Trail volunteers like me have one thing on our minds come spring. Clearing trail. From the first sign that winter may really, finally, be over, it’s all I can think about.
First, I wonder when the snow will be melted from the higher elevations so I can clear my section of the Appalachian Trail of storm-damaged, downed trees. Second, I worry about how many have fallen. That is an unshakable thought that can only be resolved by making the first trip of the year, to see just what nature has sent to the ground.
My first hike was the third week in April to discover the extent of the damage. As a volunteer with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, my section starts at the summit of Pleasant Pond Mountain in Caratunk, then, continues north 2.2 miles down the other side. That week I didn’t have to hike very far to find out. Don and Denise Littlefield, from Orrington, joined me to provide help, even though they didn’t know if I would need it.
In less than a mile we took turns and chopped through five or six small trees with my ax. We worked for about four hours chopping and hauling trees off the trail. It was going to be a rough year. Along the way we ran into the last of the snow. When we got to a foot-thick pine across the trail I decided it would have to wait, until next trip, in a couple of weeks. We left fallen trees that were frozen in, until next time. We lopped several small trees that were growing into the sides of the trail. That was all the chopping I had in me and we hiked out.
The second weekend in May I made the hike with Steve Longley, a volunteer corridor monitor with the club. We hiked to the big downed pine and went to work. It was about a 20-minute effort to get through it, but we did, and cleared it out of the way. We met two couples section hiking, approaching from the north. They were hiking from Monson to the Kennebec, about a 2½-day hike. I asked if there were any more blow-downs ahead. They said it was a mess of trees, piled one on top of the other.
“You’ll never get through them with an ax,” one of the guys said.
He doesn’t know my ax, I thought.
We parted company and Longley and I headed up the trail to see what they were talking about. We didn’t get too far, when we saw them. Piled up like pickup sticks were three or four trees. Eventually we got through them and moved on a little farther up the trail. If that was the worst of it, I thought, the rest should be easy.
With the two trips combined, and all my friends’ help, we had cleared about 1.5 miles of the entire length of 2.2 miles. By the time Longley and I finished, it was late, so we turned around and hiked out. I planned to come back the next weekend just to hike to the end and lop back some more young trees.
So, last weekend, expecting the worst of the arboreal mayhem to be over, I went back. Surprise. I hiked a few hundred feet from where I left the trail the previous week to find a nest of three fallen spruce, down a 30-foot length of trail. This must have been the trees the hiking couples told me and Longley about.
I dug in with the ax and after a couple of hours chopped through enough so I could remove them. There were still a few more small trees to chop through and then, the work was done. I hiked to the end of my assigned section, had a lunch and turned back. There were no more trees to clear.
I have more responsibilities as a maintainer other than clearing trees. I have to paint white blazes, 2 by 6 inches, on trees to mark the trail. Over time the blazes fade and need to be freshened so it’s easy to follow the trail. I have a sign on the summit that I replaced during the first week. The old sign had been there about 20 years and had become carved, weathered and practically unreadable. I ordered the new sign from the club’s sign maker and received it in April at the club’s annual meeting.
I accepted this particular section of trail to maintain in 1991. The only reason I joined the Maine Appalachian Trail Club was so I could maintain trail. I wanted to give back to the trail for all it had provided to me. I had hiked all of Maine’s AT by then, but it wouldn’t be until 1994 until I hiked all the rest from Georgia. Still, I owed the trail for all the hiking up to then, I figured, so I accepted the Pleasant Pond Mountain section.
I’ve never used a chainsaw, always preferring hand tools like the ax. There are more than a hundred maintainers with the club and some use chainsaws. They are state-certified sawyers, earned through a course provided by the club. Wearing protective gear, those maintainers probably get through their blow downs in one trip.
I think they miss the point a little. Over the last three trips I watched as spring slowly melted the snow and flowers poked through the ground. The first week, there were no flowers; two weeks later there were trilliums poking their blossoms up through the forest floor. Last week the star flowers and Canada mayflowers were blooming. That first week there were no black flies. But, by last weekend’s trip, the black flies were so bad I had to work wearing a head net. Those little harbingers of spring I could have done without.
So, this weekend I’m going back, but not to clear trees. That’s all done. This weekend I’ll paint blazes and re-stack rock cairns across the summit where the trees are too small or not close enough to the trail to paint. I’ll take a lopping hand ax to limb branches that have grown in to the trail. Then, I’ll be done the work and the hikes for fun can begin.