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

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