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.
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!