Let's take this outside!

When Mother Nature is your boss, your 9-5 is anything but typical

Photo by Amy Jackson

People match their passions with a love of the outdoors

Inside this year’s Outdoors Issue, you’ll learn about eight different jobs that celebrate being outside—and all the tricks of the trade that a few local workers employ. From geometry calculations to determine where to cut a tree limb to avoid hitting a window or power line to how best to move a rattlesnake from a much-used park path (carefully and slowly!), these workers love what they do and say being outside is the key to their happiness.

Lofty ambitions: Tree-care technician says you must be in the moment

From the time he entered the workforce, tree-care technician Taylor Crannis wanted to earn his living outside. Inspired by his mother, who was a science teacher in Charlottesville-area public schools, Crannis moved to Asheville, North Carolina, in his early 20s to work as an educator with a youth-oriented wilderness program. “My job was to take at-risk youth into the woods for a week at a time, introduce them to nature and teach them wilderness skills,” he says. “We’d do a lot of kayaking, canoeing, swimming, camping, hiking, identify trees and animals and insects, build campfires, that sort of thing.”

And while ultimately the position was short-lived—working with that demographic took a psychological toll, he says—Crannis fell in love with pursuing a career that allowed him to spend most of his time outside. After a stint installing and maintaining ziplines and another foray into outdoor education, in 2014, the 30-year-old returned to his hometown and took what he thought would be a temporary job doing tree work. However, he quickly realized the gig was something he wanted to pursue.

“I saw the ziplines had taught me about ropes and knots, and that my experience rock climbing prepared me to climb without fear,” he says. “I caught on really fast. I found it humbling and exhilarating to feel skilled at something people think of as highly dangerous; I loved showing up to a job that slows everything down to the basics.” In Crannis’ business, workers must be absolutely present. “You can’t not pay attention to what you’re doing,” he says. “Your livelihood and that of your crewmates depends upon your skill and focus. A single mistake can cost you your life.”

While the notion of climbing 90 feet in the air and pruning tree limbs with a razor-sharp chainsaw might sound completely insane, Crannis says he can’t get enough of it. Describing each tree as posing a unique problem, he takes pleasure in crafting a plan and using geometry to plot how to remove limbs without damaging power lines, shattering windows or crushing a hedge of 200-year-old English boxwoods. “Every tree is different. You apply the same techniques, but in different combinations customized to fit the situation,” he says. “I find that combination of mental conceptualization and physical execution enticing and wildly attractive.” 

Additionally, the aspiring arborist (he works as a tree-care technician with Arboristry Associates) says that most people don’t understand the benevolent nature of tree work—while they are frequently tasked with removing trees, far more often technicians seek to maintain and protect them. “I love trees and a big part of my work is sustaining and keeping them healthy and alive, hopefully for decades to come,” says Crannis. “Trees are beautiful in general and even more so as they grow older. So I view much of this work as giving back to the community and helping preserve a part of nature which, to me, is extremely important.”

At the end of a hard work day, Crannis likes to reflect on the fact that, for him, a gym membership would be ridiculous. “I don’t have to go to the gym to stay in shape because I get paid to exercise in a balanced way,” he jokes. “And furthermore, my office is 80 or 90 feet off the ground with ever-changing views of beautiful estates and properties. For me, that’s impossible to beat.”—Eric Wallace


If the Lorax spoke for the trees in Dr. Seuss’ world, then the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards speak for the trees here. They run a volunteer organization dedicated to protecting trees in the area, and by holding free classes and nature walks, the stewards hope to better educate the public about the importance of protecting our trees. Volunteers also work on projects that range from beating back invasive species in local forests to maintaining trails and planting new trees. If you’re interested in getting involved, sign up via email on the Tree Stewards’ website, charlottesvillearea treestewards.org, and you’ll receive newsletters with information on
classes and projects.—Julia Stumbaugh

Matthew McGill went on his first caving expedition as part of a Boy Scout trip. Now, the UVA second-year is leading groups to nearby grottoes. Photo by Amy Jackson

Cave man: Spelunking adventures keep UVA student coming back

Twenty-year-old caving enthusiast Matthew McGill was introduced to subterranean exploration at the age of 11 when he participated in a spelunking adventure sponsored by a local Boy Scout troop. “At the time of my first caving trip, I was really small and could fit into passages and spaces in the cave other people couldn’t,” he says. “When I realized that, I felt like it was possible for me to explore areas that no one else had ever stepped foot in or even seen before, which gave me a feeling of excitement, of real adventure.”

Of course, McGill later recognized his initial sense of discovering something brand new was a childhood illusion. However, after learning about the Charlottesville branch of the National Speleological Society—that is, a local caving club—it struck him that, with a bit of professional help and training, that dream might be attainable after all.

“About a year-and-a-half ago, I became a member of the Charlottesville Grotto in my quest to find a group of experienced and responsible cavers to go on trips with,” he says. “To go caving safely and legally, you need people that know the cave, can obtain the proper permissions to enter the cave and show you safety precautions and general best practices to follow while exploring.”

According to McGill, joining a local NSS-affiliated grotto is the most direct route to meeting such folks. “I contacted them via email and then showed up at the first meeting,” he says. “Now, going into a completely unexplored area is a real possibility for me and that fosters the same kind of excitement I felt as a kid, which keeps me coming back for more. …I mean, even if you don’t go somewhere totally new, whenever you go caving you enter a risky and strenuous environment that a lot of people are aware of but hardly anyone has encountered firsthand. So, I always have that sense of adventure when I go caving.”

Since joining the club, the UVA second-year’s expeditions underground have become more frequent, with members leading at least one trip per month. But with increased participation has come increased responsibility—when he’s not helping to map new caves, monitor existing ones or dig out a sinkhole that might reveal a new cavern, McGill serves as a tour guide, leading people through narrow passages, navigating over pits and descending via ropes into new rooms.

“Taking someone caving who’s never been before is fun, but can be a little nerve-racking,” he says with a laugh. “First and foremost, you want to make sure they stay safe, but you also want them to have a great time, because you want them to want to do it again afterwards. But even if someone finds caving isn’t for them, I’m happy if they leave the experience feeling proud of the fact they went through a cave successfully. And of course, if they wind up with some good memories of the cave itself, that’s the icing on the cake.”

Toward making these good memories happen, McGill likes to plan a special meal in the cave for his groups of three to 10 people. “I love leading a tour and working up an appetite and eating lunch in the cave with just the light provided by a single candle,” he says. “A cave is such a weird place to eat a meal. I love it because it’s a time you get to just relax, quietly take in your surroundings and talk. You’d be surprised how bright that candle can be when your eyes are adjusted to complete darkness.”—E.W.

Courtesy Luray Caverns
Courtesy Luray Caverns

Caving is in

The Shenandoah Valley is famous for caves such as Luray, Grand, Skyline, Natural Bridge and Endless Caverns but, unknown to most, the area is home to one of the densest concentrations of wild caves on the East Coast. This abundance has given rise to a community of tight-knit spelunking clubs, such as Charlottesville Grotto (cvillegrotto.org), many of which offer small-scale guided tours to the public. A list of some of the top caverns across the state can be found at virginia.org/caverns.—E.W.

Stacey Metheny is participating in a seven-step Dominion Power lineman training program. After she completes the program, she’ll enter a two-year apprenticeship before becoming an official lineman. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen
Stacey Metheny is participating in a seven-step Dominion Power lineman training program. After she completes the program, she’ll enter a two-year apprenticeship before becoming an official lineman. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

New heights: Stacey Metheny’s career goals are getting off the ground

Stacey Metheny’s daughter, Hannaha, who was born with cerebral palsy, Turner syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, couldn’t walk or talk and needed constant care—care that required equipment powered by electricity. When Hannaha passed away five years ago at the age of 14, Metheny said she was left with a hole in her heart, and her usual work, training and caring for horses, wasn’t filling that emotional void. She was going back to school when her daughter died, and had thought about becoming a nurse because she was looking for a profession in which she could care for people like she did her daughter. But when she came across an online job posting for a Dominion groundsperson, she thought back to how important electricity was to her family.

“It seemed like the perfect fit. I can care for thousands of people by getting their electric back on,” says Metheny, who also liked the idea of working outdoors. “It just really filled that emotional hole.”

There was a slight problem with her plan, though, and one day last September her daughters, in an attempt to solve that problem, told her to take a day off work. They kept their destination a surprise, but Metheny, who is afraid of heights, figured out what they were up to when they pulled into the airport in New Market, and she immediately spotted the skydiving sign.

Metheny, 43, is in a 56-month training program to become a lineman for Dominion Power—the person you see climbing wooden poles or being lifted up in a bucket attached to the back of a truck to fix power lines. She knew that in order to move up from a groundsperson position she would have to overcome her fear—and leap out of a plane.

“It was a surreal experience because you’re up there and you can see trucks and cars but not hear anything—it’s just complete silence,” she says. “But the adrenaline rush you get from it— even talking about it a year later—it’s just awesome.”

Even though the initial jump was scary, she says she’d definitely do it again.

“It’s just such an awesome feeling to be up so high and see so much of the Earth,” she says. “It just really puts into perspective how small you are and how important you are.”

She views her work turning the power back on for citizens much the same way—she’s part of a large team that provides people with the electricity they rely on every day. Metheny lives in Orange with her family, and her crew covers the Charlottesville area. Though she works the 7am-3:30pm shift, she’s on call in case of emergencies. Three weeks ago, after working her normal shift, she was called back in at 10pm, and her team worked through the night.

“I’m responsible for putting people’s electricity back on when they need it the most,” she says. “It really hits home. There are so many people who rely on electricity for life. It really gives me that emotional connection.”

When her crew arrives on a call they have to determine things like where they’re going to park the truck, how they’re going to climb the pole, what to work on first and what the best solutions are.

“Every job is a puzzle, it’s a challenge,” she says. “Even though you know what you’re going to do in a certain aspect, you really don’t know because every job is so different.”—Jessica Luck

James Hayhurst lands in the back of a MINI Cooper during a practice session before a jump last summer at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Courtesy subject

Jump start: Local skydiver has logged 11,000 jumps

James Hayhurst got into skydiving because he hated to march. In his late teens he entered the Air Force Academy and was excited by all the air adventures that inevitably awaited him. But his first year was filled with drills and learning how to maneuver under barbed wire—boot camp basics.

At the end of that first summer, Hayhurst was in parade formation with the rest of the cadets, sweat dripping down his neck, when he looked up into the bright blue sky. He watched as the Cadet Parachute Team, surrounded by white fluffy cumulus clouds, released red smoke vertical contrails behind them, opened their chutes and landed right in front of him.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s the way to arrive at a parade,’” Hayhurst says.

He wanted on that team, and after completing his freshman year he went on to Fort Benning, and then completed the basic parachuting course the academy offered.

At the end of his sophomore year, Hayhurst was inducted into the competitive parachute team with eight other guys. He went on to become a collegiate champion and made the U.S. team after graduating. Much the same way a good golfer keeps up his game, Hayhurst, 64, continued to train and compete in skydiving competitions on the weekends and during vacations while he served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force for 15 years, followed by a career as an airline pilot and captain for 20 years.

To date, he has completed more than 11,000 jumps, been on 20 national teams and has an equal number of world championships to his name. He now serves as an official observer at world record attempt jumps.

It’s no surprise that Hayhurst’s son, Kristopher, who grew up around a parachute drop zone, followed in his father’s footsteps. As a senior in high school, Kristopher, who had completed about 250 jumps at that point, was a guest competitor in the collegiate championships (you have to be 24 to officially enter the competition). Kristopher already had plans to attend the Air Force Academy like his father, but the West Point team saw him jump in the competition and recruited him to join their parachute team.

Last June, father and son competed side-by-side in the U.S. Parachute Association National Parachuting Championships in Lake Wales, Florida. The older Hayhurst won the overall gold medal (as well as the gold in style and silver in accuracy), which earned him a slot on the prestigious U.S. Parachute Team that competed in the World Championships last September outside of Chicago; Kristopher earned a slot on the U.S. Team as a junior competitor.

Hayhurst, who lives in Boonesville, still remembers his first jump, during a hot summer at Fort Benning, and what it felt like to exit the sweltering plane into the cool air. He says jumping out of a plane is like diving into a pool of water—the air creates a cushion around you as you float toward the ground. You don’t get that ground-rush feeling until you’re about 500 feet above.

Two weeks ago Hayhurst was in Davis, California, officially monitoring Fraser Corsan’s practice jumps from 37,000 feet before Corsan attempted a world record jump in a wingsuit at 42,000 feet from a hot-air balloon. Later this year, Hayhurst will seve as an official observer for a team of hot-air balloonists seeking to break the record for the fastest time traveling around the world.

“What’s fun about it is you meet the most interesting people,” Hayhurst says. “Some of them are wealthy and some of them aren’t, but they’re all adventurous. They’re great people not living the normal, boring, pedestrian life.”—J.L.

Great heights

Not afraid of heights? Good, because Charlottesville has plenty of opportunities for you to experience them. Companies in the area offer all kinds of ways to see the area from a bird’s-eye view. Blue Ridge Ballooning and Boar’s Head Ballooning, for example, let you to float across our scenic mountain range during the day or at sunrise and sunset.

If you’re looking for more of an adrenaline rush, try skydiving. The closest skydiving company is Skydive Orange, about 45 minutes away from Charlottesville. If you went to high school in the area, you might have seen them dropping divers onto area football fields for showy game starts. On Skydive’s website, skydive orange.com, you can see if you fit the health requirements and then book a solo or tandem dive.

Both skydiving and hot-air ballooning cost around $250-$300 per person. If you’re seeking a cheaper and less extreme way to see Virginia from above, look for bungee trampolining opportunities. The annual Waynesboro XTremeFest, held in June, has free admission and offers attendees a chance to bungee jump. Wintergreen Resort also has a bungee trampoline (both are kid-friendly). But whether you’re freefalling from 18,000 feet or gliding above sun-kissed treetops, a variety of options are available for you to enjoy a one-of-a-kind view of Virginia.—J.S.

Gabriele Rausse propagated plants as a teen in his father’s greenhouses in the Veneto region of Italy and continues the zenlike work with plants as the head groundskeeper at Monticello. 621 Studios
Gabriele Rausse propagated plants as a teen in his father’s greenhouses in the Veneto region of Italy and continues the zenlike work with plants as the head groundskeeper at Monticello. 621 Studios

One with the land: Gabriele Rausse’s love of Jefferson keeps him grounded

Celebrated around the world as the father of Virginia wine, since working with Gianni Zonin to found Barboursville Vineyards in 1976, 71-year-old Gabriele Rausse has helped establish more than 70 Virginia vineyards. Considering that track record, Rausse’s decision to become the full-time groundskeeper of Monticello in 2012 may come as a bit of a surprise. That is, if you don’t understand his infatuation with Monticello and Thomas Jefferson.

Having spearheaded the development of Jefferson Vineyards from 1981 to 1995, Rausse has a longstanding relationship with the historic property and its founder. The love affair began almost immediately, when the viticulturist and vintner considered planting grape vines. “It was beautiful for me to realize that Monticello was a very special place and that TJ had the intuition to establish his farm in that special place,” explains Rausse. “When cold weather comes, the air rolls off the little mountain at the same speed water does, which is why our growing season at Monticello is two months longer than the season in Charlottesville.”

After deciding to take a break from the booming wine industry in 1995, despite lucrative offers from wineries and vineyards alike, Rausse took a gig as Monticello’s assistant director of gardens and grounds. “I wasn’t planning to stay too long because I’d decided I was going to start my own winery, but then I fell in love with Thomas Jefferson,” says Rausse. “Every time I had a question I couldn’t answer, I would go and see what he had to say about the matter, and I always totally agreed with him.” During one such research foray Rausse stumbled upon what became his favorite Jefferson quotation, gleaned from a letter written to the former president’s sister: “It is neither wealth nor splendor but tranquility and occupation which gives happiness.” The saying was apt—it was as if Rausse had been struck by lightning.

“…I like my boss. Her name is Mother Nature and she always surprises me with something new, so I never get bored.” Gabriele Rausse

The thing was, Rausse found his work zenlike. “I always loved to propagate plants because I’d done it as a teenager in greenhouses that my father owned,” he says. “I figured out a long time ago the plants were talking to me, but never got upset if I didn’t answer their questions or refused to have a conversation. …They were always there waiting for me to get back to them.”

Decades later, Rausse is still pursuing tranquility at Monticello. “I’m now the director of gardens and grounds, and my duty is essentially to make sure everything around the house and throughout most of the foundation property looks good,” he says with a laugh. “I feel very lucky, because I have wonderful people working with me and I like my boss. Her name is Mother Nature and she always surprises me with something new, so I never get bored.”—E.W.

Sunny side of the street

The Montalto sunrise hike is worth its 6am start time. This steep ascent starts at Monticello’s David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center and ends atop Montalto, the first land bought by Thomas Jefferson. The mountain rises more than 400 feet above Monticello, offering gorgeous views of mountains to the west and a sunrise to the east that Jefferson described as the sun “rising as if out of a distant water.” (Unfortunately, the upper portion of the trail is closed until mid-June due to storm damage.) The hike, which includes breakfast, is available only to Friends of the Monticello Trail. To join, make a minimum donation of $25 to the Saunders-Monticello Trail at monticello.org.—J.S.

Mike Punches leads educational tours for students through Shenandoah National Park. Rammelkamp Foto
Mike Punches leads educational tours for students through Shenandoah National Park. Rammelkamp Foto

Natural fit: Park ranger merges his backgrounds in education and broadcast

After retiring from a career in television station broadcast engineering in 1999, Michael Punches got interested in community service. Specifically, he wanted to educate children, which led him to take work as an aide for elementary schoolers with special needs. With the summers off, Punches, 60, began to think about teaching others about the outdoors.

“I’d always loved visiting state and national parks, and felt that inspiring park visitors to support resource protection and teaching young students about nature and science would be such an honor and a privilege,” he says. Couple this with the deep joy he experienced when taking his students into the woods and watching them make discoveries and form connections with the natural world, and it seemed a seasonal gig in the park service was perfect. 

By summer 2001, Punches was a national park ranger and a visitor-use assistant at Yosemite. “I worked as a fee-collector at the Big Oak Flat entrance and helped orient visitors to the park,” he says. While initially the job wasn’t all that exciting, he got to hang out for months in Yosemite, and he learned a lot about working in the National Park Service.

Although most rangers have advanced degrees in biology, geology or parks and recreation, Punches’ field of study was mass communications. “I was definitely coming at things from a different angle,” he says. “But I realized this untraditional approach could give me an advantage.” The career in television had made him keenly aware of presentation, while his work in the school systems had honed a knack for instruction. Merge the two and Punches had the makings of a great interpretive naturalist.

The following season, he took a position at Yellowstone doing just that. “As an interpretive naturalist I researched, developed and presented guided boardwalk tours to groups of between 50 to 100 visitors, mostly about Old Faithful,” he says. The tours also included a variety of 20-minute geology lectures, a series of 90-minute guided walks through four different local geyser basins, a 20-minute children’s program and a 45-minute evening slideshow at the visitor’s center auditorium.

Since finding his niche, Punches has continued working as an interpretive naturalist, creating and presenting educational tours for national parks ranging from Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, Mesa Verde, Glacier and, most recently, Shenandoah National Park. “I came to work at Shenandoah National Park five years ago and keep returning year after year because of the special stories connected to the park,” he says. Among Punches’ favorites are tales about former president Herbert Hoover’s private retreat called Rapidan Camp, the integration story of Lewis Mountain Campground and the unruly settlement of mountain folk that occupied the area before the park was formed.

Through five seasons at SNP, Punches has collected innumerable memories, however, one stands out above all the rest. “Last autumn I was working at Big Meadows, which is this huge field atop a mountain,” he says. “I was leading a group of 15 fourth-grade students when we noticed a big white-tailed buck running across the meadow being chased by a very determined bear. Of course, the deer could cover the country in leaps and bounds, but the young bear continued the chase. Eventually, we lost sight of the pair as they entered the woods. It was an awesome spectacle to behold and a perfect example of the magic these parks provide.”—E.W.

Making camp

Looking for something special in your summer camping experience? Here are some of the best options in the Charlottesville area.

1. Pet friendly: Horseshoe Flats Campground in Scottsville allows you to bring your dog without paying a pet fee to this campground located on the shore of the James River.

2. Kid friendly: Charlottesville KOA has tons of ways to keep kids entertained, from a playground and game room to a swimming pool and pedal kart rentals.

3. Adult friendly: Misty Mountain Camp Resort gives you access to a variety of wineries and vineyards on the Monticello Wine Trail. From going on winery tours to swimming in the outdoor pool, this campground offers the perfect adult getaway.

4. Amenities: If you’re looking to stay comfortable away from the city, Broadhead Mountain Retreat offers a house for rent on 100 acres of private land just outside Charlottesville. You can enjoy the full benefits of being home with two bedrooms and two bathrooms while still experiencing the views and hiking trails of a mountain retreat.

5. Views: For the best views, including several waterfalls within walking distance of the campground, Big Meadows Campground in Luray is the place to go. Enjoy the beauty of Shenandoah National Park from the comfort of your campsite.—J.S.

Get in gear

Interested in striking out on an outdoor adventure, but don’t own the right gear? There are plenty of local options to choose from. You can start out by looking at shelters from YAMA Mountain Gear, where all the tents are designed in the locally based workshop and offer instructions and kits for your own DIY creations. Then stop by Charlottesville’s Great Outdoor Provision Co. or Rockfish Gap Outfitters in Waynesboro for hiking clothing and gear.

If you’re interested in camping somewhere colder, you can purchase gear for snow sports at Freestyle (or at Play it Again Sports if you don’t mind  gently used items). For those looking to camp by water, The Albemarle Angler sells fly-fishing equipment and guided fishing expedition packages. Field & Stream sells live bait, and High Tech Outdoors & Archery in Keswick offers all the fishing equipment you could ask for. Rockfish Gap Outfitters will rent you a kayak to help you along your river journey—or they’ll repair your bike for you if you’d rather ride alongside the water.

If your trip involves hunting, check out High Tech Outdoors & Archery for firearms. If you’re looking for repairs to a firearm you already own, Field & Stream offers in-store gun services, including boresighting, scope mounting and cleaning.—J.S.

Monticello High School students formed the Bee Gees beekeeping club this spring to care for four hives on school grounds. Senior Perry Lee is the current beekeeping club president, and says he got involved to help out the bee population, which is vital to our crops. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

What’s the buzz?: Monticello High students keep bee population thriving

There’s a distinct buzzing noise in the halls at Monticello High School. Upon further inspection, it’s the soundtrack of an active beehive playing in AP environmental sciences and earth science teacher Chris Stanek’s classroom before the Bee Gees, the school’s month-old beekeeping club, checks the four hives just outside of Stanek’s room.

When Stanek and Albemarle County Public Schools science division lead coach Robbie Munsey considered forming a beekeeping club last fall to give students a hands-on opportunity to learn more about topics, such as colony collapse disorder, they thought only a few students would be interested. But word quickly spread; the club now has about 30 students who meet regularly to care for the hives.

Stanek and Munsey took a beekeeping class through the Central Virginia Beekeepers Association in February, and worked closely with Scottsville Supply to set up their colony of Italian honeybees. The outpouring of community—and school—support has been an added bonus, Stanek says. Scottsville Supply gave them a discount on equipment, Craig Builders made a donation, a local beekeeper gave them an extractor, and Dominion Power recently sent a check for $3,100, which will go toward purchasing another deep (a wooden box that houses the bees) and buying more beekeeping suits for the students.

Senior Perry Lee currently serves as the club’s president. He helped build and spray-paint the wooden stands and frames for the hives before the club’s first official meeting. He got involved, simply, because he “likes bees,” he says.

“Bees mean a lot to humanity because they pollinate so much of our food that we eat, so why not help them out? Especially since they’re struggling right now,” he says. “Not only are bees important, but the whole bee community is really cool and it’s fun to be here and observe their behavior.”

The beekeeping club hopes to be able to harvest enough honey next year to sell as a fundraiser for the club. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen
The beekeeping club hopes to be able to harvest enough honey next year to sell as a fundraiser for the club. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

After filling an orange Gatorade container with a ratio of 1:1 sugar and water, and loading other supplies such as a smoker onto a cart, the students suit up and walk down the hallway, calling to mind a Hazmat team. In a fenced-off space between buildings (marked by a bright yellow sign that reads: “CAUTION: No Trespassing. Honeybees”) the students enter the courtyard, pair off into teams of two and get to work. Stanek tells the students the main goal for the afternoon is to check the hives to see how they’re doing, refill the sugar-water feeders and look for brood (eggs, larvae and pupa) in all stages.

The students all say they have no fear working around the bees and, sure enough, they expertly use a smoker to calm the bees (it makes them burrow inside the hive to feed because it mimics a forest fire), before opening the tops of the wooden boxes and pulling out each wooden frame covered in bees and honeycomb, to look for signs that the hive is doing well.

So far none of the students have been stung, and Stanek says there was only one instance of a swarm when the hives first arrived in April. The swarm occurred because there were two queens in one of the packages they received; they used sugar water to coax all the bees back into a box.

The goal, Stanek says, is for the greenspace where the hives are located to eventually be home to enough flowers (they recently spread 20,000 wildflower seeds) so that the bees can feed naturally. He gestures beyond the chain-link fence to a tall grassy hill and says they might turn that into meadowland as well. The group will also use grant money to install live-feed cameras outside of the hives with video shown on the school’s website, as well as sensors that can detect the temperature and humidity inside and outside the hives and determine the weight of each (heavier hives indicate thriving blooms, meaning they can serve as climate change indicators). Once honey production ramps up next year, they hope to sell it to raise money for the club.

As the students pack up their equipment and head back to the classroom, they check each other’s suits for errant bees that might have nestled into folds or pockets.

Just beyond the fence, a student spots a bee wiggling on the ground. She kneels down behind it and carefully scoops it into her gloved hands before releasing it back near the hives.

The club’s motto: Beekeeping it real.—J.L.

Albemarle County Parks and Recreation trail maintenance coordinator Taylor Rollins loves working outside in what he says is a low-stress job—as long as the snake calls stay at a minimum. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen
Albemarle County Parks and Recreation trail maintenance coordinator Taylor Rollins loves working outside in what he says is a low-stress job—as long as the snake calls stay at a minimum. Photo by Natalie Jacobsen

On his trail: Tucker Rollins helps maintain and forge new paths

After working at city parks in Colorado for about five years, in 2007, Pennsylvania native Tucker Rollins moved to Charlottesville and, by what he calls a “fortuitous twist of fate,” fell into a job with Albemarle County developing and maintaining county green- and blueways. “I’m really lucky to have this job,” he says. “I love being outside, I get to work alongside like-minded outdoorsy people and, while it’s demanding, the work is for the most part pretty low-stress. …I tell people all the time that mine is the best office in town.”

What do the duties of a trail maintenance coordinator entail? “I have three trail workers working for me and we’re in charge of the upkeep of 70-plus miles of hiking, mountain biking and horseback trails, as well as planning, designing and building new trails,” says Rollins. Every Monday, the group gets together and goes over a list of tasks that needs to be taken care of throughout the week. At the end of each day, they scratch off what they’ve done.

With plans for installing a bridge that provides access to the backside of the 500-acre Preddy Creek Trail Park currently in the works, Rollins, 42, says creating new trails is taking up about half his crew’s time. “Right now, we have 10 miles of trails on the frontside of the property, but with the bridge going in, that’s going to open accessibility by nearly 50 percent and let us put in another six or eight miles of trail.”

The process for building new trails begins with scouting. “First thing we do is get out there and walk the property, investigating what kind of features there are,” he says. “We look for stands of big mature trees, views, rock outcroppings, waterfalls—things that visitors would want to see.” Second, Rollins considers control points like property lines and stream crossings. Then, keeping all this in mind, he lays the trails out from point A to point B. “Basically we draw the route on a map then go out into the woods and flag it out, trying to make sure our route is the most exciting and sustainable one we can design.”

When Rollins’ crew isn’t planning and building new trails, they’re maintaining old ones. “What happens is, the bulk of people are visiting the parks on the weekends,” he says. “So they get out there and notice a tree’s fallen over the path or whatever and leave a comment in the box at the kiosk. When those comments get collected, a work order is processed and the task ends up on our list. Then we go out with a chainsaw, hike out to the site, take care of the tree and reopen the trail.”   

However, these maintenance calls aren’t always so routine. Take, for instance, a case in the Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Preserve in Crozet. “People were calling in saying there was a snake nesting in the rocks beside the kiosk and we went out there figuring we’d find nothing,” says Rollins. “But we started looking around and quickly realized there was a rattlesnake curled up in the rocks!” He removed the snake with a pair of trash tongs and, after placing it in a large cooler, relocated it to a remote section of the park. “It took us over an hour to get it out of there,” he says with a chuckle. “It was a pretty scary situation. As you can imagine, that was not a happy critter.”   

Rollins says he ends each day feeling proud of what he does. “The people we meet while we’re out on the trails are always really thankful and grateful to us for the work we do,” he says. “I think we provide a necessary benefit to the community—people need to get out and spend some time in the woods, it’s good for us!”—E.W.

Little-known county parks

You’ve probably heard of Chris Greene and Mint Springs, but did you know that Albemarle County has a total of 12 parks? Here are a few you might not know about, offering amenities ranging from advanced mountain bike trails to a kid-friendly waterpark.

1. Preddy Creek Trail: Located four miles past Airport Road on 29 North, a newly built mountain bike trail in Preddy Creek gives advanced mountain bike riders a chance to test their skills. At just under 1.5 miles of technically difficult terrain, this trail is a unique opportunity for skilled mountain bikers.

2. Dorrier Park: This Scottsville park features accessibility others might lack with its wheelchair-friendly playground. In addition, bring your sporting equipment and enjoy a softball field, soccer field and multiple tennis courts.

3. Simpson Plaza: Home to a small waterpark that makes it worth the drive, this Esmont park is kid-friendly with its water features and playground—and there’s no better place on a hot summer day.

4. Totier Creek Park: Enjoy 69 water acres stocked with a variety of fish in Scottsville. With a boat and a Virginia fishing license, you can head out on the water and cast for a variety of fish, ranging from sunfish to largemouth bass.

5. Charlotte Y. Humphris Park: Located near Albemarle High School, this park offers 1.5 miles of walking trails.—J.S.

There’s an app for that

Navigating the Rivanna Trails can be tricky. The hiking trail winds around Charlottesville for 20 miles, at times crossing streets and private property, which can make it difficult to tell whether you’re actually hiking the trail or stumbling through someone’s backyard. The Rivanna Trails app can help to alleviate this. Created by Charlottesville residents Amy and Stuart Ferguson, the app indicates your exact location on the trail and highlights helpful landmarks such as trailheads and intersections.—J.S.