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Trailblazers

The Red River Gorge Trail Crew, a 500-strong volunteer group of all ages and walks of life, clears nearly 60 miles of official trails annually—including building and repairing steps and bridges, resetting signs, and beautifying the area for the enjoyment of hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

On a damp September morning in the Red River Gorge, after the threat of severe thunderstorms passed, five volunteers work seamlessly to lower a section of new wooden stairs along a steep drop near the start of the Gorge’s Double Arch Trail.

Members of the all-volunteer Red River Gorge Trail Crew, this particular team—Mindy Turner and her husband, Steve Schutz of Cleves, Ohio; Jerry Simpson of Harrison, Ohio; and Byron Madara and Wes Moody of Winchester—is constructing the 60-foot wooden stairway on-site. They position its top section as a “controlled drop” using ropes and gravity’s help.

As the new steps take their place in a narrow crevice of one of the huge rock outcrops that make the Gorge a favorite of climbers and hikers alike, the volunteers can already feel their efforts paying off.

“It’s work, but it’s rewarding work,” says Moody, a Clark Energy Cooperative member and senior engineer at East Kentucky Power Cooperative who joined the trail crew last year. “You’re giving back. The next time I come hiking through here, I can say, ‘I helped put those stairs in there.'”

The stairway work at Double Arch is just one of four projects being tackled in the Gorge by approximately 30 volunteers. Other trail crew members were hard at work constructing cantilevered stairs along the Auxier Ridge Trail, resetting signs along Courthouse Rock Trail, or clearing out trash and removing illegal campsites (those less than 300 feet from the trail) along the Auxier Branch.

It’s all in a day’s work, literally, for the Red River Gorge Trail Crew, a group of nearly 500 total members who have, since its formal organization in October 1998, been gathering monthly to help clear and maintain the roughly 60 miles of official Forest Service trails in the Red River Gorge Geological Area.

The Red River Gorge area of the Cumberland Ranger District is located in east-central Kentucky, covering four counties—Powell, Estill, Wolfe, and Lee—and is 26,000 acres. The area receives about 240,000 overnight hikers and campers each year, but that does not count day visitors.

On a typical monthly outing, the group routinely draws 30 to 40 volunteers from all over Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana. Volunteers must be 18 or older, though on this September day, the group’s at-least-once-per-year family day, children were invited to help as well.

Trail crew members Joey and Roxanne Puckett of Winchester took advantage of the chance to bring along their daughters, Emma, age 12, Rachel, 11, and Josie, 6.

“We go hiking in the Gorge a lot,” says Roxanne. “By helping out, the girls get to understand what it takes to keep things nice out here. Volunteering like this has given them a respect for the woods that children who don’t get out here much just don’t have.”

Like family
Charlie Rowe, a Forest Service employee based in Stanton who coordinates the work of the Red River Gorge Trail Crew, says its success has been its perfect balance of work and socializing. Members know when they convene on the second Saturday of each month, they will put in a full day on the trail building bridges or stairs, posting new signs, or simply working with loppers and hand saws to clear trails. The crew maintains and clears all 60 miles of trails in the Gorge on a three-year rotation.

Adding to the challenge of their work is the fact that the group cannot use power tools or any motorized equipment to tackle jobs within the Clifty Wilderness, a roughly 13,000-acre portion of the Gorge that has been designated a National Wilderness Area.

When an old 1960s Rambler Cross Country car had to be removed from a creek in the Wilderness Area, for example, Rowe brought in a team of Belgian horses to help trail crew members drag it out. In January, the group crafted new shake shingles for the roof of the Historic Gladie Cabin by hand, using traditional woodworking tools.

Given the constraints against power tools for trail maintenance, the significance of the trail crew—and its capacity to tackle large areas thanks to its large numbers of volunteers—is all the more important, Rowe says.

“If you’ve got an 8-mile trail, and you can’t use machinery to clear it, then I can put 30 to 35 people on the crew out there, each one of them with a lopper or a saw in their hands, and we’re like a machine. We can just walk through there and do a couple of miles easily in a day,” Rowe explains. “Without our group, the best the Forest Service could do would be to hire two or three people to clear, so our group is multiplying that tenfold.”

Trail crew members are unwaveringly dedicated to the area. (In February 2012, despite the 17-degree chill, more than 20 crew members arrived to work.) “We’re out here in the winter. We’re out here in the middle of the summer heat. We’re out here in the rain,” says Morgan Weinrich of Louisville. “We are like worker ants. It’s physically challenging. When we’re clearing trails, we easily do five miles a day, usually more. But the work is so satisfying.”

All trail crew members have a favorite project. For Heather Turner of Bellevue, it was when the crew completed two bridges in one day along the Martin’s Fork Trail. Justin Krawczyk of Demossville, in Kenton County, and Larry Benken of Cincinnati helped about a dozen other members pull a 3-ton boulder away from a trail bridge by hand, using a three-way pulley system. And while the massive five-flight Sky Bridge Loop Trail stairway is the group’s largest construction project to date, Rowe is most proud of the Copperas Creek Canoe Launch that the group built. “It’s the only official Red River Gorge access point to the Red River, Kentucky’s only National Wild and Scenic River,” Rowe says.

All of the group’s hard work doesn’t go unrewarded. Each monthly trail crew workday concludes with a chance to unwind, relax, and enjoy great food and fellowship at an evening potluck and campout.

Seeing the same core bunch of volunteers month in and month out, the group feels like a family, says Charlie Beck, one of the founding members of the Red River Gorge Trail Crew. Beck says he and several of his friends had begun volunteering regularly in the Gorge more than 20 years ago, having been introduced to the area while students at the University of Louisville.

“We have people of every age and literally every walk of life, but we’re all brought together by our love of the Gorge,” says Beck, a physician who now lives in Indianapolis.
At age 87, Bob Turner of Cincinnati, whose granddaughter Heather is also a volunteer, is the trail crew’s oldest member, as well as one of its most active. He rarely misses a month. For Turner, the appeal of the trail crew is simple: “I like the wilderness,” he says. “And I like the folks that show up there.”


WANT TO VOLUNTEER?

The Red River Gorge Trail Crew meets typically on the second Saturday of each month. The group is always seeking new volunteers, ages 18 and up. To learn more and to sign up to be on the Red River Gorge Trail Crew’s e-mail list, go online to www.rrgtc.com. E-mails are sent to members roughly two weeks before each gathering, to detail the time and place to meet and the job that will be tackled. There is no fee to join, and no minimum hours required to volunteer each year. For more information you can contact Charlie Rowe at (606) 663-0576, ext. 1.


WANT TO VISIT?

The Red River Gorge Geological Area, located within the Daniel Boone National Forest, attracts thousands of visitors each year for hiking, camping, climbing, and rappelling. For more information on the area and all it has to offer, including a detailed trail map and regulations for camping, climbing, and where to park, go online to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, www.fs.usda.gov/dbnf, and click on “Special Places” on the left to locate the “Red River Gorge Geological Area” link.

Or contact:
Gladie Learning Center
3451 Sky Bridge Road
Stanton, KY 40380
(606) 663-8100

Open 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. seven days a week March-November. Open 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. December-February, Monday-Friday.

Directions to Gladie: From I-64, take exit 98 to the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway. From the parkway, take exit 33 (Slade) and turn left onto KY 11. To access Gladie through Nada Tunnel, turn left onto KY 15, travel 1.5 miles west, and turn right onto KY 77. Follow 77 to KY 715 and turn right. Stay on 715 and follow the signs to Gladie.

Read Kentucky Living’s Red River Gorge rock climbing feature, April 2007, Weekend Rock Warriors.


VOLUNTEER WITH OTHER TRAIL GROUPS

Several of the larger construction projects that the Red River Gorge Trail Crew has tackled, including some of the step construction projects, have been done in cooperation with National Trails Day efforts and National Public Lands Day initiatives, as well as Sierra Club-sponsored weeklong work events. To learn more about ways to get involved outdoors and help volunteer, either locally or across the nation, go to trails volunteer. You could volunteer for National Trails Day on June 1, National Public Lands Day on September 28, or with the Sierra Club.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of National Trails Day, sponsored by the American Hiking Society and held on the first Saturday in June to encourage people to get out and enjoy the nation’s abundant and beautiful 200,000-mile trail system.

Each year, states and cities across the country host thousands of special National Trails Day activities, from bird watching and guided hiking excursions to volunteer efforts and cleanup initiatives along trails in cities and state parks and within National Forests and Wilderness Areas.

To see a searchable state-by-state listing of National Trails Day events scheduled for June 1, 2013, go to www.americanhiking.org/NTD/Events.

If you’re looking for a longer volunteer project, the American Hiking Society (AHS) also sponsors one-week “volunteer vacations” that allow you to help clear and maintain trails throughout the country. A listing of available locations can be found online at www.americanhiking.org/volunteer-vacations. Note that, in Kentucky, the Pine Mountain Trail Conference will host a volunteer vacation through the AHS beginning in late September. From their Web site, click on “Kentucky” for more details.

Another opportunity to help keep our public spaces beautiful comes on September 28, the observance of National Public Lands Day. Again, across the country, activities will be held that allow you to grab a shovel and some work gloves and pitch in to help clear a trail, pick up litter, or help with small repair projects in an area park. To see if there are any events planned for Kentucky, click “Find a Site” then Kentucky on the map.

Finally, the Sierra Club also offers a multitude of “volunteer vacation” options each year through its National Outings program. In 2013 the projects range from restoring the natural landscape of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida to planting shrubs and trees in New York City’s Riverside Park. Whether you’re interested in viewing stars on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon or whales in Maui, there’s a trip for you. For background on Sierra Club volunteer opportunities, go to www.sierraclub.org, under “Outings,” to Volunteer Vacations. www.sierraclub.org/outings/national/service.aspx. Here is a full list of 2013 Sierra Club volunteer vacation trips available. http://content.sierraclub.org/outings/national/trip-search/results?trip_type=46.

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