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Meet this year's keeper of the Mt. Abe hut

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Posted on September 13, 2018 |
By Rachel Cohen



counting0642.jpg
GREEN MOUNTAIN CLUB caretakers keep track of the number of hikers on the Long Trail with counters. Below, AnnaLisa Mayer tends to the string that directs hikers off the fragile alpine tundra vegetation on the peak of Mount Abraham. Below that, Long Trail caretakers carry their tools of the trade — ax, shovel, hoe, map and hat — to their outposts in a basket backpack. Independent photos/ Rachel Cohen

LINCOLN — AnnaLisa Mayer of South Starksboro grew up hiking Mount Abraham, the fifth-tallest mountain in Vermont, since she was three years old.

This past summer, Mount Abe served as Mayer’s personal office. A rising senior at Sterling College, Mayer worked as a Green Mountain Club (GMC) caretaker from June until August on the mountain, which she considers her “home turf.”

“My family has been members of the GMC for a while, and it sounded like a cool opportunity,” Mayer said of her decision to become a caretaker.

Each summer between 20 and 30 caretakers spread out along the Long Trail, which runs along the spine of the Green Mountains from Canada to Massachusetts; they are stationed at overnight campsites near particularly vulnerable natural areas.

Mayer was the only caretaker stationed at Mount Abraham’s Battell Shelter, whereas Camels Hump and Mount Mansfield had four to five caretakers each.

The GMC Caretaker program is funded through a variety of sources, including the U.S. Forest Service, ski areas and private donations. Each caretaker costs $16,000, according to the GMC’s field supervisor Illana Copel.

Copel said that while costs have mostly been stable, they recently had to shorten the caretaker season due to funding shortages.

Caretakers first took their backcountry posts during a hiking boom in the 1970s, although volunteers have been maintaining the Long Trail since the club was founded in 1910.

Copel said that the organization, through the caretakers’ work of counting hikers on summits, has documented another spike in hiking in the state since 2012.

While the 2018 peak season is not yet over — Labor Day and Columbus Day weekends are historically the busiest — Copel indicated that the average totals of hikers seem to be at least on par with, if not higher than, last season’s numbers.

“So far, it’s keeping with the trend of slightly increasing,” Copel said.

Mayer’s highest summit count on Mount Abraham this summer was 299 visitors, including both through-hikers and day hikers.

“It was … on a really nice day after the heat spell,” Mayer said, describing the July day that brought almost 300 visitors to the peak.

During one weekend in late July, 21 people planned to stay the night in Battell Shelter, which only sleeps eight, according to Mayer, forcing the extra guests to pitch their tents nearby.

As a caretaker, Mayer had many responsibilities besides summit duty. From her station at Battell Shelter, she did trail work on 10 to 20 miles of trails, helped with shelter maintenance at the three shelters in her territory, and educated hikers about the natural landscape.

Mayer, who studies ecology, enjoyed sharing her knowledge of Mount Abe’s flora with visitors.

She pointed out plants such as Carex bigelowii, known as Bigelow’s sedge, which is a grass-like high-altitude species. According to Mayer, the sedge is an extremely rare plant in Vermont and the most prevalent of the arctic-alpine species atop the 4,006-foot Mount Abe.

Other than Bigelow’s sedge, the peak has fewer rare plants that some other nearby summits. In fact, the summit of Mount Abe encompasses the smallest area of alpine tundra in Vermont.

Mayer said that while it’s “not the most flashy place,” perhaps compared to other dominant peaks along the Long Trail, her station on Mount Abe has encouraged her to “celebrate the small things.”

Whether it’s about lichen or blueberries, Mayer could engage hikers with “awesome conversations about plants.”

She also learned to enjoy another part of her job — privy work — more than she expected.

Mayer maintained three composting privies, also known as outhouses, beneath the summit of Mount Abe.

Long Trail caretaker AnnaLisa Mayer, center, describes the alpine vegetation to Addison County residents Liza Cochran, left, and Katie Manaras while they scope out the peak of Mount Abraham, where Mayer spent the summer.

Independent photo/ Rachel Cohen

Composting toilets turn human waste into compost through an aerobic process that decomposes the waste.

Although the maintenance work essentially involves stirring excrement with mulch to aid the composting process, Mayer said there’s more to it than it may seem.

“There’s a science to it, a rhythm,” she said.

She liked showing hikers her method to foster an appreciation for waste management in the backcountry.

While surrounded by different people each day, working in the backcountry has also made Mayer more appreciate of time alone. Sometimes it can feel isolating, but she has come to see that aspect of her experience as valuable.

“We don’t experience (being alone) a lot in the front country,” Mayer said. “It can be lonely, but embracing that has been cool.”

Being a caretaker has reinforced Mayer’s desire to pursue a path in interpretive natural history. She learned through her conversations on the summit crouched beside plants or up close to the privies that she enjoys sharing moments in nature with people.

“I’d been thinking I’d do it for the summer,” Mayer said of the caretaker position. “But I might be doing it for the next few years.”

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