Thursday, August 3, 2017

Week 10: July 20-24, 2017

Crew 1: Jump Off Rehab

working with Nantahala Hiking Club

click here for the full photo album

It’s hard to believe that Konnarock Volunteer Trail Crew just completed its 10th project week of the season - time flies when you’re having fun (Types 1, 2, and sometimes 3).  Week 10 took Crew 1 south for a change, all the way down to the Nantahala National Forest in western NC.  

While most projects that Konnarock takes on require around 5 years of planning and approvals, this unique project was rapidly approved in less than a year.  The reason?  Wildfires last fall roared through many areas in southern Appalachia, and in certain areas the A.T. was heavily damaged.  One of these badly impacted sites is “The Jump Off,” a landmark cliff on the A.T. about 4 miles trail-south from the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) that boasts epic views of the Great Smoky Mountains.  

Although the view is phenomenal, the trail was dicey even in the best of conditions.  Now, with fire damage, the site is incredibly degraded and in urgent need of rehabilitation.  Numerous log steps and log cribs have been burned to the point where the trail is in serious danger of simply washing away. 

Crew 1 set out with a small group of volunteers to take on what was sure to be a challenging project.  The drive from Sugar Grove was a long one, although a stop at the North Carolina Welcome Center on I-26 to pick up some Appalachian Voice horoscopes ensured that it was far from boring.  Depending on their astrological sign, some crew members found themselves looking inward and pondering life’s questions while others were exhorted to exclaim “Glory Hallelujah!” in celebration of lives so grand life that no one else would ever understand.  

After one more stop at the Mountain Fresh Produce roadside stand, the crew eventually made it past the NOC and eventually ended up on a remote Forest Service road where the vegetation was overgrown and hazard trees hung ominously over the campsite.

Despite the rough appearance of the camping accommodations, Crew 1 leapt into action.  Crew Leader Jerry Kyle brandished the crew chainsaw and felled two dangerous dead trees while the rest of the crew worked on hanging the kitchen tarp.  The lack of appropriate trees made hanging the tarp a challenge, but this was nothing compared to the shock delivered when a sudden harsh rattling broke the air and crew members were alerted to the presence of a sizable Timber Rattlesnake hidden in the brush on the side of the road!  

Thankfully, everyone gave the snake some space and Jerry was able to nudge it over the edge of the road with the help of a shovel, where it continued to rattle angrily.  A serpent-watcher was appointed to keep an eye on the ill-tempered pit viper while the tarp installation continued, privy and sump were dug, and the thick brush on the road was razed with the help of a weedeater.  Having finally eliminated the most visible hazards from camp, the crew members were able to set up their own tents and gather their minds for the following work day.

Although the camp setup was full of excitement, the real adventure began on the next morning.  The biggest concern about the project at the Jump Off from a trailwork perspective was the lack of viable building material from which to repair and replace damaged log structures.  Usable trees that were not too badly scorched were few and far between; usable black locust trees even rarer.  The need for material was so desperate that the crew leaders opted to make use of one of the hazard trees that had been felled at the campsite.  This would be no easy task, as the logs would need to be carried a mile uphill to the work site using freighter packs.  Nevertheless, crew members rose to the occasion and saddled up with logs in addition to their personal gear.

In hot, humid conditions, the crew traversed an uneven and minimally bushwhacked access trail that was steep enough in places that a free hand was needed to hold on to burnt rhododendron branches.  By the time they arrived at the Jump Off, all members of the team were drenched in sweat.  There was no reprieve from the heat, as the fire had burned away practically all foliage at the work site.  Sunscreen was essential, in addition to copious hydration.  As for the log-luggers, they were especially exhausted and deserving of applause after this challenging hike.

Crew 1 then divided into groups, with several members working with Josh to begin replacing burnt-out steps while several others joined Jerry in the hunt for more viable building materials.  The worksite itself was perilous, with an especially narrow tread flanked by a steep drop on the downhill side.  Severe erosion on this slope had made the earth loose and unstable, and so a fall off of the side could have proven very dangerous.  

Another section of the worksite featured a tread surface that was practically floating, having had its log crib burnt out.  With nothing to support this narrow area of trail, it is only a matter of time before erosion would take its toll.

Progress was slowly but steadily made.  Eventually, several more trees were felled, which made for plenty of work opportunity as the trees needed to be bucked, debarked, and split.  And, of course, split logs had to be carried by freighter pack to the work site.  Meanwhile, steps began to be replaced on the log staircase in question.  

Crew 1 was assisted throughout the week by members of the Nantahala Hiking Club who came out to lend a hand.  Throughout all of this work, the crew members learned that when it comes to getting dirty, there isn’t much better place to do so than in a burned forest.  Charcoal blackened the clothes and skin of everyone involved in the project - the sweat and sunscreen only helped it stick more effectively.

Due to the working conditions, this was an especially uncomfortable time not to have a shower.  However, the crew made the best of the local environment by taking several post-work trips to the Nantahala River.  These river baths were the perfect way to cool down and wash away the grime of the work day.  Another fun evening activity was provided by Paul and Don of the Nantahala Hiking Club, who took Crew 1 out to dinner at the Monte Alban Mexican Restaurant in Andrews, NC.  After enjoying the massive portion sizes at this quality establishment, the crew made a bonus stop at Scoops Creamery in downtown Andrews to squeeze dessert into their stomachs. 

By the third and final work day, the project was accelerating.  For once, the supply of logs outpaced the supply of crush.  Progress continued while meanwhile Jerry brainstormed ideas for the biggest challenge of this project (which will not be tackled until a later week), the burned out log crib AKA the floating trail.  Ben Barry, ATC’s Trails Manager for the southern regional office, also made an appearance to meet the crew and lend a helping hand with the work.  

By the end of the day, a substantial pile of logs had been amassed and several other trees identified for felling.  A promising plan had been developed for solving the crib wall issue, and the damaged log staircase had undergone a major transformation which will greatly reduce trail erosion.  Although much more remains to be done and the overall condition of the trail section remains a challenge, an impressive amount of work was accomplished.  Crew 1 is well-prepared for the next week at the Jump Off.

And so at last the crew broke down camp on the final morning and departed from their temporary home, heading back north.  Not, however, without making a stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center to browse at the Outfitters store and take a picture at the bridge where the A.T. crosses the Nantahala River.  A bit more driving brought the team to downtown Sylva, NC for a satisfying lunch at Lulu’s on Main. Finally, the crew vehicles cruised on home to Sugar Grove, and yet another Konnarock week with Crew 1 came successfully to a close.

A special thanks to the Nantahala Hiking Club members who came out to support us, both those who worked alongside the crew and those who took the crew out for a fantastic dinner.  Thanks as well to Ben Barry for coming out to help with the work.  And finally, a major thank you to our amazing group of volunteers who gave their time and energy in the sweltering heat, and did so with positive attitudes and enthusiasm.  It’ll take more than a bit of fire and charcoal to dissuade Crew 1 from tackling whatever trail work challenges emerge on the A.T.  Let the next week come with its challenges - we will be ready!

--Assistant Crew Leader Josh Reynolds

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