Stefis Demetropoulos of the Florida Forest Service tells the story of how one volunteer can make a difference.
by Stefis Demetropoulos, Florida Forest Service
My first encounter with Dennis Chapman was a couple years ago on a narrow, winding trail across a steep slope that I didn’t know could exist in flat, sandy Florida. I was following Justin Rogers, Recreation Coordinator for the Florida Forest Service’s (FFS) Jacksonville District, after he invited me to look at this “totally cool, most amazing trail” that a volunteer was putting in at Jennings State Forest. “It feels like it belongs in the Appalachians,” he said. What would eventually become the Pioneer Trail was, at that time, a rough, barely walked footpath, with flagging on trees delineating the proposed route.
As we walked on, I began to hear what sounded like a Jurassic woodpecker pecking on a massive, hollow tree. As we descended out of the sandy pine forest, the habitat changed to a strange mix of oaks, deciduous trees and patches of mature spruce pine. Nearing the base of the slope, we hiked down towards a creek where a wiry, slender-build of a man with a closely trimmed white beard and short hair came into view. He was beating massive wood beams into place before fastening them together to form a footbridge over the creek. Here was Dennis Chapman, a retired military man in his mid-sixties, who had served in Vietnam, Granada and Iraq, building an amazing trail and infrastructure that the public could soon enjoy.
Before volunteering with the FFS, Dennis had already hiked a significant portion of the Appalachian Trail and several trails in Great Smoky National Park, where he gained a deep appreciation for the knowledge, skill and work involved in creating and maintaining the trails that so many of us take for granted.
Dennis began volunteering for the Florida Forest Service a few years ago after attending a local event where he learned about conceptual plans for a trail that connected all the recreation areas along Black Creek in Jennings State Forest.
Wrapping up three years of volunteer work at a nursing home, Dennis was looking for new, outdoor volunteer opportunities. Between his love of trails, the proximity of his home to the forest, and the fact that his wife Velva’s family has an extensive history in the forest and surrounding areas, the opportunity to volunteer with the Florida Forest Service made it too good to pass up.
After brief discussions with Frank Burley, Jennings State Forest Supervisor, and Justin Rogers, who are both avid hikers and shared the conceptual vision of a trail connecting the recreation areas, Dennis eagerly signed up to volunteer. To date, Dennis has volunteered over 2,000 hours to help building the Pioneer Trail, performing tasks such as scouting and marking a route for the trail, building bridges, overlooks, and benches, cutting trail tread into the slope, hauling rock and timbers, and installing primitive campsites.
The Pioneer Trail has five sections, three of which are complete, that connect recreation areas along Black Creek, a winding stream once used for floating harvested pine logs to the nearby town of Middleburg where they would be milled into usable timbers. Starting from the southernmost access point, Indian Ford, visitors can hike 2.6 miles to Knight’s Landing and then another 2.7 miles to Ellis Ford. From there, it’s 2.5 miles to the junction with the recently rerouted 3.6-mile Dunn’s Farm Trail; its trailhead adjacent to the forest office.
The remaining two sections of the Pioneer Trail will lead from the Pioneer Trail/Dunn’s Farm Trail junction to Powell Ford and then on to the North Fork Campground, which is expected to be built over the next few years. Upon completion, the total linear mileage of the Pioneer Trail will be approximately 12 miles.
Dennis Chapman’s drive to give back led to an amazing, intricately crafted trail. It’s hard to picture anyone pouring as much love and dedication into trail design and construction, including overlooks, benches, boardwalks and footbridges.
Sometimes, it only takes one volunteer. The Florida Forest Service is grateful for Dennis Chapman and all volunteers for their commitment and support to help protect and maintain Florida’s State Forests, ensuring they are available for current and future generations to enjoy.
To view the Pioneer Trail map or learn more about Jennings State Forest, visit FDACS.gov/JenningsStateForest. To learn more about volunteer opportunities with the Florida Forest Service, visit FDACS.gov/Volunteer.
Published September 25, 2020
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