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

Week 4: May 27-31, 2017

Crew 1: Big Butt/Jerry Cabin

working with Carolina Mountain Club

click here for the full photo album

As the month of May comes to a close, so does Week 4 of the Konnarock Trail Crew season.  This fourth week took Crew 1 on a precarious climb to the upper reaches of Big Butt Mountain in western North Carolina.

The primary goal of the trip was to rehabilitate an area of trail that had become a slippery mudhole, with an existing log ladder no longer serving its purpose.  This messy area of trail would test the mettle of the Konnarock team and serve as an example of the necessity of sustainable trail building techniques.

On this thrilling journey, Crew 1 took an incredibly solid group of military and veteran volunteers from the University of Central Missouri (AKA the Mules).  Jeff Huffman, Director of the Office of Military and Veteran Services at UCM, coordinated this experience as a service learning trip to create lasting memories and increase the connection veterans students have to their university.

In addition to the team from UCM, Crew 1 also featured one international guest volunteer: Rui, visiting us from the Azores, Portugal, came to learn about trail building for his Ph.D studies.  Despite the considerable credentials of this team, crew members came with a wide range in prior camping experiences: from seasoned hunters and highly trained survivalists to those who had never slept outside before. 

The journey up Big Butt Mountain was a tricky one, mainly due to the extremely dicey forest road that Crew 1 ascended in their vehicles.  11 miles of winding, rutted, gullied dirt roads required several episodes of chainsaw usage to clear the way.  With a new set of tire chains and the driving expertise of Crew Leader Jerry Kyle, however, even the Konnarock van made it up the difficult road without getting stuck. 

The crew set up camp in the historic Ballground area, where the AT passes through a beautiful bald field that is also highly exposed to the elements.  With dark clouds gathering on the horizon and the thunder rumbling in the distance, the team shared a delicious dinner before retreating to the shelter of tents for the evening.  This retreat came just in the nick of time, as the Ballground was shortly thereafter blasted with a ferocious storm.  Heavy rain dumped on the field and the sky was never dark for more than a second or two as lighting flashed in rapid succession. 

In spite of the powerful storm, Crew 1 awakened the next morning undaunted and ready for action.  Day 1 of project work was exclusively dedicated to quarrying and transporting rocks for the construction of a stone staircase and a stone crib wall.  Due to the thick brush and general lack of suitable rocks at the immediate worksite, the crew had to dig and carry massive rocks from a considerable distance of several hundred yards.

Luckily, Crew 1 had a team of Mules (UCM’s mascot) to take care of the job.  Even rocks easily weighing 400 pounds were transported using rock nets and the coordinated might of Crew 1’s volunteer team.  By the end of Day 1, enough rocks had been collected and moved to do most of the construction on the necessary structures.

For the next two full days, crew members worked on several tasks. One group focused on the stone staircase, another on the crib wall, and a third group became a virtual gravel-factory as they smashed large stones into crush.  All tasks were made considerably more challenging by the preponderance of dark, reeking organic muck that formed a thick layer above the mineral soil.

This unpleasant layer had to be systematically scraped off of the tread surface in order to return the trail to a state that could even support structural building.  Several drainage channels were installed in the process, so that in the future water will be able to find its way off of the trail more easily.  Even the mineral soil was challenging to work with as it was a thick clay-filled material - so the digging and rock construction was intense and all crew members were thoroughly tired by the end of the work days. 

By the end of the third work day, an incredible amount of work had been achieved.  Although Crew 1 will be returning to Big Butt Mountain two more weeks to finish up what is currently a work in progress, the Week 4 team set a mighty foundation for the improvements to this challenging trail section.  Through the installation of massive stone steps and a solid crib wall, the trail has been raised out of the water and provided with several drainage opportunities.  The next week will feature plenty of crush-and-fill on the crib wall and the placement of several more steps, plus some additional measures to secure the new steps to the bedrock beneath them. 

Besides grueling rock work, Crew 1 enjoyed several evening campfires at the Ballground, a number of delicious meals (including a special breakfast of made-to-order omelettes and creamy grits courtesy of Jeff and Jerry), and plenty of stimulating conversations and reflections about all aspects of life.  Without exception, everyone on the crew took away a number of educational experiences from this trip, whether it was learning about Leave No Trace camping, learning how the military works, or learning about international cultural differences. 

On the way home after the close of the project, the crew stopped for lunch in Bristol at the legendary Burger Bar restaurant.  This turned out to be a meal of epic proportions as one crew member took on the Burger Bar Challenge.  The goal of the challenge is to successfully eat a 2-pound quadruple-cheeseburger with a 2.5-pound side of fries - in under 30 minutes.  Earning the trail name “Burger King” this UCM volunteer beat the odds with 8 minutes to spare, winning a t-shirt and the pride of being one of only five customers to ever succeed in the undertaking.

Afterwards, the owner of the Burger Bar, Joe, thanked the crew for their trail-building service by covering the costs of lunch and giving the team a special behind the scenes tour of the restaurant and his neighboring catering business, Piedmont Catering.  A huge thank you to Joe for this hospitality and generosity!

Another big thanks goes out to Rocky Fork State Park for helping to transport Crew 1’s gear up the last leg of the journey to the Ballground via ATV.  Thanks as well to ATC Southern Regional Director Morgan Sommerville for accompanying the crew on the climb up the forest road on Day 1.  Finally, a big thanks to Jeff for recruiting this all-star team of volunteers as part of his work with UCM’s Office of Military and Veteran Affairs.   

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Week 3: May 19-23, 2017

Crew 1: Buzzard Rock Rehab **Damascus Hardcore Project**

working with Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club

click here for the full photo album

Week 3 of the Konnarock Trail Crew season was no ordinary experience for Crew 1.  This was the week of the annual Damascus Hardcore trail crew event, a Trail Days tradition celebrating its 17th year.  

Originated by the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club under the charismatic leadership of Bob Peoples, Hardcore (properly pronounced in the Bostonian “Hahd-cohw”) is an opportunity for current thru-hikers to give back to the AT and learn about trail work.  

After 15 years, Tennessee Eastman met their own goals for the program in their state and passed Hardcore off to ATC’s Konnarock Trail Crew in partnership with the Mount Rogers Trail Club.

For 2017, Hardcore took place on the bald upper slopes of Whitetop Mountain, the second highest mountain in Virginia (5518’).

The Buzzard Rock formation was the focus of the project, where existing stone steps on the trail had blown out and shifted over time, making for challenging and potentially unsafe footing. Other areas of the trail had become considerably gullied in the absence of drainage and trail hardening structures.  The required work was ambitious indeed, and worthy of the extra crew capacity that Hardcore would bring to the table. 

To effectively manage a large group of thru-hiker volunteers, many of whom had no prior experience with trail work, an all-star team featuring multiple-year alumni of the Konnarock volunteer program was recruited for Crew 1.  Each Konnarock volunteer would serve as an assistant crew leader in his or her own right, leading small groups of hikers on sections of the trail. 

To prepare for the arrival of the Hardcore crew, Crew 1 spent two days on Whitetop quarrying rocks suitable for the construction of sustainable stone staircases, check steps, and water bars.  Selecting and transporting well-shaped rocks weighing hundreds of pounds was no easy task, and required a tremendous amount of strategy and teamwork.  

To make matters more challenging, the crew was exposed to the punishing weather conditions on the unprotected slopes of Whitetop, which included two thunderstorms, marble-sized hail, and white-out fog - not to mention some blazing sun on a few rare occasions.  Although the presence of lightning forced Crew 1 to temporarily seek lower ground on several occasions, the indomitable team returned to work as soon as safely possible to maximize preparations for the big event. 

On the third day the hikers arrived, accompanied by members of Tennessee Eastman and the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA).  Working like a fine-tuned machine, Crew 1 divided into strike teams according to plan, with each Crew 1 member leading 2-4 hikers.  After covering safety and proper tool usage, the teams dispersed to their sections and proceeded to install some quality structures.  

Copious digging was accompanied by ferrying buckets of gravel provided by the US Forest Service.  With the extra muscle provided by the Hardcore participants, Konnarock was able to accomplish an astonishing amount of work -  considering that half a day was lost to rain, and even when it wasn’t raining a dense white fog carpeted the entire work site. 

In between the wet, clammy, yet productive work days on Whitetop, Konnarock and the Hardcore team were treated to two catered dinners from Damascus’s In the Country restaurant, served by members of the Mount Rogers A.T. Club at Beartree Campground.  

ATC’s Virginia Regional Director Andrew Downs and Bob Peoples himself each said a few words to the participants before official 2017 Hardcore t-shirts and patches were distributed to all.  Though everybody and their gear was damp and chilled by the elements, spirits were high and many hikers shared their appreciation for gaining an insight into the methods and exertions of trail building.

For their part, the central Crew 1 team camped in a separate site at Beartree where they could sit around a modest campfire and reflect upon the day’s work each evening.  By the final day of the Konnarock project week, the hikers and club members had moved on, and Crew 1 ascended the misty slopes of Whitetop one last time to put some finishing touches on two staircases so that they would be left in suitable condition for hiking traffic.  

Able to focus their efforts on these few structures, the crew moved fast and by lunchtime had built the staircases to a suitable state of completion.  As the winds accelerated and yet more rain started to fall, Crew 1 packed up tools before making the week’s final hike through the soggy fields of the Whitetop bald.

All told, Konnarock led the Hardcore trail crew participants in the installation of over 70 stone steps and 6 stone water bars. Literally tons of rock and gravel had to be transported by human strength in this undertaking, and this amount of work could not have been accomplished in the allotted time without the generous contributions of every volunteer.  29 hiker volunteers chose to spend two days in very adverse weather conditions giving back to the AT.  The consistently positive attitudes throughout this difficult and strenuous work is a testament to the spirit of volunteerism that continues to animate and sustain the AT so that all may enjoy it. 

A big thank you goes out to all the current thru-hikers and Hardcore alumni who donated their time and energy to this project.  Thanks also to the members of the Tennessee Eastman Club, Mount Rogers Club, and ALDHA for their participation in the event.  Finally, a special thanks to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area Forest Service staff Evan Blevins and Stephen Hmurciak for delivering a ton of crushed gravel so close to the work site.  Through the combined and coordinated efforts of all parties involved, the 2017 Hardcore program achieved major accomplishments and the trail at Buzzard Rocks will benefit for decades to come.

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader

Weeks 2 & 3: May 11-23, 2017

Crew 2: Yellow Mountain Rehab

working with Nantahala Hiking Club in North Carolina

Click here for the full photo album.

Weeks Two and Three brought Crew Two way down south to Yellow Mountain in the Nantahala National Forest, only six trail miles north of the Georgia line. Though half of the Crew was able to stay and work the entire two weeks, four reluctantly had return to the “real world” after the first week while three new volunteers joined for the second week.

The work required for this rehabilitation project varied from minor tread definition and vegetation clearing to log step installation and heavy duty rock work.

The Crew camped at a tucked-away spot at one of the many Deep Gaps in the southern Appalachians, this particular Deep Gap being located near the end of FR 71 just south of Standing Indian Mountain. Around camp, Crew members enjoyed good conversation, music played by Cool Breeze on his penny whistle, and the call of the resident barred owls and coyotes. One volunteer had mastered the barred owl’s call so well that she was actually able to communicate with them.

From the campsite, the Crew hiked 1.5 miles up to the work site each morning, enjoying the plethora of spring wildflowers, flowing springs, and mountain vistas through the sparse spring canopy along the way. Once at the work site, they would discover other joys such as dragging brush through thick jungles of rhododendron and mountain laurel, swinging pulaskis and sledgehammers in mires of mud, moving 600 lb. rocks named “Fred”, and of course – crushing a seemingly endless amount of rock. One volunteer even reported that by the end of the project he was crushing rock in his dreams.
With the plethora of wet-weather springs on this segment of trail, one of the main goals of the project was to improve drainage and to create a dry treadway for hikers to walk. Needless to say, many of the projects took place in wet, muddy areas which were only accentuated by the rainy weather. This sort of work is bound to get a person extremely muddy, but who knew getting muddy could be so much fun?

The efforts of those hardy souls resulted in some rock-solid causeways, French drains, stone culverts, and steps that will undoubtedly endure the test of time. Crew members also did an excellent job of clearing out the thick overhanging vegetation, which will allow the sun’s rays to penetrate and help dry the Trail.

Between the two weeks, the Crew enjoyed a few extracurricular activities such as tubing on the Little River in Tennessee followed by a day hike up Clingman’s Dome, a haircut for one volunteer, trivia night at a local pub, and relaxing at Gooder Grove Hostel in Franklin, NC where they stayed during the three off days. The folks at the Hostel were kind enough to allow the Crew to stay free of charge. We thank them immensely for their hospitality.

Speaking of hospitality, the Crew was rewarded with several meals provided by the Nantahala Hiking Club throughout the two weeks - a Mexican dinner at El Charro in Franklin at the end of the first week, a BBQ at the hostel during the off days, and a final potluck celebration at the home of Bill and Sharon Van Horn. The Crew enjoyed the delicious food as much as getting to know NHC's dedicated year-round volunteers.

The Club also aided progress on the Trail by coming out and working several days, even in the rain. We simply cannot thank them enough for their generosity and hospitality as well as their expertise and dedication in the field.

By the second week, the Crew had become a well-oiled machine. The remaining projects consisted mostly of rock work – several water bars, french drains, a rock stair case, and a major crib wall project on the final day on which the whole team contributed. The Crew really outdid themselves by hammering out an amazing work in a short amount of time in spite of the less than ideal conditions.

Congratulations to all those who toughed it out through the rain and mud, especially those who were able to endure the full two weeks. Some very important work was accomplished, and it simply would not have been possible with out a great crew. Good work, Crew Two! HYAW!!!

--Brian Allgood, Assistant Crew Leader