Before the 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 endeavor. With 5 major partners managed by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, 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 for the parks hundreds of thousands of visitors. Stone would be harvested from native rock onsite; split, shaped and flown hundreds of feet on high lines as they weaved their way 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 from the mountains face. The job, to put it plainly, was enormous.

Despite the magnitude of the job itself, something even more special was taking place, as volunteers were welcomed to train and work alongside the professional trail builders who led this construction effort. This would be the most striking difference between the stonework on the Bear Mountain Trails Project and every other technical trail project of a similar scale; the inclusion of volunteers with little to no experience.

In this environment the Jolly Rovers roots would begin to form.

I had 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 have found trail work, 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 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 acclimatize to the sight I took note of several steps that had already been set and many more that were stacked nearby.  Looking up I could see what appeared to be a zip line strung between the trees with other builders in the distance 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 resonates 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."

The following weekend I began my training with the other 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 and 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 several twice its size out of the way. Once cleared, smaller rock needed to be collected and crushed by hand for back fill; to do so you needed to scramble over boulders carrying 5 gallon buckets of rock, only to throw it into a 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. 

By the Spring of 2009 I was hired on to become the volunteer coordinator for the project and charged with improving volunteer retention. In the years prior, an issue had arisen where volunteers would show up for a weekend of training, take their photos, and never show up again.  Such trail work tourism had been creating tension amongst the professionals onsite who were spending countless hours training volunteers who would not return to further apply their skills to the project. In an effort to change this I proposed a different model, rather than welcome any volunteer, we would require a mandatory orientation with an expectation of at least 2 trainings afterwards in order to sign up for future trips. The idea of restricting volunteers from donating their time by requiring commitment was initially met with skepticism, but after that first trial in 2009 a fascinating result occurred; while the project had less volunteers than years prior, we had the same amount of volunteer hours, and had doubled productivity. Most importantly, the volunteers that met these requirements were of a different breed; they wanted to be there and to participate regularly in a creative challenge that few others were up for.  Over the next two years, within this relatively small group of dedicated volunteers, an undeniable spirit was taking shape that felt different than other crews I had worked with to that point. The unique nature of the work coupled with the unique personalities of those few who had taken on the commitment had allowed a creative chemistry to start taking place.   

From the beginning, the Bear Mountain Trails Project had several goals, amongst them was to have regional trail crews visit the project to learn new skills and bring new volunteers trained on the project back with them.  An admirable concept, issues arose as existing crews were too busy to spend time on another project while volunteers on Bear Mountain were hooked not only to the unique nature of that projects work, but to the camaraderie that was being created within the group.  In 2010 an idea occurred to me, rather than split the group up or wait for others to come to us, we could keep the crew together, and take our show on the road; not only spreading the skills we had learned, but more importantly, preserving and nurturing the spirit of the group that was taking shape.  At the end of one fall work day I approached two of the projects volunteers, Bob (Brunner) and Artie (Hidalgo) with an idea of turning the group into a "roving crew" that could tackle the most technical stonework projects in the north east, gathering members as it travelled from year to year.   

Eager to participate, a discussion followed regarding the model that was working on Bear Mountain and how we could further enhance it by increasing the training and participation requirements to become a member.  The result would be that a mandatory 4 workshops and at least 80 hours of service afterwards would insure that only the most dedicated would join, while expected participation in crew dinners/parties afterwards would further the bond of camaraderie that Bear Mountain had started. Shortly after I approached the other 9 volunteers on the project to gauge feedback and interest, not surprisingly, it was unanimous; all 11 of the projects most dedicated volunteers were eager to jump on board and found a crew that would be ours to steer as we saw fit. 

The crew would need a symbol to rally behind that reflected the unique personalities that had come together. In each of them was a highly skilled, adventurous, roguish and outrageously humorous spirit that just didn't fit the mold of other crews I had known at the time.  Thinking about leaving our home port of Bear Mountain, roving to other regions, picking up crew members as we went along, it wasn't long before the pirate analogy to popped into my head. The skull and crossbones (known throughout history as the "Jolly Roger") was an obvious fit for a roving crew such as ours. After replacing the bones with hammers, the Jolly Roger became the Jolly Rovers, and we were ready to set sail.   

From the initial idea in 2010 to the official launch in 2011, the Jolly Rover tribe has more than tripled in size from that first founding crew which took a chance in making an idea reality.  With every crew member that has "taken the black" since, the crews energy  has become increasingly enriched as they embrace the esprit that founded us while adding to it, making it ever more unique.  

Considering what’s involved, people often ask: “You're not getting paid? Why would you do this work for free?” 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 no longer allow us to, to leave something behind that benefits others long after we are gone, to challenge ourselves physically and mentally, but most importantly, to share a sense of spirit with a true community. In the end, we hope to continue creating a legacy founded not in the projects we complete, but in the people that come together to build them.

In Acknowledgement to our Founding Crew of 2011, Thank You...

Allen Jaeger, Artie Hidalgo, Bob Brunner, Brian Beckenbaugh, Chris Ingui, David Chase, Jesse Spiro,

Karen Nelson, Roch Boucher, Robin French, Travis Schnell, and Willy Diaz.

Thanks also to all the partners that made the Bear Mountain Trails Project and the Jolly Rovers possible:

New York-New Jersey Trail ConferenceAppalachian Trail ConservancyNational Park Service, Palisades Interstate Parks Commission, New York State Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation, and Tahawus Trails LLC.

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