Crew Life in the Smokies: A Comparison of S.W.E.A.T and Rocky Top

This blog post is cross-posed here as well as on the Rocky Top Trail Crew blog. Written by Ron Hudnell, a first-time volunteer on S.W.E.A.T and Rocky Top, who breaks down the differences in the two crews.

Reflections from an ATC Crew “Newbie”

During October 20 – 26, 2013, I was very fortunate to be on the end-of-season session #5 of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Rocky Top volunteer crew which did trail building projects in the Smoky Mountain National Park between Cosby Knob Shelter and Tri-Corner Knob Shelter.  The official count on new steps was 31 with a few rock bar drains and berm clearance projects, but who is counting?  We did!  Crew leaders, Bobby and Greever, said that we set a new record this year with the most steps in the shortest time with the smallest work crew – lots of superlatives in that claim!

I use the word “fortunate” above because I was the only crew member who had not done Rocky Top work before, so I felt blessed to be on a team with very experienced leaders as well as co-workers willing to come back for a second session.  Some had been back for multiple visits so I knew I was on to something!

During the shortened Rocky Top work session caused by the government shutdown, the question that I got most often asked was not about background, miles hiked on the A.T., gear, rock work knowledge, etc., but rather how I would compare work with Rocky Top to my previous work with the S.W.E.A.T. crew earlier in the season.
Rocky Top: Hammers High

So my comparison for the record and for the benefit of other volunteers who are trying to decide which group to join…

Similarities between S.W.E.A.T. & Rocky Top

  •   Both teams were absolutely and totally satisfying for me as I got to work for excellent crew leaders and with groups of very dedicated AT enthusiasts.
  • Crew leaders were well trained and very knowledgeable on trail construction/trail maintenance, had thru-hiker experience, and were strong advocates of “Leave No Trace”.  They had great practical experience! 
  • There were no disgruntled, hard-to-work-with individuals in either group.
  • Both groups did work that is very necessary for the preservation and sustainability of the Appalachian Trail
  • I was tired at the end of the day with both groups - and thus slept very well!
  • Camp Coordinator, Kayah Gaydish, did a fabulous job of working with crew leaders for both groups to ensure that each volunteer member had enough and the right foods to eat during their sessions.  She even went AAN (“above and beyond”) by hiking part way out with us on the Rocky Top week and meeting us at the equipment pickup point at the end of the week.  Very much appreciated!
S.W.E.A.T. Crew

Differences between S.W.E.A.T. & Rocky Top 

  •  The Rocky Top week involved more creativity or “engineering” as you had to determine where the steps were needed for effective erosion control as well as hiker/horse traffic, what materials the steps would be constructed of, where you were going to find and move the materials, how to cut the stone, how deep to dig the holes, and more.  (By the end of the week, my mentor said he had taught me all he could so I was on my own.  But I did catch him looking over his shoulder just to ensure “our trail” projects would be approved by the crew leader.)  I really enjoyed the interaction among crew members in these “design” activities. 
  • The S.W.E.A.T. crew activity was more maintenance-oriented on existing sites, so the physical count accomplishment list was much higher.
  • Rocky Top was more physically demanding once on site as you seemed to always have a rock sledge or hammer in your hand if you were not moving a large rock!  But pack horses carried up and brought down food, equipment, and tools thus aking a big load off the volunteers.
  • S.W.E.A.T. was more physically demanding getting to and from the work site as the hike in was longer and crew members hiked all tools and food in and back.  In a somewhat strange way, I liked that physical challenge/accomplishment of carrying a 65 lb pack!
S.W.E.A.T. Team

The Bottom Line

It will be difficult for me to pick between these two groups – S.W.E.A.T. or Rocky Top – so I am sure that I will attempt to do both groups again next year if ATC will allow me to do so.  I might even expand my horizon by looking at some other ATC crews (the Konnarock Crew was often mentioned) as well as at some local weekend A.T. trail maintenance organizations!

Rocky Top Team

Thank you ATC for allowing me to be a part of both groups this year!  I encourage all hikers and AT supporters – financial or otherwise – to get involved with a trail crew as ATC staff cannot alone maintain the trail that we so love.  And the personal returns are lifelong…

Ron Hudnell

AKA “Tarheel”