There are the trails, and then there are the trailblazers. There are the views and the vistas, and then there are the steps that lead us there. Not all of us can be pioneers, or architects or masons, but because of them, we can access places that we may otherwise have never known were there.
There is a band of well-trained and skilled stonecutters and trail-builders known as the Jolly Rovers, who have been creating pathways to some of the most iconic places throughout public parks in our region for the past decade. Some of their projects include the stone stairway that leads visitors to the base of Stony Kill Falls, part of the Minnewaska State Park Preserve. Another of their signature stone staircases is the one that leads hikers or runners from the valley of Rainbow Falls to the Upper Awosting Carriage Road, also part of Minnewaska. Then there is the connector trail — known to local climbers, runners and cyclists as the Stairmaster — that the Jolly Rovers worked on between the Mohonk Visitors’ Center and the Undercliff Carriage Road in the heart of the West Trapps climbing area. They’ve also lent their skilled labor to many projects at the heavily trafficked Bear Mountain State Park.
Even more amazing than the work they do is the fact that they are all volunteers, drawn together by a love of the outdoors, a desire to create something that will last for centuries and to work together as a team for a higher purpose. They come from as far as Montreal, New Jersey and Maine, all to swing a hammer and a chisel and move stones through the air and set them into an intricate puzzle piece that will eventually lead the public towards beauty.
“Our volunteers have to take four weekend-long workshops and put in 80 hours a year,” said Chris Ingui, executive director and founding member of the Jolly Rovers organization, which officially began in 2011 and now has approximately 45 active members. These hearty volunteers need to learn how to harvest stone from native rock on-site or close to the site where they are working. They then need to split the rocks, shape them and figure out a system by which they can harness the boulders and send them through the air, weaving through tree canopies or over cliffs until they are lowered into place. Once they have the rocks where they want them, there is the work of honing them further with hammer and chisel until they fall into place and fit seamlessly into the ancient geological landscape surrounding them. Often these stone pathways are tied into monolithic stones that have been left there since the glaciers receded.
Currently, they are attempting their most ambitious project to date: the restoration of the Lenape Steps, a dramatic 100-stone-step pathway that once took visitors to the panoramic summit of Sam’s Point, the highest elevation in the Shawangunk Ridge. “I didn’t realize that there had been a staircase there,” said Ingui, who was walking the grounds of the Sam’s Point Preserve (now part of the 26,000-acre Minnewaska State Park), looking at possible projects that the Jolly Rovers could sink their rock wedges into. “Beneath all of the weeds and growth there were remnants of the original rock pathway.” It had been used for over a century, but had fallen into severe disrepair making it unsafe for public use. Decades later the path had become almost forgotten, until the Jolly Rovers set their sights on it. “This was the perfect project for us,” he said. “There are so many visitors who do not even get to Sam’s Point or know it’s there; and, once we’re done reconstructing the stone path, they can have an entirely different experience as they ascend to the summit.”
The merry band of Rovers had already done a project at Sam’s Point, working on stone steps in the well-traveled Ice Caves. Some of the original stones were intact enough to be reused, and others they had to mine from along the old Smiley Carriage Road and other locations at the Preserve. But the most daunting challenge, after collecting the rocks that they needed and cutting them as best they could, was to figure out “how we were going to get them inside that crevice!” said Ingui. What they ended up doing was to create a wooden rail down which they could carefully slide the stones. “It’s stone railroad,” said Ingui, who noted that this has been, by far, the most difficult terrain they’ve encountered.
They began their work in July and have made progress, step by step, applying their craft. Now that winter has settled in, they will have to wait, but Ingui is hopeful that the project will be completed by the end of 2020. He said that their entire aim is to build “trails that stand the test of time and the feet that use them. We craft them so that they emerge from the environment with an ancient feel, but with a modern use.” One of the biggest compliments Ingui or the Rovers can receive is when someone did not even realize they were on a “man-made” path because it blended into the environment so seamlessly.
Asked what makes people want to travel long distances, take intensive training workshops and spend hours on a mountain breaking rocks and hurling 800-pound boulders into the air, he said, “Sometimes the work finds you. I know that’s true for me.” Ingui and several of the other founding members of Jolly Rovers first fell in love with the ancient art of stone path-building when they volunteered to help move a large portion of the Appalachian Trail at Bear Mountain State Park back in 2008.
But he said that the majority of the committed volunteers in the Jolly Rovers were not necessarily big hikers or rock climbers, but just people who are eager to use their skills to create and leave behind something that will benefit others forever. “I think we all have a desire to challenge ourselves physically and mentally and share that sense of camaraderie with a community and build friendships. We get to create a living legacy and know that thousands of feet will be walking along the stones that we laid to get to these iconic places. That’s a great feeling.”
The art of access is what the Jolly Rovers are all about. Each year they put in upwards of 8,000 hours of volunteer labor and create $200,000 worth of trail, all for public benefit. They rely on donations and grantwriting to help offset the cost of materials, equipment, machinery, insurance, planning and all that goes into trail-building. They are currently in the midst of a major fundraising effort for the Lenape Steps project. If you’re interested in making a donation or becoming a volunteer, or learning about all of their various projects and reading their blogs and articles, go to their informative website at www.jollyrovers.org.