Eighty-seven-year-old Bill Gordge stood midway down the Roanoke River Trail with a metal digging bar in his hands while 76-year-old doctor Tom Berdeen wheeled past him with a cart full of rocks and recycled lumber.
Gordge, Berdeen and other volunteers from Pathfinders for Greenways are drilling, digging and sculpting a safer trail every Wednesday near the Roanoke River overlook at mile marker 114.9 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“Technically, this is the most difficult project we’ve ever done,” said Gordge, a retired pediatrician from Roanoke.
The winding quarter-mile trail is weathered and steep. Foot traffic and runoff have eroded several portions. Still, the path is popular for kayakers and canoeists because of the nearby rapids, said Bill Tanger, chairman of Friends of the Rivers of Virginia.
Tanger, 71, and the Roanoke River Blueway Committee wanted to include the trail as an official access point for the blueway, but the National Park Service asked the committee to refrain, citing the treacherous state of the federal property.
Now the Midweek Crew of 15 to 20 retired and semi-retired Southwest Virginia residents is hauling three- and four-foot pieces of old wooden Blue Ridge Parkway guardrails down the trail and hammering rebar into the blocks, forming steps on the slippery earth.
The volunteers also are rebuilding the gravel surface, repairing broken handrails, reducing erosion and widening parts of the path near the trailhead.
“They’re pretty much all retired people out there doing the work,” said Vinton-based park service supervisor Bob Adams. “I think it’s going great. They had a wish to tie their blueways and greenways through the park and we had a need because of being understaffed and underfunded for years.”
As a result of the partnership, the blueway committee officially can designate the trail as the 18th access point to the Roanoke River once the work is complete and approved by the park service.
“If you’re a kayaker, it’s the nicest section to access,” said Roanoke Valley Greenways Coordinator Liz Belcher. “And the steps are a way to make it safer.”
Belcher is lending her help to the project because she believes greenways and blueways “complement each other.” But this project is a long way from completion, she said.
The park service cut and cleared trees that fell along the path and now transports materials to the work site. But the midweek team is supplying an average of 121.8 hours of work on the trail every Wednesday, at no cost.
“This is not a project where we say we have $25,000 to build this trail,” Belcher said. “No, we don’t have anything.”
Chain saws, rock drills and other power tools are furnished for the workers by the Pathfinders, a nonprofit group. Gordge said these tools are needed to pierce the bedrock that lies under a majority of the trail.
The midweek team relies on a strong work ethic and help from representatives of other organizations, such as the Float Fishermen of Virginia, to expedite progress.
“We usually build about six or seven steps a day. Nine on a good day,” Tanger said. He estimates the lower fourth of the path — called The Fisherman’s Trail — will require 100 steps or more.
Despite their ages and the warm summer temperatures, the team is progressing on the project at a brisk pace since work began June 17. The project likely will take several months to complete.
Berdeen said he enjoys the exercise and public service — and the perks of senior citizenship.
“I get to ski for free now,” he said, laughing as he and 68-year-old Pathfinder Blanche Brower loaded a cart with trail materials.
Retired recreational therapist Bob Egbert, who joined the project two weeks ago, called the midweek team “the fountain of youth.”
Gordge, still gripping the digging bar, paused from his work and joked about the progress made by his team.
“It puts the pyramids to shame.”