And on the Sixteenth of April, in the Southeast Metropolitan Park of Austin, Texas, the most glorious check steps to ever grace the park were completed. Not since fifteen years prior have such beautiful check steps ever been installed in the Southeast Metro. The duo of Green and Purple Crew proved once again that the immense trail building power of the field teams is truly unmatched within the Texas Conservation Corps. With great utility and style, these fine steps not only allow walkers to traverse the scenic ravine and bridge, but also provide great aesthetic enjoyment of their own to all those who are lucky enough to use them in this, the Badlands of Eastern Travis County.
Breaking only for a volunteer day in Bastrop State Park and the weekend, the Purple Crew initially set to their task on the Ninth of April. Accompanied by consultants from the Green Crew, the Purple Crew was undeterred by a 3 mile hike to the work-site and the immense tasks at-hand, even while maintaining their now world renowned Physical Training routine throughout the project. The results speak for themselves; whether it’s carrying saws, mattocks, drills, or elderly from burning buildings, the Purple Crew Workout Plan (PCWP) prepares you for it all. Based on revolutionary one-minute length sessions and cutting edge exercises, you are sure to complete your rugged task in record time and with a sculpted posterior. The workout plan is also guaranteed to return lost loved ones, even if they’ve been assigned to Top Secret Timber Framing Operations (TSTFO). The workout not only strengthens the body, but the emotional bonds between those in the stretch circle as well as their minds, thanks to the “daily question” feature. Through mind meld, the PCWP were able to return PFC Glen and Colonel Kurtz safely from the humidity of Louisiana and without any strange manners of speaking. Now complete, the Purple Crew can operate at maximum strength and engage our Megazord to conquer any task, be it in Colorado, Florida, Oklahoma or Texas. You are encouraged to order your VHS copies of the routine today for four easy payments of 29.99. Dial now at 1-800-888-TXCC.
Our Field Crew was sent to work in Sunset Valley for two weeks. Sunset Valley is a small city (about a square mile) contained within southern Austin. The City of Sunset Valley wanted us to do some trail work on their nature trail that stretches around the city. Most of the damage was caused from years of erosion, with the catastrophic Halloween floods of 2013 being the most recent major event. Our first project was to fix a section of trail that had been heavily eroded to the point that the trail was now just a long trench. About half of our time was spent rock hunting amidst a cedar (ash juniper) woodland. As the resident bird nut on my crew, I had hoped to see, or at least hear the Golden-Cheek Warbler, one of the more famous endangered birds in the Austin area, since they require the bark from the old growth cedar trees to build their nests. However, there were no sign of the warblers on this day.
Day 3. Still No Warblers.
After hunting for and caching rocks for several days, we started placing them into the trail. Finding the biggest stones that we could carry or drag, we dug out places for them to sit deep into the ground, hoping to prevent future rain storms or floods from washing away the trail. Placing the rocks was similar to solving a puzzle, except we made our own pieces and sometimes they wouldn’t work right, no matter what we did. We were still going into the cedar woodland, but there was still no sight (or sound) of the Warblers. However, we did hear the call of the Sandhill Crane, a bird that Purple Crew had heard earlier on our first project spike trip to Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.
Day 5. No Warblers, And Now You Can’t See Our Work
By the Friday of the first week, we had finished placing all the stones down in the trail. They all had several points of contact, a relatively flat surface to walk on, and just looked really freaking cool. You could see the amount of work and sweat (and slightly crushed hands and fingers… thank you PPE) that had gone into making this section of the trail. However, this glorious image was not to be seen by the eventual trail user. The final step for this project was to cover the trail first in a layer of road base & gravel and then top it off with a mix of dirt and mulch. For Purple Crew, it was a bittersweet victory. We had finished an awesome project, but all people would see is a nice layer of mulch that we had packed down on the trail, not knowing exactly the amazing amount of work that went into improving the trail. Still, the compliments and thanks we got while putting the stones in place were very rewarding.
Day 6. Plot Twist
On Monday we started a new project just up the trail from our impressive stonework (that no one can see anymore). There was an incline on the trail that was heavily eroded, so Purple Crew harvested some cedar logs to build check steps and water bars. These structures are built to slow water down so it won’t further erode the trail. At this point we were told that this habitat wasn’t even suitable for the Warblers, who require canyon habitat full of cedar/ash juniper to build their nests. Since this terrain was overall very flat, it wasn’t likely that we would see them. So it was acceptable for us to harvest all the cedar wood we needed, which in turn made our chainsaw enthusiasts very happy.
Day 8. New Spot
We finished the water bar structures, and moved to a new site within Sunset Valley. We were working on another inclined section of the trail. This was the site of a previous TxCC project, where they did a trail reroute to cut down on erosion. However, the October floods did some major damage to them, so we gave the site a fixer-upper. We decided to build box-steps, which would help keep the material from being washed away whenever it rained. We had harvested more cedar logs from our first site, and brought them over to build with. This project was really frustrating. We had to get the logs to lie as flat as possible, then we cut notches out of them so that they could fit together, kind of like the Lincoln Logs that many of us played with as children (or adults). By the end of the work day, a strange layout of logs and dirt lay stretched out on the trail. We ended up opening the reroute that had been previously closed off, just to let any potential walkers or bikers continue using the trail and not disturb our work.
Day 10. Last Day in Sunset Valley
The Lincoln Log project was completed with only a few hiccups, mainly getting the angles of the notches correct. We went to a new site much further away from our previous work areas… to yet another inclined section of trail. Here we were replacing new steps, making them as sustainable as possible. Half the crew was sent out to harvest the logs, while the other half removed all the old steps and salvaged as much of the rebar as we could. By lunch we had placed about half of the new steps. The construction was slow, because if you are trying to dig out dirt from your hole, the crew above you digging out their hole would end up spilling material back down into your hole, which slowed the installing process. But, we managed to get all our steps done by the end of the day, and we left tired but satisfied with our work. We were glad to have been able to get so much work done for the community.
For our latest blog adventure, we rejoin the TxCC on the Violet Crown Trail. For those who may not know, the Hill Country Conservancy and many other partners have come together to establish a trail system from the Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park all the way into Hays County. The trail, which is estimated to be over 30 miles upon completion, will be accessible to hikers, bikers, commuters and anyone else that wants to enjoy nature, in all of its awesomeness.
Fortunately, TxCC was able to be a part of the construction of key areas of the trail. For over a month now the many of our crews have been cutting trail tread, trimming trees, smashing boulders, hoisting rocks (uphill), and building switchbacks all while the Austin weather tried to make up its mind as to what season it wanted to be. Furthermore, most of this work involving chainsaws or other “loud” equipment had to be completed before early March since the working area is also habitat used by the Golden-Cheeked Warbler in the spring. Despite all of this, the crews involved were gettin’ it done.
The first day on the trail was pretty routine; grub out stumps, smash some rocks and cut some tread. A solid day by any measure. Our real project came on the second day, as we were tasked with building a creek crossing. This pathway had to be stable enough withstand the elements and long-term use, but unobtrusive enough to not alter the creek’s natural water flow or hydrology. Essentially, we didn’t want to dam up the creek because eventually things like bank destabilization or erosion of the surrounding area could occur. So the plan was to have a path consisting of small, easily compacted rocks from the immediate area with large boulders lining the down stream side to hold the path from being washed away. All of the boulders had to be strategically positioned and shaped to ensure there was as much contact between each neighboring boulder as possible. More contact ultimately means more stability for the path as a whole.
HOWEVER! In order to do any of the before-mentioned steps, we had to first bring these massive boulders to our planned area from where they lay down stream. For this we had to use a most useful tool: The Griphoist (Cue the singing from the heavens). The griphoist is a simple hand crank rigging tool that allows an operator the ability to effectively tension a metal cable. If this metal cable is attached to a heavy object that is otherwise too heavy to move, the object in question will slowly be pulled towards the operator. This is very helpful being that most of the boulders that we had to use weighed in the 600-pound range.
So, to recap all that is going on here, let’s go over the process:
1. Move boulder upstream,
2. Shape contact edges of boulder with rock tools,
3. Place boulders in desired areas,
4. If needed, dig down for better boulder placement,
5.Collect and spread small rocks for pathway,
6. Repeat steps 1 thru 5 until you run out of time.
These were the basic steps that were going on simultaneously. There was a grip team gripping, a rock team fitting, and a collecting team collecting. We were on this project for several days and had constant issues of making the large rocks go where they needed to go. Some times it seemed like we had to take four steps backwards in order to potentially take one step forward. Of course the weather kept us on our toes at all times, as those toes were frozen cold one day and soaking wet on another. It took a lot of work and it still needs some finishing up. Nonetheless, these issues and the irritation they caused pail in comparison to the satisfaction that was felt when we considered where we were and now, where we ended up. All in all, it was an absolute blast getting to build that path.
I’ve been a crew leader with TxCC for almost two years now and today is my last day. It’s also my first attempt at a blog post and I’m having a hard time trying to find a way to condense my whole TxCC experience down to just a few paragraphs. I’ve logged over 4,300 hours with this program, responded to four disasters in four different states, spiked in New Mexico and all over Texas, cut tread, built rock walls, cut down hundreds of hazard trees, killed countless invasive plants, managed volunteers, listened to homeowners stories….the list goes on and on. Some of the work I loved, and some not so much. At times my crews made me so proud I couldn’t stop bragging about them, and at other times I’ve wanted to strangle the whole lot. At the end of the day, they’ve been my weird little family and I’ll never lose that bond.
But here is the real take-away message and, to me, it’s the biggest surprise of them all. From that jumbled assortment of people thrown together in a cargo van, being sent all over the country with little to no idea of what exactly to expect… this ‘jobs training’ program… it really works. Somewhere along the meandering path I’ve had with TxCC, I’m not sure when or where, I became someone you’d want to hire. A competent, capable leader, with a variety of technical, logistical, and communication skills… someone who can both hold her own at a meeting with an important community leader, or geek out about chainsaws with a park employee.
So now I’m off to a new job with the Forest Service. I feel ready and trained, but I also know that I’ll miss the hell out of this program. Thanks, TxCC.
Summertime is in full force here in Central Texas. The sun is shining and temperatures are above one hundred degrees every day this week. Chiggers are biting, the earth stands dry, begging for rainfall and sweat pumps out of all your pores. Work is definitely not easy this time of year.
As we arrive at our work site, the Sunset Valley Conservation Area, we are surrounded by woods made up of Live Oak, Ash Juniper, cactus and other Hill Country vegetation. Our assignment here is to harvest Juniper trees that out-compete young Live Oak and repurpose them for use as fence posts and mulch. The silence is broken as we rev up our chainsaws and fire up the wood chipper. Our team breaks up into smaller groups and we spend the day cutting, dragging, sorting and chipping trees. To prevent chigger bites, we pass around the “sulfur sock”, which is literally a sock filled with a mixture of sulfur and baby powder. We cover our clothing with the sulfur mixture, paying extra attention to our ankles, waist and other areas that chiggers like to bite.
Nearby our work area is a coyote den that we must be careful to avoid. Today, the coyotes were more active than usual and we were sent home early since one of them is becoming aggressive.
When our crew is not out of town responding to disasters, we do conservation projects such as this one in the Austin area. Not only are we dedicated to helping communities in times of need but we love the environment too!
“One man’s unsustainable corrosion is another man’s righteous gnar.”
-from an online comment expressing the delicate balance and frustration involved when incorporating erosion control and environmental protection into a well-established and well-loved trail system.
Emma Long Metropolitan Park is one of the largest parks in Austin, TX and it has, perhaps, the only motorcycle trail in the whole city. In fact, its one of only a few motorized trails on public land in the entire state. There are 9 miles of trail winding through juniper and oak scrub forest, allowing motorcyclists and mountain bike riders to test their skills on some pretty intense, but somehow still serene, terrain. It’s full of steep hills and sudden drops down rocky terraces, sharp corners and low hanging trees, punctuated by flowing tracts of even tread under a dense, green canopy. All of it perfect for doing tricks on motorbikes: in short, it’s a motorcycle paradise.
We, the Service Learning Academy Green and Yellow crews, had the opportunity to spend a month there doing rock-work from late January to March 1st. The short time span we were given to complete the project was due to the presence of the Golden Cheeked Warbler, an endangered species of song bird residing in Central Texas, beginning its nesting season. The Migratory Bird and Endangered Species Acts stipulate that their nesting areas cannot be disturbed during the season; though, I often wondered how disturbing our crews would have been compared to the noise made by a motorbike!
We were given 29 sites scattered throughout the trail system that needed work done to prevent erosion and fix other kinds of damage, and ended up completing 27 of them in the very short amount of time available to us. Most of the work consisted of armoring the sudden drops along the trail, which means that we laid large, flat rocks into the ground as if we were placing tiles in a floor. We also made rock ramps (the first time I’ve ever built with rock that way!) to allow the non-expert riders to get through, and made step and wall-like structures to check the erosion that was occuring on the trail.
Our work at Emma Long was unusual for us in the fact that we were exclusively building for bikes (motorcycles and mountain bikes), as opposed to hikers, horseback riders, etc. By far, they were the most involved group of trail users I’ve ever encountered. Many of them get together often for weekend trail repair workdays and some offered regular friendly and constructive comments. Unfortunately, not all of our users were happy with the prospect of the city hiring us to work on their park. Some days angry trail users would ride through and insult our work … but then, as if to demonstrate the duality, they’d be followed not five minutes later by someone who was thrilled with the quality of what we were doing. The subtitle of this post itself comes from an online debate on the methods and goals of the work done at Emma Long. The coveted “gnar” factor sought by mountain bikers and motorized users can push a trail to the edge of a hillside or on climbs up through a tight-walled creek bottom, both fairly unsustainable routes. The challenge of the the trail builder and designer is to keep the “gnar” alive while building a sustainable trail tread that will stand the test of time and nature. And that’s always going to be a exciting challenge at Emma Long or anywhere else. We’re proud of the hundreds of hours our team put in at Emma Long and hope that time will show the value of those techniques.
A few months ago, I decided to join Austin AmeriCorps Alums despite the fact that I am currently serving as a crew leader with the Environmental Corps. Prior to this position, I worked with AmeriCorps VISTA in Ithaca, NY and AmeriCorps NCCC at the Perry Point, MD campus. I was disheartened to find the Austin AmeriCorps Alums chapter floundering. I decided to become a chapter leader and infuse the group with my AmeriCorps passion. Our first big event was going to be the United Way Day of Caring on September 14th. However, the event fell on a Friday and our members were unable to attend. I saw a local event that needed volunteers and immediately thought of our SLA crews.
When I contacted Hands on Central Texas about the event, Nikki Krueger, Director of Volunteer Engagement- Hands on Central Texas, was ecstatic. She knew all about E-Corps and was excited to get us going. Later on, when it had rained heavily on the workday, she said that E-Corps was the one group of volunteers she could count on to not complain.
On the day of the event, our students attended a luncheon at The Long Center for the Performing Arts. Our members ate amazing catered food on tables with pristine white table clothes, which blew their minds, and networked with many influential community members. One of the speakers , took the time to recognize E-Corps’ work in Bastrop. She is a Bastrop resident and praised our organizations efforts.
While on site at J.J. Pickle Elementary School, members were divided into several groups. We weeded vegetable and butterfly gardens, transplanted plants, mulched trees and shrubs, built benches, weeded a Peace Garden, improved their compost system, and set up time-lapse cameras.
Our site sponsor, Judith Hutchinson, teacher at J.J. Pickle Elementary School, was welcoming and appreciative of our work. She also has received several grants for garden beds, decks, permaculture, and rain gardens. She invited us to come assist her with the rain garden and we, in turn, invited her to come to American YouthWorks.
We learned a lot while volunteering for the United Way Day of Caring but we gave even more.