After a two-year pandemic hiatus, the Green Mountain Club re-introduced the Volunteer Long Trail Patrol for six weeks this summer. One of six volunteer crews run in partnership with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, this unique trail crew lets people from all over the world try trail crew life in one-week hitches on the Long Trail/Appalachian Trail in southern Vermont.
How does a volunteer crew differ from a pro crew, you may wonder? In terms of work, not much, says GMC Volunteer and Education Coordinator Lorne Currier. “The quantity or speed of the work may differ, since there is a learning curve, but the quality level and type of trail maintenance is really the same as a professional crew.”
This year’s VLTP spent the season on a three-section “turnpike,” hardening about 100 yards of muddy, boggy trail in Dunville Hollow, about 3.5 miles south of the crossing of Vermont Route 9 east of Bennington. The project consisted of two sections of “half pike,” consisting of a single retaining wall backfilled with crushed rock and mineral soil, and one section of traditional turnpike, crushed rock and soil contained between two walls. Crews ranging from four to six people were led by GMC newcomers Dylan Mark and Maya Heikkinen, who provided training and supervision for safe and skilled rock work.
Volunteers Step Into Trail Crew Life
Volunteers came from all walks of life, from college students through retirees, with a common interest in outdoor recreation and conservation. Janet Anderson, a volunteer during week five, is a recreation technician on a national forest in Ohio, where she manages campgrounds and 90 miles of hiking and cycling trails. Her team mostly cuts brush, so she joined the GMC crew partly to gain knowledge of trail construction for her team. Some other volunteers had been Long Trail Patrol members in seasons between 1988 and 2021, and some had no experience.
VLTP weeks run from Thursday evening through Tuesday, to increase access for those holding traditional workweek jobs. Maya and Dylan took a hands-on approach to training, changing slightly each week as they learned and adapted to skill levels in each crew. They conducted formal tool safety training each Friday. However, most training took place on the job. “We found that having people start work earlier, rather than watching us do endless demonstrations, is the better way,” explained Dylan. “It allows us to make progress on the project while they are learning.”
It’s seriously tough work, not for everyone, according to Janet. “I’m familiar with trail work, but I’ve never used a rockbar quite like this,” she said. “At first, I felt like I’d been deadlifting for an hour.” Crew leaders encourage breaks and ergonomic tool use to reduce overwork and risk of injury.
Volunteers Learn More than Just Trail Maintenance
The short hitches are another challenge. Trail crews become tightly bonded teams, and must learn each other’s strengths and solve problems together. It can be tough to forge such bonds in just a few days, though by day four of week five volunteers were comfortable leading a post-lunch stretching session and speculating on the tools they would most want to replace a human limb.
Dylan and Maya looked for opportunities to connect each new crew to the work by volunteers who had preceded them. To lighten the mood while working hard, each crew nicknamed the rocks they set. “I look forward to visiting Will, Burrow, Scooch, Spike, Gumdrop and others when I hike through in the future,” said Kristen Pizarro, a volunteer in weeks one and two.
With challenge come great learning opportunities, Kristen observed. “VLTP is an opportunity to work with teams of people in true collaboration,” she explained. “There are not many places in life where people really problem-solve organically, and can speak up and contribute ideas but also value and listen to input from other people. I had that experience on the trail crew this year, and hope that future volunteers will come in with the same open and willing mindset that volunteers had this year. That experience is what makes me most want to return to the crew next year.”
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