This post was written by 2018 Volunteer Long Trail Patrol member Katie Cutting.
Hi! My name is Katie Cutting and I grew up in the beautiful state of Vermont. Despite how much I love my home state, after I graduated college I knew it was time to move out west. I was searching for new mountains to climb and deep snow to ski! Before leaving home though, I said a special goodbye to Vermont. I hiked the Long Trail end-to-end from Massachusetts to Canada. The hardest eighteen days of my life prepared me for the next biggest challenge of my life. I loaded up my Subaru and drove until I saw the Teton Mountains, grinning at the beautiful mountains before me. Then and there I decided to move to this new town where I knew no one and had no job and nowhere to live. With my newfound determination, independence, and grit I made Jackson, WY, my new home.
Four years, four states, and hundreds of more miles hiked, it was time to move back home to Vermont! When I searched for the right way to reenter the state I love so much, the answer came to me in a GMC email. Sign up for the Volunteer Long Trail Patrol! What better than to pay homage to the trails that helped prepare me for the biggest transition of my life!? It would be the perfect opportunity to give back and the perfect transition to moving back home.
The Volunteer Long Trail Patrol schedule of 2018 spanned six weeks, with the opportunity to volunteer for as many or as few weeks as you like. I signed up for two weeks, Week 4 and Week 5, which in retrospect was just the right amount of time for me. My first week I spent learning new skills and getting into a work flow. Week two I felt more comfortable and experienced, building on the skills I had learned the days prior. By the end of my second week, I felt competent and accomplished with the skills I had learned and the tasks we had accomplished. Still new to trail work, I also felt ready to be done after my two weeks. I was happy to sleep inside, wear clean, dry, and warm clothes, and let my body take a break after two weeks of physical labor.
The Thursday of my first week I drove down to Mt. Tabor Work Center at 6 PM to meet the crew. Rosalie was our field leader, Alivia the VLTP Coordinator, and Silas an intern for the GMC. Our team of volunteers was also present and it was nice to meet everyone over dinner, getting to know names and a little bit about each person before spending the next few days with them in the woods. Rosalie showed us new volunteers everything in her pack after dinner, and we had the opportunity to both borrow items we did not have and leave behind extra items we packed too much of, making sure that we were ready for our week in the woods! We assembled at 8 AM the next morning with personal gear ready, packing our bags and the group gear into the two cars bringing us to the trailhead.
Our pack-in was just under a mile and we distributed the group gear amongst our group of nine to carry. Buckets of food and camp tools in hand, we were off! We established camp at Branch Pond, setting up tents and our kitchen area (a tarp covering the food buckets, stove, and propane that we brought) before starting our first day of work. Our group split into two, the newbies learning about “brushing” while the returning volunteers worked at the site of our project for the week: a muddy section of trail where we were going to put in stepping stones. Brushing means clearing away any plants that might grow into a trail in the next few years. Using loppers and hand saws, we trimmed branches and pulled up fast-growing hobblebush, clearing out the overgrown sections. Behind us, the trail was open and easy to follow, a quick and satisfying product of our work.
Day two of my first week brought us to the mud site to learn about rock work! To meet our goal of creating a stepping stone bridge, we first excavated and quarried rocks, finding potential rocks, digging them out, and rolling them out of the ground to determine if their size was appropriate. If they met our specifications (a good walking surface, large enough to be stable), we then rolled them down the hill to our mud pit. To roll these heavy boulders, we always had at least two people using rock bars (heavy metal bars) to prop under the rock, each person taking a turn to lift and then hold, slowly inching these heavy rocks up and over onto their side. Concurrently, other team members dug a hole for the rock, and once it arrived at the designated spot, we would then work on setting the stone in the hole just right. These rocks need to be completely stable, no shifting or movement when jumped on and able to support hikers for years to come.
We followed a standard schedule for the week, starting our day at 8 AM with 20 minutes of stretching and the short hike to our work site. We would have a 15-minute morning break, a 30-minute lunch, a 15-minute afternoon break, and the work day ended around 4 or 4:30 PM. After work we would come back to our tents and have some free time to relax, lounging in hammocks for those who brought personal ones, read books, swim or sit by the lake, or relax in our tents. Water for dinner was usually collected around 5 PM, a few volunteers helping with dinner prep while a few other volunteers helped with dishes at the end. After dinner, we usually hung out talking for a bit before people slowly made their way through nightly routines and departed to their tents. Camping outdoors means a life ruled by the sun, and everyone was usually in their tents by sundown.
Days three and four continued a rotation of brushing and rock work, with an added adventure of some classic Vermont precipitation: lots and lots of rain! Our mud pit got muddier and everything became a bit slipperier. I was thankful for my tall rainboots (under rain pants and raincoat too, of course) when it was my turn to walk around in the mud. Our work site would have been a four-year-old’s dream! It was still fun to play and work in as adults, but always in the back of my mind was the thought that I was going back to a tent to sleep in at night, with more days of work in the same clothes to come.
Day four we started to lose our minds a bit. The rain was really coming down, with off and on torrential downpours, so we ended our work day a bit early. Back at camp I dropped my bag, helmet, and shoes and went straight into the lake still wearing my clothes. The rain was still coming down in a drizzle and my clothes were soaked (or so I thought). But somehow fabric always seems to be able to absorb more water! This time, however, it was my decision to get wet! No rain clouds were deciding for me how wet I would be! We had a fun group swim in the rain, one of the volunteers Nicky even wearing her helmet into the lake, shouting “safety first!” We embraced our craziness happily, knowing that our remaining time in the woods was limited. Soon we would be clean, dry, and warm after making plans to break down camp in the morning. We would be out of the woods and in civilization early the next day!
Arriving back at Mt. Tabor we completed our returning chores (unpacking gear, cleaning tools) before our Wednesday/Thursday “weekend” began. Some volunteers stayed at Mt. Tabor Work Center, others traveled north, exploring more of Vermont. Living just an hour and a half away, I went home to do laundry and sleep in my own bed, enjoying life indoors after all the rain. We dried out our tents, ate fresh fruits and vegetables, and mentally prepared for the week to come, forecasting rain yet again.
My second week brought a different assemblage of volunteers. Due to some last-minute cancellations, our team was numbered at four plus our leaders. This week I enjoyed being a returning volunteer, knowing the drill and feeling ready for what was coming next. Over the weekend I had adjusted my bag a bit, packing less clothing but more chocolate, finding a balance that worked better for me. Our goal for this week was to reroute a short section of the Long Trail/Appalachian Trail, bypassing a section of trail that was eroding into a river.
This second week I noticed to be more physically demanding, challenging me in ways that my first week did not. We started by brushing the new route, and once cleared we were set to digging out the path. Digging is a lot of work! Using pick mattocks and hazel hoes, we started to create the tread for our new trail. And then the rain came again. Freshly dug earth on a slope quickly turned slippery and muddy and showed us exactly where we needed to do more work. We rotated through different tasks that helped provide more stability to the trail. We made crush, dug mineral soil, and excavated and quarried stepping stones for a drainage system at the bottom of our trail. Crush is crushed up rocks, first broken into smaller pieces by a double jack sledgehammer, then these smaller pieces broken into golf ball sized chunks with the smaller single jackhammer. This crush is poured over especially muddy and slippery spots of trail and then covered with the more solid mineral soil. Using a sledgehammer to crush rocks is fun! It can make you feel so strong!
At the end of week two, I was once again leaving the woods muddy, dirty, and tired. Thoughts of eating a large creemee obsessed my mind for the last hour of our drive back to Mt. Tabor. I felt a tremendous amount of satisfaction and pride for the work that I had been a part of for my two weeks with the Volunteer Long Trail Patrol. I helped build a stepping stone path, reroute a trail, and made existing trails easier and safer to follow. I met some incredible people over my two weeks and I’m excited to continue these friendships in the future with my new skiing and backpacking partners. I have the knowledge and ability to use so many new tools. I feel more physically able to accomplish tasks in my life, after seeing the way that my little 20-something self was able to crush and roll rocks so much heavier than me, cut through roots so much stronger than me, and work in a team to create lasting trail changes. I was able to give back to an organization and a trail that mean so much to me and I’m excited to bring my new appreciation for trail work to all of my hikes to come!