SummitCorps builds a trail to the future

Watch behind-the-scenes video from SummitCorps by clicking this link.

See photos from the opening of the Arrowhead Hike and Bike Trail by clicking this link.

SummitCorps Trail Building
Trail building doesn’t just involve dirt. With the help of trail-design plans by the International Mountain Biking Association, Arrowmen removed roots and moved rocks as they constructed flagstone rock pitches.

On a steamy summer day, deep in the woods of south-central West Virginia, where trees as thin as a clarinet stand as tall as a house, John Cary, a Scout leader from Tupelo, Miss., was working on a puzzle. A rock puzzle.

On his hands and knees in the middle of a crude dirt trail, Cary was chipping small pieces off of dozens of rocks, trying to squeeze those rocks tightly together into a hole perhaps three-feet wide and about as deep. Some fit easily. Others wouldn’t fit at all. So for two days he chipped and pressed and chipped again and pressed again—and again—until the puzzle was complete.

For this tedious, dirty work, Cary had to pay his way here from Tupelo and even had to sleep one night in his car before getting to work on the trail. But looking up from the pile of rocks in front of him, he said, “I’ve loved every minute of this.”

“This” was work on hiking and biking trails adjacent to the 10,600-acre Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve. The Summit will be home to the national Scout jamboree starting in 2013 and the 2019 World Scout Jamboree. It also will become the Boy Scouts’ fourth high-adventure base—and, likely, its most-visited, given its proximity to densely populated metropolitan areas.

Before the jamborees or the adventures begin, though, an all-volunteer group called SummitCorps 2011 was put to work. In four weekly waves this past July, 1,404 SummitCorps volunteers came to West Virginia’s New River Gorge National River area. They paid their own way to get here. They camped in tents outside the National Guard’s Glen Jean Armory. (Cary arrived one day early, which is why he ended up spending the night in his car.) And each wave consisted of four, eight-hour days in these woods.

Their goal: help carve out nearly 13 new miles of multiuse biking and hiking trails from untamed land. National Park Service land, that is.

Of course, Scouts and Scouters have cut trails before. And they’ve also worked with big government agencies before, including ArrowCorps5, which teamed Arrowmen and the National Forest Service in 2008. But never before have Scouts and Scouters worked alongside Park Service Rangers on a project of this magnitude within National Park Service land—70,000 acres located in the New River Gorge area.

The Park Service estimates that the SummitCorps youth, adults, and staff (who helped plan the service project) put in about 80,000 hours of free work this past summer and saved taxpayers approximately $1.6 million in the process. And more Scouts and Scouters are expected to volunteer for additional trail work on Park Service land in the New River Gorge area as the BSA-NPS partnership—one that first developed in 1926—broadens in the years to come.

“It is a great opportunity to get projects like this accomplished with volunteer service,” said Robin Snyder, the Park Service’s chief of interpretation and visitor services at the New River Gorge National River office. “These were trails that we had identified previously that we wanted to develop for public use. But the Park Service doesn’t necessarily have the staff to do this on our own.”

SummitCorps Trail Building 1
Mark Morris (left), a Scouter from Paoili, Pa., and Doug Henneberger, a Scouter from Waynesboro, Pa., lug a 75-pound rock to a new resting place.

That’s where the SummitCorps project came in.

Day One of SummitCorps began early. Scouts and Scouters got up just after dawn, and before 8 A.M. they had been divided into nearly two dozen work teams and had deployed deep into the West Virginia woods. Here they found a line of tiny flags and lopped-off trees that indicated the future trail’s location.

A week earlier, the trees had been trimmed to about a foot high, and the flags were planted by the Park Service and the advanced Instructor Corps (I-Corps) team. But plenty of work lay ahead.

“On the first day, we just had to bushwhack our way up the trail,” said Collin Huerter, an Arrowman from Topeka, Kan., as he stood on the now-visible trail. “But by the time we came back down, there was already nice trail laid down.”

In mere days, SummitCorps teams—one working from the trail’s northern end, which will be most easily accessed by locals, and the other working from the trail’s southern end, which runs alongside the Summit property—had cleared more than 10,000 feet of land. The crews from the south met the crews from the north in the middle.

Even as a trail had taken shape, plenty of hard work remained. At the trail’s northernmost end, Work Team 5 wrapped up a lunch break that included lessons on brotherhood and got back to trail work. Team 5 had divided itself into subteams for the job. Three Arrowmen were using small pickaxes to chip large rocks, which they had dug out of the nearby hills, into smaller rocks. “This is like Leavenworth,” said one of that crew’s members. “Just bustin’ rocks.”

A few feet away, another team of two Arrowmen used larger pickaxes to carve out the farthest spot reached at the northern end of the trail. They cheered for each other as they ripped one massive root from the chalky earth. Meanwhile, the remaining team members raked roots from a portion of trail that had already been dug out.

Thomas Fledderus, a Scouter from Wheeling, W.Va., a city four hours north of the New River Gorge, was on that detail. “I’d say this is one of the hardest things I’ve done,” said Fledderus, who had brought along his son, an Arrowman named Lane. “Well, it’s certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done that I’ve had to pay for.”

Paid service. That’s a big deal out here for those who are new to working with the Boy Scouts. As he caught up to Team 5, Mike Harzog, the Park Service’s safety officer for this project, explained his amazement that people would not only volunteer to break rocks, fill holes, and rake roots for a week, but would pay $250 for that, um, privilege.

“Sometimes you go home and turn the news on and see some stories about young people these days that make it easy to give up,” Harzog said. “But seeing these kids out here, it makes you believe again.” In exchange, Harzog said the Park Service hopes to give SummitCorps members an insight into their vast knowledge of the outdoors. Building multiuse trails, for instance.

Although plenty of Arrowmen who came to work the New River Gorge this past summer had done trail work before, many had never built a multiuse bike trail. “Usually, for trail work, you just go into the woods and start raking,” said Cole Coates, an Arrowman from Weirton, W.Va. “This work is more meticulous.”

Much more. Trees have to be removed. Roots must be dug out. The trail tread has to be reduced. All of the organic material has to be removed from the trail, lest any leftover roots threaten the drainage. Rocks must be dug up, chipped down, and then put into “pitching” holes, which help with drainage. It is difficult, dirty work.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, way back up the trail, where Team 1 was tasked with filling two pitching holes about five feet apart, Jared Schiele, an Arrowman from Hudson, Ohio, yelled out, “This would be a lot easier if we had mortar.” Team leader Nick Larson, an Arrowman from Orlando, Fla., responded, “Well, we don’t have mortar. We just have blood, sweat, and tears. That’ll have to be enough.”

Besides blood, sweat, and tears, there was also a little expertise going into those pitching holes. Because of the complexity of this work, the Park Service called in a longtime partner, the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), to design the multiuse trails around the Summit site. IMBA members also came to West Virginia to help the Park Service instruct I-Corps members who would, in turn, instruct the volunteers on how to build the trails.

These partnerships are a big deal, too. Really big. This summer, as SummitCorps was laying down miles of multiuse trails, it was also laying the groundwork for the alliances that will carry the BSA through the years—and decades—to come at the Summit. “To me,” said Clyde Mayer, Order of the Arrow team leader, “the most important thing we’re doing at the Summit is not building mountain bike trails, but building strong relationships with the communities there, with the Park Service, and also with the National Guard.”

SummitCorps Trail Building 3
Hard work like this is exhausting, and Luke McNeese (left), operations division supervisor and district executive in Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley Council, has the best seat in the house during a break.

The Arrowmen were some of the first Scouts to strengthen Scouting’s rapport with neighboring communities, and it was a first impression that many won’t forget, said Jonathan Hillis from Austin, Tex., who is the Order of the Arrow’s national chief. “The sense I got, everywhere I turned, was that the work we were doing was having a significant impact on members of the community in ways that extended beyond the miles of trail we built and [savings in dollars].”

About 15 miles away in Glen Jean, Brandon Azoulai, an Arrowman from Chappaqua, N.Y., scampered around command central for SummitCorps: the Glen Jean Armory. The National Guard made the armory available during the work project. It also brought in portable toilets and showers and leveled 200 yards of land for SummitCorps to camp on. It made good sense for SummitCorps to be here, because the event ran like a military operation.

During the first week, Azoulai, walkie-talkie constantly in hand, led the coordination of the work teams, keeping a frantic pace as he hurried between rooms where maps of the trails lined the walls and Scouters gathered in front of laptops and radios. Pins on the maps marked the drop zones where buses shuttled SummitCorps members to work—no later than 8 A.M.—and back to the armory where more than 200 tents awaited them.

Azoulai’s job required him to make sure everyone was in the proper place at the proper time, a task he said would have been impossible without SummitCorps members having the armory to call home. “Because the National Guard is accommodating us so well, it has really helped to keep our guys motivated when they get on the trail,” Azoulai said. “I don’t think there has been a single hitch in that relationship or our relationship with the Park Service.”

Another motivator for SummitCorps members was the promise of recreation time on their final day in West Virginia. The SummitCorps team was among the first to experience what Scouts from around the world will discover in the Mountain State: hiking, zip lining, rock climbing, bouldering, and whitewater rafting. Mostly, though, it was the rafting.

The nearby New River is home to some of the best and biggest whitewater in the country. And by the end of each workweek at SummitCorps, most volunteers chose to ride down it. This was one of the draws for Cary, the Scouter from Mississippi.

Cary has ridden whitewater in Kenai, Alaska, and on the Snake River in Wyoming, but he wanted to add the New River to his list. He also wanted to work, though. “We’re trying to start a trail project in our home council,” Cary said. “So this is good experience.”

Maybe a little too good. As Cary neared the middle of his second day working on the small pitching hole, Schiele, the Arrowman from Hudson, Ohio, told him, “You’re tough to work with, man.”
“Why?” Cary asked.

“Because,” Schiele said. “You do all the work. Leave some for us.”

Work. That’s really what Schiele and the other SummitCorps members came to the Summit to do. “I paid good money to come work here,” he said. “I want to do this. It’s fun.”

You might not think building a stacked-loop, hike-and-bike trail system in sweaty summer weather, in a forested area where yellow-jacket nests seem to pop up every few hundred feet is fun. But you’d have been hard-pressed to find a sweaty, dirty SummitCorps member who would have said otherwise.

Dan Dick, a Lena, Ill., Arrowman who is the Order of the Arrow’s national vice chief, pointed to the crew working around him to explain. “You get guys from, literally, all over the nation,” Dick said. “Ohio. Illinois. Florida. Iowa. Michigan. Texas. That’s the cool thing about this experience.”

For Hillis, the sense of pride in the Arrowmen’s accomplishment extends beyond the circle of Scouts, Scouters, and volunteers. “We had a Park Service employee tell us that our project had changed his entire outlook on life,” Hillis said. “He said that our message of cheerful service and love for our brothers has made him want to give back to those around him in a way he never has before.”

Cool. Fun. And one more adjective: incredible. “I’m sure a lot of these guys came in Monday and were so overwhelmed looking at what was out here,” said the Park Service’s Harzog. “But by going through this work process, they’ve learned that many hands make small work. It’s incredible. By the end of the week, these kids are going to be standing back and will be so proud of what they’ve accomplished here. Their work in this patch of woods will be here for a long time.”

Joseph Guinto, a former White House correspondent for Investor’s Business Daily, has written about travel, business, and celebrities for national publications.

1 Comment

  1. Great Surprise what a treat !!! I am truly feel honored to have made the story of such a monumental time in Scouting history. As a participant of AC5 Bridger/Teton, The Arrow Trail (A5), and now The Summit, There is NOT a better program. Keep um coming ! once again Thank You.
    Cheerful Services,
    John C. Cary

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