In the middle of October three coworkers and I volunteered two days with the Appalachian Mountain Club to do some trail maintenance. We met Thursday night in North Conway, New Hampshire, at Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewery for dinner and then drove to Barnes Field Group Campground for the night. We enjoyed age-old practices of beer by the fire and watching shooting stars.
Early the next morning our AMC representative showed up to lead us to the trailhead from which we’d set off to work. His name was Jack and we quickly started referring to him as AMC Jack. The trail we would be working on was the Carlo Col Trail near Berlin, New Hampshire. Carlo Col Trail is a yellow blazed trail connecting the longest and bumpiest dirt road I’ve ever been on to the Appalachian Trail right on the border of New Hampshire and Maine.
As we prepared to start hiking in and got briefed on safety the weather began to turn for the worse, rain was on the forecast for that day and evening. We hiked in a half a mile and dropped our tools at the first site marked for maintenance. It was a small section of trail where several inches of mud hid below a thin layer of leaves.
With the weather turning we decided to hike up to the Carlo Col Shelter and drop our packs and personal gear. The hike up was slow with all of the weight we were carrying and we got to the shelter late in the morning. We claimed our spots in the empty shelter and dug out the bear box which had been stowed for the season.
After a short snack break we headed back down to where we left our tools. The process for turning a muddy section of the trail into a passable section was simple yet required a lot of hard work and coordination. Simply put, we wanted to create a “corridor of sacrifice” through the protected land. We wanted that corridor to be as narrow as possible (to limit impact) and the best way to do so was to keep the trail dry. Even though people hike in bad weather and many wear proper foot protection, if they come upon a wet or muddy section they will walk through the forest and around the mud. This leads to a widening of the corridor of sacrifice and sometimes new trails. I know this to be true, because I have done so myself.
The primary way that we dried out the trail was to dig out the mud and replace it with very large boulders (we’re talking 200-500+ pounds) and to provide an easy route for water to drain off the trail with trenches and rock walls. We scoured the area around the wet trail for large rocks and then started to dig around the rock to get a feel for its size and shape. The rocks had to be large enough that they would not shift when stepped on or by frost in the winter. And, the rock should have a nice flat surface that would make a good foot tread.
Once a proper rock was discovered, two or three of us continued to dig up the rock and then leverage it out of its hole and to the trail using 18lb rock bars. This is where the coordination and teamwork came into play. The rocks were of such a massive weight that there was no way for one person to roll the rock to the trail. One or two people could lever the rock up partway and then the third would take a bite between the rock and the ground, wedging the rock in place. Then, the other two could reset their rock bars and continue to rotate the rock.
We also learned methods of turning rocks on a vertical axis by shoving the rock bar under one side of a rock and “rowing it,” moving the rock bar in a motion similar to one that is used to row a boat. Also, wedging the rock bar at the right angle at the right time could turn the rock’s course as it completed its roll.
While the rocks were being moved, someone else was digging up the soft, loamy soil (mud) and replacing it if possible with any soil that had a higher composition of clay or gravel. When the rock was ready to be placed in the trail, a conicle hole was formed in roughly the same shape as the rock. AMC Jack explained it like putting ice cream on top of a cone. The walls of the hole needed to be tapered so that the rock made contact with the walls at as many points as possible.
Once the rock was levered in place, it was rowed into the correct angle and then gravelly soil and small rocks were packed around the rock with the handle of a mattock or Pulaski. This was continued until the soggy section of trail was replaced with rocks spaced at a little less than an average person’s stride.
When we had the first section of trail completed we took a break for lunch. As we were eating a group of teenage girls headed up the trail toward Carlo Col Shelter. The shelter was to be their basecamp through the weekend for some hiking in the area. We informed them that our stuff was in the shelter and they were free move it aside to make room for themselves. Thinking like Web developers, we used this opportunity to test the usability of our newly repaired section of trail. All of the girls used our recently placed rocks to traverse the muddy area.
After lunch we started in on a larger section of mud a quarter of a mile further up the trail. The new section was much soggier and we had to source rocks from up a steep slope bordering the trail. As we started to work the rain began and it wasn’t long before we were up to our knees in muck and making more of a mess than improving the trail. At a point AMC Jack was up to his elbows in mud, using his arms as a shovel. He was very passionate about his work.
We decided that we should knock off early and made our way back up to Carlo Col Shelter. By the time we got there we were thoroughly soaked and the group of teenage girls has settled into the bottom half of the shelter and set up a kitchen on one of the nearby platforms under a tarp. A coworker and I had decided earlier that we would tent out on some of the platforms rather than crowd into the shelter with everyone else. We set to work pitching our tents in the downpour and howling wind.
Somehow I managed to get all of my gear and a change of clothes into my tent without everything getting soaked (it helped that my air pad covers the entire footprint of my tent). After making some dinner at the shelter I retired to my tent and changed my clothes in the tiny space between the fly and outer wall of the tent. I crawled into my sleeping bag to read, warm and dry despite the monster gusts of wind outside and the mid-shin depth of rain around the tent platform.
I woke in the morning and enjoyed a very satisfying breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. While I ate, I sat cross-legged on my sleeping bag reading and looking out into the wild while the previous evening’s storm shed the last drips from its swollen clouds. Once we had all eaten, packed up, and re-stowed the bear box, we hiked back down to our second maintenance site.
We spent the morning and into early afternoon wrapping up that section of the trail, which included moving the largest boulder we attempted (one that AMC Jack said was in the top 5 largest boulders he’d moved by means of rock bar).
Once we completed that section of trail it was early afternoon so we decided to clean up and head back to the trailhead. On hiking back out we discovered that the small brooks we had stepped over the day before had become mad rushing torrents. We had to carefully pick our routes across the brooks while carrying all of the heavy equipment.
Back at our vehicles we gave our thanks to AMC Jack who had been a very enthusiastic host and made our way back to Maine. My biggest take-away from the two days of volunteering with the AMC (aside from how slow and difficult it was) was an increased awareness of the amount of work and thought put into the trails. What I took for meandering trails with randomly scattered rocks and the occasional makeshift foot bridge and water runoff actually involved a lot of hard work and planning to keep the trail as dry as possible while limiting the impact to the wilderness around it. I swear from this point forward I will walk through mud and water in the trail, rather than leave the corridor of sacrifice.
Appalachian Trail in miles: 2,189
AT in feet: 11,557,920
Total length of trail we work on in feet: ~65
Number of feet maintained per man-hour (our rate): 1
Number of AT volunteers in 2014: 5,617
Number of AT volunteer hours in 2014: 241,936
Percentage of AT maintained in 2014 at our rate: 0.05%
“About the Trail.” appalachiantrail.org. Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Web. 24 January 2015.
“New Official Appalachian Trail Mileage Is 2,189.2 Miles.” chattanoogan.com. The Chattanoogan.com. Web. 24 January 2015.
“Volunteers Donate over 200,000 Hours in Maintaining Appalachian Trail.” huntingtonnews.com. HuntingtonNews.com. Web. 24 January 2015.