For volunteers, a week on the Appalachian Trail is backbreakingly satisfying


Daniel Garatea, a volunteer with the Vermont Long Trail Patrol (VLTP), helps peel a fallen tree on July 19, 2011, atop Mount Stratton, Vermont. (George Henton/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 2, 2011

If you hike the Appalachian Trail between May and October, you’ll probably see fields of undulating wildflowers and flocks of twittering goldfinches.

Also note the Traillus volunteerus, a species whose members have a thing for smashing rocks with sledgehammers. Don’t be scared: They’re smelly but friendly.

The men and women who join volunteer trail-maintenance crews on the “AT,” as hikers call the 74-year-old trail that rambles 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine, may also be spotted peeling bark or digging ditches. Their goal: to prevent erosion and keep the trail hikable. In exchange, they get free food and the satisfaction of supporting conservation with their bare hands.

In late July, I spent five days on the Green Mountain Club’s Volunteer Long Trail Patrol, one of six such crews affiliated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The Vermont group roams the 100-mile stretch of the state’s 273-mile Long Trail that intersects with the longer Appalachian Trail.

Some volunteers are hiking enthusiasts who want to give back to nature, while others seek a structured introduction to backcountry camping or a chance to meet friendly strangers. I joined because it sounded like a great (and free) way to combine the pleasures of hiking with the satisfaction of community service.

“It’s so much more rewarding than a normal vacation,” says Jeff Gordon, 21, a University of Pittsburgh senior who has volunteered on the Appalachian Trail in several states. “Afterwards, you’ll never look at a trail the same way again.”

Applying to join was little different from applying for a job, except without the stress. When I e-mailed the Green Mountain Club, I was asked to submit contacts for two references — who were, to my surprise, contacted — and to explain my interest in trail work.

“I’ve heard a lot about trail crews, but I’ve never been on one,” I wrote.

“Thank you for volunteering to help build and maintain hiking trails in Vermont!” Mari Zagarins, a GMC administrator, wrote back three days later. “You may find that this is the hardest work you have ever done for fun.”

“As if,” I thought. How hard could it be?

Wood plank 101

On a balmy Sunday afternoon, I drove to Danby, Vt., and parked my Subaru beside the Mount Tabor Work Center, a white-and-gray building that houses Forest Service and Green Mountain Club personnel.

Most of my 10 fellow volunteers, it turns out, were bright-eyed college students who had traveled to Vermont from other states. One had just graduated from high school in Germany; another was a student from South Korea fresh off a study-abroad semester at UC-San Diego. In that vein, the work center looked like a frat house, and inside was no different. As speakers blasted songs by the Vermont jam band Phish, my fellow volunteers baked pizzas and opened bottles of Long Trail beer.

Arriving was the easy part. At 9 o’clock on Monday morning, our late-20-something crew leaders — Darcy Kimball, Moira Bieg and Sam Parisi — shepherded us into minivans, drove for about an hour and dropped us at the entrance to a muddy forest-access path.

We hiked for about 45 minutes until we reached a clearing where someone had dropped a pile of skinny, NBA-player-length wooden planks. Our job, we were told, was to carry the planks roughly a mile and a half into the woods and drop them beside a run-down Long Trail shelter, which a paid crew would later renovate; our work would save the paid folks time and energy.

The first lesson of my week: Hiking through the woods with wooden planks on your shoulders is fun for about three hours, but as bearded guys in a battered Toyota pickup truck deliver more planks to your source pile, the act of carrying more planks into the woods begins to feel Sisyphean.

The second lesson: If you carry wooden planks on your shoulders for more than 10 miles, the tiny bones at the tops of your shoulders will be angry.

When I crawled out of my sleeping bag on Tuesday morning — we had pitched tents on the work center’s lawn — I was sore enough to consider playing hooky and treating myself to pancakes and a latte in the nearest Rockwellian village. I was on vacation, right?

But a vague fear of authority led me back to those GMC minivans, and by midmorning I was lugging a pair of sledgehammers up the ski trails of nearby Stratton Mountain Ski Resort as the sun roasted my forehead, nose and neck.

The plan for the next three days, our leaders explained, was to pitch our tents atop Stratton Mountain and use that base — our “spike camp,” they called it — as a staging ground for a second work project.

A spike camp sounded way too tough: I imagined a place where ruffians from Lead Belly and Jimmie Rodgers songs hang around getting into fist fights after working on chain gains. Was I really up for this?

Climbing Stratton Mountain (elevation 3,936 feet), it was hard to remember that my sweat equity was subsidizing a worthy cause: environmental conservation.

The Long Trail, which the Green Mountain Club says is America’s oldest long-distance hiking trail, was established in 1910 with the goal of helping the Green Mountains “play a larger part in the life of the people,” but it took sweaty volunteers 20 years to carve a footpath linking the state’s Massachusetts and Canadian borders.

The club launched a paid maintenance patrol in 1931 but has always relied on volunteers — about 400 pitched in between July 2010 and July 2011 — to build shelters, repair trails and clear downed trees. It’s a similar story for the Long Trail’s sister, the AT, where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy claims more than 6,000 volunteers.

“Volunteers allow us to get more work done,” says Colleen Madrid, forest supervisor for Vermont’s 400,000-plus-acre Green Mountain National Forest and neighboring New York’s Finger Lakes National Forest. “There’s only so far a federal budget will go.”

Only about 20 employees oversee recreation on some 900 miles of trails in the Green Mountain National Forest, which surrounds the Long Trail. Because those employees can’t patrol as much of the forest as they’d like to, Madrid explains, volunteers help keep the trails healthy by reporting hazards and chatting with hikers about responsible trail use.

They also help mitigate trail damage caused by major weather events such as Hurricane Irene, which ransacked Vermont last weekend, washing out bridges and highways.

Erosion-control projects don’t necessarily prevent trail damage during a big storm, Ethan M. Ready, a Forest Service spokesman, told me days after the hurricane. But if volunteers hadn’t logged so many hours sprucing up the Long Trail, “we could be dealing with even more damage than we’re dealing with today.”

Turnpike or bust

On Stratton Mountain, our mission was to build a “turnpike” — no relation to New Jersey. A trail turnpike is essentially a sandbox made from logs and filled with gravel, and it prevents muddiness in the short term and erosion in the long.

Simple enough, right?

Wrong.

Building a box of heavy logs and filling it with homemade gravel (at the top of a 3,936-foot mountain) means swinging sledgehammers at heavy rocks, carrying buckets full of rock shards, ripping the bark off freshly hewn logs and using a metal “rock bar” — which reminded me of a car axle — to lever the sappy and slippery logs into position.

“Accuracy is more important than brute force,” we were told in a safety orientation, but I learned that it is hard to accurately slam even a large rock with a sledgehammer, much less to prevent rock shards from ricocheting into your shins. Safety goggles don’t help.

“I crush you!” I heard someone yell at a rock — triumphantly, but with a trace of desperation.

As Maximilian Boeckmann, a wiry 19-year-old from Neustadt, Germany, put it, “This work isn’t for PC types.”

The work didn’t get easier, but we settled into a routine of smashing, hauling and pounding in spite of the blisters, mud and mosquitoes. If we’d been tennis stars, we might have been castigated for grunting.

Three days, dozens of gallons of sweat and two or three jars of Nutella later, our turnpike was finished. It didn’t look particularly glamorous — it looked like an open box of logs with some gravel inside — but we were proud of ourselves. A surprising number of passing hikers stopped to thank us for our service to the trail.

On Friday morning we packed up our tools and tents, hiked down the mountain to our minivans and cruised back to the Mount Tabor Work Center, where a few of my compatriots cooked deliciously greasy grilled-cheese sandwiches.

“It’s like there’s a cemetery of bugs in my hair,” Kim Johnson said as we lounged on the work center’s patio.

Johnson had signed up for the GMC’s volunteer patrol in part because she is thinking of applying for paid trail-maintenance jobs next year after graduating from Rutgers University. But after five days on the Long Trail, the friendly 21-year-old philosophy major wasn’t sure that she was “burly” enough to carry planks, peel bark and smash rocks on a regular basis.

Before coming to Vermont she had apprenticed with a cheesemaker in France. All week she’d been reading Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

On the trail, she said, “I thought it was weird that people kept thanking us, but it’s true: If we weren’t out here doing this, the trails wouldn’t be as nice as they are.”

Ives is a freelance writer based in Vietnam and a former staff writer at the Vermont alternative newsweekly Seven Days (www.7dvt.com). His Web site is www.mikeivesetc.com.

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