Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Week 7: June 23-27, 2017

Crew 1: Highcock Knob Relocation

working with Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club

click here for the full photo album

After spending three consecutive weeks working on the Tennessee/North Carolina border, Crew 1 finally set out toward a new destination for Week 7.  Heading north from Base Camp in Sugar Grove, the crew drove past Roanoke and on to the Blue Ridge Parkway to reach the James River Face Wilderness.

The project for the week was a relocation on the 3,073-foot high Highcock Knob, which has been under construction for several years and involves rerouting the A.T. off of the steepest portions of this challenging hike.  The existing trail has sections so steep and rocky that they present a safety concern as well as a trail sustainability issue.

As if the rocky terrain and a grueling daily hike to the work site weren’t enough, Highcock Knob sits in a designated Wilderness Area.  This designation limits the size of any group in the area to 10 and also includes a total ban on the use of motorized power tools, thus putting constraints on the crew and creating new challenges. 

Consisting of mostly alumni volunteers and accompanied by the charismatic Doug DeJarnette, Vice President of Natural Bridge Trail Club, Crew 1 was ready for action on day 1 and started off strong by carrying all of the week’s tools up the painfully steep 1.5 mile hike up to the work site.

Sweat dripped down the brows of the crew members and the climb was slow, but after about an hour the tools were safely cached at the relocation site.  On the way, the team was joined by two more veteran members of the Natural Bridge Club, John and Trudy Phillips.  The combined crew surveyed the work and discussed plans for the week’s work before turning around and heading back down the trail, this time without the added weight of tools.

The next task at hand was to set up camp, which was based at the beautiful Watson’s Pond located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.  As usual, setting up the kitchen tarp proved to be a challenging endeavor, and it remains unclear whether the unusually high number of engineers in the volunteer pool had a positive or negative effect on the setup speed.  Ultimately, the tarp was installed and the rest of the campsite came together without a hitch.

In addition to the scenic view afforded by the pond, the site also offered a sizable fire ring and plenty of flat space for tent setup on the surface of a gated Forest Service road.

The first night at Watson’s Pond was the one and only time during the week that rain fell upon Crew 1 - a welcome phenomenon after a wet spring with plenty of thunderstorms.  The precipitation and heavy wind had long since ceased by morning and the crew embarked on their first work day.

The journey to the work site featured some added adventure, as two blowdowns (felled by the wind in the night) barred the progress of the crew vehicles.  Most of the cutting tools were already up at the work site, but thankfully Doug, a self-proclaimed “trail nerd,” camped with us and had his Samurai hand saw and a couple of aluminum wedges ready for action within a couple seconds, and the fallen trees were quickly dispatched. 

Finally reaching the worksite, Crew 1 was met by a contingent of volunteers from the Natural Bridge Club, including John, Trudy, Nancy, and Bev.  After warming up with a stretch circle and a round of especially spirited jokes, it was time to hit the trail. Climbing back up Highcock Knob was much easier on Day 2 without the burden of tools.  That being said, it is a tough hike in the best of times and it ate up a considerable portion of the morning work time.  Crew 1 and the Club members did not hesitate to jump right into the day by immediately quarrying a number of hefty rocks from the hillside to use as steps.  With a combination of rock bars, rock nets, and teamwork, this proved to be no trouble for the crew and by lunch it was time to start building.

As usual, the crew split into several smaller teams to work on individual projects along the trail relocation.  A small group worked on building a stone staircase at an especially steep section at the low point of the trail, while others began installing a series of rock check steps further up to slow the flow of water.  Yet another contingent of volunteers worked on addressing a messy area dubbed “the pit of despair” with a combination of steps, cribbing, and a ridiculous amount of crush.  Most of the Club members devoted their efforts to digging sidehill along the remaining course of the relocation, a task which was far from simple thanks to the extremely rocky conditions. 

Working collectively, Crew 1 and the Natural Bridge Club moved at a brisk pace and the construction was well underway by the end of the first full work day.  Perhaps the most notable function in this process was the production of crush, which virtually never ceased as it was always in demand.  Throughout the abundant rock-smashing, one sledgehammer met an untimely end - but its sacrifice was certainly not in vain.  The structures built on the relocation were made with the robust, long-term vision of sustainability that characterizes all work done by the Konnarock Volunteer Trail Crew. 

Although the hiking and working was strenuous, Crew 1 was treated to a remarkable Club-sponsored event when members of Natural Bridge Club visited the Watson’s Pond site after the second work day. The Club put on a potluck featuring a mouth-watering array of barbecue, salads, watermelon, brownies, cold beverages, and much more.  Without a doubt, Crew 1 felt their efforts to be appreciated by the Club - this is an ideal illustration of the partnerships between Trail Crews and Maintaining Clubs that make stewardship of the A.T. successful and enriching. 

By the third work day, all crew members were hitting their stride and projects were nearing completion.  The staircase was wrapped up with a series of gargoyle stones and a thick bed of crush and mineral soil to protect the roots of an oak tree on the edge of the trail.  The check steps likewise were back-filled with crush and topped off with mineral soil, at which point they blended almost seamlessly with the trail.  The so-called “pit of despair” was conquered handily with the completion of some incredibly beefy cribbing stones and plenty more crush.

Sidehill was mostly completed by this point, thus enabling Crew 1 to turn its sights on the next segment of the trail relocation that will be tackled next week.  Using the remaining time, a small group conducted some exploratory digging and clearing of vegetation on an especially tricky section, which consists of a huge mound of rocks, mulchy organic soil, and not much else.   After digging down over five feet into the dirt and still failing to locate any mineral soil, it became clear that this was Pit of Despair 2.0.

In fact, this pit made the first pit of despair look downright cheerful by comparison.  The ultimate goal here will be to construct a crib wall to hold the trail up, but until mineral soil can be located this remains more of a theoretical concept.  In any case, the next volunteers to return to Highcock Knob for Week 8 will have no choice but to face this challenge head-on. 

With project work wrapped up for the week, Crew 1 cached tools and headed down the trail one last time and traveled back to Watson’s Pond for the evening.  Activities at the Pond included swimming, painting, campfire-tending, and engineering a secret-ingredient substitute for the missing soy sauce in our Spice Thai Noodles recipe.  Lulled to sleep by the sound of barred owls and the occasional coyote (not to be confused with the hybrid “coywolf”) crew members were tired but satisfied and ready to head back to Base Camp the next day.

The trip back to Base Camp was full of adventure, including the sighting of two black bears (a mother with a cub), a visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, and a side-hike down to Fallingwater Cascade.  After this, a scenic drive on the parkway took Crew 1 to the Roanoke Star, which just happens to be the world’s largest man-made vertical star.  Having checked this off of their individual bucket lists, the crew members got back in the vehicles and made one more stop for lunch at Billy’s Barn off of Route 81 for some delicious burgers and drinks. 

Overall, Week 8 was a major success with a first-rate group of volunteers and Club members.  A huge thanks goes out to the entire Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club (in particular the members who either worked with us on the trail or provided us with the potluck dinner) for their hospitality and hard work on the trail.

A special thanks must be extended to Natural Bridge Club’s President, Mike Rieley, who made a special appearance on the third week day to express his appreciation to the crew and lend a helping hand with the work during the morning.  Thanks as well to Doug DeJarnette for camping with Crew 1 throughout the week.  Another thanks must be extended to the members of the Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club, who organized yet another potluck dinner for both Crew 1 and Crew 2 when they returned to Base Camp. 

The work remaining for the next two project weeks at Highcock Knob are daunting indeed, but Crew 1 hasn’t met a challenge yet that’s too big to take on.  Until next time, stay tuned.  

--Josh Reynolds, Assistant Crew Leader

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