The Making of a Shelter

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A hiker strolling along the Appalachian Trail in Saint Anthony’s Wilderness, Dauphin County may come across a log shelter in the forest. Perhaps the hiker is tired and wet from a soaking rain and needs to get out of the weather, or perhaps he is in need of a drink of water and finds a piped in spring conveniently located right by the shelter. He will feel absolutely delighted to stumble across such a haven of respite. He probably knows that the white painted blazes on the trees that mark the footpath, is the National Scenic Appalachian Trail (AT). He may not know who takes care of it, however, and he more than likely does not know the story of how the marvelous Rausch Gap Shelter came to be.

The 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail is the longest continually marked footpath in the world and is a linear National Park.  It was built and is maintained by volunteers. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the non-profit who oversees it, is the umbrella organization for over thirty affiliated trail-maintaining clubs. Members toil away to clip it, saw the blown down trees, paint the blazes, build and maintain the nearly 300 shelters along the way.

These three-sided lean-tos provide shelter from the elements for the long distance hikers and are a place to find company. They are not completely closed in for they only provide shelter from the wind, rain and snow. Three sides are adequate for that. Four walls tend to cut you off from nature.

The walking pilgrims are called thru-hikers, meaning they are going all the way through, or at least a good chunk of the trail. When living and traveling in the outdoors for months at a time, with everything you need to survive on your back, a dry place to lay their sleeping bag down can be a godsend.

Members of the Reading’s Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club maintain over eighty miles of the AT in Pennsylvania as well as a handful of shelters and composting toilets that require maintenance.  In 1984, my friend, Dave Crosby became shelters manager.

Until a hiker sees a trail maintainer swinging a brush cutter or painting a blaze, it isn’t obvious that there would not be a trail if it were not for the dedicated trail maintainers. And not until a hiker sees a trail lean-to being constructed can they appreciate the work that goes into it.

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When Dave learned how deep forty years of decay had permeated the Rausch Gap shelter in 2011, he could not repair it. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) offered help in the form of harvested Japanese larch trees from the Weiser State Forest.  Twenty-five logs were transported to the club’s arboretum in Bernville, where construction would take place. But first the bark would have to be hand peeled with metal drawknives.

Dave wanted to do the Scandanavian scribed fit method of log building construction on the new Rausch Gap shelter. It is challenging way of joining logs, in which a scribe, an instrument similar to a draftsman’s compass, draws the curves and bumps of the lower log onto the log above. Once the log is removed, a groove is cut with a chainsaw and hand tools following those lines precisely. When the log is rolled into place, it fits the bottom like a glove. There is no mortar chinking, no gap or air space. It is more time-consuming and requires more skill than other types of log construction, but it is superior.

When my husband Todd Gladfelter, caught wind of the club’s monumental endeavor to build a scribed log lean-to, he offered his services.

“I had a lot of log working experience since we went to log building school in northern Minnesota, built our own log home and also helped build a shelter for the BMECC twenty years ago, under Dave’s management. I knew they could use my help and I could do the log work way faster than anyone else. But the construction of this shelter was much more complicated and it had nothing to do with log work.”

In 2007, Dave Crosby was diagnosed with vocal cord cancer. He had a tracheotomy performed and his voice box removed in the process. He could still work at his regular job as die setter in Rubbermaid’s metal stamping plant and even though he has to breathe from a hole in his neck, he can still breathe well enough to climb mountains.

Communicating had completely changed for him, however, and being in charge of a log shelter construction project would be huge; but not something Dave could not do, because major challenge was part of his life. It was something he embraced and never ever shied away from. It takes a lot of explaining, communicating, analyzing, when it comes to working together on a large construction project. It is challenging when everyone can speak in a normal tone of voice, let alone be creative at communicating.

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“Some folks don’t have trouble understanding me, even though my volume is reduced to a whisper,’ Dave writes. “Some of the soft sounds are ‘gone.’ Some people will repeat back to me what they think I’ve said, and this works.”

“I can usually tell by the expression on the other person’s face if they haven’t understood me. Then I can try to say it differently or write it,” he explains. Dave carries a pen and tablet on the job when he hits dead ends. Most folks can understand him at least partially and then he fill in the blanks based on the context of the conversation.

“There are certain gestures which are universally understood and this helps. It can be quite frustrating, sometimes and I have to be more patient with everyone, ESPECIALLY with myself, because if I get frustrated then communications suffer. It’s tougher to understand me when I get angry or emotional, so I have to keep my emotions under control all the time.  ”

When chain saws are running, hearing a whisper is impossible.

“If I need to get someone’s attention to ‘say’ something, I have two choices. I can walk over to them and touch their sleeve or wave to them. Or, I can clap my hands and get EVERYONE’S attention, then point to the person with whom I need to speak. My policeman’s whistle is reserved for emergencies ONLY!”

A core group of men and women helped nearly every weekend on the shelter for a little over a year.  One helper was Brian Swisher, the designated photographer for the project for BMECC. Brian is a graphic design/illustrator who began to feel as though this was “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“I only planned to come a few times and document progress but I got caught up in the project. I found myself coming to help nearly every weekend. I thought it would be a good way to learn some old-world skills, ‘play’ with the big boys like Todd Gladfelter,” who not only was a log builder but also makes a living as a chainsaw carving sculptor.

Dave took a backseat to Todd as he allowed him to be in charge of the logwork and delegate jobs to the many helpers, all ages and both sexes, who came to assist.

“I knew that if I could teach people enough skills in order to feel helpful,” Todd shares, “they would believe they were necessary and continue to return to the building site.”

Over and above the logwork, Todd was often the delegator; assigning buddies to help folks just learning so no one had to stand around and feel useless. It relieved Dave from working so hard at communicating and it freed him up to organize and do other important jobs.

Every weekend, Dave would type talk to all involved in the project, evaluate and discuss procedures, what worked and did not work, as well as discuss the next steps. Dave was very articulate in his type talking. Todd, was very articulate on the building site but was not interested in even learning how to turn on the computer, let alone type. He had to get me, his wife, to type up his handwritten comments of problem solving for the next work session. Everyone came to the project with different skills and different handicaps and made the best of what they could offer.

Speed was important and delays in the schedule were complicated by the approaching fall hunting season. The shelter needed to be moved onto Pennsylvania State Game Lands, the government organization that manages the land the shelter sits on and all work completed before hunters were in the woods. Each log was numbered, rolled apart and prepared to be transported into the site along the Appalachian Trail.

The shelter is located along the second largest roadless stretch in the state between the second and third mountain north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It is called Stony Valley and the Stony Creek runs through it. It is also referred to as St. Anthony’s Wilderness, a named bestowed on it back in 1742 in honor of a German missionary who was on a peace mission in the area to ease tensions with the local Indian tribes.

This 14,000- acre chunk of wild land is divided into State Game Lands, state park, state forest and the National Scenic Appalachian Trail, which dissects the valley for thirty miles. The Rausch Gap shelter is located 3-4 miles down a rail trail from the parking lot. It sits in the historic valley of Rausch Gap, where between 1830 and 1910, a coal mining town flourished here. By 1910, it was a ghost town and all that remains of the past are some stone foundations and a cemetery. Thankfully, the Pennsylvania Game Commission granted permission for Dave and his workers to drive into this remote site. But if a helper came late, they had to either walk in or ride a bike.

This area has a long history of modern-day misuse/abuse so leaving a half completed shelter with building supplies scattered around was not optimal. But before the shelter could be moved, the old one needed to be torn down and the materials disposed of as well as the site repaired and prepared in order to get ready for the new shelter.

DCNR’s truck would take the numbered logs as far as it could travel, where the AT turns off the existing rail trail bed. Then it would have to be carried the remaining ¼ mile by hand. The longest were 25 feet and weighed a couple hundred pounds.

The logs were being transported from the club’s arboretum site in Bernville when tragedy struck.  Dave’s son’s father-in-law, Skip Nagle offered to donate his time, truck, and trailer to move the logs for ‘free,” but had a bad wreck with an 18-wheeler on Rt. 443 near the Pine Grove exit of I-81. Skip was seriously injured and was air-vaced to the Lehigh Valley Hospital where he underwent surgery. The truck and trailer suffered a total loss but the amazing resilient logs escaped virtually unscathed, with only minor scrapes and scuffs.

Besides the logs, plywood, tarpaper and nineteen bundles of roof shingles had to be carted up. The old creosoted logs had to removed and properly disposed of. In the three-day moving weekend alone, BMECC raked up 218 hours amongst 33 people!

In total for this shelter project, over one hundred volunteers contributed 2700 hours in a sixteen month period. Some folks were retired but many were not. Some folks worked a time or two, others dedicated months. A core group of about eight to ten people were the die-hards.

Keeping track of volunteer hours is important to a club like the BMECC. Records are forwarded to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy so that when the National Park Service goes before Congress asking for money for the trail, they have an approximate amount of “free labor’ that translates into appropriations-dollars on Capitol Hill.

Throughout Dave’s career as shelter chair, he also built two composting toilets. These were an alternative to the old style of outhouse which had the potential of polluting ground water. This is especially crucial since the hikers’ depend on the water source for their drinking water. Composting toilets allow you to process an unlimited volume of waste on-site. The end product is a safe, stable, humus-like product that can safely be spread on the forest floor with no fear of contamination. The downside is that somebody has to get in there and manually load the batch composter, and then manually turn the waste pile inside out once every week.

“No, I did not enjoy this,” Dave whispers to me,   “but it had to be done!” Since this is a thankless dirty, smelly job, Dave rarely got any help to take over the maintenance.  He stirred and mixed and emptied for decades alone.

Since 1987, Dave has personally put in over 5,000 hours of service. Some of that was trail maintenance on his section that he is responsible for keeping up; some is running the composting toilets, some is “projects work,” like the rehabbing of Rausch Gap Shelter. “My relation to the trail is one of a trail-user ‘giving back’ out of gratitude for the experiences and enjoyment that I’ve gotten from the trail over the years. I suspect that it’s much the same for most of the crew.”

During the Rausch Gap shelter work, Dave logged close to 600 hours out of the collective 2,700 hours for the entire project from all workers. Rebuilding Rausch Gap Shelter is Dave’s final project. He is retiring.

There are volunteers like Dave Crosby up and down the AT – trail maintainers who annually log thousands and thousands of hours. All are unsung heroes working behind the scenes to give us this gift of the trail and its shelters.

Only a handful of BMECC members have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. Most are ‘section hikers,’ out for a short amount of time and make use of the shelters along the way, Dave included.

“I have hiked the middle third of the trail,” Dave says, “and plan to hike the rest at some point in time….probably after I retire.”  But the hiking community is not going to be too quick to let him go for they’ll have to come up with no less than a dozen workers to replace a Dave Crosby.

(A version of this appeared in the March/April issue of Pennsylvania Magazine http://www.pa.mag.com)

3 thoughts on “The Making of a Shelter

  1. Thank you for writing about this important part of the Appalachian Trail. The importance of maintenance usually goes unsung except for those who are involved.
    Dave deserves this recognition in the name of all maintainers.
    Of course I am especially interested since my husband Paul was one of the hikers who proudly hiked the whole trail as I know you also did. I’m quite sure that Paul was involved in the original building of The first
    Rausch gap shelter and Also did a lot of trail maintenance on the AT and other trails.
    THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME ON YOUR
    MAILING LIST. YOUR ARTICLE IS EXCELLENT. BEST WISHES TO YOU AND TODD AND THE KIDS

    • Hi Ellie- so nice to chat with you here. Thank you for your nice note and further recollection of my dear friend Paul,who was on y very first backpacking trip when I was 15 years old- many happy memories with the club, who were my FIRST teachers. Al the best to you!

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