Profiles

Konnarock Trail Crew


Konnarock Crew members work with the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club to relocate a very steep section of the Trail at Backbone Rock in Tennessee

Labor of LOVE

By Clay Bonnyman Evans

I was thumping down a long

series of human-made stone steps to Vermont Route 9, one of the steepest half-mile sections on the Appalachian Trail, in a torrential downpour when it really struck me how much work it takes to keep the Trail healthy, sustainable, and free of obstruction. How in the world do they get these massive boulders into place? I wondered, grateful to the anonymous rock-haulers who had eased my descent.

Nine months later, strapped like a mule to a six-hundred-pound chunk of granite near the crest of Yellow Mountain on the Georgia-North Carolina border, I have my answer: inch-by-inch, via teamwork, with plenty of thick, mud-grimed yellow webbing, sheer muscle, and lots of grunts and groans. “One … two … three!” barks Justin Farrell, crew leader with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s (ATC) storied Konnarock Trail Crew. Five guys hoist the rock a few inches off the ground and I drive my legs hard, tugging it forward a couple of feet. A dozen such efforts and we’re ready to maneuver the boulder into position for a single French drain on this one small section of the 2,189-mile Trail. “Working on the crew really makes you realize how hard it is to keep the Trail maintained,” observes volunteer Haley Holiman, a 20-year-old wildlife sciences student at Mississippi State University.

If not for the efforts of thousands of volunteers each year, the A.T. simply wouldn’t exist. Thirty-one Trail maintaining clubs, each responsible for a section of the Trail, proudly and effectively perform routine maintenance year-round — but some projects are beyond the scope of the busy clubs. From May to October, the ATC — with funding from the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service and support from the Trail clubs — puts six volunteer crews into the field for intensive Trail rehabilitation and rerouting projects. Volunteers contribute some 270,000 hours to the A.T. every year, making it one of the largest volunteer-driven projects in the world.

And it all began with the Konnarock Crew thirty-five years ago, when the purchase of a large tract of private land made it possible to relocate the Trail from a rutted dirt road to the gorgeous Wolf Rocks overlook in Pennsylvania. With a paid ATC crew leader and a handful of volunteers, that successful effort paved the way for the first full-scale summer program, funded by the ATC Board and the Forest Service, and soon named after its base camp at a former girls’ school in Konnarock, Virginia.

Today, Konnarock headquarters is a Forest Service camp in Sugar Grove, Virginia, and the crew works on projects from central Virginia to Georgia. The success of Konnarock soon spawned five more ATC crews — the Maine Crew, Vermont Long Trail Patrol, Mid-Atlantic Crew, SWEAT (Smokies Wilderness Elite A.T.) Crew, and Rocky Top Crew. In 2016, the ATC also began overseeing the annual Hard Core Crew that recruits long-distance hikers at Trail Days in Damascus, Virginia, for an intensive project.

Last year, 192 Konnarock volunteers from 30 states and three foreign countries gave 8,565 hours on eleven projects, including completion of the eight-year New River relocation project and four-year effort to carve a bench out of a rocky cliff, both near Pearisburg, Virginia, and a major relocation in Tennessee’s Rocky Fork State Park. “It’s pretty amazing to have had that same support for the past 35 years, the buy-in from the Forest Service, the park service, and the 12 clubs we work with,” says Josh Kloehn, resource manager for the ATC’s Central and South Virginia Regional Office, who oversees the Konnarock program.

Volunteers contribute some 270,000 hours to the A.T. every year, making it one of the largest volunteer-driven projects in the world.


Clockwise from above right: “Cool Breeze” and a fellow crew member at work this past spring near the crest of Yellow Mountain on the Georgia-North Carolina border; 2016 Trail relocation work on Sinking Creek Mountain in Virginia; The crew worked with the Natural Bridge A.T. Club on the Highcock Knob Relocation in the James River Face Wilderness, Virginia

Beyond sweat equity, Trail crews also play a key role in helping the ATC meet the goals of its five-year Strategic Plan, adopted in 2014. Working closely with local clubs to identify, approve, fund, and complete projects, for example, supports the goal of creating “Engaged Partners.” And Trail crews contribute to “Broader Relevancy” by bringing together volunteers of diverse backgrounds, age, and Trail experience.

Marching more than a mile toward the crown of 5,127-foot Yellow Mountain each morning, our crew of nine volunteers and two crew leaders included a retired corrections officer from Michigan, two thirty-something Army veterans from Connecticut, a British Mississippi State statistics professor, and a genuine Trail legend, Joe “Cool Breeze” Fennelly, 69, who finished his first thru-hike in 1978. Three of us had hiked the entire A.T., while two took their first steps when we went to work that first morning. “Some of these volunteers have never seen a hand tool, never seen a pick mattock, never held a shovel,” Kloehn says. “They just put in their chips and make whatever experience they want out of it.”


Last July, Konnarock crew members worked with the Outdoor Club of Virginia Tech to complete the Peters Mountain portion of the New River Relocation project, above the town Pearisburg, Virginia, after nine seasons of hard work from countless volunteers along the way

Each week’s crews gather at base camp for an excellent home-cooked dinner — prepared this season by long-time camp boss Janet Gibbons and Rachel Esrig — followed by a brief orientation and distribution of safety gear. The following morning, crews shuttle to work sites, where they make camp.

On the job, crew leaders roam the Trail, assisting as needed and instructing volunteers. Our crew did everything from clearing brush to building sidehill trail to installing rock steps and using a sledgehammer to crush many cubic yards of rock, for use in stabilizing a wall or lining a drain. “I used to think they brought the gravel in,” says Megan Eiser-Nolan, a 36-year-old nurse and former Army officer on her second stint with Konnarock, with a laugh. “But no, we actually have to break our own rocks!”

I signed up for Konnarock because I wanted to give back to and reconnect with the Trail. I never imagined it would be a sort of crystallized version of my 2016 thru-hike: hard work, overcoming adversity, stunning beauty, and, best of all, camaraderie between strangers who have come together for a common purpose. “It’s just a great experience. You meet great people who want to be there not because it’s their job, but because they want to give back to the Trail,” says “Cool Breeze” Fennelly, who has worked on a dozen Konnarock crews since 1986. “Everyone who hikes the A.T. does some damage, and if we love the Trail, and want it to be there for the next generation, we have to do something to make it better.”


Map: Volunteer Trail Crews are active from May through October each year, working on projects from Maine to Georgia

The desire to pitch in has inspired countless hikers to join Konnarock or another crew. But as Haley Holiman discovered during her two weeks on Yellow Mountain, it sometimes works the other way around. She’d never even seen the Trail before arriving at Deep Gap. Her first few days left her tired, sore, and sometimes cold; she admits she was startled by the chorus of coyotes that struck up a tune just up the hill from her tent one night. But she soon got used to marching up the mountain each morning and began to revel in every aspect in Trail life. Now, she not only hopes to rejoin to Konnarock, but also is pondering her own A.T. hike. “The first thing I did when I got home was start researching what you need and how much it costs,” she says. “I loved it and I’d really like to experience it for myself.”


Video: Hard Core Crew


Clay Bonnyman Evans, (a.k.a. “Pony”) thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016. He is a writer living in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina and Boulder, Colorado. For more information about ATC Trail Crews visit: appalachiantrail.org/TrailCrews


Find more stories, photos, and follow the Konnarock Crew at: konnarockcrew.blogspot.com

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