/ Community Engagement, Trails and Recreation,

The Rock Crushers

Rock Crusher Volunteers Cathy Cooper and Kim Chao
Rock Crusher Volunteers Cathy Cooper and Kim Chao

Every morning, Cathy Cooper’s alarm wakes her to the eastern sun’s warm glow rising above the Appalachians. She greets each day by taking her shepherd mix, Maddie, up the one-mile trail to the top of Bearwallow Mountain. From there, she is able to gaze out at the wide expanse of rolling mountains fading away into the horizon as a soft breeze makes the oak leaves dance.

Cathy has been hiking Bearwallow for nearly 40 years, but it was a chance encounter on a winter day in 2015 that enabled Cathy to play a larger role in the trail she loves so dearly. Bearwallow is where Cathy discovered Conserving Carolina’s Trail Crew. The popular trail is frequently on the crew’s maintenance list.

One rainy morning Cathy spotted Al Pung, a Trail Crew member, taking photos of a dead tree. “I stopped to talk to him and he proceeded to tell me all about Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (now Conserving Carolina) and how wonderful an organization it is and how I would really enjoy the people and work that it does,” says Cathy. “Boy was he right!”

Cathy was looking for a community of nature lovers and more ways to spend time in the great outdoors. “I found my tribe,” says Cathy, proudly. “I’ve always loved being outside, no matter what the weather, it makes me feel alive and thankful. I tease my husband all the time about letting me cut the grass and he can run the vacuum.”

Every Wednesday, the Trail Crew convenes to create and to improve Conserving Carolina’s extensive network of trails in the Hickory Nut Gorge, under the direction of Conserving Carolina’s trails coordinator, Peter Barr.

“Our crew is now fondly called Conserving Carolina ‘Rock Crushers’ Trail Crew, because we hand made so much gravel,” says Peter. “We make gravel to harden the tread surface—or underneath the surface—of trails, which makes them more sustainable. Rock lasts forever, and boots that step on rock instead of soil or mud don’t disturb or dislodge any soil, eliminating erosion and impact to the natural resource.”

Earlier this month, the crew improved the Bearwallow Mountain trailhead by spreading and compacting 40,000 pounds of gravel and installing parking signs.

Creating and maintaining what may seem like simple paths through the woods is actually quite complex. Much like Conserving Carolina’s work to permanently conserve our lands and waters, trails must also stand the test of time while minimizing impact to the natural resources through which they traverse.

When creating new trails, Peter seeks to achieve physical, ecological, social and managerial sustainability. These four components respectively address level of upkeep as well as care for the land, flora and fauna, and trail users.

“Sustainable trails are a science,” says Peter. “A well thought out and skillfully constructed trail won’t damage the land long-term while also offering an enjoyable and deeply impactful experience to all those who follow it—now and forever.”

With these principles, the “Rock Crushers” typically focus on special projects such as building stairs, installing grade reversals, solving drainage issues, installing trailhead kiosks, clearing debris and deadfall after the Party Rock fire, supporting professional trail contractors in their construction process and monitoring Bearwallow Mountain’s summit—removing discarded trash and fire rings from illegal camping.

Recently the crew aided in the construction of Conserving Carolina’s newest hiking and mountain biking trail, the Weed Patch Mountain Trail, readying it for a spring 2018 opening to the public.

“Our trail work times include a wide variety of memorable moments from surprise sightings of wildlife and special wildflowers to situations of being caught in a downpour or, during our post-Party Rock wildfire work on Weed Patch Mountain, being particularly sweaty and comically ash dirty—experiences which are more ‘fun’ in memory than during the actual moments,” says volunteer Bob Carlson with a smile.
Bob and his wife, Kim Chao, connected with Conserving Carolina through its White Squirrel Hiking Challenge program, where participants complete eight hikes and become Conserving Carolina members to receive a special congratulatory package. Bob and Kim are dedicated volunteers committed to making a difference and paying it forward.
“For me, so many of the joyous wonders of life are found in nature,” adds Bob. “I am a more positive, focused, happier, awe-filled human being when I am regularly immersed in the natural world. As Henry David Thoreau was noted for doing, I too, worship in the woods. Through my various types of volunteering with Conserving Carolina, I believe that I have helped increase meaningful opportunities for many others to experience the restorative powers of nature.”
While strong camaraderie carries the “Rock Crushers” through longer days of physical labor, an intense mutual passion for protecting and caring for our natural heritage is at its heart.

“Getting to know nature first-hand is like getting to know a person,” says Kim. “Once you have a first-hand acquaintance with it, you come to know, love and appreciate it. People who love nature will take care of it as they would a close friend.”

The crew understands that a simple walk in the woods provides boundless benefits.

“So many humans in today’s tech-bombarded society have become excessively addicted to television, computers, cell phones and electronic gadgets, which too often steal our time and increase our dependency on being entertained instead of being involved,” says Bob. “Contemporary problems of obesity, depression and excessive stress result. Beyond the benefits of healthy outdoor physical exercise, interacting with wilderness regularly serves as a natural stress reducer.”

The “Rock Crushers” work hard to provide accessible and enjoyable outdoor opportunities for people from all walks of life. For a crew of just eight to ten on any given Wednesday, they accomplish incredible feats. They removed an astounding 1,500 pounds of trash at Eagle Rock on the Weed Patch Mountain Trail.

“We collected more than 30 bags of trash – broken glass, cans, flip-tops, metal grates, car parts and other garbage – that had been scattered across and along the trail and down a steep hillside adjacent to the trail,” says Donna Hamilton, who is a frequent Trail Crew member along with her husband, Bill. “We were all slipping and sliding and struggling up and down the hillside with our large bags of trash. When we finally finished, we were all quite proud for having conquered such a large task and bringing the land back to a more natural state.”

Since late 2015, the “Rock Crushers” have donated more than 2,000 volunteer hours of turning big rocks into little rocks, endured 19 bee strings, installed more than 40 trail stairs and cared for 19 miles of Conserving Carolina’s trails in the Hickory Nut Gorge.

“I’m thankful to be a part of a team and organization that is making the outdoors more accessible for everyone by building trails and offering a variety of opportunities and places to get outside,” adds Donna. “Whether it be to conquer a mountaintop or to sit in solitude alongside a stream.”

Next time you are exploring the Hickory Nut Gorge on one of Conserving Carolina’s trails, pause for a moment to not only admire the dramatic cliffs, gushing waterfalls and dense forests, but also to admire the trail beneath your feet and to thank the passionate folks behind these paths.

Interested in joining Conserving Carolina’s Trail Crew? Contact Peter Barr ([email protected]), Trails Coordinator.