This is Ian and Lilly, the Volunteer Long Trail Patrol (VLTP) leaders for summer 2019. This year, with an awesome team of volunteers from all over the country, VLTP put in over 1400 hours of work on the Long Trail/Appalachian Trail in southern Vermont. But those hours beg the question, what on earth did we spend all that time doing? As two people who have spent multiple seasons working on hiking trails, many people seem uncertain or surprised about what we actually do out there. For example, we have both heard parents tell their children that trail crews simply clean dirt off of the steps that are somehow naturally occurring. With that in mind, we are happy to present the life cycle of our VLTP project! Hopefully, this will help shed some light on what we do out there and how volunteer trail crews and the Green Mountain Club work to make all the awesome things people do outside possible!
Stage 1: The Planning
Before a crew can even think about beginning work on a project site, a great deal of work has to occur behind the scenes. This work includes getting funding for the project and deciding where the work will be done. The southern portion of the Long Trail where VLTP works is also part of the Appalachian Trail, so VLTP is actually funded by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and functions as one of its six volunteer trail crews that run along the length of the AT. Additionally, the GMC has to work with the United States Forest Service, the partner organization that owns the Long Trail in southern Vermont, to decide which sections of trail will be improved.
Fortunately, neither of us have any part in this work as, frankly, it is far beyond our level of expertise. Rather, this work is done by our Field Supervisor, Ilana Copel, and Director of Field Programs, Keegan Tierney. In fact, the funding and coordination that occurs behind the scenes are often planned years in advance and, while we can’t pretend to understand its intricacies, nothing would get done on the trails without it.
Stage 2: The Preparation
Once the section of trail that is to be worked on has been decided and funding has been worked out, the next stage is to get ready to go do the work. Before we can take volunteers out into the field and get the work done, we first have to make sure we have our supplies in order. We spent our preseason weeks making sure we have our tools and the necessary gear ready, including a bear box, water filtration, cookware, tents, and packs. When everything is ready, we pack up all our things and move from GMC headquarters in Waterbury down to the Mt. Tabor Work Center, a forest service bunkhouse in southern Vermont, where we live for most of the VLTP season. Once here, we also do a site visit to check out the work area and plan specific projects we will work on and where we will camp while out in the field.
Although this might not be the most glamorous part of the season, it is super important. Without the right preparation, things can go awry in the field. In fact, even with the right preparation, things still sometimes go wrong (just ask our broken Coleman stove from Week 1), so getting everything in order beforehand is necessary for the season to run as smoothly as possible.
Stage 3: The Work
Now for the fun part! Every week for six weeks, we get to take out an enthusiastic crew of volunteers for a week of trail work, woods meals, and (hopefully) good times. This year, VLTP worked on a couple of quintessentially Vermont sections of the AT/LT featuring ample mud and water. The goal of our work was to build what is called a turnpike, essentially a box of rocks into which broken rocks (called crush) can be filled. (And, no, contrary to popular belief we do not hike in buckets of gravel!) This helps to create a raised, hardened tread that keeps hikers’ feet out of the water and, with a lot of time and effort helps make “Vermud” a thing of the past!
Before we can build the structure, we first have to get the rocks that we will use. This process, known fittingly as “quarrying,” involves finding large rocks in the woods, digging them out of the ground, and bringing them to the trail. However, as any trail worker can tell you, this process is far easier said than done. At 160-170 pounds per cubic foot, many of the rocks we move weigh in at half a ton, with some coming in even larger. Although many of the rocks that you might see on the trail in stone staircases or rock water bars may not seem that big, that’s because usually about one-half to two-thirds of the rocks are buried in the ground to ensure their stability. When it comes to trail work, looks can be very deceiving.
To move these rocks, or perhaps more accurately, boulders, the tool of choice for trail workers is the rock bar. The rock bar is essentially just a 4-5-foot, 18-pound iron bar used as a lever. However, while the rock bar might look rudimentary, it is actually a very powerful tool. Using the bar as a lever, a trail worker can obtain a tremendous amount of mechanical advantage and may lift and roll rocks many times larger than what could be done with hands alone.
Once rocks have been moved to the trail, the next step is to set them in the ground and create the skeleton of the structure, which is shaped like an empty box or crib. As with most things in trail work, this step sounds fairly simple in concept but takes a lot more work in practice. In essence, setting a rock in the trail involves digging a hole that roughly fits the rock, placing the rock in the trail in the desired orientation, and ensuring that the rock is fully stable and does not move. However, when you’re moving an 800+ pound rock, all of that is much easier said than done and usually requires a great deal of playing around with wobbly rocks until they finally, mercifully, sit still. Finally, once the rock is set the way we want it, any extra space around the rock is filled with crush to occupy space and improve drainage around the rock.
After the skeleton of the turnpike has been made, all that remains is to fill the crib with crush and cover it with dirt. The crush is typically made by finding volleyball-sized rocks and using a 12-pound sledgehammer to break them down into golf ball-sized rocks. These rocks can then be used to fill the space inside the turnpike, which, after a small layer of dirt is added to the top, creates a smooth, hardened tread with excellent drainage for hikers to enjoy.
Stage 4: The Cleanup
After the project is complete, the final stage is to clean everything up. As it happens, rolling several-hundred-pound rocks through the woods tends to make a bit of a mess. That’s why, at the end of a project, trail crews always “brush-in” their worksites, placing sticks, logs, leaf litter, and other obstacles in impacted areas surrounding the worksite to disguise the impact and make it less appealing for hikers to walk there until nature can grow back. While this might seem like a small detail in the grand scheme of a project site, it is actually very important. Without adequate brushing, hikers may think impacted areas are side trails or be tempted to stop and use an impacted site as a lunch spot, making it hard for these areas to ever grow back. Thus, one of the somewhat ironic twists of trail work is that the best trail projects are fully disguised and even a new project should appear to have been around for a while after proper brushing.
We hope you enjoyed this small glimpse into what we do in the woods and into how the hard work of a VLTP crew and the many generous individuals who volunteered their time on the VLTP crew help make the trail a better place for everybody. If you’re interested in learning more, we encourage you to go check out VLTP or other ATC volunteer crews next summer. There’s no shortage of work out there and we could always use a helping hand!