Monday, June 19, 2017

Week 2: May 11-15, 2017

Crew 1: South of Stecoah Gap Rehab

working with Smoky Mountains Hiking Club in North Carolina

Click here for the full photo album.

For Week 2 of the Konnarock trail season, Crew 1 (led by Jerry Kyle and Josh Reynolds) headed down to North Carolina with a group of student volunteers from the University of South Dakota.  The students joined Konnarock as part of USD’s Alternative Week of Off-Campus Learning (AWOL) program, and although their prior camping experience was limited in many cases, all came with incredible enthusiasm and an openness to learning and experiencing life on a trail crew. 

The addition of these midwestern crew members (complete with some great accents!) contributed yet more color to the typically eclectic mix of thru-hikers, crew staff, club members, and locals that pitch in on a Konnarock project.

The project for this week centered on the trailhead on the southern side of the road at Stecoah Gap.  Before work commenced, the crew laid eyes on the sorry state of the existing staircase, consisting of aging railroad tie steps that were in various states of rot and misalignment.  The goal of the project did not lack ambition: remove the existing staircase and replace it with native timber steps, properly spaced and leveled, the material for which had to be entirely harvested and processed on site.

The first phase of the project was procuring building material for the new steps.  Josh took several daring volunteers down a winding Forest Service road to assist with bucking up a massive fallen locust tree into step and stake lengths, then loading the entire tree’s worth of wood into the back of the crew truck.  Meanwhile, Jerry led a group in the perilous task of transporting logs from the other side of Route 143 across the road and into the work site.  By lunchtime, Crew 1 possessed an abundance of material to work with.

The next task was processing the logs into usable components for the steps. With an array of draw knives, splitting wedges, hammers, axes, pony bars and some chainsaw use, the bark was stripped away and logs were halved to maximize material.  We also created a multitude of pointed stakes out of the narrower locust sections, which would be used to pin the steps in place. 

Following the lengthy process of splitting and debarking, the project geared up and began to accelerate.  The volunteers quickly picked up the skills of setting log steps, and as the week progressed crew leader coaching was able to become more and more minimal.  

As the staircase’s roadside location was sure to garner a lot of attention, we strove to make the steps as level and consistent as possible - and this effort clearly paid off as a beautiful structure materialized over the course of the week.  Throughout the building process the volunteers maintained a lively work environment with plenty of humor and a fair bit of sass, leading to good spirits and quality construction among the crew throughout the long work days.

Even with the practically non-stop work on the steps, Crew 1 found plenty of opportunity for some extra adventures and memorable events.  One of these was a surprise dose of “trail magic” delivered by a former thru-hiker by the name of Quest.  As someone who frequently delivers treats to those making the long and arduous AT journey, Quest took a keen interest in the crew and expressed his appreciation for our work by delivering seven rectangular pizzas and one gluten-free rotisserie chicken the next day just in time for lunch. 

This kind of generosity really impressed upon the volunteers the unique spirit of the AT, and the community of people who give the trail its soul.  Needless to say, the crew members were well fed and energized to continue putting in steps of the highest quality.

Off the work site and back at the camp site, two miles into the Forest Service road, Crew 1 celebrated a good day’s work with a campfire comprised of scrap locust wood from the step-making process.  This campfire experience was improved by Ox of the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, who in addition to helping with trail work throughout the day took it upon himself to go into town and buy s’mores ingredients for the crew.  Many toasted marshmallows and several rounds of “Werewolf” later, the crew members went to slipped away to their tents, falling asleep to the distinctive hooting of barred owls in the surrounding forest.

But wait, there’s more!  The final work day on the project was full of accomplishments.  Not only did Crew 1 finish replacing the entire staircase (plus an accompanying cribbing wall) at the trailhead, but we also found time to install several other structures along the trail including several new log check steps, a set of cribbing steps to protect some tree roots, rehab on a number of existing staircases, and some rock work.  This extra work was assisted by yet another volunteer from the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, Casey, who wholeheartedly joined our group and put in some very hard work.

After completing it all, the crew took a field trip to Fontana Dam, where everyone enjoyed the gorgeous scenery of the lake and the remarkable engineering feat of the dam itself. 

This was followed by dinner at the Wildwood Grill in Fontana Village where Ox presented the volunteers with official SMHC volunteer shirts.

Having installed over 40 log steps, Crew 1 headed home on day five feeling very satisfied with the quality and quantity of the work accomplished.  On the way home, we took a detour into Cherokee, NC to visit the Oconaluftee Indian Village.  The crew got to experience a tour of this recreated 18th century Cherokee village, including demonstrations of traditional crafts like basket-weaving, pottery, and weapon-making.  This proved to be a fascinating way to wrap up a very successful Konnarock project week. 

A big thanks to the USD students for making the long drive from South Dakota to volunteer with ATC, and for being such a positive, hardworking, self-motivated, and entertaining team. 

Another thanks goes out to the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, in particular Ox, Casey, and Crystal who all joined us for some part of the project week and gave the volunteers a sense of the different constituencies who keep the AT maintained for all hikers to enjoy.  Everyone worked together wonderfully and made Konnarock Week 2 a huge success!

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader

Crew 2: Yellow Mountain Rehab

Crew 2 is working with the Nantahala Hiking Club for two weeks in a row, and not returning to Base Camp between weeks. Tune in here for a post about both weeks, coming soon!

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