Building People, Building Trails 

By Mike Jurkovic

“This is my workspace, man,” Iron Bob says with a deeply satisfied, nearly spiritual sigh as we summit Bear Mountain. With autumn stirring, he gazes out over the Hudson. “This is my cubicle.”

I’m going to loosely estimate it was my senior year in O’Neill High when last I stumble-bummed up Bear Mountain. As president of the non-school-sanctioned Garrison Youth Association, I was cutting class and riding a beer buzz daydream on this glacier-pocked peak. Since then I have ventured with surer steps through Mohonk, Minnewaska, Awosting, Mt. Beacon, Croton Reservoir, Break Neck, Overlook Mountain, and my spiritual landing and power spot, Fahnstock State Park, where the hawks always hail my ascent to Sky Top. So imagine how improbably cool it was to meet Iron Bob Brunner, one of the founders of the merry band of land pirates known far ‘n wide from New Hampshire to Texas as the Jolly Rovers. Emily and I were at Leslie’s pool party. Iron Bob is her cousin, kilt and all.

“I was going through a very tough, emotional time,” he openly reveals as we survey the valley. “Illness, deaths of friends and family, when I saw this blurb on the web about learning trail making skills. I came out here in spring of 2009 and I started splitting and shaping stones and working alongside other volunteers. And eventually you become more than friends, more than family. We became a community creating a legacy not easily dismissed.”

  Lifting boulder with a winch

Lifting boulder with a winch

Looking back on the tangibility of the work he says, “All these stepping stones we cut ourselves from existing rock on the mountain. There’s about seven hundred of ‘em,” he says, very matter-of-factly. Considering each of these slabs is easily five feet long, two feet wide, eight to nine inches deep, and weigh eight hundred to a thousand pounds, his matter-of-fact summary seems wildly understated to a guy like me who is awed just by hiking up a trail of them.

Executive Director Chris Ingui, alongside Iron Bob and Artie Hidalgo, co-founded the Jolly Rovers in 2011, was at his own personal and professional crossroads when he answered that same fateful ‘net blurb in 2008.

“It changed me.” he readily admits, and then adds a jovial nudge at his friend’s memory. “Bob’s recollection of the number of stairs is way off. The actual count is closer to eleven hundred.” Understated, indeed.

The inductions of both men into the art of trail building weave together as all truths tend to do. “It starts on Bear Mountain,” Chris begins. “They [the NY/NJ Trail Conference, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the National Parks Service, and others] were a couple years into a decade- long relocation of the Appalachian Trail. So I answered the blurb. Next, I’m learning masonry and rigging by working alongside Tahawus Trails trained teams,” he continues, his face lighting up as did Iron Bob’s when retelling the origin tale.

 Rolling the stone

Rolling the stone

For us lowlanders, Tahawus Trails LLC trains non-profit and volunteer groups in the art and science of imagining, creat-ing, restoring, and maintaining any type of trail for man or beast.It was that train-ing that set the Rovers on their merry way.

The Tahawus trail teams were recently in-part responsible for the restoration of The Great Gorge Railway Stair Case at Niagara Falls and The Fallingwater Path-way at the Frank Lloyd Wright Kauffman Home in Mill Run, Pa.

Iron Bob’s words hike in. He and I are still up there watching the river. The story, regardless of the voice, weaves and wefts like woodbine. “The idea was to train volunteers to supplement the professional work being done,” Iron Bob explains. “But after working so well together, Chris, Artie and I sat down with a couple bottles of wine and talked about becoming a traveling crew. ‘Taking it on the road’ as Chris likes to say. Other trail crews and professionals said we were nuts. We’d never get the people. But now we have a crew of over forty great friends who communicate, party, and work beside each other to make things last. It’s an honor, really.”

working.JPG

In Chris’s words, “Your first thought as a volunteer is these people are nuts.” 

“We don’t turn anyone away but we let it be known up front it’s demanding work. And you gotta work with us four days to show us you can use the tools and work safely . . .that you’re physically up for the challenge and can give us ten days a season.” For the record, that season usually runs March through November. Five weekends, eighty hours. “We do 100 trip days a year with over 7,000 volunteer hours annually. This equates to over $160,000 worth of volunteer time a year.”

“Everyone works way more than eighty hours,” Chris affirms, a quiet pride in his voice. “Several even go over three hundred.”

“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” I hear Bob say. “It’s a skill-set y’know.”

“The Rovers accomplish, through hard work and cooperation with those we care about, the creation of lasting things of beauty.” Karen Nelson, Board Secretary 2014

“Y’know, I’m at an age where I could be some of these folks’ grandfathers,” Artie confides to me as another voice intertwines into the pirates’ tale. “We come from all walks of life: Architects, engineers, nurses. It’s like the most gratifying thing watching these kids and the great work we do.” Artie can’t seem to contain himself and most certainly seems recovered from the national hangover from Election Day. “It’s a gift,” he declares. 

And I’m thinking on the other end of the wireless that that’s the Jolly Rovers credo to the core: Your work defines your heart, your soul, your character. Not some low-life election. 

Artie continues readily. “Thirty days after I left the MTA, I was training with Eddie Walsh and Tahawus,” he recalls fondly, as if this chapter of his life story was the whole book. “I was really one of the avid hikers in the group. But you get a job, become a parent. You don’t get out as much as you used to. “I did one thousand hours of volunteer work when I first hooked up with Tahawus.”

“Bob, Chris, and I immediately developed a bond, a shared spirit, and camaraderie,” Artie continues. “This bond became The Jolly Rovers. This bond develops among all crew members. It creates a sense of tribe, where every member is respected and valued. We all work hard together doing potentially dangerous work. It’s crucial that we work cohesively and rely on one another. This deep reliance creates and fosters a deep trust and sense of loyalty among the crew.”

“It’s a gift,” he gratefully repeats.

“There is something elementally satisfying about the challenge, both personally and as a group. Anyone can thrive in a warm living room.” Bob Chapel, Crew Member

“I was looking for a rain jacket,” Marc Sierzega, crew member and Fishkill resident, recounts. 

“About eight years ago I walked into an Eastern Mountain Sports store and the salesman starts telling me about trail work and asks would I be interested. A month later I’m with the Ralph’s Peak Hikers (RPH) Crew in Dutchess County.” 

“I did a lot of outdoor and landscape work with my dad,” he recounts, “so, I was accustomed to it. But I’ve been a plastics machinist for twenty-seven years. Getting involved with trail work was a second chance for me.”

“Every July, RPH holds a three day work and barbeque weekend. Whoever shows up gets three meals a day and work to do. In 2011 the Rovers came out with a project and that’s how I hooked up with them. Their training was complete – tools, safety, rigging – and in the end I was invited to join. I’ve been a Rover ever since.” Another Rover joins the fray, but Marc still volunteers with the RPH Crew.

“When you subtract profitability from the equation,” Iron Bob gurus me, “you tap a whole new well of your own worth to the world.” 

Chris recalls, “Someone asked Mike Anderson, one of the professionals I worked with, how he found this work when no one knows it exists. Most people [who Iron Bob humorously refers to as “the white sneaker crowd”] just think the trails were always here. And Mike answered, ‘Sometimes you get lost and you get found. This job found me.’ ” 

“We are building with stone, and building friendships - both to last a lifetime and longer.” -  Alicia Mandelkow, Project Leader

Rocks were flying through the high, clear air at Sam’s Point as the Rovers worked to complete one of their most recent projects. Restoring Russell Wright’s Stone Walk at Manitoga in Garrison is another recently completed beauty. Echoing shouts of “Tension! Slack!” The chalkboard scrape of rock against rock. The sharp crack of hammers coercing stone into shape. The rolling thunder of boulders spiraling down a chasm. The exuberant, heartbeat sound of friends working, laughing, happy with their work, building history. . .

“No one grows up doing this work anymore,” Chris resonates. “Some people grow up in carpentry. Some grow up doing basic masonry work. But who grows up splitting stone and flying it in the air? It’s like you’re stepping back in history and you get to participate in it.”

                                                                                     * * *
Postscript 1: In December of 2015 as the Rovers officially became its own 501c3 non-profit  organization enabling them to take their mission and skills beyond the borders of New York and New Jersey.

Postscript 2: Early in the August morning of the evening Iron Bob and I first met, a still unexplained fire destroyed the Rovers office and storage facility alongside Chris’s home in Warwick. Much of their equipment was destroyed in the blaze. Through fundraisers and online donations, the Rovers have received over $10,000, making it possible to replace most of their equipment and work is soon to begin on the rebuilding of the office and storage space.

To discover more about The Jolly Rovers, become a member, or donate directly, please visit:
The Jolly Rovers: www.jollyrovers.org   -   www.facebook.com/jollyroverstrailcrew
Other informative websites include: NY/NJ Trail Conference:  www.nynjtc.org
Appalachian Trail Conservancy:  www.appalachiantrail.org
National Parks Service:  www.nps.gov
Tahawus Trails, LLC:  www.tahawustrails.com
NYS Department of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation:  www.nysparks.com
Ralph’s Peak Hikers:  www.facebook.com/Ralphs-Peak-Hikers-Cabin-Volunteer-Club- RPHCVC