Guest Post on the Volunteer Experience

Brandon Denney joined three sessions of S.W.E.A.T in 2013. Here’s his account of his experience, as a new trail volunteer and new backpacker. His experience varied with each session, so it’s nice cross-section of what trail crew life is like in all of its sundry iterations. 

Thanks to his good humor and his commitment to write about his experiences, we have a three-part blog (combined into one here) on what he did with his summer on S.W.E.A.T. Crew. Pictures by Sarah Green.

Appalachian Trail Week One: Freshness is Not An Option
Before I begin, I wanted to state again the purpose of thee journals: to document the weeks of trail work I’ll be doing this summer in order to fulfill scholarship requirements (but mostly to seek out the most adventure as possible!)
There were a few things I didn’t anticipate when coming to volunteer with the S.W.E.A.T Crew (Smokies Wilderness Elite Appalachian Trail). Mainly, that we’d have internet access, that we’d be returning to the Crew House on a daily basis, and that there were showers at the shelter. As it turns out, not showering on the A.T. isn’t the exception, but the rule. The adventure begins.
I was dropped off on Friday night at the Crew House with all the volunteers there, helping prepare a fantastic dinner. Amy and Ben are the trail leaders for the trip; twentysomethings with a love for hiking and bluegrass music. 
Four other volunteers were there besides me, as follows:
Jane: 19, your everyday southern farm girl who’s not afraid to work hard.
Larry, 52, an almost retired cop who looks like he’s seen a lot in his career. Just by looking at him you can say that without a doubt, “Dang, here’s a guy who has a lot of stories.” Hilarious. Loves Jefferson Starship.
Jeff: 50, a strange cross between Bill from King of the Hill and a professor in solar technology, is a really intelligent guy.
Cam, 25, a short bald dude with an encyclopedic knowledge of all music and music known to man. It’s as if he has a section of his brain solely dedicated to IMDB. Fantastic person.

Larry, Cam and Jeff
After a fantastic dinner at the Crew House, we were off. I had never backpacked before, so I had little to no idea what I was to be immersed in.  Our backpacks; tools, water, food for the week, and camping supplies, came to about fifty pounds more or less. To access the AT, we had to hike Cosby Trail, a 5.3 mile, kick-your -rear-uphill circus. Though I’ve had much experience running cross country, I have no problem admitting every step forward was agonizing. Beautiful, scenic agony. We crossed beautiful waterfalls, pine forests, and stretches of beautiful Rhododendron. Despite this, with every step came the brutal realization that no matter how close you thought you were to the camp, chances are, that was a stupid thought and you’re still five miles away, “gah. how could you be so stupid?”
Certain things made the trail go by much quicker. The mere mention of any topic would prompt Cam into an inquiry about a movie or a song. From Bio Dome to Casablanca, he’s seen pretty much everything. By the end of the week, I had a laundry list of movies I needed to see because Cam was so damn good at storytelling and selling a plot. 
Larry was hilarious. He says that on the police force, everyone gives everybody a hard time, and his sense of humor is exactly what you’d imagine an old cop with a Brooklyn accent would be like.
Walking through the AT is akin to walking through the mind of a person who is drifting in and out of consciousness. One moment you’ll be in an overgrown, sunny area reminiscent of Vietnam, and five minutes later you’ll be in a breathtaking pine forest with fog consuming almost all sight, like something out of a Tolkien novel. It was easy to lose sight of time, look up, and be taken aback by the sheer beauty of the surroundings. One particular area had trees that appeared to be covered in frost, but was simply a gorgeous white moss that had covered the pines.
In total, the walk to the camp was nine miles. The week would involve at least fifty miles of hiking and working. The work itself, which included slashing at blackberry patches along the trail, was not challenging. However, getting from one work site to another, or just from point A to point B, was a nightmare.
One particular night the weather called for a torrential downpour to last for 24 hours. The longest parts of the day were easily the walk back to camp in the rain, where the inside of your boots are soaked, and you’re always farther than you think you are from the camp. That night I felt extremely homesick for not only friends and family, but a normal mattress as well. I asked myself that night what sort of masochist enjoyed getting eaten by bugs all day and not taking showers.
This brings me to another point. When the Crew mentioned a shelter near our campsite, I thought, “oh neat a shower” but I was mistaken. So very mistaken. Judging from the appearance and conversation from the “thru-hikers” of the AT (who hike the full trail; 2,179 miles), showers were alien. 
Though there were many hardships, I had a great time. The food was fantastic, and dinner time saw everyone at their finest.  However, I am seriously missing my family and friends. It’s a great learning experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to do script writing to develop characters. There’s more this coming week, and I’m excited to see a new batch of volunteers! Next week, I’ll also bring the camera along in my dry bag to accurately capture the trail.

Rainpocalypse 2013: It’s as bad as you think.

Before I begin this, a big “thank you” is in order for both Amy and Ben, who have been driving me to the store and to the library to get wifi to make these posts possible. You guys rule!
I have a genius plan. Really. Maybe it’s more appropriate that I put that in the past tense, but one way or another, a genius plan was hatched. You see, when doing trail work, preparation is key. My plan was to have a quick-drying undershirt on, underneath a windbreaker; all underneath a water-resistant work outfit that sort of looks like a Ghostbusters uniform. Not only am I warm and toasty, but completely dry as well.
Truth be told, none of us were quite prepared for Rainpocalypse 2013. We waited in the car for about an hour, completely suited up, just waiting for the thunderstorms to stop. This is before even getting on the trail. When a break in the rain came, we grabbed our tools and hobbled along the trail. Little did I know, something dark and sinister was about to happen. About thirty minutes in, the rain began pouring with a fervor equaling that of before. Unfortunately, around this time, my backpack began to de-pants my water resistant Frogtoggs, leaving a perfect chance for rain to soak into my windbreaker.  “Darn,” I think to my self, “this was foolproof.” I would not experience dryness for the next 48 hours. The rain was icy cold, the trail was a river, and each ten-mile hike was the definition of miserable. I kept a stone face for most of the time and focused on the finer things in life I was now doing without: toilets, showers, being dry, and smelling nice.

Appalachian Trail Conclusions!

Where to begin? The time between writing this entry and when I began my third week on the Trail feels like an eternity.  Rainpocalypse had just ended, but the feeling of not wanting to ever look at a can of Spam or hear “Wagon Wheel” again had reached full capacity. While slipping into some well-deserved fresh clothing at the Base Camp, I stumbled upon a pamphlet entitled, “Preparing Yourself for The Appalachian Trail.” After having my morale kicked in the sack repeatedly the previous week, I thought that this might be my key to success.  The chapter entitled “Mental Preparation” was located appropriately at the beginning.  It asked the following questions:
Does the idea of hiking fifteen miles in the rain with seemingly no reward at the end seem like an exciting venture?
Would the idea of trail food (Spam, dehydrated vegetables, rice) on a daily basis seem daunting?
Do you have at least $2000-$3000 to pilfer away?
At the time, none of those sounded like good ideas. As the volunteers poured in for this week, however, I could tell this week would be different. Much different. By far, this was THE GOLDEN WEEK OF SUMMER! The characters for this week are:
Mary:  Probably the nicest person on the planet, she’s a very devout Christian who planned on staying the rest of the summer. She’s my age, goes to college in Florida, and came from Pennsylvania to volunteer!

Elizabeth: An eighth grade language arts teacher with the personality of a happy kid on caffeine, she’s hiked the AT once before and knows how to have fun on the trail. YEAH! Her ability to throw caution to the wind and jump into a river made it clear it was going to be a fun week.
Sarah: A fellow Ohioan! She looks like she hit age twenty, took a time machine to age thirty, and then proceeded to not age a day. For some reason at the orientation, everyone thought that she said she was 42 years old. The flood gates opened and it was age jokes the entire week.
Keith: A fifty-something who hiked the whole AT a couple of years ago. Can speak fluent Spanish, has a wife from Columbia, and is using this volunteer experience to cap off working at a single company for 26 years.
Keith was probably the oddest member of the bunch: he’d often times just vanish without reason, walking ahead of the group for miles or just going to sleep at very early times. I honestly don’t know if he got photographed the entire trip. He was, in many ways, an essential part of my survival on the trail. It’s like he could sense whenever I was hungry, and would offer a granola bar out of nowhere. Whenever I was stressed from walking all day, without me saying anything, he’d sing this peaceful, traditional Columbian song. One particular instance I was missing home, he appeared out of thin air and offered his cell phone so I could call my mom briefly. I questioned whether or not I had manifested him from my thoughts of wanting the simple creature comforts of home.

Turns out, we do have one picture of him:

The whole crew! From left to right: Mary, Ben, Me, Ben’s dad with some donuts he brought us, Jeff, Amy, Elizabeth, Sarah, and Keith!

Jeff: Our returning character from the first week! I’ll forever know him as the two sheets of toilet paper man!
And of course, our fantastic trail leaders, Ben and Amy made a return for their third week. Finally, we had a 50/50 gender balance.
To sum it up, from beginning to end, the trip was amazing. Our hike up to the campsite was unbelievable: we started at Tremont, which I had hiked earlier that year in Mountain Challenge! It’s a gorgeous walk that is great for hiking, mainly due to how flat it is. Holy crap, not having to hike uphill for 9 miles was a blessing. It also has a river that lines throughout the entirety of the trail. Elizabeth, being a ray of sunshine, took it upon herself to take a dip in. Like releasing a flood of fun times that lasted the whole week, half of the crew followed suit. Beauty was underway.
Elizabeth seeking out water for swimming.

This was also the first week where the crew truly felt like family: I’m not sure if it was the beautiful, sunny days, or just an unknown influx of good vibes, but I felt like I could spend the whole summer with this group. Everyone was an effective worker, and I couldn’t have been happier.

   Crew Leader Ben and I, enjoying some well deserved trail food.

Mary and I kicked butt for several days as a dynamic duo that lopped branches, cut some serious blackberry and fern growth, and dug ditches. She was so much fun to talk with and hear stories about her family life. Her new stepdad was at one point the leader of the Jewish mafia in Cleveland, Ohio.  This is about as ridiculous as you can imagine: threatening college professors with “a very not-kosher tuckus whooping” is just scratching the surface.  She is an incredible story teller and a great worker.

The final workday was easily the best.  Not only did we saw a tree that blocked the trail (photographic evidence below), but the day was cool, sunny and dry.  Unfortunately, my foot had swollen (I wonder which one of the fifteen bug bites could have caused it. We may never know.) and I was relegated to sitting on a comfy synthetic mat while the rest of the crew prepared dinner.  Everyone was smiling, cracking jokes, and being at their best. We had wonderful conversations and the sunset was the perfect cap to a 10/10 week. Limited rain, perfect people, no blisters, and good vibes all around. It was a week that I miss to this day.

2013 SWEAT Summary

Collectively, the eight sessions of S.W.E.A.T. Crew hosted 49 volunteers who worked a total of 2,284 hours to brush about 30 miles and clean roughly 500 water bars of the A.T. in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A handful of volunteers enjoyed crew life so much that they stayed to work for more than a single session. The crew’s work also included adding or improving 29 steps, adding four rock and 26 log water bars, and cutting two blowdowns. The crew was led by Amy Alamong and Ben Royer who received positive feedback from participant evaluations.

Thanks to their contributions the A.T. in the Smokies in excellent condition. We look forward to having many of these volunteers return next year, along with other seriously elite backpackers! 

Ben's Video Log

Assistant Crew Leader Ben Royer captured some lightness, some beauty, and some good hard work with his GoPro Camera while the S.W.E.A.T. Crew was in session. These are now edited and posted. Check 'em out!