Reflections on The Bear
Origins of the Jolly Rovers
by Chris Ingui - Executive Director / Founding Member
To be romantic… it started on “The Mountain.”
In 2008 a massive relocation of the Appalachian Trail in Bear Mountain State Park, NY was in its second year of what was to be a decade long super project. With 5 major partners managed by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference (and others listed below), the work would involve the installation of over 1,200 five foot long, 800 pound stone steps to the summit of Bear Mountain to improve the sustainability of the crumbling trail, and increase accessibility to the parks hundreds of thousands of visitors. Each stone would be harvested from native rock onsite; split, shaped and flown hundreds of feet on wire ropes as they weaved their through the tree canopy and over cliffs before getting lowered into place. Once there, they would be honed further by hammer and chisel till they fit seamlessly into the ancient geological landscape around them. Stone retaining walls between these staircases would support walking surfaces for hundreds of feet; periodically tying into monolithic stones that had been left there since the glaciers receded. Sections of these walls would hug sheer bedrock, their base stones pinned in place, as their walls emerged skyward from the mountains face. The job, to put it plainly, was enormous.
Yet despite this enormity, volunteers were welcomed to train and work alongside the professional builders who led the construction effort. This would be the most striking difference between the stonework on the Bear Mountain Trails Project and every other technical trail work project of a similar scale, the inclusion of volunteers with little to no experience.
This was the environment that the Jolly Rovers would take root in.
I arrived on the project in March of 2008 as one of these volunteers. I had recently departed from my career in the film industry and like many who've had trail work find them, desired a change in my life.
Looking up at the mountain I heard the rhythm of steel striking steel and the occasional shout of the strange words “tension!” and “slack!” erupting from the canopy of oak trees. No trails existed where the sounds were coming from, they were emerging from the middle of the forest.
Scrambling up the mountain with the rest of the volunteers on orientation day, we came upon on a lone trail builder nestled away in the middle of the boulder field. It seemed so odd to run into anybody that my mind struggled to understand what was happening.
Nevertheless, there he was, one person, shaping a little order in the chaos of rock around him. The effect set in quick; while seemingly impossible, it was actually happening; he was building a staircase made entirely of stone. As I began to acclimate to the sight I took note of several steps that had already been set and the many more that were stacked nearby. Looking up I could see what appeared to be a zip line strung between the trees with other workers in the distance uphill getting the next stone ready to fly down the mountains steep and rugged face.
Taking note of the volunteers that had entered the site, work gradually slowed and the crew members emerged from various parts of forest to introduce themselves and the project. Many questions and explanations were exchanged on our tour up the mountain that day but one exchange sticks with me to this day.
"How did you get into this line work?" Someone asked.
"Sometimes you get lost." The trail builder replied. "Then you get found... This work found me."
I couldn't help but smile. I had identified with the response, and I wanted in.
I began my training with the other new volunteers through the Trail Conference’s Trail University program, and in short order was put to the task of working alongside the professional trail builders who were contracted to lead the construction effort. Having left my job I was able to dedicate myself to becoming a full-time volunteer. After my first 2 months of apprenticeship crushing and splitting stone in the quarries, I was set loose on my own project. It was then that the daunting nature of the work truly set in.
To set one stone step you needed to move another twice its size out of the way, once cleared, smaller rock needed to be collected and crushed by hand for back fill, to get that rock you needed to scramble over boulders with a smaller boulder in your arms, only to throw it into the pit, and proceed to swing away, bashing it into smaller and smaller pieces with a sledge hammer. Shrapnel would careen off your shins and smack you in the face, ricocheting off your safety glasses. When the step was finally set… after having moved it 400 feet from above, shaping it to the proper proportions and maneuvering it in place… it would be a ½ inch off level and you would need to reset it, over and over again until it was perfect. When the stone was finally leveled, you’d look up and see the boulder field beyond, a boulder field that you would need to craft a staircase into; and so the process would start again.
When I tell people interested in volunteering for this work that they’re crazy, I mean it. The good news I tell them is that they’ll be in good company. As the years went on volunteers came and went but several always stayed. By the end of 2010 a core group of 10 volunteers had stuck it out since I began 3 years earlier. The work hadn’t gotten any easier, but through the difficulty of it all, the most dedicated of them remained.
At this point I was working full time as the projects volunteer coordinator and crew leader, and in the Fall of 2010 I approached two of the most active volunteers with the concept of taking this kind of trail work on the road with “a roving crew.” That winter I met with Artie Hidalgo and Bob Brunner over dinner and drinks to present the details of this thing called "the Jolly Rovers." They both signed on eagerly, and with their support,
I approached the remaining corp of volunteers (listed below) and they all signed on, eager as well. In March of 2011, this small founding band of 13 volunteers would officially become The Jolly Rovers.
By the end of year one our 10 crew members had expanded to 17, by the end of year two we were at 25. In 2013, during our third year, the crew had expanded to 30 and has been growing since to what is now a standing crew of 45. The big news came in 2014 when the Rovers officially became its own independent non-profit organization.
Considering what’s involved in this work, people ask us: “Why do you volunteer to do this!?” The answer is simple, it’s not “work,” at least not in the sense that people tend to mean it. The draw comes from various desires in all of us; to create in ways that many jobs out there no longer allow us to, to leave something behind that benefits others long after we are gone, to challenge ourselves physically and mentally, to share a sense of camaraderie with a community, to build true friendships; in the end, we hope to continue creating a legacy where we build much more than steps and walls, and leave a legacy beyond the one left in stone.
Founding Crew of 2011
Allen Jaeger, Artie Hidalgo, Bob Brunner, Brian Beckenbaugh, Chris Ingui, David Chase, Jesse Spiro, Joe Lieb, Karen Nelson, Mik Miazio, Rich Raschdorf, Robin French, Travis Schnell
Thank you to all the partners that made the Bear Mountain Trails Project and the Jolly Rovers possible:
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, National Park Service, Palisades interstate Park Commission, New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation,Tahawus Trails LLC.