Working as GIS and Trail Technician Maintenance Interns for SECC, we have learned to love and respect the outdoors. Since the end of June, we have hiked and assessed the trails at Moccasin Bend and Lookout Mountain as a two-person team. Our normal trail-day goes something like this…We meet at the Park’s Maintenance Offices at Chickamauga Battlefield and make sure we have everything we need for the trail. Some of our trail necessities include plenty of water, lots of bug spray, a trail snack and lunch, our Garmin GPS, and our two clipboards of TRACS Trail Management Objectives papers. Then we load up our backpacks, toss them in our NPS truck, and head to the trail. Once we get to the trailhead we are going to assess, we douse ourselves with bug spray, turn the GPS on, and start tracking our path down the trail. We keep our eyes open for anything that needs to be remediated. Typical problems we have encountered on the trail include water drainage issues, downed trees, overgrown brush and vegetation, damaged or missing trail signs, and trail erosion. Anytime we come across anything that needs to be noted, we first mark a waypoint with the GPS, then record what the current condition and problem of the trail is at that time. If necessary, we use a measuring wheel to get the dimensions of the area in question. We then note what would be the best solution to fix the problem to our best ability. Lastly, we take pictures of the area from different points of view. This process is repeated for every single waypoint on the trail. Once we walk the length of the trail, we have to hike back to the truck, drive back to Maintenance Offices, and complete the rest of the report for that trail. We also record the average trail tread width, clearing width, clearing height, and any other important aspects of the trail. Those survey papers are then collated, added to our ever-expanding binder of trail assessments, and we prepare for the next day of work.
We have learned that some of the areas in these parks have not been been maintained in several years, which is why our internship was created through SECC. The main goal of our internship is to use the waypoints gathered in the field from our trusty GPS to create GIS-based maps, which the National Park Service will then use to determine the extent of trail work and maintenance that needs to be done to fit within their five-year plans. Another crucial part of our internship involves performing trail work and organizing volunteer work days. The objective of these volunteer days is to engage the community in conservation projects that improve the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Park. We are able to tackle small projects as a two-person trail crew, such as clearing a narrow trail covered with brush and vegetation with loppers and pruning saws, but the best way to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time is by amassing a group of hard-working volunteers.
On Sunday, August 25th, that’s exactly what happened. We were able to get in-contact with Troop 259 out of Bremen, Georgia, who would be camping at the Battlefield the 23rd through the 25th. This is a unique troop because it is one of the few All-Girl Boy Scout Groups in existence; we were excited to work with them. Before the volunteer event, the troop spent time exploring and learning about Chickamauga Battlefield, and kindly agreed to donate some of their time to a volunteer project on Sunday morning. We made arrangements to meet the troop and our Individual Placements Coordinator from SECC, Matt Cottam, at 8:00 a.m. to improve a section of hiking trail at the Battlefield that needed some corridor work done. This meant brushing and clearing any vegetation that hung over or into the walking path. The trail was only 0.4 miles long in-total, but it was our goal to shape up the corridor of the first tenth-of-a mile on that trail. The troop had 12 girls ranging from 5th to 8th grade and 3 troop chaperones who attended the camping trip, so we were looking forward to making great progress on the trail. However, the weather was against us: that morning was cool and overcast with a 50% chance of rain later that morning.
When we met and drove together to the work site, we briefly introduced ourselves and conducted a safety brief regarding the tools we would be working with for the day. There were many items to cover, but everyone was engaged and a few asked questions. After that, we handed out all of the required Personal Protective Equipment and tools, and began to work on the trail. The weather reluctantly cooperated for about the first 30 minutes of our safety brief, but soon after began pouring as we unloaded the tools. As a two-person team, we have learned a few things about trail maintenance over the past couple of months, but working with the Scouts on this project gave us a new perspective. Here are a few things we took away from that day:
- Don’t be afraid to go-to-town with loppers and saws.
When we initially handed out the loppers, most of the girls held them in their hands with confidence. As soon as we made it to the trailhead, we released them to start cutting limbs and brush, and watched as some of the girls struggled with what to cut. It’s a conflicting feeling to cut a healthy plant or tree, but we had to remind the few that if we don’t cut it now, it could grow bigger and creep farther into the corridor. With a little guidance and instruction, the few eventually got the hang of it. However, the exciting thing to watch was to watch some of the other Scouts go-to-town lopping away at the limbs, and have a good time doing so. Occasionally, we would let a Scout use a pruning saw with supervision to saw down a larger tree that loppers couldn’t cut through. It was fun to watch the girls’ faces light up when cutting down a tree that was 3 times as tall as they were.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
After giving our introductory talk to the girls, we ended the conversation by telling them not to be afraid to ask questions; we’d prefer that they do their job the correct and safe way instead of being timid and potentially putting themselves or others in danger. This is hard advice to follow at any age, but the girls did not shy away from coming up to us for help or guidance. Some asked us to help hold down higher branches so that they could safely reach to cut them with loppers, or to help drag a large branch or pile of brush back into the woods and off of the trail. As we walked around to survey the work that was being done, we gave recommendations to some of the girls, who then proceeded to ask follow-up questions to ensure that they were cutting limbs or branches correctly or sawing a small tree hanging over into the corridor properly. One young lady at the end of our workday approached us and asked why the trails at a large park near her home were not being maintained, which initiated a conversation about managed land use and park resources and economics. We were very impressed by her question with regard to her application of what she learned at the volunteer event to the larger world around her. And that is the power of education: gaining information to change the way you look at all the little facets of your life, and to then use that knowledge for the betterment of yourself and the world around you.
3. The outdoors is for everyone.
Working with a group of middle-school students, their adult chaperones, and Matt - a seasoned trail work pro in his own right - reinforced the notion that being and working outside in the natural world transcends age, gender, race, or ability. Regardless of our various ages and skill levels with regard to conservation trail work, everyone deserved to be there, participated equally, and performed great work. Nature is truly the great equalizer, and it exists for everyone to both enjoy and be a steward of.
4. It’s ok to get a little silly.
Even though we weren’t working for very long, the steady shower of rain eventually soaked us to the bone. Such weather is certainly not ideal trail work conditions, but we wanted to try to work through it as best we could. It was hard to be miserable as we walked by a couple of middle school girls cracking jokes as they worked. It was very humbling to watch these girls - who could easily complain about being tired after two days of camping and working in the rain - work alongside each other and keep each other’s spirits up by making each other laugh. Doing corridor work can be a tedious job because the same thing is often being performed over and over again for several hundred feet at a time. Progress made with trail work often goes unrecognized in-the-moment, but these girls didn’t seem to mind at all. The phrase stands true: time flies when you’re having fun.
5. Always work as a team.
When we decided to stop working for the day, we instructed the Scouts and chaperones to put all of the tools that they were using in a localized spot on the trail, and to start dragging any cut vegetation farther back into the woods while we made sure that we left with the number of tools brought for the project. During this time, we counted all of the tools and concluded that we were short one pair of loppers. We counted again, and then recounted, just to make sure: 19 loppers. Eventually, the Scout Leader came over to talk to us and instructed the Scouts to start looking on and around the trail for the missing pair of loppers. They started meandering around the trail, joking around with each other as they walked, which was understandable: the girls were losing focus after an hour of tedious work in the soaking rain. The Scout Leader saw this, raised her hand with the Scout salute in the middle of the trail, and silently waited. One by one, the Scouts saw this, mirrored the gesture, and stood silently. The Scout Leader calmly reiterated that it was important that the Scouts work together efficiently to find these loppers. The Scouts regained their focus and spaced themselves out on the trail again, combing the tall grass and edges of the trail quietly to find the pair of missing loppers. We didn’t find anything on the trail, and finally came to the conclusion that we must have only brought 19 loppers, not 20. Soon after that, everyone made their way back to the truck to start returning equipment and tools. Witnessing that whole moment was very humbling; it reminded us that the whole point of working together as a team is to be able to be there for each other when a person needs help. Everyone could have gone their own ways and refuse to find the loppers, but they didn’t. In the end, everyone came together as an efficient force to resolve the issue.
Being our first volunteer event we have ever coordinated, we thought this experience was a huge success. Although the rain was an unfortunate deterrent, we still made plenty of improvement on the trail while being wet from head-to-toe. We ended up working on the first 188 ft. of the trail corridor, which is a great start to improving this trail, and we now have insight into what brushing and clearing with a large group of people is like. There is no way we could have made the amount of progress that Troop 259 made on our own in such a short amount of time, and we are grateful that they donated their time and energy to give back to the National Park. Going forward, we will remember the things that these Scouts have taught us, and apply them to our daily trail and work days so that we can be the best two-person team that we strive to be.
By Hannah Springer and Kelly O'Shaughnessy