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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!