A Resurrection of SE Metro Park by Texas Conservation Corps

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.

Benjamin Schell, Field Crew Member

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Texas Conservation Corps at Cooper Lake – Part 3: The Escape

At the time of writing this entry, the Trails Across Texas Crew has spent an entire month of our lives in Cooper Lake State Park. Cooking, eating, cleaning, sleeping, working, etc. In addition to the routine, we’ve survived a tornado and a small fire (don’t ask). We have been frustrated with park staff and each other, as well as failing tools and machinery. We have also felt annoyed by the limbo temporarily imposed upon us by a misinterpretation of the contract responsible for our team’s existence and funding. Before our third and last consecutive spike at Cooper Lake, it seemed like all we had done was put in check-steps to repair a badly eroded horse trail, efforts that seemed futile once April showers turned our labor of love into a mucky mess. We were all a little bitter to be returning after our previous experiences in the park.

We made the journey from Austin to Cooper Lake on April 18th, spending the rest of the day setting up camp and cooking dinner. We woke up in the Buggy Whip Camping Area on the 19th with a new project: cutting tread for four new reroutes. Spirits improved at the thought of creating a trail that was planned to be inherently sustainable, rather than installing trail Band-Aids in the form of check-steps and drains. The week before, our Field Coordinator Erick had flagged a new corridor for the trail reroutes. One sawyer and one swamper cut the large stuff along the corridor with a chainsaw, while the rest of the crew followed behind with a combination of McLeods, picks, and Pulaskis removing material and uncovering our new trail. We then covered up the old dilapidated trail with our cuttings. Despite plenty of pauses and sidetrips to catch our breath, make action plans for felling uncooperative trees, and go on herpetological safaris, we finished the bulk of the eleven day project in three days.

On the 22nd, we awoke to a park and trail saturated from the previous night’s rainstorm. In order to protect the wet trail from our boots and tools, we used this as our half-day. We celebrated Earth Day on the drive home by cheering on our crew leaders as they rescued turtles crossing the road and moved them to truck-free locations.

The following days were dedicated to installing more trail features. Crewleaders David and Layla located anticipated problem areas where topography and soil type suggested a likelihood of erosion. The crew responded by installing check-steps and check-dams, waterbars, and turnpikes. Each of these structures created a more burly, sustainable trail through the clever use of rocks, timber, and shaping and compaction with hand tools.

The final night in camp, it seemed as though hundreds of fathers and children descended upon our campsite ring. It turns out that in the morning, the park was hosting a children’s fishing competition. Tents popped up everywhere complete with screaming and running children, adding a claustrophobic feeling we had yet to experience in our home away from home. In any other moment, I would be extremely annoyed with all of the activity and noise that kept me awake and distracted from the following days’ work. I took a moment to stop being selfish and realized that this park, which I associated with unpleasant weather and redundant work, was actually where a lot of people escaped.

This was a place for children to run around without the fear of city streets and strangers. It was a place where parents might turn their phones off and where groups of old friends planned their annual motorcycle ride/fishing trip. The trail that we maintained might be one of the most accessible and safe equestrian trails in the area for rookie riders in a state with very little public land. With this thought, our month spent in Cooper Lake immediately meant a lot more. With our low cost and our high motivation to constantly get the job done in spite of the conditions, Texas Conservation Corps members make public land in Texas a more viable cause. Texas Parks and Wildlife is an organization still recovering from natural disasters such as widespread wildfire and drought, as well as fighting the occasional political battle to secure the state funding that maintains basic operations. The work that our Trails Across Texas team provides may free up labor and financial resources for higher priority initiatives. I am convinced that the Texas Conservation Corps helps State Parks use quiet places to connect people to natural resources, and that our work is worthwhile beyond the enjoyment and growth I receive from it. These thoughts helped me tune out the other groups sharing our campsite long enough to fall asleep.

The next day, we put some finishing touches on the trail, packed up our trailer and van, and headed back to Austin. TAT left two days earlier than planned in anticipation of a storm and potential F5 tornado. After a short weekend, we made up these missed work days with local projects, split between a saw project in McKinney Falls State Park and a wet masonry project at Reimers Ranch. Next Stop: Martin Dies, Jr. State Park.

Andrew Spurlin, Trails Across Texas Crew Member

Texas Conservation Corps Goes to the Davis Mountains and Encounters Nocturnal Spirit of Darkness and Hate

“Get out of here! Go away. GO. AWAY.”

Headlamps flicked on sporadically, and bobbed out of their tents.  A handful of strained voices, containing equal parts anger and exhaustion, pierced through the quiet of the cool evening.

“Oh my God. Is it a- he was in my rainfly!”

“Are you alright!?”

“(Expletive)!”

“It’s the skunk. He’s back. It’s him,” called one voice, arriving at the point. “GO AWAY,” the voice continued, sternly. This command was followed moments later by the clattering of rocks.

We had been haunted for several nights by this foul specter, grim and pale-faced and terrible. It was bold and crafty, and carried with it the menacing payload of stank.  This malevolent being would sneak into tent vestibules with the cool assurance of a seasoned scavenger. Lurking was its business. And business was good.

This well-honed dagger of the night was the product of months, perhaps years of poor Leave No Trace ethics, and it paid us nightly visits. And yet, through some bizarre twist of circumstances, it adhered to the very doctrine whose poor execution had made it so bold. Never did it take food (In truth, we left little for the taking), nor did it leave behind any hint of its presence after it was gone. It just… stared.

And now, after many sleepless nights spent in suspense, under the veil of creeping, lingering, fear, the crew had had enough. Rocks cascaded blindly towards the empty creekbed into which our intruder had slipped. Accompanied by vulgar challenges and primal cries, the stones rained for what felt like hours but could have only been seconds, each of which was pregnant with the threat of smelly counter-fire.

We never did see that skunk again, after that night. Perhaps our retaliation scared it off. Maybe the devil found a new campsite upon which to inflict his unique brand of terror.  Or, could be he found himself on the wrong side of (that’d be underneath) a passing semi on dusty TX-118.

But I don’t think any of those things. I think he just got smarter. I think he stopped getting caught. I think he’ll keep staring until he finds whatever it is he’s looking for and, sated, will slip quietly, unseen, back into the darkness.

Matt Lore, Trails Across Texas Crew Member

Texas Conservation Corps Pays a Visit to Sunset Valley

Day 1. No Warblers.

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.

 

Nick Johns, Field Crew Member

Texas Conservation Corps: Cooper Lake, Part Two – A Series of Unfortunate Events

On April 1st, a beautiful spring day in Texas, the Trails Across Texas (TAT) crew once again rolled northward to Cooper Lake State Park. The sunshine and roadside flowers (bluebonnets, paintbrushes, and firewheels) invigorated the crew after a shortened break. This sense of spring invigoration was soon subdued when the first of a series of unfortunate events made it clear that rough seas  lay ahead.

After filling up on gas at the trip’s halfway point, the van was brought to a jarring halt. Out hopped the crew leaders to find the trailer’s fender ripped off and the tire battered and bruised – a cement pylon by the gas pump being the culprit. Embarrassed and frustrated, the crew assessed the damages, it was safe, and we decided to carry on. When the crew finally pulled into the camp at Cooper Lake, the affected tire was well worn on the trailer side, indicative of a bent axle. The mishap turned into a debacle when an hour and a half’s worth of phone calls (“We only work on big rig trailers” or “We’re backed up for two weeks.”) led to a “Yeah, we can probably fix your trailer”. Crew Leader Layla and Crew Member Lauren left early the next morning, fingers crossed that the trailer could be repaired in a timely manner.

Trailer frustrations aside, there was work to be done! The crew worked at its wicked pace and in the span of two days had 17  lumber check steps and two Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virigina) water bars placed. However, before the crew could put the final touches on a series of steps (fill dirt to raise the eroded trail surface between steps), the clouds rolled in and thunder and lightning began. The rest of the afternoon/evening was spent watching the storm build from our humble screened shelter.

To accompany the electrical spectacle, the crew blasted Black Sabbath, making for an awkward encounter with one of the park’s mysterious denizens, a man nicknamed “Tornado Tom”. Donning a white tee and thick mustache, Tornado Tom had the peculiar fortune of meeting the crew as they danced to the riffs of “Iron Man”. The crew made conversation with Tornado Tom who soon turned and patted the 4×4 beam of the cinderblock bathroom that was going to act as a tornado shelter. Tom said, “Why, I’ve been in construction all my life, this here is a fine building, I’d trust it with my life.” With a healthy degree of uncertainty, the crew agreed with Tom and decided to move into the men’s room when the wind began blowing the rain sideways. Thirty minutes of wind gusts and relentless thunder passed and the night went still.

“Well, looks like this one’s about to blow over,” declared Tom. Those with smart phones tried to warn him that was only the beginning of the storm, and that a tornado warning was in effect for another two hours. Nevertheless, Tom exited and was off into the night. Soon after his departure the storm picked up. Winds gusted against the cinderblock walls as we hunkered down next to toilets and urinals. Tornado Tom briskly entered the bathroom and announced what we already knew: a tornado was headed our way. The wind whipped, pressure fluctuated, and the storm grew louder as we hunkered down.

After what felt like hours, we cautiously exited the bathroom to survey the storm’s damage. Plant debris littered the campground and coated the shelters. Water coursed and pooled, finding its way into every corner of the shelters – effectively soaking everything (books, tents, sleeping bags, clothes, stoves, etc’). Crew Member Austin was left ‘homeless’ after his tentpoles snapped. At 11 pm, alive and healthy, the crew slid into saturated sleeping bags and slept a soggy sleep.

The next morning the crew surveyed the surrounding environs. Trees and limbs littered the park and many of the homes near Sulphur Springs had stripped roofs, collapsed walls, fallen trees, and other damages. We learned that two tornadoes touched down to the North and Southeast of us and came dangerously close.

We volunteered our skills to the Cooper Lake staff and were soon using chainsaws and a come-along (manual wench) to remove debris and hazard trees. The crew felled and bucked six hazard trees and helped clear the roads in the park. The next day the crew hauled cedar logs down the trail and commenced work on another turnpike. Water stood in pools on the trail and the mucky, clay soils readily coated the crew and their tools. At 3:30 pm another unfortunate event occurred: the spring suspension popped out on the utility vehicle (“mule”) we had been using. What followed this incident was an absurd extraction mission involving: three utility vehicles (one of which had a flat tire which required patching/filling), a tractor (it sunk four feet into one of our check steps, but was able to tear its way out), and a whole lot of hauling/chaining/pushing/improvisation.

The ordeal left us muddy, soaked, and muleless (the forced extraction destroyed the driver’s side front end and left the tire dangling). Thankfully the trail and our structures held up well under the vehicular onslaught. The next day entailed more muck, a broken McLeod tool and broken auger, and finally, the finishing of the turnpike. Completion of the turnpike was the beginning of a much needed upswing.

The final two days of work were spent hiking the lengthy trail system and removing blow-down via axes. The weather warmed and sun shone as the crew axed through numerous hickories and oaks that had succumbed to the storm’s winds. Feeling very lumberjack-ish, the crew’s spirits noticeably soared. Meandering through woodlands, creeks, and beaver ponds, the trails were full of natural highlights including delectable morel mushrooms (Morel esculenta), a menacing spike-filled tree known as Hercule’s Club (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis), the industrious work of beavers (Castor canadensis), and a raft of white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhyncos) soaring above Cooper Lake.

The muck and misfortunes experienced over the course of the hitch tested the crew’s merit and grit, nevertheless they remained resilient. On the final night in Cooper Lake, the crew dined on sautéed morels and elk burgers grilled over oak logs. The elk meat was graciously donated by Elaine (Cooper Lake TPWD staff). As the night wound down, the crew recounted the bizarre events of the hitch with good humor, grateful to have survived the rough seas of Cooper Lake. Early the next morning the TAT crew rolled out of Cooper Lake State Park, the new axle and tire making for a safe, smooth ride back to Austin.

David Brady, Trails Across Texas Crew Leader

 

Texas Conservation Corps in Copper Lake State Park

Northward!

The Trails Across Texas (TAT) crew rolled northward this hitch into the prairies and lakes region of Texas to Cooper Lake State Park. The park, a relatively recent addition to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department System, was officially opened on April 27, 1996. The 19,300 acre lake which gives the park its name was engineered by the Army Corps of Engineers for municipal water purposes. The lake also provides a number of recreational benefits including bass fishing, swimming, camping, and equestrian trails.

TxCC has been maintaining equestrian trails in the park for many years and this TAT crew now left its mark. The soil type in the park is highly erodible and the impacts of horse hooves and rain storms have battered the trails. The crew found itself boot deep in a mucky mess, tasked with the never-ending goal of erosion prevention. Over the span of eleven days, the crew worked hard to mitigate the forces of Texas nature via the implementation of 15 eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) check steps, 5 water bars, 1 cedar/post oak (Quercus stellata) turnpike, and the felling of numerous trail hazards- oaks affected by the drought-driven hypoxylon canker fungus. The check steps were placed in areas of serious erosion to build and maintain the soil level, water bars were placed on downhill runs to redirect fast-flowing water, and the turnpike was built in a washed out section of trail. The extensive amount of work was made possible by the crew’s hard work ethic, agreeable weather, and the hospitable staff.

Hitch highlights included the nightly chorus of coyotes and chorus frogs, eclectic campfire conversation, an excursion to the cowboy hat-donning Eiffel tower in Paris, TX, and our project partner’s annual pizza party. With stomachs overloaded with pizza, the TAT crew said goodbye to the beautiful, battered trails of Cooper Lake State Park and rolled back to Austin, TX.

 

Next Hitch: Cooper Lake State Park, part deaux.

David Brady, Crew Leader – Trails Across Texas

 

Texas Conservation Corps on the Violet Crown Trail

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.