Leaving Paradise

Well, it’s bittersweet to say, but the Cumberland Island Trail Restoration Project has come to an end – at least for me! After eight months of living and working on Cumberland Island National Seashore, I have learned many lessons and forged many new friendships. The success of this project can be purely credited to the 471 volunteers that we hosted during my stay there. This “strength in numbers” allowed us to achieve our goals of cleaning, clearing, signing, GPS mapping and restoring ALL of the trails!

Laura Buckmaster's first ferry commute to work in October 2015

Laura Buckmaster's first ferry commute to work in October 2015

Before I moved to Cumberland Island, many people asked me, “how are you going to deal with living in extreme isolation?”  

“Uh, oh… what did I get myself into?,” I thought.

Well, I can now say that I have met more incredible people than I could've ever imagined. Throughout the duration of this project, we hosted an average of more than one service group per week. That meant real quality time with a group of people: working outdoors, appreciating nature together and building a strong spirit of comradery. Getting to know each volunteer individually was a treasure, and I loved hearing everyone’s story of how they became involved, their love of the outdoors, their love of service, or how their friend dragged them into it! The feedback we received from volunteers was all positive. Certainly hardcore manual labor outdoors in wilderness conditions (sometimes with mosquitoes, poison ivy, humidity etc.) isn’t everyone’s forte, but the positive spirit every single volunteer encompassed made this mountainous task achievable.

One of the project highlights was hosting 72 students through the Alternative Spring Break Program. These students helped us to achieve well-beyond what was expected. The college groups came from everywhere - from Florida to New Hampshire - and were majoring in Environmental Studies to Engineering. With a diversity of personalities and backgrounds, we all came together because of our love for this place. One girl said, “I can see why it was so important for Cumberland Island to be protected. Even just a few days out here, and I’ve already felt the difference it can make. We are so disconnected these days from the natural world and spend so much time worrying about pointless things. It’s good to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

After a recently prescribed burn on the island, ASB students helped clear vegetation from 100 acres of field outside of the wilderness area in order to assist the National Park Service’s Natural Resources Department with a cultural landscape restoration project. Furthermore, volunteers hauled in materials and built five boardwalks over wet and muddy areas on wilderness trails in order to protect wetlands and assist hikers. Nine volunteers from University of New Hampshire sanded and painted 80 double-directional arrows and then installed them on six miles of trail. Students from Georgia Tech then helped us haul old, decaying and useless signage out of 20 miles of trail, and resign it more efficiently with our new arrows.  Overall, Alternative Spring Break groups contributed 204 hours of service to the NPS and restoration projects. We were also able to connect students with our Fire Management Officer and Wildlife Biologist to learn about their roles and responsibilities with the National Park Service and ask questions pertaining to the natural resources of Cumberland. Educating these volunteers on the importance of coastal ecosystems along with improving trails for hikers has helped us talk about the future of conservation while experiencing conservation in action!

***

Our stats are impressive: 471 volunteers hosted, all 50 miles of trails cleaned and cleared, all interior signage completed, and the entire island GPS mapped, twice! Overall, volunteers contributed 6,300 hours to the trail systems, and I additionally spent 1,500 hours (900 of those leading volunteers in the field). What many thought couldn't be done, we did… plus more! The enthusiasm, love for service work and the island, and energy shown by all who gave their time is what made this task achievable.

Of course, the embodiment of the Trails Restoration Project is Jim Osborne. Jim is the unsung hero here, and one who would never put himself in the spotlight. But Jim deserves a standing ovation. Jim was my supervisor, mentor, role model, and best friend. His dedication and work ethic is unrivaled by anyone I’ve met. Jim’s motto is to “work hard and get everything done right.” His attention to detail and necessity of making the right cuts, is what has made the trails as beautiful and wild as they are. We worked a lot of times just the two of us. Some days, after not seeing anyone on the trails for weeks on end it definitely felt like “is anyone ever going to notice or care about the work we’re doing?” But they did and they will, as these trails become more utilized. How we cut the trails, thanks to Jim’s guidance, has made them safer and more navigable than they have ever been. With a continuation of volunteer efforts, this is a priceless resource available to all.

Georgia Conservancy Cumberland Island Trail Restoration Fellow Laura Buckmaster and Jim Osborne of Cumberland Island National Seashore

Georgia Conservancy Cumberland Island Trail Restoration Fellow Laura Buckmaster and Jim Osborne of Cumberland Island National Seashore

Thank you so much to REI, the National Park Service, our dozens of dedicated volunteers, Georgia Conservancy staff and my friends and family who have tirelessly supported these eight months of hard work on Cumberland Island. We should all be proud!

Wrapping things up on the island was hard, but I knew it was time to go. Saying goodbye to my NPS colleagues was like saying goodbye to family. But I left with the knowledge that I’ll always have Cumberland: we all will.

The Return of the Atlanta Outdoor Club

At the end of February, we welcomed back the Atlanta Outdoor Club for their second service trip to Cumberland Island. After the dedication and hard work they showed during their Halloween service trip we couldn't wait for them to return!

This time we had 16 volunteers travel down from Atlanta, some returning and some fresh faces. Arriving Thursday, we shuttled them to Hunt Camp and got them situated, ready to begin project work all day Friday and Saturday. Friday morning, we awoke prepared for the challenge. With previous groups, we have cut back the sides of Bunkley Trail, but there is a tremendous amount of undergrowth with a ubiquitous presence on the trail. Groups during the Georgia Conservancy MLK weekend trip and SOAR alternative learning had lopped most vegetation that was higher than waist level. With the AOC we brought in fire rakes to turn up the tread of the trail and kill the vegetation before it grew up and overran it.

Now fire raking is no easy task… it is probably the most strenuous job we have volunteers do. Often, we only have a few group members rake and then we switch because it is so exhausting. But with this group, almost all of them were fire raking. And they didn’t give up! We had them raking in the sun ALL day as Bunkley offers little shade. Several times when my arms started to feel like jello, I’d look around and see every AOC member hard at work toiling away, and I felt so inspired to keep working. Not only were they relentless fire rakers, but they consistently expressed how excited they were to be here giving back to the trails. Each of them was so enthusiastic, passionate about the outdoors and its conservation, and filled with positive energy. Getting to talk and connect with each person truly was the highlight of this trip for me.

While we completed 1.6 miles of trail, Jim took a handful of volunteers to haul in materials and to build a small boardwalk at the Brickhill spur leading into Bunkley. These guys had an equally tough job, but built a beautiful walk along the old dike to prevent erosion into the wetlands, as well as to keep hikers from wading calf deep in mud!

The day before the AOC was set to leave, we welcomed the University of Florida Alternative Spring Break group, the first of seven college groups to stay for a week and volunteer with us. The AOC and Florida shared Hunt Camp that Saturday night, and it was incredible. Florida had accidentally left a connector for their propane tank with their stove, so an AOC volunteer gave them a collection of propane tanks and donated their Coleman stove! The camp magic the AOC brought to the table was so generous. For many UF students, it was their first time camping and to be welcomed by such an experienced and friendly group was an incredible sight. 

More on Florida and the other spring break colleges next week!

REI Comes to Cumberland!

REI Comes to Cumberland!

On Wednesday, February 17, we welcomed an incredible team of REI Staff and some of their most dedicated members for a hardcore day of service. With 26 group members, Hunt Camp was decked out in the latest and greatest REI gear! This group was filled with seasoned hikers and outdoor leaders, so we knew we were in for a treat. 

In case y’all are just joining us, here’s an important refresher! This project is completely funded by grant money from REI’s Every Trail Connects Campaign. Back in August, the Georgia Conservancy’s Cumberland Island Trail Restoration Project was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of the ten iconic trail systems to participate in a voter driven fundraiser. Through a public voting process which lasted less than 48 exciting hours, we received 11,363 votes which totaled $66k. This money has allowed us to fund trail work, expand our tool bank, improve signage, and create the first ever comprehensive GPS wilderness map. Providing the opportunity for people to give back to Cumberland Island and the means to do it, what REI has done for Cumberland is a legacy that will extend far into the future. This project work will allow thousands of visitors a year to comfortably and safely experience its quiet beauty, and that is a thank you that is hard to put into words.

So with REI supporting the overall project AND sending help in the field, we commenced Thursday morning with coffee and a truck ride to Bunkley Trail. Bunkley is unique in that it is situated right in the middle of a primary succession habitat. Back in 2008, a lightening strike caused the surrounding area to burn down, resulting in minimal tree coverage, intense shrubs, palmettos, young pine trees, and thick vines and briers. It is also a trail that has historically flooded after every rainfall resulting in non-stop puddle tromping for hikers. After walking it with the Natural Resource Director, we GPS mapped several flooded spots where we were decided to expand the trail to the right or left, depending on which side sloped upwards. Lawrence and I divided the group up, and we all began hacking away at the wall of vegetation. 

Some people had loppers as their weapon of choice, cutting through vines and clearing back the palm fronds. A few would follow behind, cutting off the saw palmetto heads, and charred tree stumps still standing. The real workout commenced with using fire rakes to uproot saw palmetto root systems and even out the ground so that there’s minimal tripping hazards for hikers. 

There were briars wrapping around people’s arms and shredding us, I even had one wrap around my head, get stuck in my hair, and form somewhat of a crown of thorns! Despite the vegetation seeming to fight back, this group powered through and knocked out an incredible section of trail. 

Jim from the National Park Service dropped of two REI staff members: one at Roller Coaster Trail and the other at Oyster Pond Trail, and their assignment was to complete trail assessments, diagnostics, and reviews. They each hiked about 8 miles, taking note of signage, confusing points, and soggy places that might be difficult for hikers pass through. Once they hit the trails, he came back to Bunkley, and snagged five volunteers for boardwalk building. The Brickhill Trail spur feeding into Bunkley is partially built on an old dike system through a wetland which can get precariously muddy after rainfall. These volunteers carried 10 foot pilings a quarter of a mile to the building site, and fire raked the small vegetation from the path. Each piling weighs approximately 100 pounds, so after carrying a few of them, they knew they’d be feeling it the next day! Although they didn’t have time to actually construct the boardwalk, the hardest part of the job was complete. Jim decided to pull a prank on me, and told me that we needed to re-haul all the materials back out. 

Once we were all back at the trailhead and putting our tools in the truck, he said that I had to make an announcement to the group that we would have to hike back in and have everyone carry the pilings out. My heart sank, because I knew that would be a rough way to finish such a successful day. I made the announcement, trying to frame carrying out all the materials we had just carried in as fun as possible. Everyone started laughing, and Jim said “got you! I was just teasing!” Apparently everyone but me was in on the joke! I will give him credit, but I’ll get him back soon!

Thanks to REI for an incredibly successful weekend! We hope y’all had as much fun as we did! We’re looking forward to seeing both the Southeast and Midwest REI managers out on Cumberland this coming April to talk more about how much we’ve accomplished through the opportunity from REI's Every Trail Connects!

Georgia Conservancy MLK Service Weekend

Georgia Conservancy MLK Service Weekend

For the past 8 years, the Georgia Conservancy has led one of the largest volunteer groups on Cumberland Island National Seashore during the Martin Luther King Weekend. This year, 75 volunteers joined us for one of the most productive and impactful days of service the Georgia Conservancy has hosted on Cumberland!

A lot of logistics go into making a service weekend like this happen, especially in such an isolated location. The group was due to arrive Friday afternoon, so Georgia Conservancy Stewardship Manager Ben Fowler, his cousin Marshall, GC member Andre Turner, and Hope Oldham from REI headed down Thursday morning with the Conservancy’s trailer so we could begin setting up. Hauling tents, coolers of shrimp, bags of oysters, we could all tell it was going to be a fun weekend! Half of the group would be staying on the south end to work on service projects around Dungeness while the other half would be staying at Hunt Camp to work on trail restoration projects in the wilderness.

Friday morning, there was a lot of excitement in the cold, windy air as the group arrived on the NPS Loggerhead and Macoma boats. When all 75 volunteers docked at Dungeness, we offloaded gear, had volunteers take a scenic walk around the ruins, then met up at the Cook House to discuss the itinerary for the weekend. After the (kinda) brief introductions, we headed up to Hunt Camp with our 38 volunteers for a delicious chili dinner and campfire to kick of the weekend. 

Saturday was our full day of service, and it was incredible what we accomplished. The Hunt Camp group divided into four teams. Jim from the NPS, experienced Cumberland Island volunteer Desi Fowler and Georgia Conservancy Communications Director Brian Foster took ten volunteers to Tar Kiln trail to clear, improve signage, and disassemble three old hog traps that we had found here. Ben Fowler took a group of ten up Bunkley Trail to tackle thick walls of shrubs, vines, and palmettos down a narrow corridor of trail. I took another group of ten down Kings Bottom Trail and up to Ashley Pond Trail working on trail restoration and hauling out signage. Lawrence took four other volunteers around Ashely Pond, Rayfield, Kings Bottom, and Table Point who carried in new signposts, removed old signage, and resigned areas where hikers were known to get lost. Their group was able to fix this along with also removing an old hog trap from Table Point Trail. 

Meanwhile on the South End, groups were busy clearing Parallel Trail, cleaning around Dungeness, and cleaning Park Staff Buildings and the First African Baptist Church. The Dungeness group filled up the dump truck five times with all the debris they cleared from around the fields!

That night at Hunt Camp, we cooked up seafood, ate a delicious pasta, and rested our sore muscles around the camp fire. We then ventured over to the Plum Orchard dock to star gaze. 

Since the moon wasn’t out, we were able to see bioluminescence in the water when we swished our hands around. It looks like dancing fireflies in the water, and we were mesmerized! 

Sunday morning, we packed up camp and headed south to meet up with the other group for a big breakfast all together. We shared stories with each other, then many people walked around Dungeness or to the beach before boarding the boats for departure. It was so incredible to see all that this group accomplished, and hear back about how much fun everyone had! I was excited to see many familiar faces and make so many new friendships.

Cumberland Welcomes Georgia Southern

Well… it’s official… Roller Coaster Trail is complete! Y’all have heard me talking it about for more than two months now, and this past week we officially completed it. What was once the trail that was in the most terrible condition has now officially been cleaned, cleared, restored and GPS mapped.

On Friday, January 8th, we welcomed 27 members from the staff of Southern Adventures to Cumberland Island. Southern Adventures is Georgia Southern’s Outdoor Club, so we had a group of talented and passionate outdoorsmen and women ready to work! Once we took the group up to Hunt Camp, Lawrence, our new volunteer for the week Desiree Fowler and I took five volunteers out to Roller Coaster. It was late afternoon so we walked in at a decent pace in order to finish the last couple hundred yards before the sun set. This group was fun and full of energy. Arriving at the final section, it took us about 45 minutes to finish the last 100 yards. To Lawrence and I who have been working on this trail for months, it didn’t seem real. Hiking out, we breezed through areas were other groups had toiled for days on end clearing impassible sections, and were grateful for all the hard work.

The next day, we kick started early with all 30 of us and hit the trails ready to go. We hiked in at Table Point in order to tackle the 1.9 loop. After Roller Coaster, this trail was in the second worst condition. The previous week, a hiker who had attempted to hike Table Point told us that she had gotten lost several times, and was nervous passing through the walls of palmettos as she couldn't see her feet. With half the group heading in the southern spur of the loop and my group beginning at the trail head, we began lopping.

Quickly recognizing the skill and energy level of this group, we knew we’d accomplish a lot but we didn’t know exactly how much. Finishing two miles of the (now currently) worst condition trail on the island seemed like a near impossible task. I didn’t want to tell the group we could finish, only for them to feel let down at the end of the day. I let everyone know it was a possibility, but highly unlikely… but that finishing even half of this trail would be an incredible feat.

We usually take a lunch break around noon, but this group was so enthusiastic that they wanted to keep pushing on until 1 PM with the high energy level they were working with. After a quick lunch, we pushed on past the intersection Ashley Pond and Table Point. At this point, we had already completed 0.9 miles of trail, but had no idea the location of the other group or how long it was taking them to work on their super rough patch of trail. At 2 PM I could sense energy levels were declining a little and I announced “hey everyone let’s go ahead and work for one more hour then we’ll hike out.” Several group members responded “we don’t want to finish then, we want to finish when we’re done with the trail!” Not even 15 minutes later, we could hear the other group of 15 pushing through the trail towards us. We had entered the thickest section of brush. It was mostly shrubs, dense palmettos, and an unbelievable amount of thorny vines. Being able to see the other group renewed us with energy. Jumping into a thicket of vines, volunteers cleared through this section with a final push. I couldn't believe that not only had we cleared all 2 miles of the trail completely, but we had finished 30 minutes early! All of us were astounded at the work ethic and enthusiasm of this group, and we can’t wait till the final group of Outdoor Rec majors joins us this May from Georgia Southern!

A few days later, I met with Gordon Jackson from the The Brunswick News. He interviewed me about the trail restoration project which you can read about here: 

Brunswick News: Trails Cleared on Cumberland

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 Garber

Lawrence Garber

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!

Georgia Conservancy staff (L-R Clint McNeal, Johanna McCrehan, Laura Buckmaster, Bryan Schroeder, Ben Fowler)

Georgia Conservancy staff (L-R Clint McNeal, Johanna McCrehan, Laura Buckmaster, Bryan Schroeder, Ben Fowler)

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.

Roller Coaster Trail (BEFORE)

Roller Coaster Trail (BEFORE)

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

A Jungle Full of Adventures

On the ferry! 

On the ferry! 

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!

Georgia Conservancy Senior Director of Stewardship Bryan Schroeder navigating the Dungeness Trail at "super tide"

Georgia Conservancy Senior Director of Stewardship Bryan Schroeder navigating the Dungeness Trail at "super tide"

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!

Jim with Gary the Gator

Jim with Gary the Gator

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.

Georgia Tech Trailblazers enjoy the beach after a long day of work on Willow Pond Trail

Georgia Tech Trailblazers enjoy the beach after a long day of work on Willow Pond Trail

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. 

A downed tree on Yankee Paradise is no match for a bunch of Yellow Jackets

A downed tree on Yankee Paradise is no match for a bunch of Yellow Jackets

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.

Patagonia Atlanta tackles Tar Kiln Trail

Patagonia Atlanta tackles Tar Kiln Trail

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!

Georgia Tech Trailblazers

Georgia Tech Trailblazers

12108844_10153292309467637_2176671491500187318_n.jpg

Off to Cumberland Island

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)!

Cumberland Island Trail Restoration Fellow Laura Buckmaster & REI Atlanta's Daniel Jesse

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!