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!
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.
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.