Meet In The Middle

 

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!

 

A Roller Coaster

 

There was no better way to spend Halloween weekend than with the Atlanta Outdoor Club tackling the most difficult section of the most difficult trail on the Island! In preparation, Cumberland Island Resource Management Director John Fry, Jim and I all hiked Roller Coaster Trail to survey it the day before the group got here. Neither of them had been on the trail in more than eight months, and they said it was overgrown the last time that they saw it, so they were apprehensive of its current condition. Armed with machetes and axes, we came across a section of trail which had just completely disappeared. What looked like the old route, had gone off the old dike and was now a pond. We pushed through dense palmettos, not being able to see a foot in front of us and found the other side of the trail a hundred yards away or so. Determining the best route would be direct and on top of the dike, we proceeded to machete a rough trail that would be just enough to determine the path for the AOC group to cut.

Once we hiked to the northernmost part of Roller Coaster, we noticed the trail seemed to disappear and in some places veer off in quite a few different directions. John, Jim and I walked around following the current signs and noticed the signage led hikers in different directions and didn’t meet up. One sign pointed directly at a group of pine trees where there was no apparent trail. After surveying the area, we decided where we would put the trail to create the shortest distance, a path of least resistance, and easiest blazed trail to sustainably last and for hikers to easily see. John, Jim, and I roughly began cutting and flagging while in shoulder high grasses when we heard the chirping of baby gators! Seeing as how we were about 10-20 feet away from a gator nest, we scooted the trail farther away as to not disturb them.

The Atlanta Outdoor Club arrived with fifteen volunteers, some of whom were new to the AOC and many who were new to Cumberland! Most had woken around 4 AM and made down from Atlanta, so there was a relaxed consensus once we had loaded everything in the van and were on our way to Hunt Camp. After unloading and orientation, Jim and I left to the group to explore and take a tour of Plum Orchard before we started our work project for the next day.

Friday morning, the group was ready to go with gung-ho attitudes and an eagerness to get to work! Arriving at South-cut entrance trail, we hiked 3/4 of a mile to Roller Coaster. “This doesn’t look at bad as we thought!” exclaimed the group. Jim and I chuckled knowing what was to come about a quarter of a mile in. With Roller Coaster, our focus is cutting a little wider as this trail serves a dual purpose as both a trail and one of the Island’s numerous firebreaks. The vegetation is also so lush and fast growing that we cut the palmetto heads back so that future service groups will only have to come in and do a quick trim. The AOC kicked into gear and were all quickly covered in sweat from the hard work and humidity of southeast Georgia! As it kept getting thicker and thicker, it was evident just how rough the condition the trail was. We got our first glimpse of Lake Whitney and the marshy grassland field that provided an excellent habitat for all sorts of species. Coming around the corner of the trail, some volunteers remarked “ohhh that’s what y’all were talking about” as we gazed at the almost impassible trail. With one group member’s speakers playing classic rock and country to amp us up, we dove into the jungle and started sawing and lopping away. It looked like an impossible feat, but the power of 15 hard workers should never be underestimated! Not only did we clear a significant amount of trail, but at Jim’s discretion, five volunteers went the extra mile and cleared a small overlook to Lake Whitney. This spot now provides hikers with an incredibly beautiful view and photo opportunity. After 20 minutes, they all were surprised they had accomplished it, one lady even said “I’ll have to get this whole group to come and work on my backyard… we’d finish in a hour!”

After our second day of trail work, I joined the group at Hunt Camp for a Halloween celebration. We had a potluck and many of us watched the sunset over the marsh. Charlie, one of the leaders, had brought down a big pumpkin for the group to carve. He said that we should carve it in my image, so the group took turns drawing eyes, ears, mouth, nose etc. Laughter was ubiquitous as this pumpkin looked more like a Pablo Picasso face than (I hope!) my own. “Spitting image,” they all joked, as the “Laura the Horror” pumpkin flickered in the light. It was such a pleasure getting to know each Atlanta Outdoor Club member on the trip and hearing so many incredible adventure stories. I’m looking forward to seeing many of them again on their second trip in February and hopefully joining in on some awesome AOC trips around Georgia!

 

 

All Worth It

 

It’s been a busy week in between service groups here on Cumberland Island. Last Monday, a school group aboard the Roseway World Ocean School sailed to Cumberland Island. We were lucky to have been one of their stops along their route from Boston to the Caribbean. Twenty high school students complete their semester on a 137 foot sailboat where they anchor and complete service work and participate in local educational programs along the way. What a fun semester! We were lucky to have this high spirited group’s hard work for a few hours in helping us complete a variety of service projects, including clipping the main road and prepping pilings for our boardwalk. Afterwards, Jim, Interpretive Ranger Pauline, and I took the group up to Willow Pond to see the gators. It was first time at a number of the students had an alligator, so it was a special moment!

Tuesday was probably my most physically challenging day yet! Jim and I started and almost completed a 90 foot boardwalk next to Sea Camp. This involved lugging 18 pilings that were 10 feet long and approximately 100 pounds each into place. We chainsawed a notch into each one so that they all fit each other. To me it seemed like a more intense version of Lincoln Logs! This boardwalk will serve as a temporary passage while the old Sea Camp boardwalk is being replaced.

Saturday morning commenced a productive and fun service weekend with the Georgia Southern Outdoor Adventure Klub (aka “OAK”… a very appropriate group name for Cumberland!) on their first ever trip. The Adventure Klub was recently formed by a group of outdoor enthusiasts at Georgia Southern University and consists primarily of Outdoor Recreation majors. To sum up this group - they were hard working and hilarious! We hit the trails with a lot of momentum as soon as they arrived on Saturday morning, hiking down the entrance trail to Tar Kiln. Last week, Patagonia Atlanta and I completed about half of Tar Kiln trail, and with 10 hardworking students from Georgia Southern we were able to knock out the rest of it that afternoon.

Sunday morning, we headed down to Lost Trail. I had not hiked that trail yet so I didn't know what to expect. Every time we turned a corner, all of us couldn’t believe our eyes as the trail kept getting more and more beautiful. The lush maritime forest shrouded in live oaks, palmettos and scattered with wildflowers seemed to provide us a Kodak moment every 5 minutes. While we were lopping and trimming, two backpackers passed by and thanked us for all of our hard work. I have to agree with what one member of our group had to say - “wow, that really makes it all worth it seeing people use these trails and know that we’re improving their experience.”

My favorite moment with this group came soon after when one student spotted a cottonmouth just off the side of the trail and curled up in some dead palmetto fronds. The group kept a safe distance, but they eagerly approached to take pictures and make observations. Seeing the cottonmouth really encompassed everything that Jim and I work towards with how people can experience the trails. We want people to have positive experiences with wildlife where they can view species such as cottonmouths at a safe distance without hurting the wildlife or jeopardizing their own safety. The ability for all of us to be able to stand there and take pictures, analyze its patterns and make comparisons was doable because we had a clear path where there was room for both us and the snake. Instead of having someone almost step on the snake due to hiking down an overgrown trail, which wouldn’t be good for anyone involved, a cleared and properly marked trail can help people have a memorable experience with something they perhaps would have feared before.

We wrapped up our day after completing approximately one mile of Lost Trail, along with the access trail. We had time to make the last tour of the day at Plum Orchard. Still in our trail clothes, it was fun for the volunteers to see the contrast of the lavish lifestyle once experienced at the mansion alongside the wildness of the trails we’d in which we had just been immersed.  The OAK had previously felt spoiled that we had a fridge and freezer at Hunt Camp, but Plum Orchard definitely set a higher standard for comfy island living! The intersection between wilderness and cultural history is such a unique experience for our groups to see, and one that was fun to share with these volunteers. It was wonderful hearing such positive feedback from the group, and many members wanting to return for both recreation, as well as on a future GSU trip!

 

 

A Jungle Full of Adventures

 

What an incredible first two weeks on Cumberland Island! To say that I live in the most beautiful place on earth would be an understatement. Prior to my first day as the Cumberland Island Trails Restoration Fellow, I had never actually been on the island.

“Sign me up,” I said after seeing a few pictures, and I could already tell it was going to be paradise. As Georgia Conservancy Senior Director for Stewardship and Outreach Bryan Schroeder and I pulled into the Sea Camp Dock, I felt as if I was arriving to a jungle full of adventures… and I was right!

My first couple of days involved getting moved in, meeting the warm and welcoming National Park Service staff, exploring and getting to know the island, and learning the ropes from my supervisor, Jim, on how we cut through and properly restore the wilderness trails. Jim had single handedly taken on the task of restoring Cumberland’s overgrown trails with his bush ax and a lot of determination. He’s already taught me many things including how to gator whisper (I believe he is our resident Steve Erwin). We are ultimately aiming to make these trails comfortably passable for hikers without adding much width. Our hope is that these trails will become a more viable option for those wishing to explore the backcountry and will maintain themselves with the foot traffic and mild trimming. I also began using two Garmin GPS 64s units to create a trial run to send to our mapmaker Dave. I spent the afternoon mapping around Sea Camp and marking way points. I even got to teach two elementary school “Junior Rangers” how to use the GPS and we mapped the boardwalk together!

On Saturday October 10th, I welcomed my first service group, the Georgia Tech Trailblazers, who dedicated their fall break to come do trail work on Cumberland. Thirteen Tech students showed up with a positive attitude, incredible work ethic, and a curiosity for the island that continues to humble me. During our introduction time, I asked them what they were excited for, and one girl said, “I am excited to feel a part of something bigger than myself.” The words stuck with me, and I felt this group really embodied everything the Georgia Conservancy hopes to achieve with bringing people into the outdoors. These students were here to give back and to foster their love and stewardship for the environment. As we began a tough days work down Willow Pond Trail, we passed down the boardwalk through the swamp. Pausing when I saw the local 5 foot gator who I’ve named “Gary”, the excitement of the group was contagious. Being out in a swamp and seeing an alligator, snakes, and more in the first 15 minutes was a special moment for this group. As we began our work, the mosquitoes were biting and the sun was shining, but that didn’t slow us down. In one day, we were able to clear almost the entire length of Willow Pond Trail. At about 5:30 we called it quits and walked the remainder of the trail to the beach. Gasps were ubiquitous as we came across the stretch of dunes and undeveloped beach. Some students hadn’t been to the Georgia Coast, and to see it the first time without development was mesmerizing to many. The group of us didn’t last long on the shore and quickly ended up running into the ocean.

After camping out with the Trailblazers, which involved a lot of s’mores and a good game of Mafia, we hit the trails the next morning for our second day of work. With stiff muscles, bug bites, but endless smiles, we finished up Willow Pond then headed up Yankee Paradise Trail. Although right next to Willow Pond, Yankee was a whole new environment. We went from overhanging vines and palmettos to short shrubs and intruding branches. My favorite moment came towards the end of the day when we encountered a huge oak tree that had been struck by lightning and fallen directly on the path. We could already see where hikers had formed a new path around it. Looking at the size of the tree I thought “no way, Jim and I are going to have to come in here with chainsaw.” But before I could speak, one volunteer had already jumped amidst the fallen branches and began furiously clipping with his loppers. “C'mon y’all we’ve got this!” he said. With seven of us sawing, lopping, and dragging branches, within 20 minutes we had removed the tree from the trail and used it to block the other improvised trail

Although it was sad to see the Trailblazers go, I had only an hour until the next group arrived! Three staff members from Patagonia Atlanta and Lisa from the Atlanta Outdoor Club came in on Tuesday afternoon to work until Friday. Patagonia has an internship program where they pay employees to participate in service projects with environmental causes and I was fortunate enough to be able to coordinate an internship on Cumberland this summer with the manager of Patagonia Atlanta for all of the store’s employees. Over the next couple of months, every store employee will come down to Cumberland in groups of two to three for up to four days! Lisa from AOC accompanied them, as she will be a co-leader on the upcoming Halloween Weekend Cumberland Service Trip for the Atlanta Outdoor Club.

The group had Tuesday to explore and chose to hike down the newly cleared Willow Pond Trail. Wednesday morning, we powered through the rest of Yankee Paradise Trail clearing almost a mile. The energy and stamina of this group was top notch, especially amidst the 90 degree heat, as we tackled dense brush from our feet to above our heads. We’d occasionally stop to look around, soak in our surroundings, and even photograph a little tree frog perched on a live oak sapling. The last two hours of the day we worked on Tar Kiln Trail until our arms felt like Jello! Waking up for our final day of trail work, we completed about .7 miles of Tar Kiln. Project work involved tackling intruding vines, trimming overhanging branches, lopping off shrubs and saplings growing on the trail and moving fallen trees from the trail. All four volunteers were hard working and focused, and it felt like we breezed through the day! 

Friday marked the end of our work on the trails, but also the beginning of Patagonia Atlanta staff trips! The three volunteers joked that’d they were going to tell their fellow employees about the elusive “dune bears” and other tall tales so that they could come back! I am so thankful for these four’s hard work, and am excited to host the AOC in two weeks and more Patagonia staff in the upcoming months!

 

 

Off to Cumberland!

 
Today, Laura Buckmaster begins her 8 month-long Cumberland Island Trail Restoration Fellowship on Cumberland Island National Seashore. Her position is fully-funded by REI’s Every Trail Connects (ETC) campaign. Laura will be making weekly blog posts here and posting daily Instagram photos to update our members and supporters on her work (follow along at @cumberlandtrails on Instagram)!

REI has given us the opportunity to make a legacy impact on a place we all deeply care about. The Georgia Conservancy played a key role in protecting Cumberland Island National Seashore in the 1960s and 70s, as well as advocating for the establishment of a Wilderness Area on the island in the early 1980s. Our annual Cumberland Island Service Weekends, held during the MLK Holiday, have had a tremendous impact on improvements to the island's trail systems and National Park Service (NPS) structures. Our Cumberland Island Trail Restoration Project looks to further that effort. 

Helping to re-establish the iconic backcountry trail system and to create the first professional and functional map in island history is a dream come true. We can’t thank REI and our supporters who voted for the Every Trails Connects project enough for this opportunity. We hope each of you has the chance to spend time on Cumberland and volunteer with us! 

We have a lot of work to do to achieve the goals set out in our ETC project proposal, but we’re confident that with hard work from Georgia Conservancy staff, NPS staff and our volunteer groups (of which there are many - thanks to the promotion behind Every Trail Connects), success is on the horizon.

During the next 8 months, Cumberland Island Trail Restoration Fellow Laura Buckmaster and Georgia Conservancy staff will keep you updated on our successes based on these goals:

  1. 100% of Cumberland Island National Seashore’s trail system will be open, clear and navigable by October 2016.

  2. Provide intensive and advanced trail engineering / re-routing on Willow Pond, Stafford Beach, Roller Coaster, Terrapin Point and Bunkley Trails. 

  3. Production of Cumberland’s first-ever professional wilderness hiking map with trail descriptions, GPS coordinates and trail mileage (Cumberland’s current maps are either non-specific, hand drawn and/or out of date)

  4. Improved interpretive and informative signage at trailheads not located within Cumberland’s wilderness.

  5. Renovations at Cumberland Island’s iconic Sea Camp Campground.

            - Clearing campsite spaces
            - Renovations to bath house and shower house
            - Improve interpretive and informative signage  

Now off to Cumberland! Check back for weekly updates during the next 8 months!