Cumberland Island was excited to welcome a new volunteer to help with trail maintenance: Lawrence Garber. Lawrence has been spending the month of December assisting with leading volunteer service groups on trail restoration projects with me. After recently returning from the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Namibia, he has dedicated his time and energy to being a phenomenal leadership presence on the trails. Also a former Georgia Conservancy intern, Lawrence is familiar with the Conservancy’s history on Cumberland and has been an excellent ambassador of both the Conservancy and the NPS throughout the duration of his stay.
Lawrence, Jim (National Park Service), Bryan Schroeder (Senior Director of Stewardship and Outreach for the Conservancy) and I hit the ground running on Tuesday morning to prepare for the Georgia Conservancy Service Week. We hiked up to the north end of Roller Coaster which is accessed through North Cut road, the north end border of the wilderness. Beginning walking where the sign points “Roller Coaster ->”, it’s quickly evident that no trail exists. We had even heard a story at Hunt Camp about how two hunters recently got lost and had to spend the night on Lake Whitney as they couldn't find the trail. Well… we sure took care of that! Blazing through vines with thorns up to several inches long, we completely rerouted the section before it entered the dunes. The trail now follows closer to the water and winds through thick vegetation instead of dynamic and changing dune paths. We are aiming to minimize the amount of foot traffic on the dunes, which is accomplished when people stick to the easily blazed trail instead of having to wander around trying to get back on track.
The next morning after clearing this section of trail, the four of us carried in signs with arrows to place on the trail. We made sure that in this confusing section of trail you can always see the next sign and so it’s impossible to get lost! We left at lunchtime in order to go meet the Conservancy volunteers who were coming in on the afternoon ferry. The Georgia Conservancy Backcountry Trail Restoration Trip brought us 17 incredible volunteers! Five staff members from the office along with many frequent GC trips goers came down to dedicate three whole days to work. It was incredible to see so many familiar faces and know that I would get to share the Island and this experience with friends old and new.
Thursday morning we hit the ground running. We split up into two groups with Jim and Lawrence taking one group and Bryan, Ben and I taking the other. Jim and the “Black Widows” hiked in via Lost Trail to the southernmost entrance of Roller Coaster and moved north while our group hiked in via South Cut Trail and moved south. With 2 miles of trail in between our groups in absolute terrible condition, we began cutting one palmetto head at a time. Taking the trail from barely impassible to about 10 feet wide at first seemed like a daunting task. Pretty soon, the group got in the swing of things and even partnered up to create an effective method of cutting off palmetto heads. When someone in our group was able to lop off an entire palmetto head in one go, which included the fibrous brown woven bottom, they would yell “hairy jackpot!” and everyone would cheer. Laughs were ubiquitous as we all continued to sweat - but with smiles on our faces. Volunteers felt inspired to push on even when they saw a thick wall of palmettos in front of them, as they could look behind them at a well cleared trail. It was instant satisfaction!
Day Two commenced with sore muscles and high spirits. Volunteers were determined to meet in the middle, even though we knew it was impossible. Team “Hairy Jackpot” had completed .2 miles of trail and team “Black Widows” had completed .75 miles the day before. That left 1 mile of the really dense section of trail. By the second day, we were starting in a solid rhythm and partners paired up as the friendly competition started. We would chop off a head and then throw it like a javelin over the palmettos into the woods. Pushing through, we completed a very dense section of the trail and were so proud of our work!
The third day of service work we changed up the game a little. We all piled into one pickup truck, dropped one truck off at South Cut trail entrance and drove up to the northernmost entrance of Roller Coaster up at North Cut Road. Lawrence took nine volunteers equipped with hoes and rakes in order to turn the dirt of our new trail we had re-routed with Jim. I took three lovely ladies and we carried in new sign posts with arrows and re-signed the dune section of the trail. The trail gets completely lost here, so we made sure hikers will always be able to see from one sign to another. When we got to the end of the dune section, we began lopping and clearing the dense vines off the trail. Stopping at noon, we all hiked together down Roller Coaster and out to the beach via South Cut. The final quarter mile of South Cut through the dunes just took our breath away. The dunes were spectacularly large and looked like something out of a movie. Coming out onto the beach, the wind was blowing hard as we looked out onto a turbulent ocean. We stopped for lunch, sitting down as dry sand blew over the wet sand creating an eerie ghost like phenomenon. We had to be careful to hold onto our plastic bags so they didn’t blow away. After watching the stormy waves, we were all feeling pretty chilly so retreated back to the maritime forest where we hiked back to the campground for delicious food and s’mores!
On Sunday morning it was hard to say goodbye to friends, but we were all thankful for this experience and excellent camaraderie on the trails. We are excited to host the Georgia Conservancy again on MLK weekend January 16th-18th where we will have over 70 volunteers!