By Debbie Adams
The Pathfinders for Greenways Mid Week Crew spent a hot July 29 clearing sand and silt out of the Wolf Creek Greenway tunnels under Route 24.
The greenway extends over two miles from Hardy Road in Vinton through Goode Park to Mountain View Road near the Blue Ridge Parkway in Roanoke County. The tunnels allow walkers, runners, and bikers to cross under the busy highway. However, they often become impassable after severe rains due to the build-up of sediment, and require frequent maintenance to keep a clearance of six feet.
The Wolf Creek Greenway opened in 1999. Roanoke Valley Greenways Coordinator Liz Belcher says cleaning out the tunnels has been an annual event for the Pathfinders ever since.
Most every Wednesday–year round–the Mid Week Crew puts in a day of work on various greenway trails. The location varies depending upon what needs to be done the most. The volunteers donated 61.5 man-hours of work to the Wolf Creek maintenance project last week.
“Whew” was the word from the official report of the day’s activities. “Another day of culvert cleaning, but this one was just super-hot. Given COVID and the heat, we carried the sand both directions–to the county side and to the Vinton side, with plans for each to pick up their pile,” Belcher said. “The two Canycoms and teams focused first on the center box, where the sand was not quite as deep. The Ditch Witch and wheelbarrow focused on the deeper sand in the end box. Blanche (Brower) worked on hacking back the vegetation, which had grown in substantially. Anita (McMillan) saved the day with lots of popsicles, ice and cold water. After lunch everyone was focused in the one culvert and then on clean up. We all got plenty of exercise and lost plenty of water weight!”
Pathfinders for Greenways is a non-profit volunteer organization that maintains the greenways and other trails in the Roanoke Valley and beyond. The group was established in 1997 to help the Roanoke Valley develop a greenway network; educate citizens and officials on greenway benefits and value; raise and receive gifts, donations, and grants for greenways; and organize volunteers to assist with greenway development and maintenance, including training and leading construction crews.
In 2018, Pathfinders for Greenways was presented the prestigious Citizen of the Year award from the Salem-Roanoke Chamber of Commerce—the first time the award was presented to an organization, not an individual.
The Pathfinders Mid Week crew is made up mostly of retirees who have the stamina to spend an entire day each week in the outdoors, in all types of weather, in all seasons, doing hard, physical labor.
COVID-19 health guidelines are in force even for outdoor projects such as this and restrict the number of volunteers who can participate at one time. The Mid Week Crew was limited to 10 workers at the Wolf Creek Greenway and were asked to maintain six feet of social distancing to the extent possible while working in the tunnels. One volunteer said that even though they are working outdoors, “there is some huffing and puffing that goes on in the tunnels when shoveling the dirt,” so they do their best to maintain the distance between volunteers.
Participating were President of Pathfinders Roger Holnback, Bud LaRoche, John VanLuik, Shannon Palmer, Dave Foster, Greg Walter, Blanche Brower, Jim Brown, Tom Berdeen, and Belcher.
There are three separate box tunnels under Route 24. Wolf Creek passes through one; the other two are usually walkable—until a storm fills them up with silt. Approaching from the Hardy Road/Lynn Haven Baptist side of the greenway, the tunnel which Wolf Creek flows through is on the left, with two more tunnels to the right which can be used to go through the underpass—if you are tall, you may need to duck.
During and after severe rains, the stream rises from run-off. The tunnel on the far right tends to fill up with silt to a greater depth because of “slow flow.” The middle tunnel stays passable more than the one on the right. Belcher says when they first began preparing the tunnels for use, the one on the right was completely filled with dirt.
The Mid Week Crew came armed with a Ditch Witch (absolutely critical to the process), two Canycoms (compact rubber track carriers), wheelbarrows, and shovels.
The Wolf Creek Greenway celebrated its 21st anniversary in June. In 1997, Vinton Town Council approved the Planning Department’s request to apply for a grant to build the trail. The Vinton section of the greenway opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 3, 1999.
VDOT originally wanted the trail to go over the underpass and to include installation of a traffic-control light on busy Washington Avenue. Vinton Director of Planning and Zoning Anita McMillan sent letters on two occasions to VDOT asking to use the tunnels underneath the highway instead of crossing over the highway for safety reasons. When she did not receive a reply, she sent a third letter, asking again, but stating that if she did not hear back, she would assume it was okay to proceed with the tunnel project. Again, there was no response.
“So, we went ahead with the project and had the tunnels cleared when we opened the Wolf Creek Greenway,” McMillan said.
The Mid Week Crew volunteers are not the only ones who have maintained the underpass tunnels. At the 20th anniversary celebration of the Wolf Creek Greenway in 2019, Lyndell and Peggy Bryant of Vinton were honored for their years of efforts in keeping the tunnels clear under Route 24 throughout the year. They became basically the caretakers of the Wolf Creek Greenway, as long as their health allowed. When they noticed the silt was building up, they would shovel the sand into a wheelbarrow and then dump it along the creek bed or in the nearby field. A bench was dedicated to them along the greenway next to Wolf Creek.