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Long Trail Patrol

07/31/08 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) Though we shouldn't, many of us take for granted the pleasure of hiking on a well-maintained trail.  VPR commentator and former park ranger Vic Henningsen recently paid a visit to one of the hard-working crews that make that experience possible.

(HENNINGSEN) As Dave Hardy, the Green Mountain Club's Director of Field Programs, briefs them, the seven-person trail crew known as the Long Trail Patrol mounts up for the first morning of what will be three weeks work on Mount Mansfield's Haselton Trail.  

(Hardy)  I don't know if you've been on Haselton, but it's a lovely little trail.  Its downfall has been that it's been very difficult to find. So if we can get the opening here, then it's obvious from where you start.

Each carries 40 to 50 pounds of gear.  Ed Ingersoll runs through his inventory:

(Ingersoll)  "I have a pick, a rock bar, which is the 18 lb bar of steel, a sledgehammer, which is the 12 lb metal sledge, and a root-axe to chop away at big roots and other stuff that's in the ground, to build staircases.

Maintaining Vermont's Long Trail system since the 1930's, the Patrol's major task these days is combating erosion. On steep paths like the Haselton, foot traffic compacts the thin mountain soil and rain washes it away.  Unless the water is diverted, the trail quickly becomes a stream.

That's where the crew comes in, carrying in heavy stuff like 18-pound pry bars and 150-pound grip hoist systems with which to move rocks and set them in the trail to create what is pretty much an erosion-proof hiking experience.  The basic trail improvement is a waterbar, a log or stone-lined ditch dug diagonally across the trail to direct water away.
 
But the real work - and the real fun - is building steps. This requires prying big rocks out of the ground and raising them with a grip-hoist to a point where they can be put in slings and shot down a metal cable zip-line to the trail below.

As Emily Hernandez-Goldstein explains, the challenge is both physical and mental:

(Hernandez-Goldstein) [Y]ou have to be very patient, because the only rock-work worth doing is the kind that's going to last for a very long time and so it's a matter of fitting those rocks together and looking at it.  And we don't shape rocks . . . we take what we have and make it fit like a puzzle.

A passing hiker pauses to admire their work.

(hiker)  One year I saw them putting steps in and the size boulders they were moving were incredible. I couldn't see myself doing it!

Although the Patrol is a team, each has a favorite tool.

(Various Patrol members)  Pick-mattock... Sledgehammer... Rock-bar, for sure... Grip-hoist... Shovel!  

It's long hours of heavy work for low pay, laboring intensively on small sections of trail. The end product? A series of waterbars or a stone stairway the rest of us cover in a couple of minutes on our way to the summit.  Why do it?

Because, crewmembers say, it's a group experience like no other; the work is important; and what they build, lasts.  And, as Dave Hardy observes:  

(Hardy) They keep coming back and that's a good thing. [I]t's the few, the proud, the Long Trail Patrol."

(Sounds of pushing and lifting)

(Crew)  All right... That's gonna be a good one... Yeah, that'll be nice... It's quartz too... It's classy.... Yeah, it's classy...

(sound of trailside stream fades...)

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