Volunteer Spotlight: John Grossbohlin and Nick Mercurio

September 3, 2023

By Cara Gentry

The Wallkill Valley Land Trust relies heavily on our volunteers for various roles from our all-volunteer board to regular trimming on our publicly accessible trails. One of our most skilled volunteer positions is that of our certified chainsaw teams. With increased severe storm activity and tree die-off from invasive insects, the pressure on our trails from falling trees has grown. We would be unable to keep the trails open to the public without the help from our certified chainsaw volunteer teams. Our most prolific team may be that of John and Nick. This month our Coordinator of Land Stewardship sat down with John and Nick to talk about how their volunteer work began and how they became super duo team they are today. The short version? John had a chainsaw, Nick had a truck, and the rest is history.

John Grossbohlin

The long version starts in 1981 when John was working at Kingston Cyclery and Nick wandered into the store. They became good friends and while both men have a love for trails and for cycling, they participate in different aspects of the sport. John has been an avid long-distance touring cyclist, now called bikepacking, since 1986. Back then he called up his old boss Bill White at Kingston Cyclery looking for help with an adventure. Bill sat down with John to develop a gear list and about three weeks later John was on his first long distance tour of 3,142 miles. Beginning in Florida with sites like Treasure Island, the Keys and the Everglades, John then zig-zaged up the east coast stopping at places like Charlotte, NC; Williamsburg, VA; Lancaster, PA and ending back in the Hudson Valley. Since that first trip, John has clocked in at least 8,600 miles in self-supported bike touring.

Nick Mercurio

Nick’s main cycling adventures are wrapped up in multi-sport events. There were not many people paying attention to multi-sport events in the early days of triathlons. Nick watched an Ironman event on television in 1982 and thought “I want to do that”. Nick admits that at the time, he didn’t know how to swim, had never ridden his bike 100 miles, and had never run a marathon. Since then, Nick has compiled over 250 multi-sport events of various combinations and lengths including hike/bike/swim, ski/run/snowshoe, and run/bike/white water canoe just to name a few.

Not everyone comes to volunteering through a love for outdoor sports alone. For John and Nick their foray into volunteering to clear rail trails came about out of necessity. John had purchased one of the first mountain bikes on the market, a Schwinn Sidewinder, in 1982 and was utilizing the local rail road corridors as places to ride this new style of bike. That was over a decade before the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail was protected as a public trail. Getting torn up by thorns while on the old rail road bed, lead John to trim back the briars and make the path more accessible. He started volunteering and clearing the trail in earnest when the Wallkill Valley Land Trust gained possession of the northern portion in 1993 and then got officially involved when he met WVLT’s Executive Director Christie DeBoer at an event in New Paltz about 10-11 years ago. Nick also joined the official volunteer list about the same time.

Downed trees on Wallkill Valley Rail Trail

Over the years John and Nick have removed thousands of standing dead and fallen trees from our rail trail corridor. In one tree fall event, John remembers removing over 30 trees in one area that were blocking the trail. When the Emerald Ash Borer killed off all the ash trees in our area, John and Nick helped remove as many hazard trees as possible and continue to do so to this day. Both John and Nick have had formal chainsaw training, certificates of course completion from Game of Logging, and thousands of hours honing their skill.

As official WVLT volunteers, their vehicles are outfitted with magnets to identify them as authorized to be on the trail. Often after a severe storm they head to the rail trail with their marked vehicle and chainsaws to begin storm damage clean-up.

Typically John is wielding the chainsaw and Nick is providing crowd control and manual labor of moving the cut branches. They explained that the trees they are removing from the rail trail are some of the most hazardous to deal with. Fallen trees can create spring poles with limbs or trunks under tension, hanging branches, and other dangerous conditions, where one bad cut can mean the entire tangle of blowdowns can crash to the ground or swing in a wildly unexpected direction.

Much of their training has been to understand the physics of how to safely assess storm damage and release the tension of the blowdown. That said, Nick explained that the hardest part of storm damage clean-up can be crowd control. In an effort to keep trail users safe while they work, they will block the trail with their truck, place traffic cones out as a warning, and Nick will ask trail users to stop and wait. While some trail users will offer to help them remove the deadfall, many will either turn around or wait for permission to proceed. However, there are some trail users who ignore their request to stop and will walk right into an extremely hazardous situation. They wanted to stress that if you are using the trail while they are working, please wait for acknowledgment and permission before proceeding. If you want to help them with the tree removal, wait for instructions before moving anything as you don’t want to be the one who moves the keystone branch.

When asked about their favorite hidden gems on the trail, Nick said he loved the section from Breezy Hill Road heading south the best and in general he just really loved the environment of the trail itself. John had an affinity for what he calls a rock stegosaurus located in the northern-most section between Rockwell Lane and DeWitt Mills Road. If you look off the trail and beyond the corridor, you just might find a stegosaurus. The rock formation is likely on private property, so just like a real stegosaurus, it’s best viewed from a distance.

Thank you John & Nick for all you’ve done and continue to do for WVLT!

If you want to become one of our volunteers you can sign up on our website or contact us at info@wallkillvalleyLT.org. We have many volunteer opportunities that do not require chainsaw use. If you would like to join our chainsaw team, pre-approval is required and you can forward your qualifications to us at the same email address.