This post was written by Carolyn Lawrence, charitable grant fund coordinator at Outdoor Gear Exchange, about volunteer work done in August 2017.
Thirty seven degrees? Freezing rain? In August? Ha!
Amidst the pattering of raindrops, the Underhill State Park rangers could hear us cracking jokes about the two-mile hike and six hours of trail work we were about to perform on top of Vermont’s highest peak in the cold rain. Excitement was high despite the less-than-ideal weather. We certainly couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hike the Laura Cowles Trail to the worksite, which brought us to the ranger station to purchase day passes. I admit I was ecstatic when the ranger handed me a two dollar bill with a stamp of Smokey Bear as change for my ten.
Around 7:30 AM, we began our trek up Eagles Cut Trail to the head of Laura Cowles, enthusiasm for the day still flowing. The four of us worked at the Outdoor Gear Exchange (OGE), a fantastic gear shop in Burlington, Vermont. The Green Mountain Club had recently been awarded a grant from OGE’s Charitable Grant Fund, a grant the store awards to local organizations that are focused on land access and conservation. The grant was used to purchase materials for the reconstruction of the renowned wooden puncheon on the ridge of Mount Mansfield just before the summit. OGE offers Community Service Days to their staff where employees have the opportunity to perform volunteer services outside the shop. This could include trail work, cabin rebuilding, or other projects the Charitable Grant Fund awardee organizations sustain. We chose the puncheon project as a Community Service Day, and we could not wait to get our hands dirty and rebuild that staple puncheon of the Long Trail.
The next few hours consisted of stepping on slippery rocks and roots, hearts thudding in our ears louder than the drops hitting the hoods of our rain shells. I could not have been happier. I was in the woods with my friends, hiking one of my favorite mountains, observing the end-of-summer mushrooms and other flora. You couldn’t have wiped the smile from my face if you tried.
We reached the puncheon around 10:00 AM, and met up with the Green Mountain Club trail crew. They had with them a bunch of fancy trail tools – picks, sledgehammers, giant nails, all the fun stuff, including effective but hilarious hardhats. The visibility at our worksite was pretty darn low and windier than we would have preferred. But we had the opportunity to build new puncheon! It was one I had stepped on too many times to count. After names and introductions, we got to work (the perfect remedy for cold and stiffening muscles).
One team focused on building the new puncheon sections, while another carefully removed the old ones from the fragile alpine grasses and sedges. These plants take hundreds of years to grow to be resilient to the aggressive winds and other weather events that hammer the summit of Mount Mansfield. I loved that we were helping preserve these rare tundra plants by constructing a new, not-rotting bridge across them. The GMC and our OGE crew paid close attention to measuring the same dimensions of the old puncheon so we would not be required to dig new holes in the grass and sedge. Recycling, if you will. Once all measurements were taken, we began removing the rotting puncheon.
It was oddly emotional for me ripping up that old walkway. How many thousands of people stepped across it on their way to the top of Vermont? How much excitement did it bring to those who recognized the puncheon as the landmark signaling the almost-summit? Who knew planks of wood could cause me to go into such deep thought?
Throughout my unexpected reverie, lots of measuring, hammering, lifting, and joking encompassed the rest of the morning and afternoon. Some quick snack breaks here and there (read: peanut butter and jelly with a side of Clif bars) kept energy and stoke levels high. Despite the brief stint of hail amidst the rain and nonstop wind, everyone was having a good time. Six hours of carefully stepping around the sedge and placing the new components in the existing holes, and we finally had ourselves some new puncheon! I was soaked from head to toe, my shoulder and back muscles were screaming at me, and I couldn’t feel my hands, and yet my happiness was through the roof. I got to rebuild a walkway people will walk on for decades, myself included. Every time I hike Mount Mansfield, I will see that puncheon and be reminded of the hard work we put into it, all to protect the fragile alpine environment and allow people to experience the wonder the mountain has to offer.
We were rewarded with a hike along the Mansfield ridge back to the Nose. The sun finally came out as we were traversing, exposing us to the amazing views of neighboring peaks and valleys below. Tired as I may have been, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. Thank you, Green Mountain Club, for welcoming us to share this experience. I hope you all get out and enjoy the new fancy puncheon!
All photos courtesy of Outdoor Gear Exchange.