JACKSON, Wyo. — To mark the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service the Grand Teton National Park Foundation is giving its beneficiary a gift that will last: The five-year “Inspiring Journeys” project that will restore and renovate the Jenny Lake visitor plaza and trail network.
But it’s also giving something else, reported the Jackson Hole News and Guide (http://bit.ly/2dpwcgu).
Under a cooperative agreement with the Lexington, Kentucky, Dry Stone Conservancy, masters of an ancient form of stonework have been lending not only their hands and backs to the effort but their experience, too, training National Park Service trail crew workers in this once-endangered craft.
“We’re very excited to be part of this project,” said Stuart Joynt, a master stonemason and the crew leader of the five-member contingent sent to Grand Teton by the Dry Stone Conservancy.
He and a crew were working on new retaining walls for Jenny Lake overlooks, wide steps leading down to the water to replace highly eroded dirt paths, and a stone staircase climbing up and over “Aspen Hill,” the northern end of the project on the east side of the lake.
“You could pour concrete or build something contrived and ugly, but this will fit into the surrounding area,” Joynt said of the work.
Howard Stone, a board member of the nonprofit conservancy, is also hard at work on the project this year.
More solid with time
“Part of why it’s so exciting,” said Stone, an attorney by profession, “is we’re building something that hundreds of thousands of people will see. You want it to fit into their experience. They’re coming to a national park to experience natural beauty. Concrete is not natural beauty.”
Throughout much of the world, the oldest standing man-made structures — the pyramids of Egypt and the Mayan empire, the temples of Angkor Wat and Mesopotamia — are made of stone, often using drystone techniques. When it’s done right, a mortar-free wall can actually become sturdier and more solid with time. A hammer, some know-how and a pile of rock is pretty much all that’s needed. After that gravity and friction take over, allowing the rocks to settle and lock into place.
But while the craft is still widespread in many parts of the world, including the U.S. until a century or so ago, it has been on the wane here. Which is why, Joynt said, the Drystone Conservancy was founded 17 years ago.
“There was a road project that was going to take out several miles of drystone fence” in Kentucky, he said, “and there was no one to rebuild the fences.”
So the nonprofit conservancy formed to train stonemasons to relearn the craft and preserve similar structures.
“Everyone here is trained by a Scottish master stonemason,” he said of the Jenny Lake gang.
The group has worked all over the country. In the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas it rehabilitated nearly 1,000 feet of rock fence. It rebuilt the stone foundation of the historic Corwin Barn in Barryville, New York, which dates back to the early 1800s. And it has rebuilt and restored stone bridge arches, abutments and plenty more fences and walls of historic interest.
In addition to projects the conservancy also offers training and certification. You can even sign up for a weekend class.
In Grand Teton the work has involved stairs, water bars and a retaining wall on both sides of Jenny Lake. Because the west side of the lake is managed as wilderness, most of that work is being done by hand, including muscling in enormous stones for a wall to replace the rickety buckrail fence at Hidden Falls.
On the east side some tools and machines were used, though much of the work was still done the old-fashioned way. Joynt showed a short video he took on his phone of a crew member using iron pegs and a hammer to shear off the end of a desk-size chunk of rock.
Brute force meets masterful craftsmanship when building with rock. A retaining wall, for instance, is really two walls leaning slightly toward each other and linked together by larger tie rocks. In between the two surfaces is fill — shoebox-size rock on down to the chips and shards chiseled off to make wall faces fit snugly.
“You want to minimize air space in there,” Joynt said.
As painstaking as the work is, progress has been rapid, with one retaining wall — 9 feet high and 54 inches thick — looking mostly complete after about a week and a half of labor.
On the west side a National Park Service crew was working on a similar wall to shore up a trail leading up from the boat dock.
“Not only does it benefit Grand Teton National Park and the trail crews here,” said Matt Hazard, Grand Teton’s landscape architect and project manager of the Jenny Lake “Inspiring Journeys” project, “but it cross-pollinates throughout the National Park Service.”
Many of Grand Teton’s crew members will go on to work in other parks or become trail crew foremen.
“So we’ll move that skill around, that lost art,” Hazard said.
And long after the Jenny Lake project is done, crew members trained in dry stone masonry will be able to apply the craft throughout the park. Hazard mentioned that it has already come in handy maintaining trails up Death, Cascade, Granite and Paintbrush canyons.
“They use those same masonry skills to improve the trail networks there,” Hazard said.
The Jenny Lake trail network most are familiar with dates back to the 1930s, when Civilian Conservation Corps crews built them, as well as a few older trails that were mostly used by horseback riders. The CCC boys mostly used dry stone masonry to do their work.
It’s a testament to their labor and organization that their work held up so well for 80-plus years. Then again, the trails were designed and built when Jenny Lake saw thousands of visitors each season, not the 1 million or more who spend anywhere from a few minutes for a glimpse at the view to several hours walking around or boating across the lake and hiking to Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point and beyond. So those 80 years and millions of feet have left their mark on the network and masonry.
The popularity of Jenny Lake and the dire need to restore it are part of what convinced the Grand Teton National Park Foundation to focus its efforts on the area. But it’s also significant to the history of the park. It was at Jenny Lake that John D. Rockefeller Jr. had his epiphany that protections for the landscape must extend out from the foot of the mountains, out into the valley, where in the 1920s development was already threatening to block out the views from the toes of the Tetons.
Hoping to give every park visitor the chance to have his or her “Rockefeller moment,” the foundation pledged $14 million — a target, it announced, that it has reached, with an additional $4 million coming from the park — to make sure every interaction with the natural environment at Jenny has the potential for being meaningful.
Someone who has never been on a hike before but who is in reasonable shape can walk the 1 mile up 400 vertical feet to the top of Inspiration Point. Someone who is less able can make it to Hidden Falls or at least to the overlook of the Cascade Creek chasm, a short distance from the western boat docks. Someone in a wheelchair can at least make it down to the water, put his toes in and see for himself the inspiring panorama of the Teton Range.
“It didn’t take a lot of discussion,” said Leslie Mattson, executive director of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation. “It was automatically the one we wanted to do.”
The Park Service readily signed on.
Work will continue around and above Jenny Lake through 2017. Much of the effort this summer and next will focus on a major rebuilding of the visitor plaza just off Teton Park Road. The South Cascade trail is closed for rebuilding this year, as is the trail and viewing area for Hidden Falls. Next summer will also see improvements to Inspiration Point and the installation of a new bridge over the Cascade chasm.
“I think when we’re done here it’ll be hard to say when this was built,” Joynt said. “You’ll have a hard time saying it was built in 2016.”
“It could be 1900, even 1850,” said Stone. “It’ll have a nice patina on it.”
Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com