Trail Conference Conservation Corps: Highlands Crew

The Highlands Crew serves on the Highlands Trail in New Jersey, assessing and addressing sustainability issues along the 100-mile stretch of trail.

2016 Highlands Crew, from left: Victor Fernandez, Zach Cylinder, Evan Woods, and Eduardo Gil.

2016 Highlands Crew, from left: Victor Fernandez, Zach Cylinder, Evan Woods, and Eduardo Gil.

Everyone with an interest in trail building and stewardship is welcome to join the crew for a few hours or a full day—our Corps members will teach you everything you need to know about the project. They’re in the field Thursdays through Mondays through early fall; visit bit.ly/tc-tco for details.

Interested in joining us? Have questions? Get in touch:
Email: ama@nynjtc.org
Phone: 616.337.2481

Updates from the Highlands Crew

August 18, 2016
The Season Concludes
Text and Photos by Crew Member Zach Cylinder

Eduardo, Evan and Victor work together to remove an obtrusive rock from the trail.

Eduardo, Evan and Victor work together to remove an obtrusive rock from the trail.

On June 2, four strangers sat at a table at the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference’s Headquarters in Mahwah, N.J. The regular nerves of meeting new people filled the room, but everyone was eager to start the unknown adventures ahead. Tension was quickly broken as Evan made a quip that has since been lost to time. A sudden realization occurred to the other three members: Evan would be making a lot of quips.

Now into their last week, the service of the Highlands Crew’s four members has combined for over 1,800 hours spanning 12 weeks. They covered over 100 miles of the Highlands Trail in New Jersey, and maintained over 10 miles of the Trail and connecting trails. With each step, each rock removed, and each swing of the pickaxe, the crew banded together with a common love for the outdoors and sense of purpose in making the trail as best they could.

A vine adjacent to a trail gives Evan the opportunity to climb.

A vine adjacent to a trail gives Evan the opportunity to climb.

The excitement never stopped. Three days from last week were the most exciting and eventful yet. From August 6 through 8, the crew worked on a section of the Highlands Trail accessible only via an hour-and-a-half hike. This led to a section of trail that was vastly overgrown and ripe for dangers. While working on a switchback (a sharp turn on the trail) dubbed a “poison ivy deathtrap” by Victor, a 4-foot-long rattlesnake stared ominously at the crew from a nearby rock scramble. Careful not to do anything rash, the crew watched the snake for a few minutes until it started to slither closer. Once within 20 feet, the crew turned around and left the snake to its territory.

And that was only the first day. The second day brought the sight of a 250-pound mama black bear and her three cubs walking through the woods a few hundred feet away. Noticing this, the crew delicately tiptoed in the other direction and waited until the threat passed. The last day went suspiciously smoothly until halfway through the trek back to the cars. The crew stopped to clear up a portion of the trail overgrown by weeds. Not five minutes in to the process, a swarm of bees emerged from the brush and stung everyone in the crew. It was a fitting end to the week.

While making a drain, Victor shows off the smile that never left his face.

While making a drain, Victor shows off the smile that never left his face.

This season was filled with travel all over New Jersey, unpredictable weather patterns, and plenty of scares. Despite, or perhaps because of, the unpredictability, one thing remained predictable: the crew would always be smiling.

The last 12 weeks have been an incredible and inspiring experience. The Trail Conference gave the four members of the Highlands Crew the opportunity to spend the summer outside, doing work with rewards that are clear. All the hikers that passed the crew provided morale boosts and reminded the crew why they are doing what they are doing.

The season, of course, could not have been done without the support of everyone at the Trail Conference. Ama Koenigshof, Erik Mickelson, Geoff Hamilton, and Peter Dolan provided valuable field and logistical support, which ensured that the trails are maintained properly, and that the crew stayed organized. The inventorying portion of the season simply could not have happened without Jeremy Apgar’s unmatched mapping skills and ability to always find the crew places to park. And finally, appreciation goes to everybody at the Trail Conference with whom the Highlands Crew did not directly work, but who handled everything from the grant that allowed the crew to serve, waded through mountains of paperwork, and perhaps most importantly, made sure the members were paid on time.

The Highlands Crew wants to thank everybody who helped make the last 12 weeks unforgettable.

August 4, 2016
Up Windbeam
Text and Photos by Crew Member Zach Cylinder

The Highlands Crew is headed into their final month of the season. After the first six weeks were spent training and inventorying the 100 miles of the Highlands Trail, the crew switched to trail construction. Over the past five weeks, the crew has been working on a connecting trail to the Highlands Trail in Ringwood, N.J. Rocky areas, poor water drainage, and sections where it was unclear if a tread even existed plagued this trail.

Eduardo Gil, Evan Woods and Victor Fernandez smile while digging a borrow pit next to the trail.

Eduardo Gil, Evan Woods and Victor Fernandez smile while digging a borrow pit next to the trail.

After inventorying the Highlands Trail, five weeks of trail construction and maintenance was a big change of pace. The crew went from hiking 5-9 miles each day in pairs of two (seeing very few fellow hikers along the way) to working on one, 1.5-mile stretch. On the trail off of Stonetown Road, hikers on their way up to the beautiful viewpoints on Windbeam Mountain pass frequently, thanking the crew for their work. These small interactions remind the crew whom the work is for and immensely boosts moral.
The last two weeks have been spent on the mountain portion of the trail, leading to Little Windbeam and Windbeam mountains. Between these two mountains, five incredible viewpoints can be seen and are enjoyed by many each day. The steep climb was bothered by problems, most of which arise from water.

While not an easy fix, many areas with poor drainage were remediated by making drains. To make a drain, a 6-foot-long indentation is dug into the trail. The side of the indent going off of the ridge had to be slightly angled off of the mountain, to ensure water flows away from the trail and does not damage the tread by pooling and creating muddy spots or destroying the tread entirely.

Victor Fernandez walks with a pick axe and bucket after a hard day of work.

Victor Fernandez walks with a pick axe and bucket after a hard day of work.

Along with drains, other solutions to fixing water problems were check dams (a log crossing the trail at a 45 degree angle so water runs off the tread) and water bars (large rocks sticking about 4 inches out of the ground so that water can be diverted elsewhere). These drainage features were put to the ultimate test when a massive downpour hit the trail on both Saturday and Sunday. The rain started in the middle of the day, ironically, while the crew was working on the drains and water bars; the crew powered through, finishing the days’ work.

The hard work is not only done by the crew members. Volunteers provide a fresh set of eyes while assisting and expediting the steady progress the crew of four has been making. It’s great to see volunteers enjoying their time with the Highlands Crew, providing a positive attitude and completing meaningful work.

July 21, 2016
A New Phase Begins
Text and Photos by Crew Member Zach Cylinder

The Highlands Crew triumphantly reaches the end of the trail.

The Highlands Crew triumphantly reaches the end of the trail. From left: Victor Fernandez, Evan Woods, Zach Cylinder, Eduardo Gil

On the humid afternoon of Saturday, July 9, the Highlands Crew arrived in the quaint town of Riegelsville, Pa., which marked the end of our 100-mile trek along the Highlands Trail over a four-week period. Starting in the middle of June, the Highlands Crew was tasked with mapping the entirety of the Highlands Trail in New Jersey; mobile GPS units called Trimble units allowed for precise location points to be taken, and for various trail features to be logged for later analysis.

Arriving in Riegelsville did not just mark the end of that day’s 5-mile hike to the unassuming town. The trip symbolized the end of a journey that took us up mountains, across streams, and through vast fields. And it meant that the first phase of our season was over.

Once the entirety of the Highlands Trail was marked, the procedure of processing and analyzing the data computers commenced. Along with Trail Conference Cartographer Jeremy Apgar, the Highlands Crew uploaded the GPS files from the Trimble units, along with pictures taken in the field. Computer programs such as GPS Pathfinder, GeoJot+ and ArcMap allowed for the Highlands Crew to link the thousands of trail features with their pictures and begin to create a complete map of the Highlands Trail.

The crew is now two weeks into the second phase of the season, which consists of primarily trail maintenance, but includes some computer processing as well. Using the data collected during the mapping phase, the Highlands Crew was able to identify portions of the Highlands Trail and adjacent, connecting trails that needed some love. The crew will fix everything from rocky and muddy areas to overgrown vegetation and poor side-hilling.

Victor, Eduardo, and Evan manipulate a 600-pound rock into place.

Victor, Eduardo, and Evan manipulate a 600-pound rock into place.

The crew is currently working on a trail that connects the Highlands Trail with a parking area. Located off of Stonetown Road in Ringwood, N.J., this trail boasts muddy areas and patches of jagged rocks acting as the trail’s tread.

Our crew of four is making steady progress, completing over 50 feet each day, depending on the challenges that day presents. Volunteers provide a huge morale boost for the crew while providing a valuable pair of hands and a new set of eyes to ensure the trail is safer and more enjoyable to attract even more hikers.

To volunteer with us, visit our crew outings page.

June 27, 2016
Meet the 2016 Trail Conference Conservation Corps Highlands Crew
Text and Photos by Crew Member Zach Cylinder

Highlands Crew Leader Victor Fernandez logs a trail feature using the Trimble unit.

Highlands Crew Leader Victor Fernandez logs a trail feature using the Trimble unit.

This year, the Highlands Crew is embarking on an adventure that will bring us across the northern part of New Jersey. We have two goals: First, to conduct an inventory and assessment of the 100 miles of the Highlands Trail in New Jersey, and second, to provide necessary maintenance on the trail as determined during the inventory and assessment phase. The crew’s service period is 450 hours spanning 12 weeks, starting in early June and ending in late August.

The inventory and assessment portion will take the crew three weeks. Each day, the crew of four will break off into teams of two. Each team will be hiking the day’s assigned section of the Highlands Trail; each section varies between 4 and 9 miles. On an average day, the entire crew will cover 10-15 miles of the trail. While hiking each section, the crew will log any and all trail features they come across, such as kiosks, bridges, viewpoints, and tread deficiencies. They will log these features using mobile GPS units called Trimble units, which record the location and type of trail features using satellite positioning.

The second part of the season is largely determined by what is documented during inventory and assessment. While logging features on the Highlands Trail, the crew will come across parts of the trail that need minor maintenance, and other parts where heavy construction needs to be done. Repairs and construction will happen during this second phase to ensure the Highlands Trail is open and safe for users.

The crew consists of four AmeriCorps members: crew leader Victor Fernandez, and members Zach Cylinder, Eduardo Gil, and Evan Woods. Victor is a rising senior at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. He is majoring in environmental studies with a minor in outdoor wellness. He is also a member of the Ursinus wrestling team. After learning about conservation and land management in the classroom, Victor wanted to gain hands-on experience in the field. He was drawn to the Trail Conference because of the organization’s mission and success at bringing people closer to nature. Victor hopes to use his degree and experience on the Highlands Crew to continue contributing to nature conservation.

Zach is a rising junior at the University of Pittsburgh and is majoring in geology with a certificate in geographic information studies. He lives in the small town of Upper Saddle River in northern New Jersey. At school, Zach is active in the geology club and plays intramural soccer and football. He is an avid Formula 1 and ice hockey fan, and in his free time collects vinyl records, exercises, and reads. Growing up, Zach hiked regularly in New Jersey and New York, and his curious nature always made him wonder how trails were built and maintained. For the summer of 2016, Zach wanted to experience working outdoors as opposed to working in the retail world as he did the previous two summers. Zach’s desire to work outside, curiosity of trails, and passion for hiking all directed him to become a Highlands Crew member with the Trail Conference.

Eduardo is a native of the Dominican Republic who has been residing in the tri-state area for the past 24 years. During the last 12 years, he has worked as an educator for the North Jersey Elks Developmental Disabilities Agency High School located in Clifton N.J., which renders their services to the special needs community. Their goal is “to help each individual feel fulfillment and happiness by reaching his or her highest potential.” In his hunger to get in touch with his native country’s landscapes and mountainous diversity, he developed an interest in outdoor adventures, with hiking at its core. Over the past 8 years, he has been committed to contributing to the trails he’s called home. This summer, he is dedicating his time to the great outdoors of New Jersey, where he has the opportunity to join the Trail Conference and service the Highlands Trail.

Evan is a recent graduate from SUNY Brockport, majoring in environmental science with a concentration in terrestrial ecology. Camping, backpacking, and other outdoor activities have always been a large part of Evan’s life, and now through the Trail Conference and AmeriCorps, he has the opportunity to explore these passions in a professional environment. Evan hopes his positive attitude and humorous personality can contribute to the Highlands Crew and help make this season a great experience for everyone.

Maintaining the Highlands Trail is an ongoing process, and the trail is still a work-in-progress. Once completed, it will extend over 150 miles from Connecticut through New Jersey. The Highlands Crew will be working hard this summer to ensure that the trail is kept up to the high standards that the Trail Conference prides itself on. Those curious about the development, maintenance, and mapping of hiking trails are encouraged to volunteer with the Highlands Crew during our season. If you would like to help maintain the Highlands Trail, contact Volunteer Coordinator John Leigh: volunteers@nynjtc.org; 201.512.9348 x822.