Volunteers will repair Cumberland Trail overlook stairwell after fire destroys it a second time

Volunteers will repair Cumberland Trail overlook stairwell after fire destroys it a second time

February 20th, 2017 by David Cobb in Local Regional News

In this February file photo, Carpenter Mark Aikers, Cumberland trail Park Ranger Josh Kuykendall and Randy Whorton with Wild Trails, from left, speak about replacing a three-tiered set of stairs which were destroyed during the wildfires that burned segments of the Cumberland Trail last fall.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Randy Whorton with Wild Trails, carpenter Mark Aikers, and Cumberland trail Park Ranger Steve Rudy, clockwise from left, scout the former location of a three-tiered set of stairs which were destroyed during the wildfires that burned segments of the Cumberland Trail.

Randy Whorton with Wild Trails, carpenter Mark...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Hiking through the woods atop Mowbray Mountain's southern edge reveals bits of lingering evidence.

Fire spread here during the fall, and charred tree limbs strewn about the woods are visible reminders of the ecological changes it set in motion.

A certain amount of fire is healthy for the woods, forestry experts say.

Fire, however, is not beneficial for man-made wooden structures, and there is nothing subtle about what it did to a three-tiered stairwell on a steep bluff in the North Chickamauga Creek Gorge section of the Cumberland Trail now set to be rebuilt.

Again.

For the second time since 2009, wildfire destroyed the stairs that provide the only safe connection to Boston Branch Overlook for hikers who desire to travel more than two miles from the trail's Montlake Road parking lot.

"Houses took precedence," Cumberland Trail State Park ranger Josh Kuykendall said Thursday from the top of the former stairwell, recalling the weeks-long firefighting effort in this area.

But with the smoke now settled, it's up to park rangers and a crew of volunteers to rebuild the stairwell and restore full access to this area known as the Pocket Wilderness.

A nonprofit organization, Wild Trails, which works to build and maintain the Cumberland Trail in Hamilton County, is leading the effort after a crew of Baylor School students hauled in much of the lumber that will be used on the project.

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Wild Trails director Randy Whorton, a pair of rangers and contractor Mark Akers inspected the site last week to begin brainstorming about how construction will go.

"I think it's doable," Whorton shouted up from the bottom of the former stairwell after using a rope to climb down and inspect the sloping hillside, where a team will work to install the replacement. "I think we can do it in a couple of days."

The crew still needs to haul in a bit more wood and tools. They also need to recruit a few more volunteer carpenters unopposed to spending their free time in harnesses on the side of a remote cliff, if they are to complete the project by their target date of March 9.

They'll do it all knowing that their work may not last.

"Whatever is built there could burn again with the next major fire," Cumberland Trail State Park manager Bobby Fulcher said. "This is a reality. We've got a river gorge that's inaccessible. Gorges accelerate wind, you might say. They create a draft, and that means fires are a little harder to stop."

The Cumberland Trail Conference rebuilt the staircase in 2010 after a month-long fire. The expected early March completion date of this rebuild will come before spring hiking season brings a steady stream of hikers through this stretch of the trail.

A colorful display of wildflowers is expected to blossom soon, enabled by sunlight beaming through newly opened windows in the forest to soil, previously guarded by underbrush, now cleared by flames that crawled through the area.

The rebuilt stairwell will allow hikers to fully experience the rare post-wildfire beauty.

And then the process will start over.

"If while we're doing this we could document how we did it, that would be good," Kuykendall said. "Because this will burn again."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.


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