My wife and I are settled in at a remote campsite a stone’s throw from the Appalachian Trail, a few miles northeast of the Bigelow Range via a series of bumpy gravel roads. Spruce logs are crackling in the fire pit beneath a brilliant evening sky of scudding pink and orange clouds.
Cold beer in hand, I sit quietly as a trifecta of wild sounds emanates from the woods beyond the little clearing – peeping peepers, yipping coyotes and crying loons.
The dinner dishes lie stacked in the rear of the pickup; the tent and sleeping bags are set for the night; the food and gear boxes are stowed. The all-important trail tools are packed for tomorrow’s walk-through on my section of the AT – two glorious miles from Sandy Stream to East Carry Pond. I take a mental inventory: chainsaw, gas, bar oil, files, scrench, wedges, chaps, hard hat, first-aid kit, axe, brush clippers, grub hoe, lunch, water. Check.
It’s the middle of May when throngs of maintainers from the Maine Appalachian Trail Club take to the trail, after the snowpack has diminished but before Memorial Day weekend. From the boundary of Baxter State Park to Grafton Notch in the Mahoosucs, we’ve got a brief window of time to clear the winter blowdowns and clip back the brush to open the way for the summer hiking season.
In the morning, we hike along the trail under threatening skies. In the first mile, I remove 15 trees that have fallen across the path; none are over five inches in diameter, so it’s easy cutting. We stop to brush out a particularly thick section of hobblebush and restack and sticker several old piles of cedar planks needed for future bog-bridging work.
In two short hours we’re at the pond, making our way over the last half-mile. The encroaching cedar and winterberry are clipped away, and another jumble of planks is dealt with. By noon we’ve reached the outlet and the section’s end. Here, I rework my plan of attack on the remaining 150 feet of bog bridging that needs completing this summer, counting planks and the number of spikes required to get the job done, and noting what needs to go where.
We plop down along the shore for lunch, and I remark that this has been the easiest opening day ever in my 14 seasons of caring for this stretch of the AT.
The return walk is a joy, as we get to admire our handiwork. Few things are more satisfying to a maintainer than a freshly cleared trail corridor and knowing it’ll now be easier going for all the hikers coming through. Back in camp, the predicted front has arrived and rain is in the air. Satisfied that at least the obligatory work is done, we decide to knock off a day early and head for home.
Fran and I are just two of some 115 MATC maintainers who look after 267 miles of the AT in Maine, plus 60 miles of side trails. Many hands make light work, and more assistance is always needed and appreciated. If you harbor a love for the Appalachian Trail and a strong desire to help keep our beloved AT in great shape, then I heartily encourage you to consider becoming a volunteer, a trail champion.
Trail maintaining is a pretty straightforward assignment that involves four primary tasks: blowdowns, brushing, blazing and erosion control. Clear the blowdowns from the trail corridor in the spring, and at least once more in the summer or fall. Use loppers on the encroaching brush along the trail. As needed, apply good white paint to freshen the familiar 2-by-6-inch blazes. And every fall after the leaves are down, clean out the water bars to improve drainage.
In addition to trail work, there are 40 lean-tos and four campsites to look after, and more than 300 miles of surveyed corridor boundary that needs to be monitored. Start easy by assisting a section maintainer, volunteer for a club work trip or join the Maine Trail Crew for a day or two on one of their projects.
A favorite T-shirt of mine reads: “Anyone with the time and energy to hike on trails … has the time and energy to work on trails.” To get involved, visit the MATC website at matc.org and click on “I want to volunteer.” Thank you!