By Brad Viles, Special to the NEWS
They've been sighted by hikers on Bigelow this summer. You might have seen them if you took a family hike to Gulf Hagas. They were there, too. If you backpacked on the Appalachian Trail in the "100-mile wilderness" from Monson to Abol Bridge, you would have seen them on Whitecap Mountain. They were the ones wearing hard hats and wielding steel pry bars, pickaxes and loppers.
They aren't this year's through hikers, but some could be former through hikers. Who are they? They are the Maine Trail Crew, and they build trail relocations, create rock staircases, dig water bars and construct a variety of other trail projects in partnership with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.
The club maintains 267 miles of the Appalachian Trail starting in Grafton Notch and ending on Mount Katahdin. The members also keep clear 40 miles of side trails. All the work is done by volunteers. There are maintainers, like me, who are assigned specific sections of trail, while others form work crews that build lean-tos, privies, campsites and bog bridges.
Some jobs, however, are too large for a small club of fewer than 600 members to undertake. The MATC formed the Maine Trail Crew to handle large projects that require extensive labor and support to complete. The camp coordinator and leaders of the crew are paid salaries from grant money through the club.
The other crew members are students volunteering with the Student Conservation Association. The support costs, such as transportation to and from the work site, food, housing, tools and equipment, are paid for by the club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
The crew is a vital part of the club's mission. Two weekends ago I volunteered on one of the crews to see how they work and maybe help out.
The Maine Trail Crew is actually one large group that divides into two work teams of anywhere from five to eight members. The numbers vary depending on the addition of other volunteers like me. They've been setting out for their work sites from the base camp in Garland every week since mid-June. They arrive in Maine from all over the country in May to receive a month's training in tool use, safety practices and skill development. Then they hit the trail to go to work.
One crew was packing up for a project on Old Blue Mountain, a 3,600-footer southwest of Rumford and northeast of Andover. All the projects last three weeks and require the crews to camp three nights. Sometimes, it's at a backpacking location. They hike in on Saturday and come out on Wednesday.
I arranged my volunteer weekend with the camp coordinator, Amanda Royce, 25, and met the team - Lucas Harris, 20, and Taylor McDonnell, 19, both SCA interns. McDonnell was the only woman on our crew. Lucas Harris' brother Nathan, 18, was joining him for a week's volunteer work. Andy Pearson, 33, from the United Kingdom, flew over at his own expense to volunteer for a month. He had trail building training before this trip, so his skills were set. Our crew leader, Chris Binder, 26, was responsible for all of us. We were joined by Will Hunter, 44, a first-year trail maintainer with MATC, and his friend Steve Foley, 33, both from Bangor.
Our crew was headed to West Peak, a 3,100-foot peak on Whitecap Mountain in the 100-mile wilderness, north of Gulf Hagas.
Hunter, Foley and I could stay only one night and work Sunday before we had to leave for home. The others loaded a few tools and the food that they would need for five days and four nights, then we all set off for Sidney Tappen campsite on the trail. After a long drive on mainly dirt roads, we had a short hike to the campsite.
Once there, we unloaded the group food, strung a bear line between two trees and hung the food in dry bags, organized and marked by meals. We all helped string up the kitchen tarp and set up our tents, and by that time it was late afternoon. We hung around the site until supper. Binder explained the work we would be doing the next day, then after swapping trail tales, we ate supper and turned in for the night.
In the morning we were out of camp at 7. We'd had our breakfast and were ready to work. The work site was a half-mile up the trail. About halfway we encountered a blow-down across the trail. "We're going to have to take that tree out," said Binder as we all ducked under the neck-high obstruction.
At the work site we retrieved a ton of tools from a carefully hidden, off-trail tool cache supplied by volunteers. With tools in hand - steel 6-foot pry bars for moving rocks, mattocks for digging out water bars, axes, loppers, sledges and rock hammers - we went to work. While the rest of the crew moved rocks and dug trenches, Hunter and I hiked back down the mountain to clear the downed tree.
We worked about 40 minutes to clear the thick spruce with our axes. A couple of camp groups came by and thanked us for our work. We said, "No problem," even though the work was tiring and far from no problem.
Back up at the work site, the crew had divided into two-person teams. They were busy digging trenches for water bars and setting stone stairs. Hunter and I stayed together and Binder instructed us in our chore. "Dig out this trench at a 45-degree angle across the trail. Then you're going to line it with these rocks," he explained. After a little more instruction on the design, we went to work with the mattock. We had dug a pretty good trench and were lining the sides with rock when it came time for lunch.
As we sat around eating we talked about what draws us to trail work. McDonnell said, "I'm learning a trade and how to fix erosion damage, the names and uses for the hand tools, plus I get the satisfaction of making the trail better for hikers."
For Binder, a 2008 through hiker, "I came into trail work from the perspective of a hiker. It's really an extension of my hiking. I enjoy it because, for one thing, it provides me with better trails to hike. I love living outdoors," he said.
After lunch, we went back up the hill to the work site. Hunter and I stayed together, worked more on our water bar, which was taking shape nicely. It didn't seem long before I had to leave, so I said goodbye to all the crew and headed back down the mountain to my truck.
If you're looking for a way to help out in the improvement effort on the Appalachian Trail, there's no better way than by joining a trail crew. By the time the Whitecap project is finished, Binder told me, they will have constructed 1,800 feet of relocation and about 80 feet of rock stairs. The stairs are expected to last 100 years. That's a big improvement that will long outlast the builders. And that's the whole idea.