Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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

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