This post was written by Keegan Tierney, GMC director of field programs. It appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of the Long Trail News under the headline “GMC Teams with Maine Helicopters to Airlift 18 Tons of Material.”
If you were on the Long Trail between Massachusetts and Stratton Pond in late July, you may have noticed something a little out of the norm. No, not the vast amounts of rain, though our field staff can certainly attest that it was one of the wettest Julys ever in southern Vermont.
Over two days in July and more than 50 trips, the Green Mountain Club and Maine Helicopters transported more than 18 tons — 36,000 pounds plus — of construction materials into five backcountry sites. While other trail organizations often use helicopter airlifts, GMC limits fly-ins to cases when there are significant backcountry construction projects on the schedule. This year one airlift supported the following projects:
- Replacement of Seth Warner Shelter (to take place Field Season 2022)
- New privy and shelter roof materials for Melville Nauheim Shelter
- New privy and shelter roof materials for Kid Gore Shelter
- New privy to add capacity at Stratton Pond Shelter
- New tent platform materials at Stratton Pond Shelter
- New shelter and privy materials for Stratton View Campsite
Organizing and executing a multi-site airlift is no small feat. We staged and flew from borrowed space (the Stratton Sun Bowl Ski Resort parking lot and the Woodford Country Store parking lot) into five widely separated sites, all while chasing clear weather forecasts and managing logistics and staffing. I thank numerous folks for getting the pieces to fall in line.
The process began with preparation last winter, which trail crew field supervisor Rosalie Sharp spent ordering lumber and precutting privy kits. Volunteer Jonathan Bigelow designed and precut a shelter for the long-planned replacement of Seth Warner Shelter at a new location 2.2 miles north of its current site, while Brattleboro Section volunteers helped design a new shelter for Stratton View Campsite, and worked with the U.S. Forest Service to get it approved.
Rosalie spearheaded much of the logistics of the airlift, which involved sorting materials and transporting them (18 tons, remember) in advance to one of two pick-up sites. Nigel Bates, caretaker field supervisor, coordinated the staffing of each pick-up and drop site, recruiting the entire caretaker cohort to spend two long days in the south.
On the day of the airlift crews of caretakers and field staff supervisors woke early to hike in to drop sites, or to start stacking materials into liftable piles (600-700 pounds each) at pick-up sites. At Stratton Sun Bowl alone, we had more than 30 piles wrapped with straps ready for their flights.
Pilot Mark Hitchcock obsessively checked weather reports, and when he found a flight window, he fueled up and started his rotors, while ground crews donned head and ear protection and readied for the drops. Using a lead and hook dangling 75 feet to the ground, the helicopter snatched each pile at a pick-up site, flew seven minutes due west, then radioed to staff on the ground at Stratton Pond to direct him towards the drop site. The materials landed, ground crews hopped into action like ants to clear each 700-pound pile from its narrow drop area, and the process began again. In two days Mark flew at least 50 trips into the five drop sites.
I commend our field program staff and our caretakers, and the professionals at Maine Helicopters, all of whom helped the airlift go so smoothly. Two days, 50 flights, and 18 tons of materials cost $24,000 — which breaks down to 66 cents per pound, not bad given the rates of shipping and handling these days. And, had we deployed volunteers to pack-in the materials by hand, it would have taken nearly the entire summer. Materials for a single new privy build take an estimated 95 person-trips to move from a trailhead to a site, and some of these pack-ins would have been over three miles of hard hiking. By maximizing the number of sites and projects covered by a single airlift, we saved time and money for our construction crews and volunteers. Any way you look at it, the airlift (four privies, two shelters, tent platforms and roofing materials) was a no brainer. Support from our partners at the ATC, Green Mountain National Forest, and National Forest Foundation were essential in helping to get this work completed.
Where Are They Now?
As we wrap up the field season, many of the piles dropped in July have been transformed by our talented crews and volunteers. Other materials will stay in place until next field season. Below is a sampling of new facilities built thanks to the airlifted materials.