Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Week 6: June 15-19, 2017

Crew 1: Jerry Cabin to Big Butt Rehab

working with Carolina Mountain Club

click here for the full photo album

For Konnarock’s sixth project week, Crew 1 engaged in a final showdown at Big Butt Mountain, on the Tennessee/North Carolina border.  For our third and final week at this location, the project goals involved finishing the massive rock work rehab of the muddy section just trail-north of the Ballground camp site.

To complete this undertaking, Crew Leaders Jerry Kyle and Josh Reynolds spent some off-time felling and bucking a 9-inch diameter black locust tree back in Sugar Grove to supplement the dearth of suitable step building materials at Big Butt.  The ponderous load of logs added a new level of weight to the truck during the perilous drive up the Rocky Fork Forest Service road.

Thanks to some creative re-packing and rearranging, and a lower gear load due to a smaller-than-average crew, the task was possible.  Rocky Fork State Park ranger Gary helped the crew to transport the logs (and the rest of the gear) for the final leg of the journey via ATV.

With daily storms predicted in the forecast, Crew 1 approached this project week prepared to bear any burden in the completion of the project.
Fortunately, the peaks of Big Butt Mountain served to break the storm clouds up and divert them to either side.  While the crew could hear ominous thunder rumbling, and the valley below received several inches of rain, the Ballground itself received only several brief showers that never interfered with the work day.  What we did get were constantly shifting clouds and blankets of dense fog that swept in and out of the work site and camp site throughout the days.  After this third week, it has become evident that predicting the weather in this area is a fool’s errand. 

As for the project work, Crew 1 worked efficiently and effectively with a team comprised mainly of multiple-year Konnarock alumni volunteers.  A small team painstakingly selected rocks for the final two stone steps above the previously installed stone step-turnpike.  After attempting to rift but eventually abandoning two massive rocks, the crew finally discovered a perfect rock down the hill which required the everybody’s help to drag into place with a rock net.

One of the many life lessons of rock work is to pick your battles and know when to call it quits and move on to greener pastures. And then, even the greenest pastures will require a lot of teamwork to prevail. Many hours of digging, crushing, and fine-tuning later (plus finding another fantastic step rock), two beautiful stone steps completed the transition to the top of the hill.

A second team worked on installing a series of log steps built from the Sugar Grove locust logs, a process aided by the addition of special guest Davis Wax - a former Assistant Crew Leader at Konnarock.  These log steps served to harden the tread of the steeply sloping trail which was mainly held together by tree roots.  By slowing the flow of water and sediments, the steps will reduce erosion and prevent this section of trail from devolving into a gulley over time.  These log steps are secured in place by hammering black locust stakes into the earth and backfilling with crush, creating a final product that is stable and blends with the natural scenery.

After finally finishing up the rehab of this section, Crew 1 had to improvise a plan since a proposed relocation on the Trail South side of the Ballground had not yet been approved by the Forest Service.  With a day and a half of work time remaining, the crew chose to continue rehabilitating the north side of the trail, which consisted of digging a number of drainage dips, installing several more check steps, and redefining over 600 feet of sidehill trail that had experienced considerable backslope sloughage.

After the sidehill was finished, a smaller sub-team split off and headed down the south end of the A.T. to fix a set of stone check steps that had blown out.  All in all, the crew accomplished an impressive amount and variety of work in spite of a small crew and an uncertain weather forecast.

In addition to the strenuous realities of trail work, Crew 1 had to face several other trials on this final ascent of Big Butt.  One such trial was the dense swarms of gnats that seemed to follow each crew member in an individual cloud.  Although they only bit intermittently, the bites from these gnats were painful and itchy.  A series of campfires each evening produced enough smoke to keep the levels of these pesky insects manageable.  That and plenty of DEET, of course.

While the gnats were irritating, they didn’t strike fear into the hearts of the crew members as did a serpentine visitor to the camp kitchen on the second work day.  Sneaking past the eyes of the entire crew, a 3.5 foot timber rattlesnake was only spotted as it lifted its head while underneath the kitchen table - a mere arm’s length away from Jerry’s leg.  Luckily, the snake was spotted in time, and Jerry guided it out of the camp kitchen with the assistance of a shovel.

Rattling angrily, the unwelcome visitor begrudgingly backtracked and made its way around the field by another route.  Was this a case of an innocent rattlesnake trying to get from one side of the field to the other, or did it have far more sinister intentions?  Was it mere chance that it got so close to Crew 1’s fearless Crew Leader?  We may never know for sure, but there is no doubt that all crew members walked through the tall grass of the Ballground with plenty more caution after the incident.

After surviving swarms of gnats, a misguided rattlesnake, howling coyotes, near-miss thunderstorms,  hot, humid work conditions, and a couple of mice that insisted on building nests inside of our rock bags every single night, Crew 1 could comfortably say that it had conquered the trials of Big Butt Mountain once and for all.  With rain threatening on the final day, the crew packed up camp for the last time and awaited the extraction by Rocky Fork State Park ranger Tim.

Due to the deteriorating conditions of the access road, Tim’s ATV had to employ the use of a winch several times to pull past some of the muddy sinkholes along the way.  After Tim and both Konnarock vehicles finally make it down the Rocky Fork road, Crew 1 took the opportunity to thank Tim (as well as his co-rangers Jesse and Gary) for their ATV support by presenting him with official Konnarock 2017 t-shirts.

The final leg of the week took the crew to a hard-earned pizza lunch at Rocky’s Pizza in Erwin, TN, courtesy of John Whitehouse of the Carolina Mountain Club.  After eating their fill and bidding farewell to Tennessee, Crew 1 proceeded to drive back to base camp through a torrential downpour that seemed like payback for all the rain dodged throughout the project week.  In any case, everyone made it back safely, thus completing successfully the 3-week stint at Big Butt Mountain.

Special thanks again to the Rocky Fork State Park team for providing Konnarock with the ATV support that made this project possible.  Tim, Jesse, and Gary (and their very bruised vehicle) all deserve a big round of applause.

Thanks as well to Ben Barry from the ATC SORO office for hiking out to the work site this week to meet the crew and offer suggestions on the work.  Thanks to Davis Wax, who is now working for ATC’s S.W.E.A.T. Crew in the Smokies and chose to spend his precious off-time hiking in and volunteering with Crew 1.  Finally, thanks again to Carolina Mountain Club for providing lunch on the way out, and for all they do to maintain their trail section.

Where will Crew 1 go next?  What hair-raising tangles with wildlife can we expect to see around the next mountain slope?  How many thousands of pounds of rock will be carried and set on the following adventure?  There’s only one way to find out for sure - don’t miss the next exciting episode of the Konnarock Volunteer Trail Crew Blog!  

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Weeks 5 & 6: June 7-19, 2017

Crew 2: Justus Mountain Relocation

working with Georgia Appalachian Trail Club

click here for the full photo album

For weeks five and six, Crew 2 took their annual trip down to Georgia. To cut down on drive time and to boost productivity, the Crew stayed down in the area for the full two weeks. The Crew picked up where the last year’s Crew left off on a relocation project just north of Cooper Gap. 
This .9 mile-long relocation will eliminate the abrupt ascent and descent up and over Justus Mountain by skirting around it at a much more sustainable and pleasant grade. However, a few short steep sections could not be avoided during the trail layout in order to avoid giant boulders and bedrock slabs. The Crew partly focused their efforts in those steep sections during the first week, building rock and earth steps to check erosion. 

The crew also tackled a very technical spot where a large bedrock boulder was encountered during the sidehill excavation last year and was protruding into the path. The solution was to build a stone staircase up to the top of the bedrock, chisel footholds in the slanted top, and bring the tread level up on the other side by building a stone crib wall. This ended up being quite a challenging, but fun project. When it was all said and done, everyone had a hand in building it since many of the rocks used required six to eight people to carry them.

Meanwhile, folks from the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club (GATC) could be found digging away at the other end, finishing up the sidehill. They brought with them an impressive number of volunteers each day which greatly contributed to progress. In fact, thanks to them the sidehill portion of the project is nearly complete. They also seemed to walk past the Konnarock volunteers just when they needed help moving an enormous rock.

GATC has become renowned for their hospitality during these two week stints, and definitely did not disappoint this year. Special thanks goes out to Jason for letting the Crew camp on his beautiful property and for throwing the Crew an unexpected cookout one night, and to Tom and Vivian Lamb for hosting their epic barbecues at the end of each week complete with tubing, frisbee, bocce ball, and good times -- southern hospitality at it’s finest!

During the off days between the two weeks, the crew had fun exploring the town of Dahlonega, panning for Gold and touring the Consolidated Gold Mine, the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi. They were treated to a stay at their own private house at Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, NC and enjoyed biking nearby trails, swimming in Lake Chatuge, playing disc golf, and lounging on the back porch. 

On the way back to the project, the Crew took a trip up to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia, and stopped by Mountain Crossings Outfitter at Neels Gap to gear up for the next week -- an iconic spot on the AT.

After a relaxing break, the Crew was ready to get back to work. To aid progress even more, two more volunteers joined for Week 6. The Crew had developed a rhythm by the second week and the new folks quickly caught on and thus accomplished an amazing amount of work. The major project during week two was to build a cribbed stone stair case up and over a rock that was jutting out from the mountainside. The rock became known as “Sharkie” since it was shaped like a shark and even had facial features that seemed to smile as if it were laughing at the volunteers. 

As the week progressed, one crew member started the countdown to Tom Lamb’s, and even had it down to the second during the last 24 hours. And after all the heavy lifting and rock crushing through out the two weeks, everyone was ready for some tubing and grub. The Lambs really outdid themselves the next morning by sending the Crew off with a big breakfast.

Thanks to all for an epic two weeks of hard work and good times. We are already counting the days until next time.

--Brian Allgood, Assistant Crew Leader

Week 5: June 7-11, 2017

Crew 1: Jerry Cabin to Big Butt Rehab

working with Carolina Mountain Club

click here for the full photo album

Konnarock Week 5 has come and gone, and another round of intensive rehab work at Big Butt Mountain on the Tennessee/North Carolina border has been executed. For the second week at Big Butt, Crew 1 enlisted a new group of volunteers to continue working on the deeply damaged section of the A.T. that was initiated during Week 4.

This week’s volunteers came from varied locations including Florida, Tennessee and Georgia - generally hot and flat locales that were miles apart in climate (and almost literally a mile apart in elevation) from the camp site at the Ballground. At over 5000 feet of elevation, the campsite temperatures dipped into the 40s at night, providing for some chilly sleeping experiences. Apart from the cooler evening temperatures, however, the weather turned out beautiful for most of the week - a factor that worked wonders for both morale and trail-building progress.

The project work built directly upon the stone staircase and stone crib wall that were previously
started by Week 4’s crew. With many of the heaviest rocks already in place, perhaps the most important task of the week was crush production. A vast amount of this hand-made gravel was necessary to fill the crib wall and raise the tread surface to a level where it would be safe from standing water and the accumulation of organic muck.

Volunteers rose to the task with enthusiasm! A small team worked on quarrying and carrying crushable rocks to the work site, while another small contingent wielded sledgehammers to smash big rocks into tiny rocks. Different volunteers came to specialize in the creation of different gravel sizes - with some making fist-sized chunks while others pounded stone into fine pebbles. This crush-medley was strategically layered along with some mineral soil to create a fabulously flat and supremely solid tread locked in by the crib wall.

Meanwhile, other volunteers worked on digging a series of grade dips for drainage. Much of the
problem in this work area stemmed from a lack of drainage and a subsequent accumulation of decomposing organic materials, ultimately resulting in the quagmire that faced Crew 1 from the beginning. By raising the tread with steps and cribbing in addition to creating drainage channels, this trail section will be able to manage water much more effectively in the future.

Yet another task to build upon this project was the use of Konnarock’s brand-new Milwaukee rock drill to pin a few of the stone steps in place. Since Crew 1 had no choice but to build directly on bedrock, rebar pins will ensure that the annual freeze-thaw cycle does not dislodge the steps that were so painstakingly placed for this staircase. The new drill worked like a charm, punching through bedrock with ease thanks to the energy from a wonderfully quiet portable Honda generator.

On the other side of the hill, volunteers installed a series of log check steps to slow the flow of water on the trail and reduce erosion. To build these steps, Crew 1 repurposed rot-resistant black locust logs from the ineffective log ladder that preceded the new stone staircase. These steps likewise required plenty of crush to backfill. A couple of stone steps at the base of this hill solidified the steep trail section, although a couple more log steps will be needed to finish this section for good.

Perhaps the biggest design challenge for the week came at the area directly above the stone staircase, where lack of drainage had created a thick mess of organic mud. The challenge came from the fact that this area sat partly on top of bedrock and partly on top of a heavy gray clay composed of disintegrating rock. Crew members had to dig out the muck and do some exploratory excavation to even determine viable options for the spot.

Ultimately, the crew settled on a unique structure that resembled a cross between a staircase and a turnpike - three stone steps set into the clay, with stone-framed crush landings filling the space in between. This structure involved quarrying many rocks of all sizes, and the creation of yet more crush. Junk cribbing made up of chunky, unappealing rocks lined the side of this structure in order to guide hikers on to the trail. Ultimately, this structure bridged the gap and now provides a dry, stable, and durable tread surface for hikers to walk on.

Besides transporting, crushing, and setting many tons worth of rock for this project (and having a good time while doing so), Crew 1 enjoyed stellar dinners back at the campsite, a crackling campfire, and some breathtaking sunsets from Gravel Knob. Crew Leader Jerry Kyle knocked breakfast out of the park twice this week with a pancake breakfast on Friday followed by his famous spread of eggs, Spam, and creamy grits the following morning.

One thing is always certain on Konnarock trail projects, and that is that nobody ever goes hungry! The food fest continued on the way home on Sunday when Carolina Mountain Club member Skip took Crew 1 out to Pizza Hut in Erwin, TN. To extend the adventure just a little bit further, Crew 1 then made one more stop at Clarence’s Drive-In in Erwin for milkshakes.

Special thanks to Tim, Jesse, and Gary from Rocky Fork State Park for providing ATV support, without which it would have been unimaginably challenging to establish a livable campsite at the remote location of the Ballground. Thanks also to ATC’s new Trail Facility Manager, Benjamin Barry, for hiking out to the work site to see the work and introduce himself to the crew. Finally thank you to the Carolina Mountain Club’s Skip and his wife for taking the crew out to lunch at the end of the week. And of course thank you to the volunteers who gave their time and energy to improve the Appalachian Trail for all to enjoy.

This was a very successful crew week with some transformational volunteer experiences. One of the more rewarding elements of the Konnarock experience is taking people who are unfamiliar and even apprehensive about trail work and rustic camping and seeing the confidence and enthusiasm that emerges by the end of the week. Week 5 was no exception and hopefully Crew 1 will continue to work with such excellent groups of volunteers in the coming weeks. One week remains for Big Butt Mountain. Until next time… stay tuned.

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Week 4: May 27-31, 2017

Crew 2: Sinking Creek Mountain Relocation

working with Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club

click here for the full photo album

Week Four for Crew Two was spent working on a multiyear relocation project on Sinking Creek Mountain, in Virginia's Craig County. The goal of this project is to eliminate a steep section of fall line trail near the top of the mountain by installing a long switchback almost to the boundary of the National Forest. This will bring the Trail to a more sustainable grade by better utilizing the space allowed.
Once complete, the switchback will be just over a half mile long. Though that may not sound like much, the project requires a great deal of heavy rock work, some of which is very technical.

Luckily, Konnarock had just the team for the job – students from the Veterans Program at The University of Central Missouri. The UCM Mules have been coming out to volunteer for Konnarock for three years now as part of their service learning program and have earned an honorable reputation among the Trail Crew. Simply put, when they come work gets done!

This week was certainly no exception. The Crew worked in two steep areas installing rock steps and cribbing where the already-excavated trail needed to be armored. Generally speaking on the AT, steps should be installed where the grade is above 15%  to prevent erosion. The Crew was blessed with ample material for this project since there are boulder fields very close by that serve as quarries. Crew members would find the perfect rock and carefully maneuver it down to the Trail using rock bar techniques.

Once the rock was moved onto the trail, several more volunteers were called upon to help “mule” to the rock down the trail in a rock net to be used as step or cribbing material. The Mules especially lived up to their name during this process since many of the rocks weighed upwards of 400 lbs. One rock, dubbed Dorito rock for it’s triangular shape, required the assistance of nearly the entire crew.

Volunteers alternated the tasks of digging, crushing rock, and quarrying fairly regularly and each volunteer was able to install at least one rock step. Much of the work was done to the tune of Brandon’s cadences -- some improvised, some not -- which set an upbeat tempo to the work and kept everyone in good spirits. “I break rocks, you haul rocks, I break rocks all day!”

The Crew was grateful to have help at the work site from the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club as well as staff from the Virginia Regional ATC Office in Roanoke. They even brought some “trail magic” fresh fruit and refreshments one day which really hit the spot after a week’s worth of hard labor.

Though the work and the hike were tough, the Crew had it pretty easy as far as camping arrangements go thanks to the folks at a local Christmas tree farm, Joe’s Trees, who have been allowing crews to camp on their property for this project. With real bathrooms, running water, and an awning to cook and commune under who could ask for more? Not to mention the delicious lamb sausage that the owner gave to the Crew straight from the farm. Burritos have never tasted so great. A special thanks goes out to Joe’s Trees for their hospitality!

Each night, the group had a reflection in which each member was able to express their thoughts, appreciations, and memories from the day. This is something unique that this particular group does and it really boosts the camaraderie.  This would usually be followed by a game or two of Werewolves – a Konnarock classic. Other entertainment at camp came early one morning in the form of a passing road bike race. Crew members had way too much fun cheering on the hundreds of race participants.

By the end of the week, some great memories were made as well as a few inside jokes. The Crew was able to walk away with a deeper appreciation for trail work knowing that some rock solid work was accomplished and a great deal of progress was made. Great team work, Mules! HYAW!

--Brian Allgood, Assistant Crew Leader