Moving Rocks With The Big Boys: A Lesson In Bridge Building

Wayne Fogg, center, removes a sling from a boulder while supervising construction of a stepping stone bridge across Yawbucs Brook in North Stonington on Saturday, Oct. 20. At left is Bob Andrews, a volunteer with the Connecticut Forest & Park Association who helps maintain hiking trails in eastern Connecticut.

"Tension!"

The barked order echoed last Saturday in a heavily wooded valley in North Stonington, where a crew of volunteers armed with assorted tools and pulling devices gathered at a fast-flowing stream.

In response, Ralph Davidson, one of the workers, began cranking the bar of a grip hoist back and forth, tightening a half-inch-thick steel cable connected to a chain wrapped around an enormous boulder.

The granite chunk, about the size of a kitchen table, inched forward, partially suspended by a separate line stretched between two trees.

"Slack!" cried Wayne Fogg, head of the crew, and Davidson repositioned the grip hoist lever. The cable began to loosen so that Fog and the others could maneuver the boulder with pry bars.

The giant rock was one of four stepping stones we volunteers placed across Yawbucs Brook as part of a project organized by the Connecticut Forest & Park Association (CFPA), a private, nonprofit conservation organization that helps secure rights of way for and maintains all 825 miles blue-blazed hiking trails throughout the state.

Bob Andrews of Preston, a CFPA volunteer who with his daughter Crystal is responsible for maintaining trails in eastern Connecticut, organized last week's bridge construction because Yawbucs Brook, which flows across the Narragansett Trail, floods periodically, making it difficult for hikers to cross. Over the years some hikers had tossed small rocks in the stream to build a makeshift bridge, but these only caused the water to dam up and spread.

Andrews decided the best solution, short of an elaborate raised span, would be to place large flat stones between the banks, spaced far enough apart for water to flow freely but close enough for hikers to step from one to the next. This is where Fogg and his trained rock workers came in.

I was invited to join the fun after having met Andrews a couple months earlier when he and I accompanied Jenna Cho and Peter Huoppi from The Day on a 23-mile day hike the length of the Narragansett Trail from Lantern Hill at the Ledyard/North Stonington border to Ashville Pond in Hopkinton, R.I.

Loyal readers may recall that I periodically chronicle my obsession with building rock walls, paths and cairns, so getting asked to be part of a project led by serious rock-movers was like a Little Leaguer being called up by the Red Sox. I also invited along my friend and neighbor, Bob Graham, who to a somewhat lesser degree shares my passion for stonework but nonetheless gets pulled in on many of my Sisyphusian projects.

Also joining last Saturday's crew were Bob Nodine, Phil Wilsey, Elizabeth "Polly" Buckley, Harry Perrine, Marlene Ewankow, the aforementioned Davidson and Fogg, and John Rek, a mountain of a man who looked like he could have moved most of those boulders with his bare hands – and in fact did so.

We assembled at the brook shortly after 9 a.m. and I was amazed to see how fast it flowed. When Andrews, Cho, Huoppi and I crossed it back in August there wasn't even a trickle. But the night before Saturday's project some 3 inches of rain poured down, and the Yawbucs took on white-water pretensions.

"It doesn't get like this more than a couple times a year," Andrews said, staring at the swirling current.

Fogg quickly took charge of the volunteers and issued various instructions, while Rek, the most experienced rock mover and technical climber who brought some of his own gear, began setting up lines. Some of us clipped branches blocking the path, others used a chain saw to cut up a 2-foot-thick tree that had fallen across the brook, and others began stringing cables. Graham, Ewankow and I began prospecting for suitable rocks with 4-foot-long pry bars.

Using the bars like levers we managed to unearth one cube-like boulder, but it proved too tippy.

Meanwhile, Fogg and the others already had skooched one huge monolith into place using a grip hoist, an ingenious contraption with hidden gears that allows one person with a moderately strong arm to move objects weighing a ton or more. It puts to shame the come-along tool I've been using for years to lug rocks.

After toiling with the equipment for a few hours Fogg finally trusted me and a couple others to rig up the lines ourselves. We first showed him the boulder we planned to move about 100 feet, and he simply said, "Go ahead – make it happen."

We then wrapped looped nylon fabric belts around two trees, attached metal hooks and chains, connected them to the cable, and positioned the grip hoist.

"Tension!" I called, warning others to stay clear of the line, and began pulling. The boulder slid slowly forward over bars we had placed like railroad tracks to reduce friction. Archimedes was right: Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth.

Twenty minutes later the boulder splashed into place.

By this time we had been laboring about six hours – all of us were muddy and tired, but happy. The bridge was finished. You can now cross from one side of Yawbucs Brook to other and not get your feet wet.

Rek the Mountain Man made a few final adjustments with his pry bar; we used the grip hoist one last time to remove the cut up logs, and tossed buckets of water over the stepping stones to wash away residual mud.

If I say so, it's a masterpiece – the Brooklyn Bridge of southeastern Connecticut. If you want to see it, hike north on the Narragansett Trail from Lantern Hill, and after passing a small body of water known as both Hewitt and Gallup Pond, cross Route 2, walk up Ryder Road, and re-enter the woods following the blue blazes on the left side of the road. Stay on the trail past the crest of Cossaduck Hill and descend to Yawbucs Brook.

If you're feeling energetic and have about 12 hours to spare, continue to Ashville Pond. Otherwise you can simply turn around – or cut it even shorter by skipping Lantern Hill and simply hiking in from Ryder Road.

I hope those who cross Yawbucs Brook, or who hike on any blue-blazed trail in Connecticut, appreciate the efforts of the CFPA and its many volunteers. I enjoyed working with the crew and am sure there will be other opportunities to pitch in on future projects.

Workers use pry bars to position a rock into place.
Workers use pry bars to position a rock into place.
The finished product.
The finished product.
Steve Fagin crosses the new bridge.
Steve Fagin crosses the new bridge.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

In Waning Winter, An 'Above Par' Snow-Kayaking Adventure

With snow cover stubbornly lingering and whitewater kayaking season still more than a month away, what’s an impatient paddler to do? Easy: Snow-kayaking.

What Snow and Ice? The Maple Sap Is Running!

Every year about this time, after having spent the past few months shoveling tons of snow from the driveway, lugging tons of firewood from the shed, getting out of bed dozens of times at 3 a.m. to stoke the stove, hauling countless buckets of...

Finally! A Worthy Snowstorm -- Maybe Even a Bombogenesis!

Just when we winter worshipers had resigned ourselves to another snowless season, and only a day after the temperature climbed ridiculously into the 60s, our prayers have been answered not just by an ordinary storm but by a meteorological...

Animal Tracks in the Snow: They All Tell a Story

If you thought most forest animals hibernated in winter, or at least slept through the night, take a stroll through the woods the morning after a snowfall.

What Does the Fox Say? Yip-yip-yip! Chance Encounters With Creatures Great and Small

While I lugged logs from the woodshed the other morning a yip-yip-yip! pierced the still air. First reaction: Did the neighbors get a dog? No, they were out of town for a few days. Yip-yip-yip!

Ringling Bros., SeaWorld and the Columbus Zoo: Pitfalls of Keeping Elephants, Orcas and Gorillas in Captivity

Large, wild animals belong in the wild, not in a circus, aquarium or zoo – a point reinforced by events involving three prominent, unrelated institutions in the last couple weeks.

Our Debt of Gratitude to President Obama, the Environmentalist-in-Chief

As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax," appointed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator an Oklahoma attorney general who is suing that agency, named the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary...

Call of the Wild: A Clash Over Cellphones in The Great Outdoors

"Yeah, I’m standing on the summit now! … The view is incredible – I can’t believe I’m getting a signal up here!"

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Plunging into Icy Fishers Island Sound at the Annual New Year's Day Run-Swim

Look, I’m not going to lie: While some longtime participants in one of southeastern Connecticut’s most enduring, challenging and madcap traditions insist that plunging into icy water after a run on Jan. 1 is a refreshing and...

No Such Thing as Too Much Fun: A Great 2016; Hopes for an Even Better 2017

When it comes to adventurous fun my philosophy has always been too much is never enough, so when I look back at the highlights of the past 12 months, as I typically do when the calendar is about to flip, I can honestly say that 2016 was a...

Hey, Has Anybody Else Noticed It's Gotten A Little Chilly?

I guess I first realized the temperature had dropped a few degrees when I went out for a 5-mile run this morning and noticed that my eyelids had started to freeze shut, which loyal readers will recognize as Level IV on the Fagin Frigidity Index,...

Granola Munchers Vs. Snickers Gobblers: Conflict Over Plans for a Hotel on New Hampshire's Mount Washington

The first time friends and I trudged up New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in winter the frozen peak might as well have been Antarctica – hurricane-force winds and blinding snow battered us, the only climbers that day atop the highest...

How to Build a Stone Wall in 14,863 Easy Steps

I realized long ago that you’re never really finished building a stone wall, even after you’ve dragged and hefted into place what seemed like the final boulder, exhaled mightily and stepped back to admire your work.