Thursday, August 17, 2017

Week 12: August 5-9, 2017

Crew 2: Brown Fork Gap Relocation

click here for the full photo album

For week twelve, Crew 2 headed back down to Brown Fork Gap in Nantahala National Forest, NC for one last week of bushwhacking, rain, mud, and digging. Though it was the final week of the season, the Trail had plenty of challenges in store for the Crew. For a detailed description of this relocation project, be sure to check out Crew Two’s blog from Week 11.

Since the drive down to the project is usually just long enough to prevent the Crew from hiking up to the work site on the first day, they decided to make the most of it by stopping at 12 Bones in Arden, NC for some delicious barbecue. The calories came in handy during the campsite set-up, as new campsites had to be cleared through the heavy brush for the extra large crew. Once camp was established the Crew was joined by “Ox”, “Hopeful”, and Wayne of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club who showed up just in time for a game of Werewolves. Their company and helping hands were much appreciated throughout the week.
The first work day could not have gone more smoothly. The weather was sunny and mild for August and the large crew was able to make an amazing amount of headway. Afterwards, they went for a relaxing swim in nearby Fontana Lake and were once again treated to dinner by the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, this time at the Wildwood Grill in Fontana Village. Thanks again, SMHC!

Unfortunately, luck would not hold out on the second work day. The rain started sometime in the early morning and picked up through out the day. For safety reasons, the crew decided to hike in on the AT, 2.5 miles up and over Jacob’s Ladder rather than attempt the slippery skid road. Needless to say, the Crew got thoroughly drenched on their way in. Thankfully, they were able to seek refuge in Brown Fork shelter and hoped that they would be able to catch enough of a break in the rain to get at least a few hours of work in. 

For some of the volunteers, this was their first AT shelter experience and certainly turned out to be a memorable one for all. As miserable as the weather was, they were thankful to be in a dry place for lunch and enjoyed chatting with some southbound thru-hikers who were also holing up in the rain. Wayne, Crew 2’s chief meterologist, consulted the weather radar app on his phone, but unfortunately only had bad news for the Crew. There would be just enough of a break to hike out, so they took it while they could. Well, at least they can’t say they didn’t try!

Although they were unable to accomplish any work that day, the hike did provide an educational experience as volunteers were able to witness what happens to fall line trail during a heavy rain event and walked away with a more complete understanding of the purpose behind the relocations in the area.  

Although the forecast did not look very promising for the final work day, the weather finally broke and the Crew was able to finish out the week strong with a highly productive day and a safe final descent of the skid road. Back at the campsite, the Crew celebrated the victory in true Konnarock fashion with a no-bake cheesecake.

When they returned to basecamp, there was another celebration in store to close out the 2017 season properly with one final hoo-rah. Folks from the Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club, the US Forest Service, as well as several Konnarock alumni came out to show their appreciation and to celebrate a successful 35th season with a huge feast, music, and of course – a giant tick piƱata compliments of Kathryn.

It’s hard to believe another season has come and gone. Working alongside all the wonderful folks who make up this amazing crew, one barely notices the time passing. Thanks to all partners and volunteers whose contributions were vital in making this season successful and injury-free. The AT would not be what it is without you all. Until next year… HYAW!!!!!!!

--Brian Allgood, Assistant Crew Leader

Monday, August 14, 2017

Week 12: August 5-9, 2017

Crew 1: Jump Off Rehab

working with Nantahala Hiking Club

click here for the full photo album

This is it. The last Crew 1 blog post of 2017. It can only mean one thing: the final battle against degraded post-wildfire trail conditions at The Jump Off in western North Carolina. Week 12 brought Crew 1 back to the Nantahala National Forest for the third project week in a row, with the goal of bringing the ongoing, ambitious rehabilitation work to a stable ending point. 

Over the past two weeks, this unstoppable crew had successfully replaced a 33-step log staircase in addition to making considerable headway on the construction of a wooden gabion-like structure to repair a “floating” trail section that was in dire need of rescue. The tasks in store for the 12th and final crew week of the season were manifold: finish the gabion, chisel usable steps into the dangerous “Jump Off” cliff, and install a series of log steps in the badly gullying trail above the Jump Off.

If this all sounds a bit daunting, take a moment to remember that Crew 1 has never yet backed down from a difficult trail dilemma. What to the average observer might seem hopeless, Crew 1 views as an opportunity for innovation. What might by some be deemed an impossible task, Crew 1 views as a challenge. In the words of wisdom once imparted by a crew member, “Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life.” The members of this crew are well aware that many rewards are reaped by engaging the tough moments in trail work head on.

None of this inspiring confidence, however, is possible on an empty stomach. This is why Crew 1 started Week 12 off strong with a stop at Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack in Asheville, NC. A wide variety of spicy chicken dishes and delicious sides provided the fortification needed to prepare this week’s large crew of volunteers for the work ahead of them. From there, the crew continued to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, where several alumni volunteers met the group and formed a caravan on the last leg of the drive.

 Finally arriving at the Forest Service road near Robbinsville, Crew 1 rapidly set up camp and commenced with the weekly tool safety talk. It didn’t take long before dinner was cooking and the crew settled into the week’s temporary abode.

The following morning unfolded with breakfast and the daily stretch circle, and eventually the challenging 1-mile ascent up the bushwhacked access trail to the Jump Off cliff. Taking into account the dismal weather forecast for the following day, the crew opted to work extra hard and extra late on the first day in case of a subsequent rain-out. This proved to be a long day of action-packed work. 

One of the main tasks for the day was the installation of some “sidelog” cribbing along the edge of the log staircase that was previously replaced. Considering that the edge of the trail on this section is literally falling off the mountain, the extra cribbing provided by these sourwood logs will surely make a positive difference. The other major task was the felling, bucking, and transporting of the final locust logs for the gabion, in addition to splitting the numerous “slats” to be used in this picket-fence-esque structure.

Once the logs were lowered by rope down the cliff and carried to their places, a couple of veteran alumni began yet another task - wielding the Milwaukee Rock Drill to chisel into the Jump Off cliff itself. This cliff was quite a dangerous spot, requiring crew members to pass tools and gear down rather than carrying them - and it didn’t look much better for hikers burdened with heavy packs. Using the rock drill, outfitted with a specially selected chisel bit, volunteers were able to cut steps into the stone, thus making for a much safer ascent and descent.

Yet more drilling was done at the gabion site to secure the multiple crib logs with rebar pins - the only way of keeping logs in place on this treacherous slope. While this work was undertaken, still more volunteers worked on building a conventional log crib wall to connect the gabion with the log staircase and hold all the intervening soil in place. Activity bustled and crush rock was ferried up and down the trail. Several members of the Nantahala Hiking Club also made appearances to assist during this long and busy day.

As it grew later, many projects were finished up and the gabion remained as the sole task that needed to be absolutely finished before the end of the day. By this point, the horizontal crib logs were all pinned in place and it was finally time to drive the vertical “slats” behind the crib logs. By backfilling the void behind the slats with rock and soil, this structure would resemble a picket fence and theoretically would prevent further erosion on this precarious trail section. The crew needed to work in incredibly close quarters to pull this final phase of the day off. It wasn’t easy work by any means - the footing beneath the gabion was unstable, and the utmost precaution was observed while maneuvering around the structure.

Although it felt almost like working two days rather than one, the gabion was finally completed around 6pm on that first work day. The result of ingenuity and tireless teamwork, this unconventional trail structure is undoubtedly one of the crown jewels of the 2017 season. A tired but victorious crew saddled up their packs and hiked down to the campsite, reaching the site around 7pm.

With voracious appetites kindled by the long work day, the crew decided to experiment with “alternative foods” night. Rather than following the menu, several culinarily-minded crew members engineered a delicious dinner spread featuring made-to-order quesadillas, chips, and salsa. The addition of two Lodge cast-iron skillets, donated by an alumni volunteer, made alternative foods night a fantastic experience for all.

The next day delivered on the predicted rainy weather, and Crew 1 opted not to waste time hiking and working in the slick, dangerous, and muddy conditions on the trail and at the work site. Instead, the crew enjoyed an extravagant breakfast including scrambled eggs, country ham, fried green tomatoes, and of course Jerry’s famous creamy grits. The crew then took some time to relax, read, nap, or hang out under the slightly leaking kitchen tarp, before eventually packing into the Konnarock van and traveling to Andrews, NC for another delicious trip to Scoops Creamery.

Later in the evening, Crew 1 met the Nantahala Hiking Club at the Nantahala Outdoor Center for drinks and dinner at the River’s End Restaurant. During dinner, Jerry was proud to present multi-year alumni Clark Britt with an Appalachian Trail vest in honor of his exceeding 1000 hours of volunteer service with Konnarock. Clark was joined by 21-year alumni Billy Williams for a photo-op to celebrate this amazing accomplishment.

Although an entire day had been lost to the rain, Crew 1 jumped back into action as soon as the rain ceased around 9am on the next morning. Although the trail was slick, it soon began to dry out as the sun emerged and the misty clouds dispersed from around the Smoky Mountains in the distance. A few finishing touches were put on the gabion’s tread surface, but the main task for the day was the installation of log steps above the Jump Off cliff.

This area had been heavily eroded, and the use of log steps will help to slow the flow of water and prevent more soil from washing away. Since this section was full of roots, and in some places bedrock, the progress was slow but steady. The lower log steps, coming directly off of the cliff itself, needed to be pinned with rebar into the stone since there was no way to drive wooden stakes into the ground. The trusty Milwaukee drill got to see plenty more action before the day was done.

The site heated up considerably as the day wore on and the sun came out in earnest. Nevertheless, Crew 1 worked as a well-functioning team to install as many steps as possible. Some crew members crushed rock to use as fill while others ferried it from one place to another. Others worked on digging the steps into place and hammering stakes, and still more worked to create more stakes by debarking and splitting locust logs.

Another group of volunteers constructed one more section of log-cribbing further up the trail to prevent soil erosion on the steep downhill side of the trail. The crew worked well beyond the usual quitting time yet again to make up for the rain day. By the end of the day, there was a world of difference to behold on the trail from what it had been at the start of the week. In just two days, a phenomenal amount of quality work was completed.

The heroic effort to carry down an enormous quantity of tools from the Jump Off on the last day cannot be ignored. Several crew members volunteered to go back up and down the trail on a second trip - which included carrying the portable generator and the rock drill on freighter packs. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew put together a fabulous dinner of spicy Thai noodles, salad, and deviled eggs. The crew was able to celebrate a very successful week, and the end to a very successful season.

The next morning, Crew 1 disassembled camp and packed up for the last time of the summer. It had been a whirlwind week on a truly memorable project, and now the end-of-season party at Konnarock Base Camp awaited the crew members. There was still time, however, for one last lunch stop along the way - the much beloved 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville got one more visit from the crew that eats just as hard as it works.

Special Thanks to Nantahala Hiking Club for their continued support this week and throughout the three weeks at this challenging project. The on-the-trail support as well as the dinner trips were crucial for crew morale and the success of the project. Another big thanks to the sizable group of quality volunteers who turned out in force for this final week of the season. Konnarock would quite literally be nothing without the time, energy, skill, and spirit provided by the many generous volunteers who contribute each week of the summer. As it is the end of the season, a thank you is in order for Camp Coordinators Rachel and Janet for managing all things food-related during the volunteer season as well as so many other logistical and facility-related details.

It has truly been a fantastic and successful season for Crew 1. The challenging project at the Jump Off was an appropriate way to end such a season. No doubt many more successful summers lie ahead of the Konnarock Volunteer Trail Crew, thanks to the eclectic, eccentric, and passionate people who make up this organization and form a big part of the Appalachian Trail’s soul.

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Week 11: July 28-August 1, 2017

Crew 2: Brown Fork Gap Relocation

click here for the full photo album

There is something about breaking new ground on a relocation project to which nothing else can compare. Perhaps it is the feeling of a fresh start, a second chance to make the Trail what it should be, or seeing a well designed trail form from chaos into fruition. Or perhaps it is the feeling one gets halfway through a week of digging, working the same muscle groups over and over to exhaustion, through the frustration of hitting a giant rock or matted and tangled root mass just when one begins to develop a rhythm, that can bring a grown man to tears. 

Whatever the case may be, all of these things are part of a phenomenon we have come to know as “sidehill”, which is what Crew Two’s work mainly consisted of during week eleven’s project. Sidehill is exactly how it sounds – digging a trail that wraps around the side of a hill – and has proven to be a much more sustainable alternative to trail that goes straight up the fall line. Sidehill alignment provides more opportunity for rainwater to drain off the edge, making the trail less prone to erosion –so the tread will last longer and require less maintenance.

This relocation will be the first of two scheduled relocations to remove to A.T. off a steep section of fall line alignment just north of the infamous Jacob’s Ladder located about 2.5 AT miles north of Stecoah Gap, NC. These two relocations will replace the fall line section with two long switchbacks making for a much less steep, more optimal grade. Let it be clear, however, that there is no plan to relocate the Trail off of Jacob’s Ladder itself due the narrow property corridor as well as its historic value as an original AT route flagged by Benton Mackaye and Myron Avery.

The week began with a gloomy, rainy drive down to North Carolina to the Crew’s Forest Road campsite. The campsite, situated on a log landing next to a clear cut, did not look so inviting at first. However, by the following morning after the skies had cleared, the view revealed itself. Perhaps the campsite was not so bad after all. The weather following the storm left the skies clear and the winds mellow. To the Crew’s delight, this unseasonably cool, clear weather would become a trend throughout the week.

As mentioned, the AT through the area is known for its ruggedness. To avoid hiking up and over Jacob’s Ladder everyday, the Crew was able to hike in on an old skid road followed by a treacherously steep bushwhack up to the AT making it at least a shorter and perhaps arguably sweeter alternative. If nothing else, it was a great way to get the blood flowing in the morning!

After the strenuous bushwack, the digging would commence… and would continue… and would conclude at the end of the day with no end in sight. As monotonous and painstaking as digging sidehill can be, it is also very rewarding to look back upon and be able to walk through the work at the end of the day knowing that progress was made.

As much as they tried to avoid hauling the heavy Griphoist winch and all its accessories up the mountain, Crew 2 had to give in as they encountered an unavoidable tree that needed to be removed. The stump pulling gave a few tired volunteers a break from the endless digging, and a chance to try something else. Afterward, the digging resumed.

Joining the Crew for multiple days as usual was “Ox” (AKA Franklin LaFond) of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club. “Ox”, a thru-hiker-turned-trail-maintainer, is always a pleasure to work with. Over the years, he has accumulated many stories from his travels and trail maintenance and is a fountain of knowledge about all things trail related – not to mention he takes us out to dinner! Thanks, “Ox” and SMHC, for everything!

Although the Crew size was small this week, the work that they did accomplish was of very high quality which is what matters most. Small crews certainly have their benefits as everyone gets to know each other a little better than most weeks which can make for a stronger bond. Everyone had something unique to add to the conversations each night which ranged from thru-hiking, to Konnarock in the 90’s, to fantasy novels. Once conversation subsided and the weary volunteers retired to their tents, the cicadas and crickets could be heard having a conversation of their own.

Thanks, Crew Two, for a smooth week and a solid start to this much needed relo! HYAW!!

--Brian Allgood, Assistant Crew Leader

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Week 11: July 28-August 1, 2017

Crew 1: Jump Off Rehab

working with Nantahala Hiking Club

click here for the full photo album

After getting a solid start last week, Crew 1 returned to the Nantahala National Forest for the season’s penultimate project week, Week 11.  Once again, the burned ridge adjacent to the “Jump Off” cliff face was the target for the crew’s efforts.  Just 4 miles trail-south of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, this section of the A.T. was badly damaged in wildfires last fall. Without urgent attention, the trail is at risk of washing off the slope. 

Perhaps inspired by the fierce heat that must have consumed the Jump Off during the fire, Crew 1 made a point of stopping at the delicious Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack in Asheville, NC on the drive down.  Having adjusted their tastebuds to the blazing conditions soon to come, the crew then continued past the NOC, where several more crew members joined the caravan, bringing the total number up to seven (including crew leaders).

The crew was especially small this week, but in some ways this was just as well since the quarters on the switchback where most of the work took place are so tight.  The goals for the crew were to finish replacing a steep log staircase that had been devastated by fire and erosion, and then to tackle the seemingly impossible task of shoring up a short stretch of trail that was so eroded that one could reach a hand up underneath the tread surface.  

Having had its previous log crib burned out, only the thick mat of rhododendron roots (mostly now dead) and some compressed leaf litter were keeping this trail section afloat.  Below this trail disaster was a steep slope of loose soil and scorched rhododendron - not a place that one would want to slip. 

The first work day of the week began with the arduous climb up from the Forest Service road campsite to the A.T. - a 1-mile bushwhacked trail with a lot of slick elevation changes and rocky footing.  Having finally reached the project site, the crew leaders formulated a plan of attack and divided into groups.  One group set about the demanding task of splitting some very gnarly black locust logs into usable material - both steps and stakes.  

Other members worked to transport the split log pieces down the trail to the site where they would be installed - sometimes by hand and often with the support of a freighter pack.  Still others worked hard with draw-knives, hammers, and pulaskis to peel the bark off of these materials - thus making them viable, rot resistant building supplies.  

Several members of the Nantahala Hiking Club showed up in the midst of this process and lent their brute strength to help transport many of the logs.

Over the course of the next day, much more work was accomplished.  In spite of some mechanical issues, with the Crew 1 chainsaw, Jerry felled yet another locust tree thanks to the help from club member Paul for bringing a backup saw and a part to repair the chain brake on the crew saw.  

In the meantime, several crew members picked up where last week’s crew left off on the log staircase below the Jump Off.  The old, charred steps and stakes were systematically pried out of the ground and replaced with fresh, level stairs. Thick locust stakes were hammered into the earth to secure each step - a task requiring tenacity and good sledgehammer aim.  Another set of crew members began to install another set of log steps just below the Jump Off cliff itself, thus making the rocky climb slightly less dangerous than before. 

Crew 1 got a well-appreciated break from the wilderness after the second work day when the Nantahala Hiking Club took the crew out for dinner in Andrews, NC.  Once again, the Monte Alban Mexican Restaurant provided some massive portions of satisfying food for all.  After the meal, the crew leaders opted to bring the team back to Scoops Creamery (discovered the week before), for some more incredible ice cream, courtesy of the Scoops signature auger that custom-blends all manner of toppings (from fresh fruit to Krispy Kreme doughnuts) into the ice cream.  After this food-filled evening, Crew 1 was sufficiently fortified for another day’s work.

The third work day was mainly devoted to starting construction on the crib for the “floating” section of trail past the big log staircase.  This is an area that requires an unconventional approach, and so Jerry formulated a plan to build a mix of a crib and a gabion, which will ultimately look something like a picket fence wedged up against the side of the trail and filled with rock and earth.  This is a massive undertaking, especially considering the difficulty in getting the building material from above the Jump Off cliff down to where it was actually needed.  

The full crew was harnessed for the majority of this work, which included carrying 12’ locust logs and lowering them down the cliff with the assistance of a belay rope.  Furthermore, the Honda portable generator and the Milwaukee rock drill both had to be packed all the way up from camp - a task that several volunteers heroically opted in for. 

In order to set log cribbing in this area where so much soil had been displaced, there was no choice but to set 1” thick rebar pins into the bedrock and set the logs on top of this.  The rock drill was wielded by several crew members in order to successfully drill on the uncertain footing of the slope.  Having epoxied the pins in place and painstakingly lowered the 12’ logs down to the crib site, crew members worked together to maneuver the logs into place while Jerry wielded the chainsaw to notch them. 

The ultimate result looks very promising - the two logs sit almost seamlessly side by side to address the roughly 24’ section of degraded trail.  Some humongous locust stakes were then hammered into the ground to secure these big logs temporarily, thus securing the trail enough to leave it over the break.  Next week’s project will hopefully see this awe-inspiring construction project completed, although much work remains to be done. 

Having made considerable progress on this engineering marvel, the crew was able to put in a few more log steps before it was time to tool up and prepare to descend.  Considering that this was the hottest day of the week, the crew decided to take a trip to the Nantahala River for a dip in the cold, crisp waters.  Sweat, charcoal, and even a bit of fatigue were washed away in the churning rapids of this beautiful waterway.  A mouthwatering camp-cooked meal of chicken-and-lentil stew finished off the evening, leaving the crew tired from a hard week of work but feeling pleased with all of the successes along the way.

The fun didn’t quite end there, though.  Crew 1 made a couple of stops during the long drive back north, including a visit at Old Grouch’s Military Surplus store in Clyde, NC and then lunch at the legendary 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville, NC.  The excellent barbecue at this establishment was the perfect way to top off a successful week under challenging conditions.  

One more week remains for the Jump Off… and for the Konnarock 2017 season!  Crew 1 will return for one last time this summer with one last group of determined volunteers, and no doubt the season will be concluded in spectacular fashion with one more round of rehab on this burned trail section.

Many thanks to Bill, Jerry, Dave, and Paul from the Nantahala Hiking Club for their assistance on the project - especially their connections which got Crew 1 out of a tight spot with a broken chainsaw.  The club’s generosity in taking the crew out to dinner is also greatly appreciated.  The final big thank you, as always, goes to our crew volunteers who tirelessly worked in tough conditions on this project.  Thank you all! 

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader