by Carol Coffey
The Roany Boyz began as a group of friends who liked to hike and camp together. One, Carol Coffey, was also involved with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) and joined other volunteers on the annual Grassy Ridge Mow-off. On the Grassy Ridge Mow-off, volunteers spent the third weekend of July cutting blackberry bushes and other invasive plants that were destroying the quality of the Grassy Ridge Bald. At times, over 30 people showed up to work and camp on the bald.
The Appalachian Trail provides access to Grassy Ridge and crosses Round Bald, Engine Gap, Jane Bald, and then a shoulder of Grassy Ridge before the side trail to the ridge begins. Hiking out to Grassy Ridge, Carol noticed that Engine Gap and the Southwest side of Jane Bald were rapidly being overgrown with blackberries. Judy Murray, SAHC’s head of Stewardship for the Roan Highlands, agreed to provide tools, primarily weed eaters, if Carol could form a group to work at Engine Gap.
In 2001 the Roany Boyz began working in Engine Gap. The original Roany Boyz were David Goforth (Lenoir City), Mike Fisher, Jaime Burnham (Oak Ridge), Bill Ryan (Birmingham, AL), and Carol Coffey (Knoxville). Alan Trently, the paid SAHC Seasonal Ecologist, also joined them. The first year they worked at Engine Gap was 2001. Rather than camp out, for the first three years they stayed in cabins at the Roan Mountain State Park or a private cabin in Burbank. The Boyz paid all expenses except for gas for their weed eaters, which SAHC furnished.
David and Jaime are excellent cooks and provided the Boyz with delicious meals. After breakfast, the Boyz would drive to Carver’s Gap and hike to the designated work area at Engine Gap, carrying their equipment and a daypack with lunch, water, and raingear. The first year, there was a fog and misty rain that obscured the mountain all day Saturday. Visibilty was limited to 20 or 30 yards most of the day. They had to come back the next day to see what they had accomplished.
And they have returned, year after year, for the last 12 years.
Jaime Burnham is credited with the name of the group, which reflects the serendipitous attitude of the Boyz. In later years, when females joined the group, they were asked if they would like the name changed to the Roany Boyz and Girlz. The women preferred to be considered just as Boyz, and so the original name stayed.
2004 was the first year that the Roany Boyz camped at Engine Gap. They enjoy the Zen of the mountains so much that they have continued to camp every year since. Other volunteers have joined them through the years. The SAHC Seasonal Ecologist always accompanies the Boyz and helps supervise the work. Joy in 2004, Nora Schubert (2006 -2012), Chris Coxen (2009-2012). Nora continued to work with the Roany Boyz even after she was no longer employed as the Seasonal Ecologist. She was selected the ‘Sweetheart of the Roany Boyz,’ based on her friendliness, beauty and grace; the most delicious blackberry cobbler any of us had ever eaten; and the fact that she can outwork any one of the Roanys, including Mike Fisher (and that is saying something).
Through the years volunteers have come and gone. Bruce Byers (Rutherfordton, NC) joined the group in 2006 and has attended every year since. Bruce was especially welcomed as he provides entertainment in the evenings with recitations of Robert Service poems.
A person only has to attend one Roany Boyz weekend to become a Roany Boyz member for life. The following is a list of those people who have contributed to the restoration of Engine Gap and Jane Bald: Jerry Thornton, Chris Edkins, Andrew Coffey (Knoxville), Lewis and Karen Carson and their daughter, Claire, Orlando Barcacel (Lansing, MI), Lisa Tyler, Mahalia (Nora Schubert’s daughter, Johnson City), Mark Hall (Knoxville), Daniel Ryan (Birmingham, AL), Dan Simmons (friend of Mike Fisher from Oak Ridge, TN), and Clyde Mackaman (Chattanooga, TN).
Roany Boyz have no officially designated leader. Each of the Boyz looks for what needs to be done, and does it, whether it is mowing blackberries, the primary purpose, sharpening weeder blades, setting up the cook tarp, going to the spring for water, cooking, cleaning up and washing dishes, picking blueberries, or whatever needs to be done for the benefit and enjoyment of the group. No one has to mow if they don’t feel like it. There are other things to do.
Camp is set up on the side of Round Bald overlooking Engine Gap. Here and there are flat spots that provide a place to setup a tent. Legend says there were made by lightning strikes in past years. Dave and Carol usually come out on Wednesday and pick up mowers from SAHC. The grass is usually knee high and damp. The first chore is to clear the camping area, and the cook tarp area. They set up their tents, and clear paths between the various other tent sites along the slope and the cook area. Then Dave clears a path to the spring, cleans out the spring, and sets up a pipe to fill water bags. When Dave brings water up from the spring, Carol sets up a drip filter for drinking water for the crew. Extra water bags are brought up periodically during the weekend to be certain there is always plenty of fresh water for hydration. Thursday is spent mowing the entire space around the camp and cooking area.
Usually, the rest of the Boyz arrive sometime Friday. Some have time to mow after setting up their tents on Friday. The amount of mowing is measured in gas tanks consumed. It takes about 45 minutes to use up a tank of gas on a mower. Mike Fisher is the champion mower, with seven tanks mowed in one day.
Saturday evening is usually the feast night with David and Jaime combining their skills to create a dinner fit for kings. The Boyz have carried in enough beer to relax muscles after a hard day’s work. Meals are vegetarian, though tuna can be added for those who must get their protein from animal sources. After dinner, everyone pitches in to clean the plates and pans, and then everyone settles back to listen to Bruce Byers recitation of “The Ballad of Sam McGee” or another of the Robert Service poems he has memorized. On occasion, the Boyz have adjourned to the top of Round Bald to watch a sunset, or a distant thunder storm.
Sunday, there may be some mowing done on the way back to the gap on the side of the Appalachian Trail. After four nights camping, Carol and David always stop at the State Park for a shower. If they make it in time, supper is at the Farmer’s Daughter in Chuckey, an excellent reward for a long weekend’s work.
The point of the Roany Boyz is not only to restore the unique beauty of balds, but to have fun doing it. Most all would agree that their formula works.