Volunteers clean trail for its 100th birthday

HANCOCK — Work goes quickly when you have many hands.
On Saturday, May 15, trail maintenance volunteers on the Bread Loaf section of the Long Trail discovered the truth of that saying. The 16 workers spread out to clear fallen trees, branches and debris on five miles of trail, all the way from Route 125 at the top of the Middlebury Gap south to Worth Mountain. In under three hours, the trail was clear and the group was ready for lunch.
The cleanup day was one of several that take place on the Bread Loaf section of the Long Trail each year during the temperate months. This year, though, Bread Loaf section trails manager Chip Morgan of Middlebury said it was especially important to get the trail looking nice. That’s because 2010 marks the Green Mountain Club’s 100th anniversary, and as part of the celebration the organization will be holding a Long Trail end-to-end relay hike.
On July 17, the Green Mountain Club will kick off the series of hikes. In the month following, until Aug. 15, leaders will hold day hikes on sections all along the 273-mile Long Trail. Morgan said he plans to lead a hike on the Bread Loaf section, and he was eager to get the trails into shape.
“We want to be looking good for that,” he said.
So Morgan could not help but be excited at the turnout: the 16 workers who pitched in ranged in age from 13 to 80. Many were regulars for trail maintenance days. The oldest, Al Stiles, is a longtime trail worker on the Trail Around Middlebury, and on Saturday he took up the rear of the group to repaint the white blazes on trees that clearly marked out the trail’s route.
Another three of the workers were Middlebury College students, who Morgan said worked almost too quickly.
“I just can’t keep up!” he said.
One of the college volunteers, Alex Oberg, received the Bread Loaf section’s volunteer of the year award for 2009.
And while Oberg graduated this past Sunday, he assured Morgan that there would be other students in the coming years eager to pitch in their help on the trails.
Morgan and his wife, Nancy, retired to Middlebury in the spring of 2005. Coming from suburban Virginia, they were eager to get out onto the easily accessible trails in the region, and shortly after they arrived they joined the Green Mountain Club. The following winter, Chip Morgan accepted the trail maintenance coordinator’s position.
Morgan was happy to accept the position, since volunteer presence is what keeps the Long Trail and its side trails walkable and ecologically friendly. He, his wife and a core group of volunteers don’t just create easier hikes with trail maintenance — they also help to minimize human impact on the surrounding forest. Clean trails mean fewer hikers walking off of the trails, which prevents off-trail erosion.
The spring cleanup serves as a time to clear away the winter’s many blowdowns — trees, old and young, had fallen across the path over the winter due to snow, wind and cold. And some of the more lively bushes and trees were sending spiny branches and buds straight across the path, blocking the way for hikers.
The volunteers also pulled dirt and leaves out of water bars — drainage ditches that divert water off of the trail. Through these, the water spreads out through the forest instead of sweeping down the trail, which causes erosion and muddy spots.
But some helpers cause unintentional problems. As the group stood on a wide, clear swath where the Long Trail crossed a ski trail, Morgan pointed out a bright white blaze on a rock up the hill. They had gotten permission from the Forest Service to reroute the trail because of erosion up the hill.
“We moved the trail,” he said, pointing to a sign lower down that directed hikers to the new trail. “But someone keeps repainting that blaze.”
And  the volunteers are only there for the bigger debris that made the trail impassable. Sometimes, in fact, the debris along the way is a good thing.
The trail crew let several large piles of moose droppings stay in the middle of the path, serving as a clear reminder that humans aren’t the only animals that walk the trails.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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