Konnarock Crew

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This page last updated on March 19, 2007
1991 November/December 1991. p. 11.
Appalachian Trailway News.

Amy Hauslohner (now the wife of Virginia Ninth District Congressman Rick Boucher) wrote the following article which appeared in the November/December 1991 issue of the Appalachian Trailway News. To gather information for the article, she met the crew members at the Sugar Grove Volunteer Camp several days and followed them to the Old Orchard work site where the crew along with members of the Mount Rogers Club were re-roofing Old Orchard Shelter. The story also included several photographs. The caption for one photograph: "Three A.T. hikers … contribute a half-day of work on the Konnarock Crew, clearing a site for a new shelter on Wilburn Ridge in southwest Virginia [for Thomas Knob Shelter]." Another photograph shows Mount Rogers Club member Dan Schunke gassing up a chain saw and yet another shows crew member Dean Sims on top of the roof of Old Orchard Shelter after the old roof has been removed.

The ATC summer volunteer crew program - which began as an experiment nine years ago - has proved itself a valuable resource for undertaking, and completing, major Trial improvement projects. This year, the program, once confined to southern Virginia, reached out as far north as Katahdin.

Crewsin’ to the Future

by Amy Worthington Hauslohner

The muted colors of earth-tone trousers mingle with bright, tie-dyed T-shirts clustered around gray picnic tables under shady trees. Constant quiet movement below echoes the gentle pulsing of the branches above. The early-morning air is punctuated by irregular flaps of a screen door and the clattering of silverware. Tents rise from the few open patches of ground, hemmed in by low, summer-camp like buildings.

"I slept in my truck last night...."

Two men get up from a table to make space for others to eat breakfast and peruse the business section of the Roanoke Times & World-News.

"Did the market go up?"

A dark-haired, stocky, bespectacled man strides past with three young women in tow, headed for the tool room to find work gloves.

"They're going to be too big."

The Appalachian Trail Konnarock crew camp at Sugar Grove, Va., is crowded. Jammed, in fact. The population of the camp has swelled to more than twice its normal size as volunteers from the Piedmont Appalachian Trail Hikers club and Mt. Rogers Appalachian Trail Club join forces with the crew to kick off the summer's program with a heavy jolt of men-and-women-power.

But, not only is it the start of a new day and beginning of a new crew season, it's the dawn of a new era for the Appalachian Trail, according to the bespectacled custodian of work gloves, Robert Freis, ATC crews coordinator for 1991.

Freis sees the crew program, which expanded northward to Maine this year, as a factor in recruiting and retaining the all-important club members whose volunteer efforts keep the Trail open, alive, and maintained.

For Freis, crew or club participation is an integral part of the A.T. experience. He likens involvement with the Trail to a personal relationship. Freis first became caught up with the A.T. as a thru-hiker.

The crew program began as a two-week experiment in 1982, with eight volunteers. It was fully established the following year with 26 volunteers, half of them A.T. club members, in a former Lutheran girls' boarding school belonging to the U.S. Forest Service in Konnarock, Va. (Hence the name, although the crew's home base has since moved to Sugar Grove.)

The idea behind the program was to train Trail maintainers and to take on larger projects, such as relocations and shelter-building that might prove too difficult for a club to complete in the short stretches of time that club members are generally able to contribute to the Trail.

The success of the program encouraged ATC. A second regional crew was added in 1984, the Mid-Atlantic Crew, now based near Boiling Springs, Pa., enabling crew members to work with clubs and on Trail projects farther north than the Konnarock crew, which can lose as many as two days from a five-day work week traveling to the location of a project. The Mid-Atlantic Crew this year worked on projects in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.

And this year, with the help of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, a third crew, dubbed "The FORCE" (Footpath Recovery Crew), carried the crew program to even farther latitudes, based near Monson, Maine, and northward.

Coordinating the crews' schedules allows them to share some tools and personnel, Freis explains, as he hikes the 2.5 miles up to the Old Orchard Shelter from Va. 603, carrying pressure-treated two-by-fours and packing oak shingles.

The Konnarock program ran from May 30 to Aug. 19. Ten days later, the Mid-Atlantic Crew cranked up and ran through the end of October. A smaller program than Konnarock, the Mid-Atlantic Crew is based at an old farmhouse near Carlisle, Pa. The Mid-Atlantic Crew is funded by ATC and Trail clubs but does not have the advantage Konnarock enjoys of support from the U.S. Forest Service. The mid-Atlantic program fields one crew to Konnarock's three, working six to eight volunteers and two staff members at any one time.

The new Maine crew is set up on the same scale as the mid-Atlantic but has even less to work with in terms of facilities and tools. The base camp has no electricity or running water, Freis says, giving volunteers "quite a rustic experience." The FORCE worked this year from June 20 to Aug. 19, under the leadership of Paul Cleveland, on seven projects in conjunction with the Maine A.T. Club.

All three crews labor under the same limitations: space, transportation, and funding.

Konnarock remains the largest of the programs—with as many as 120 participants last summer—primarily because the Forest Service is able to meet the ATC halfway on each of the limiting factors. The USFS provides the base camp at Sugar Grove; A.T. volunteers renovated the buildings and this year expanded facilities. The Forest Service also provides three vans to transport Konnarock volunteers to work sites, a need keenly felt at the other crew locations. In addition, the government provides some materials, such as the two- by-fours and shingles for the shelter project.

"We'd pay to come," a two-by-four- laden crew member interrupts. Freis acknowledges that other outdoor programs do charge volunteer participants. "We're really proud of our organization that we don't have to do that." Instead, crew participants spend a minimum of one week at hard labor in return for a one-year membership in the ATC and the prestigious A.T. crew T-shirt.

With the Forest Service and the ATC together contributing funding and services, the Konnarock program represents "an ideal public/private partnership," Freis says. "It's a heck of a deal for them, too. We do good-quality Trail work and help them keep up with maintenance."

The crew program felt its limitations especially strongly this year, as its popularity skyrocketed. Freis was forced to turn away applicants for the Konnarock and Mid-Atlantic crews. And, as for The FORCE, "we had to turn away as many, if not more, people than we took up there. We've never been in that position before," he says, shaking his head in amazement. "ATC has never had an excess of volunteers."

All of which leads him to the conclusion that the crew program and the A.T. stand at the dawn of a new era, when the popular crew program will spawn an ever-increasing pool of trained maintainers, potentially bolstering the ranks of A.T. clubs up and down the Trail.

Freis notes, with barely contained excitement, "There's talk of starting crews elsewhere—the Green Mountain Club in Vermont—there's some talk in the Smokies. So, who knows? I don't know ; how big this is going to get.

"The program started with a sunset provision. The idea was to get caught up on Trail projects. People don't think that way now." The clubs are indeed the fulcrum on which the crew lever balances. A visit from an ATC crew provides a catalyst for the club members whose Trail section is the work site. A crew supplies more than just muscle, tools, expertise, warm bodies, and lunch. A crew brings an infectious esprit de corps, a "there-ain't- nothin'-we-can't-do" attitude that can refresh a work-weary club and give its members a new perspective on Trail work.

"We're a shot in the arm for club maintainers and a training opportunity to learn proper techniques," Freis notes. He stops on the Trail briefly to shake hands and speak with Dan Schunke, a soon-to-retire engineer with Westinghouse in Bristol, Va., and the Trail supervisor for the Mt. Rogers club. Schunke is toting two chain saws and packs a white-oak basket full of supplies on his back.

Leaving Schunke behind, Freis describes how the Mt. Rogers volunteer, single-handedly over eight years, has cleared the meadow that lies before the Old Orchard Shelter, opening a vista to the west that enables hikers to enjoy breathtaking sunsets. "One person does make a difference, especially over a long period of time," he says thoughtfully. "We're in a support posture for people like that."

The Konnarock crew has worked with 12 of the 13 southern A.T. clubs, excepting only Georgia, which lies too far to the south and has its own strong labor supply, Freis says.

Later, at work in his meadow, Schunke confirms that the clubs need the crews. To do anything beyond just keeping the A.T. open, his club must have help. Now that the A.T. runs through the federally designated Lewis Fork Wilderness Area, Schunke says, volunteers can no longer use power tools to clear brush and cut briars but must instead use a scythe, multiplying the time required in maintenance.

On this day, one of the Konnarock crews will start a three- or four-day project in the Mt. Rogers club's territory: reroofing the Old Orchard Shelter. Club members help the crew in hauling supplies and construction, while Schunke plies his chain saw in the meadow and checks the picnic tables he helped haul in plank by plank last year: "Oh, these planks are heavy. Oh, they are heavy." He bends over one table and squints. "Have they started carving on these yet?"

Ed Clayton of Cary, N.C, an IBM product planner and member of the Mt. Rogers club, is volunteering with the club this weekend, returning in August for a one-week stint with the crew, his second in two years. "I enjoy doing it— the fellowship part of it," he says from his perch on the naked rafters of the Old Orchard Shelter. "There's such a huge range of people in the crew. And, you feel some obligation to help if you enjoy the Trail and continue to enjoy it." Surveying volunteers hauling lumber, Schunke clearing the meadow, and club members stacking the old shingles from the shelter, Clayton sums it up succinctly: "Somebody's got to do the work."

Mike DeFlora, another Mt. Rogers club member, drops a pack loaded with oak shingles and sinks into the shade of a tree beside the shelter, wiping rivulets of sweat from his face with a blue bandanna. "Well—we really appreciate the Konnarock crew," he says.

Amy Worthington Hauslohner is a writer and photographer from Troutdale, Va., whose articles have appeared before in Trailway News. Amy also won first place in the Trail- maintenance category in this year's photo contest.

Why they do what they do

[The previous article included a side bar highlighting several members of the crew. The two included here are known to the Mount Rogers A. T. Club.]

Dean Sims, 65, of Miami, Fla., communications specialist retied from Western Union; an eight-year veteran of the Konnarock crew, also known as "Mr. Konnarock."

Simms has been hiking the A.T. since 1947 and says of his crew work, "I’m just putting something back." He gets a warm felling, he says, from hiking on the Trail and seeing his work in use. "I’m walking along and I’ll think, ‘That’s my rock – that’s my step’."

Ed Clayton, 49, of Cary, N.C., a product planner (electrical engineer) for IBM; two years’ experience with the Konnarock crew, and member of the Mt. Rogers A. T. Club.

Clayton has been hiking the A.T. for about 15 years. "I just stumbled upon it. Saw it on a map and came up camping. Brought the kids backpacking."

Like many other crew members, Clayton sees crew work as a responsibility – a payback to the A.T. "I enjoy it – the fellowship part of it. There’s such a huge range of people in the crew. And, you feel some obligation to help."