The Jolly Rovers Trail Crew is not your ordinary bunch of trail junkies. These men and women are a professional grade volunteer crew that specializes in wilderness stone work – the kind of work typically accomplished by paid professionals, and requires skills that are beyond the limits of most volunteer trail groups. That’s not a pretentious statement. It’s simply what is.
It’s common knowledge in hiking circles that trail systems throughout the country are under an incredible amount of strain, both physically and financially. Professional crews from the National Forest Service right down to regional clubs like the AMC are sending pro crews home penniless each year. And the future doesn’t look brighter. Volunteer groups like The Jolly Rovers are a growing need in the hiking community, but are significantly in noticeable short supply.
My path to The Rovers started as a promise to quit being a tourist in the woods and commit myself to serious volunteer work. While I pride myself on how outdoorsy I am, frankly speaking, I’m a token consumer, using the woods for a personal fitness program, or a place where I can regain a sense of inner balance and peace, or even a place to hone my backcountry camping skills. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that, I felt compelled to start serving, to give back, and to learn more about my local ecology, ultimately gaining a deeper understanding of what is out there, beyond the trail, so I could play an active (and sometimes activist) role in ensuring my backyard didn’t turn into another wallowing stretch of urban sprawl bellowing from the stomach of Boston.
I sought out local groups I could get involved with, and discovered The Monadnock Conservancy had just launched a trail steward program and was hosting a one-day trail stewardship training program in May. Leveraging an internal relationship, the conservancy “hired” the Rovers, and brought them up from New York to lead the training. (I quote “hired”, as they work on strictly a volunteer basis, even when training outside groups.) As such, I was introduced to Chris, Artie, and “Iron Bob”, the three original founding members of the group, each individually fascinating trail legends in their own rights.
I met “Iron Bob” Brunner and I immediately thought “Good lord, they’ve brought a Viking!” The long haired, bearded beast was as tall as an oak, with arms as big as my legs. Iron Bob had spent the better half of his career as a landscaper, all before entering the field of education, teaching both math and earth science to home-bound students. If you’re ever interested in knowing the history of the rock you’re about to quarry and shape into steps, Iron Bob is the guy to talk to.
Artie, a judicious Cuban-American seemed intent on business, but his serious nature belied an incredibly affectionate and outgoing personality, (quite possibly the understatement of the year). Once he warmed up to you his enthusiasm and work ethic was infectious. His claim to fame? He’s a rock star (no pun intended) of volunteerism. After retiring from the NY MTA in 2009 he went on to log over 670 hours of volunteer service with the NY/NJ Trail Club. And that was just in his first year.
Chris, the youngest of the three, had been building trails professionally for several years, and was the heart of the operation, handling many of the logistics and details. I’ve rarely met a man with such positive energy and willingness to share everything he knows to help others, as well as coach others along. His generous nature runs counter-intuitive to nearly everything any of us had been taught to know in the corporate world.
After the May workshop, I left dirty and sweaty, with more than a few mildly aching muscles, but excited to do more. I promised the conservancy that I would join the upcoming weekend long project in August, which would involve building several small stone staircases on a new trail system in development out in the Calhoun Family Forest.
Fast forward to August…
It was an unusually cool, yet clear, August morning when I drove up a rough, single lane, dirt road into the Calhoun Family Forest in Gilsum, New Hampshire. The sun glared down, bursting through the trees, causing me to squint in order to negotiate the nuances of the narrow, winding road. Even though the spot was local, at a modest forty-five minute drive from home, I had never ventured into the tiny New Hampshire town, never mind entertained the thought of taking my car off-roading into its paths-less-traveled. However, after a summer of volunteering with the Monadnock Conservancy, I had learned to expect our work locations to exist well off the beaten path.
True to style, I was casually early, not too early, but early enough to get the lay of the land and meet some crew before the 8 a.m. kick off to the workday. It was the Monadnock Conservancy’s annual meeting weekend, and I was informed I’d be the only volunteer member participating in the work weekend, at least for the morning, until others could arrive later in the day. As far as I was concerned it was far too nice of a day to sit around listening to someone speak about the outdoors when I could be out working in it.
As the road came to an end, the edge of a small field became visible, and I found myself surrounded by a variety of out-of-state cars from New York and New Jersey parked wherever they could find the space. I instantly knew I was in the right spot. I found a place to park my car, grabbed my coffee and backpack, and sauntered out into the field to see if I could find a familiar face. A series of nearly a dozen tents outlined the field and bodies were still stretching out for the morning, consuming the last of breakfast, and getting ready for the day. I spotted Chris in the center of the action and made my way over to say hi. He was, in fact, the only person onsite I knew that morning.
One by one I was introduced to each of the crew members. Given that this group was nearly five times the size of an average trail crew (roughly twenty-five members would be onsite this weekend), I did my best to remember everyone’s name. It wasn’t long before it was time to trek into the woods to get the day underway.
The worksite was situated in the gorgeous heart of a new trail system under construction, beside a picturesque brook, replete with a waterfall and swimming hole. I wanted to take a moment to breathe it all in, but the crew was gathering up. Chris briefed the crew on the scope of the work to be accomplished over the weekend, which was to install a series of roughly thirty steps. In order to accomplish this, the crew was divided into several smaller crews with four to five members each. I was assigned to work the quarry, getting rock to the shapers and installers.
Even though it was the first official day of work we were off to a late start. The core team arrived the day prior to set up the worksite. Complications kicked in with installing the high line, which would assist with quarrying the rock to the installation sites. Nature, it seems, wasn’t without a sense of humor, having placed the best rock a hundred feet downhill from where we needed it. Without the ability to move rock there was no shot at the project. The pressure was on. I found a spare hard hat and with eager confusion, like a newbie on his first day of work, I set off to my workstation: the griphoist.
While Roch, Iron Bob and others scrambled to finish getting the high lines ready to roll, Chris took that time to show me the ropes, quite literally. I’d never hoisted a one-ton rock off the ground, never mind assisted in “flying” it one-hundred feet uphill. Managing a belay line and griphoist might have proven simple in sheer mechanics, but good communication and prompt, precise action would ensure the safety of the entire crew, who at any given point would be scrambling in a myriad of directions.
For the first part of the day I quite literally couldn’t see what was happening with the group. My station on the griphoist was set far away enough from the action that an array of beech trees, full with summer leaves, obscured my vision. I simply listened for the call “Tension Hoist!” repeated the call back to confirm, and then started cranking like hell. Brian, one of the volunteers who was splitting rock that morning, promised me it was probably better I couldn’t see anything. After hefting up my first rock – which I’m pretty sure they made extra heavy to test my mettle – I soon knew why. Moving one-ton rocks is a rather grueling task. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a single element of trail work that could be considered easy. Every grunt inducing crank of the hoist only moved the rock about two inches. Then there were the constant readjustments that had to be made. I was a hot, sweaty mess in no time, and yes – I was glad I couldn’t see.
Thankfully, Chris wanted to make sure I didn’t remain on the belay line and griphoist all day, that I got a chance to move through the entire operation. After lunch I had the opportunity to start wrapping and rigging the rocks, understanding the basic functions of pulling them out of their resting spots, and flying them up the hill. In this role you need to have your eyes and ears open to everything going on. Bodies are constantly moving around. Much like any standard construction site your responsibility falls to the safety of each and every one of the crew members around you. When there’s a rock on the line bad things can happen quickly and you need to ensure they don’t. Dave, one of the original members of the crew, proved an excellent leader and mentor.
One thing that really stood out and defined this crew was their camaraderie and willingness to teach, and to share information. Out here there was no competition, no quotas to hit, and no egos to inflate. Tough, gritty work was never so calming. Maybe it was just the endorphins kicking in, but I was genuinely having a good time.
Through conversation I started to get to know the folks that made up this unlikely team. Unlikely as so many of them come from different walks of life, different cultures, backgrounds, and careers. It was a common love for the outdoors, and for doing something good that brought us all together. Educators, real estate agents, IT professionals, project managers, and a wild array of other titles defined our day jobs. But, out here our day jobs didn’t matter, nor did they define us. Out here we were equals, working together for a common task.
As the first day wound down to a close my body was beat, but the fresh air, and hanging out with twenty-five of my newest friends kept me amped up and going. That and the prospect of jumping into a cold swimming hole to wash the grime off from the day. This is where I learned The Rovers can party as hard as they work.
After setting up my tent I changed into some shorts and headed back to the swimming hole, along with another conservancy volunteer. We could hear deep, guttural yells of agony followed by heavy and raucous laughter. I couldn’t quite imagine what the hell was happening back in those woods. “I hear that some of them swim nude!” my conservancy partner said to me. Hey, whoever said rules applied in the backwoods? As we got closer to the swimming hole the laughter got louder, but confusion set in quick. There was only one Rover hanging out in the swimming hole. The rest were lounging to the side, kicking back beers. As soon as I placed a foot into the water everything became clear. I knew the water would be cold, but this wasn’t just cold. It was freezing, making the ocean look warm by comparison. I slowly inched my way in, wondering if I was going to get the dip I so desperately wanted.
“You have to go all the way under!” Tammy, a Rover from Brooklyn, yelled with a smile. The gauntlet was officially laid down. I was lucky if I’d make it past my knees, but all eyes were on me. The cool morning had given way to a hot, balmy afternoon and the stink of my body was worse than the cold of the brook. “Screw it”, I thought. “I’m going in.”
I held my nose and took the plunge. The water hit my chest like a tub of ice and the air shot out of my lungs. Staying under the water for a couple of seconds felt like an hour, but I stayed under – just to prove I could. I shot up from the water with a string of expletives, and the familiar roar of laughter ripped through the crowd again. Yeah, these were my kind of people, a bunch of crazy rock shaping sadists! A cold beer found its way into my hand as I crawled out, warmed up on the rocks, and joined in laughing at the next victim to be baptized.
Back at camp a fire was underway, and a special treat from the conservancy; catered gourmet pizza’s baked to order, on site. Amazing. All this topped off with a keg of beer that had been cooling in the brook all day. This was going to be a damn fine evening.
As the evening wore on, one of the crew members from the Carolina’s got to freestyle rapping. Talk about a juxtaposition! Wine, rum, beer, and other elixirs mixed with wild laughter, and a warm fire, all flowing freely together under an open sky full of stars. There rarely has been such a perfect summer evening. I eventually stumbled my way back to my tent and fumbled around as I found my way into my sleeping back, and promptly passed out. Then, in the middle of the night, with howls to wake the dead and drunk, came a medley of TV theme songs from years gone by – well gone by. Near historically gone. Did these guys ever sleep?
The morning after felt a bit rough, and I still had the whistle theme from Andy Griffith show in my head, but a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and a blast of dark camp coffee got me back on track fast. We picked up the work from the day before with an innate sense of familiarity and started making things happen in order to complete the task before the weekend came to an end. As the day wore on it was amazing to see how much was accomplished in so little time. Even more so after we worked through to naturalize the worksite, so as to leave no trace we were ever there.
Sunday afternoon, after a string of group photos, handshakes, and hugs, I walked out of the woods and back to my car with a touch of sadness, but much satisfaction. On the way home, winding my way through curvy back roads, with the windows down and the evening glow of a setting sun, my mind drifted back to the forest, and then towards the future. I knew right away that this was the start of something, not an end, and I immediately started plotting my next adventure with the wild Rovers.
Photo Credits: Andy Wong (unless otherwise stated)