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!