The Rocky Top crew works exclusively on 70 miles of the A.T. through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park following the ridge crest from Davenport Gap to Fontana Dam. The crew is sponsored jointly by the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, the National Park Service, and ATC.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Great Pack-In and the Three Trail Musketeers!

Session One Crew

Day Zero & Day One

Day one of the first Rocky Top crew session of the season was actually the second day of the “Great Pack-In,” an event where various horsemen packers contribute to getting Rocky Top’s tools, gear and food up to the crew’s campsite near the Appalachian Trail and Snake Den Ridge Trail intersection in the park. The day before, or “Day Zero,” a set of five horsemen packers took up roughly half the gear for the crew, with the remainder going up alongside the Rocky Top crew as they hiked up to the A.T. on day one of the session.

The participating volunteer groups for the Great Pack-In were the Southern Appalachian Backcountry Horsemen, the Backcountry Horsemen of North Carolina, and the Smoky Mountain Trail Riders – a total of ten volunteers helped carry all of Rocky Top’s tools and gear up for the season, as well as its food supplies for the first week. Thank you to everyone who volunteered for this first session!

The Rocky Top crew itself began with a very small crew – only one volunteer, Lenni, made it out for session one – but the crew would go on to more than make up for its size through its quality and quantity of completed work.

Pack horse at Cosby
For the trail crew, day one consisted of hiking up Snake Den Ridge Trail from Cosby Campground to the A.T. and then to Inadu Knob. All told, this hike is six miles long and gains over 3500 feet of elevation. With tents riding up on the horses, the crew had relatively light packs to carry up and was lucky enough to have perfect weather for the duration of the steep climb.

Once the crew of three – one volunteer, one crew leader, and one assistant crew leader – arrived at the top, they met with the horsemen who were letting their steeds rest before heading down. After a brief and thankful exchange, the crew got to work setting up camp – putting the food away in bear-proof containers, setting up a kitchen area, digging a trench privy, changing out the bear-fence battery (the crew leaders had set up an electric fence a few days earlier for Day Zero’s gear to hang out in), and setting up tents. The crew also noticed that their rain barrels were pretty much empty. There had been almost no rain the week prior.

Day one ended with the crew heading to bed, knowing tomorrow would mean a trip down to the spring on Snake Den, about a mile from camp. All were excited though for the beginning of a trail crew session and for kicking off the entire fall season.

Lenni digs for a waterbar
Day Two

The crew awoke to a cool and foggy morning and gathered all their water bottles, two 6-gallon jugs, and two freighter packs and headed down to the spring. While playing word games, the crew filled up all their bottles and both jugs, hoping to cut the number of spring-trips down to as few as possible if the next seven days decided to stay dry. Then the crew – now unofficially dubbed the “Three Musketeers” – managed the short but intense hike back to camp to begin filtering water. Once the three arrived at their destination, one thing was on each of their minds – water conservation for the week. “Let’s do that as few times as we need to,” someone offered.

Once enough water was filtered to fill personal bottles for the work day, the three set off to the top of Old Black, about a mile and a half south of camp. The project goal for the season would be to finish the trail work needed on this stretch of the A.T., beginning with priority needs first and foremost. With water-fetching having taken up most of the morning, the crew spent half a day installing water bars and grade dips. Near the end of the day, the three took assessment of the trail work needed along the way back to camp, marking priority needs with flagging as they went.

Installing a waterbar

Day Three

The Musketeers had their first full work day, stopping at Deer Creek Gap on the way to work in order to stretch and tell safety tips and jokes – a ritual they would do each work morning from thereon out. It was a clear and sunny work day. This was great for digging more water bars and grade dips, but poor for rain barrel reserves. The crew had a satisfying if not tiring day and headed back to camp where they played the card game “spades” after dinner, something they would come back to again later in the week.

View from deer Gap

Day Four

Today was the crew’s “hump day” since, at its end, they would have four more days left of their eight-day session. Chris, the Trail Specialist for the southern regional office of the ATC, joined the crew for some water bar-installation and came bearing a few of the biggest Fuji apples the crew had ever seen. Thanks Chris!

Chris camped out with the crew that night with the intent of hiking past Old Black in the morning, assessing the work for future years’ crews as he went. The crew played more word games to past the time and reveled at the addition of a fourth helping hand when it came time to do dishes.

Breaking rocks!

Day Five

Cloudy skies teased rain during the middle of the week, but alas, none was to be had. With Chris hiking out past Old Black for the day, the crew worked on putting in more water bars, grade dips, and some much-needed log steps. The Musketeers found this day one of the more exhausting.

Back in camp, it was a very early turn-in after dinner. By 7 PM the crew was back in their tents, listening for signs of rain. A pattering of rain drops began for about ten minutes, but then petered out. It was almost guaranteed now that the crew would need one more trip to the spring before they headed out.

Pounding stakes!

Day Six

Today the crew worked on a muddy area near Deer Creek Gap, installing about 20 feet of log turnpike. Once the logs were cut and more or less laid in place, the brunt of the work amounted to removing excess mud from the middle of the turnpike and finding enough rock to crush and fill in where the muddy path used to be. Locating and digging up rock, rotating to crushing that rock with sledge hammers, and then going off to find more rock was fun but exhausting work. The crew worked on the turnpike while enjoying the shade of a few trees, watching as Deer Creek Gap was lit up by rays of sunlight all day.

Back at camp and after dinner, the crew played more spades. This time they relaxed next to a nice camp fire, one they made especially for their backcountry location by building a dirt mound on top of a fire blanket and then adding their kindling on top of the mound. Knowing they would have to hike down to the spring again in the morning, the crew enjoyed the peaceful allure and warmth of the fire.

Day Seven

This was the day the Musketeers finished the turnpike! Before that though, the crew did another hike down to the spring, taking this time only the two 6-gallon jugs to fill for the last two days. The crew found this trip much more manageable.

After hours of work, the crew had finally crushed and filled enough rock to adequately harden the tread surface of the turnpike. Now hikers would have a mud-free area to walk. The 20-foot-plus section of turnpike would now encourage hiking straight through the trail, rather than around, mitigating any undesirable widening of the trail itself.

Christine Hoyer, the park’s Backcountry Management Specialist, came to join the crew later in the day. She worked with the crew on widening drainages north of Deer Creek Gap and taking off a built-up grassy berm on the downside edge of the trail. Berms build up over time on trails and trap any water from draining off its edge. “Knocking off the berm” helps encourage future water drainage off, rather than down, the trail.

Christine came back to camp with the crew to spend the night and hike out with the crew the next morning. The three took inventory of food and gear needed for the next week and began to prep the campsite for the crew’s off days.

... and after!
Before the turnpike...

Day Eight

The hike out! Camp is always abuzz the morning of day eight – people are excited to have finished a crew week and are looking forward to the return journey. The crew packed up all their belongings, put up tents and any remaining food supplies into rain- and bear-safe containers and, finally, replaced the bear fence battery and turned on the electric current for their days off.

Goodbye Rocky Top camp! See you on Session 2.

Thank you Chris and Christine for coming out to work with the crew this week! And a very special thank you to Lenni, our volunteer who took the weight of an entire crew on her shoulders and did so amazingly well! We hope to see on crew again. Go Three Musketeers!

Love the Smoky Mountains!

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