us back to camp, dinner was underway with Spicy Thai, the crowd favorite, as our meal. We enjoyed some fried green tomatoes as an "ordervie." Yum! The evening ended around a campfire with a mighty fine game of Werewolf!

One more hike in and one more hike out. One more day of trail work and the season would be done. The crew now much smellier, more wild, and closer to nature, we made our way along the path to bring you a better AT experience!

It was the hottest day we had but this group of volunteers stopped at nothing to do as much rehab as we could in those final hours. We worked hard as trail maintainers, in groups of 3, on areas of the current AT that had a bad case of trail creep. With pin flags stretched out as far as the eye could see, we divided to conquer the trail creep.

We made our way down the trail heading back to camp as we finished sections. Water breaks happened often but the crew was pushing hard to rehab like champions. Volunteers worked on lopping rhododendron back to prevent pushing hikers down and cut back brush that was heading into the trail. An absurd amount of trail creep was fixed and the rehab was a wild success!

After the volunteers gave it their all, one final push, we counted our tools, shared the load for the hike back and made our final hike back to our camp for the last time. We decided on our crew chant for the week and were filled with excitement and anticipation to share it with the Konnarock family and the end of year party!

A beautiful evening shared among friends on Buzzard Rock, we ate, we laughed, we became werewolves, witches, seers, or villagers around the campfire. A taco dress up dinner to end of week on the Big Butt project.

The next morning we packed up our camp, looked out into the mountains and valleys on Buzzard rock and hopped in the vehicles to take a nice slow drive down the mountain. We reached the bottom, WOO--and challenged ourselves one last time to take a very chilly dip in Rocky Fork creek before heading back to Sugar Grove. Four of us completed the task while the others documented from a warmer drier setting.

We stopped for some amazing pizza at Scratch in Johnson City. Highly recommend that place! "Pizza tastes better after a walk in the woods"-sign at Scratch Pizza. How fitting!

Got back to base camp, cleaned, hosed, washed before a large dinner and end of season celebration. Janet and the Mount Rogers Trail club folks supplied our dinner and desserts and it was a merry time. Both crews had one final ceremony, Pete Irvine from the Forest Service got up and thanked Konnarock and all the volunteers for their work this season. Josh Kloehn made an award winning speech thanking the seasonal staff for their work and also the volunteers for coming out.

Crew 1 finally got to do our chant. Crew 1 yelled--Hooyah!.....Then "Big Butt", (repeated by each crew member as they did the wave) then all yelled "Bypass"! It was a hit. For our little celebration we had each volunteer stand up while we shared little one liners about each one all while the Rocky theme song played. We got to present Leah with an ATC vest for completing 1000 volunteers hours over the years! Congratulations and thank you, Leah! The night continued with celebrations, good-byes, music and cheer.

What a season it has been! What a joyful experience. It wasn't without it's challenges but we would never grow without them. Working on the Appalachian Trail this summer has been a real pleasure and I can't thank Jerry and all the volunteers who made this such a positive and meaningful experience.

Be on the look out for some videos I will be putting together from the trail crew season. Thank you also to everyone who did an "interview" with me! Hopefully it will help get the word out and get more people giving back to the trail, getting in the woods, and building skills, relationships and memories to cherish.

Thanks also to the Konnarock staff, Jerry, Janet, Becky, Brian, Josh, and Ridgerunner Kyle, it was fun being family with ya'll!

Thank you to our week 12 volunteers and to all who came out to work on the Appalachian Trail with Konnarock this summer! Till next time--Happy Trails!!!!

--Julia Smith, Assistant Crew Leader

Representing Buffalo, NY :)

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Week 11: July 27-31, 2018

Crew 1: Jerry Cabin to Big Butt Relocation & Rehab

click here for the complete photo album

It's the second last week of the Konnarock Trail Crew season and Crew 1 has just finished up another successful week of triumphant, transcendent, trail building!

This week we were headed to the "Jerry Cabin to Big Butt Relocation & Rehab" near Greeneville, TN, where the maintaining club of the region is the Carolina Mountain Club. It was in the total opposite direction from Sinking Creek Mountain where we have spent the last 4 consecutive weeks.

With a new crew, 4 new Konnarock volunteers and 2 returning, we packed up tools, camping gear, and all the essentials for the week ahead and headed south from Sugar Grove, VA.

After about 2 hours of driving, we arrived on the Rocky Fork Trail where we had anticipated a slow trek up a road for 10 miles to our campsite for the week. Another 2 hours later, we finally arrived on top of the ridge, at Buzzard Rock, which has a spectacular view, where the crew could see how high up we drove and mountains for days. We took to digging our privy, sump hole, putting up our kitchen tarp/area, and our personal tents for the week. With only a little time left to spare for the day, half the group went along with Jerry to clear the overgrown trail which was the beginning of our walk in to work everyday, while the rest of the crew got to preparing dinner for the evening.

The next morning, following breakfast and stretch circle, of course, we started our first 2.3 mile hike in with as many tools as the crew could carry to the work site. Our work this week would focus on a new relocation near Jerry Cabin shelter avoiding a steep, eroding section of trail. The first step in creating the new section of trail was clearing and brushing the corridor of the woods that would become the trail.

The trail-to-be had already been flagged out prior to the crew's arrival for it's precise location by ATC staff. The chainsaw was used to cut up trees that had fallen in the place where the trail was to go. The crew eagerly got to the work, lopping, sawing, and moving whatever was needed to dig the trail next. During our lunch break we walked to the Jerry Cabin shelter, not far from our work site and chatted with some fellow hikers and checked out the area. We then did a demo for sidehill digging for the crew, to show them how to dig trail and why it's done that way. Not long after, heads were down and the digging commenced. This crew picked it up fast. Another 2.3 miles back to camp and the work for day 1 was complete.

At the end of day 2, the new relocation was almost done being dug! The crew was lined out and with very little direction, worked tirelessly all day. We were joined by the section maintainer from the Carolina Mountain Club for a few hours which we greatly appreciated! Thanks Shaun! That night we had our first campfire and played a few super fun games of Werewolf before falling asleep to rain and thunderstorms. Morning came with sunshine and no rain for our 3rd and final day of work.

With the relocation almost completely dug, we downed a black cherry tree to use for log steps within the trail. The crew was excited to learn about log steps after many back breaking hours of sidehill digging. We had different crew members debark the trees, both for the step and the wood we'd be using for stakes. After debarking we had a group of volunteers gathering rock (as it was scarce) and people making crush, and also taking turns setting the log steps.

With the relocation basically done and 3 log steps set, we concluded our work for the week. We hiked out the harder, uphill 2.3 climb back to camp, enjoyed a delicious meal, followed by S more's and Werewolf around the campfire. It was dark at this point and we ended the night with some amazing views from Buzzard Rock, of a thunderstorm off in the distance and a few shooting stars.

The next morning we packed up our camp, drove the long 10 miles down the mountain and stopped off the Rocky Fork Trail to take a very cold dip in the creek. Only one volunteer was brave enough to go all the way in the water. A tad cleaner than we were (even if just our feet), we drove off the trail towards Bristol, where we'd have lunch at the Burger Bar.

We had a very yummy, filling lunch and checked out downtown Bristol a bit. We learned that the Blackbird Bakery sells roasted organic coffee from Sugar Grove, VA! Of course, I got an iced coffee before driving the rest of the way back to base camp for cleaning, dinner and T-shirts. Great coffee!

With only 3 full work days because of a long, slow, drive in, a 2.3 mile hike in and 6 volunteers, it was really awesome to see that the relocation we focused on this week is almost complete! I think everyone had a great week and we hope to see all of them out on the trail again!

Week 11 was a great success thanks to a ridiculously hard working group of volunteers.

My favorite joke from the week, from Miles from Madison, Wisconsin: "I used to be addicted to soap, but now I'm clean."

Thank you to our volunteers this week who did a really great job out there on Crew 1! (*whisper* "Hoo-yah")

--Julia Smith, Assistant Crew Leader