Splattered with mud, a group of tired teenagers gathered at the edge of Long Pond, deep in the wilderness of Piscataquis County. Setting their hard hats and sodden work gloves aside, they dove into lunch.
All morning was spent hauling, chopping and sawing logs to construct a bridge over a notoriously soggy section of trail, a mucky mess that hundreds of skiers struggle through each winter. This is the first year the Appalachian Mountain Club has organized teen trail crews in Maine, and so far, they’re making a difference.
“I was really surprised at how much freedom we get,” said Cormac Beeler, 17, of Sharon, Mass., one of the nine teens in the crew. “They show us what we’re going to do, and since the first day, everyone just chips in and does their part and everything goes smoothly. It’s really nice.”
This summer, Maine will see four AMC teen trail crews take on a variety of projects, from building stone stairs to cleaning out drainage structures on AMC land — 66,000 acres in the 100-Mile Wilderness region.
“Not enough people get to build things, really. It’s so valuable — to use your hands and make things, to be a piece of something,” said Alexander DeLucia, AMC trails volunteer coordinator. “This ski bridge is going to be here for years, and hundreds of people are going to use it.”
DeLucia drove from his home in New Hampshire on July 23 to visit Maine’s second teen volunteer crew of the summer, which worked for 10 days, June 16-25. He met the young workers as they basked in the sun, eating lunch and laughing about the filthy state of their clothing. It was their last full workday, and despite all the heavy lifting, spirits were high.
DeLucia joined the crew as they headed back into the Lodge-to-Lodge Trail to continue work on the bridge.
“For the first days, the work required endurance. We were lopping branches for miles,” said Clem Aeppli, 15, of Watertown, Mass., pausing for a few minutes from his job sectioning logs with a handsaw. “We started this heavy lifting stuff yesterday, so our arms are a little sore.”
Jonah Einson, 17, of Amesbury, Mass., knelt on the other side of the log, holding the other end of the handsaw, and Rebekah Hall, 16, of Meriden, Conn., sat on the log, adding her strength to each cut by placing her hands along the top of the saw.
Trail work is a catalyst for team building and problem solving, said DeLucia, and the lessons and skills learned are similar to those learned at leadership camp or on a high ropes course.
“But it’s very real. Trail work results in a product that they see and other people are going to use that’s going to protect the natural resource,” said DeLucia.
Earlier in the week, the crew bushwhacked through the thick forest, cutting branches and painting tree trunks to mark the edges of the Appalachian Trail Corridor. The buffering corridor, with an average width of 1,000 feet, helps preserve the wild nature of the trail. With map and compass, the students located and exposed USGS survey markers so loggers won’t accidentally encroach on the corridor.
The AMC started organizing teen trail crews in 1983 in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Teen participation in volunteer programming has dipped over the years — the lowest level in 2005 with just 528 teen trail workers — but now AMC teen trail crews are back on the rise. Last year, 1,078 teens participated.
“It’s an astonishing growth, and it’s hard to put a finger on why,” DeLucia said.
Of the nine teens participating in the Maine trail crew, all agreed that the community service hours they would acquire on the trail crew would be beneficial to them when applying for college.
“I think another appealing factor is that we aren’t a camp,” said DeLucia. “It’s a work crew.”
The AMC conducts a screening process on trail crew applicants to ensure that teens and their parents understand the essence of the program.
“A kid might say ‘this is too much work’ or ‘this is just what I was looking for.’ We want to make sure the kids want to be here,” DeLucia said. “When we get them all the way out here, we want them to stay here.”
This year, the Maine crew’s campsite is tucked in the forest near Long Pond, accessed by miles of rough logging roads.
“Considering the work we do and the locations we work in — and the population we work with, those who have little to no trail work experience — we have very few trail work related injuries. They’re felling trees and rolling giant rocks, but they’re doing doing these things safely.”
Two AMC staff members lead each teen trail crew. This year, the Maine crews are led by Leslie Ruster and Beth Gula, both of whom have extensive trail work experience. Ruster and Gula provide guidance and materials and work just as hard as the teens. They also stay at the crew campground, enforce Leave No Trace principles and organize the food.
The teens aren’t catered to, but AMC staff does show their appreciation, often through the reward of tasty meals, which the entire crew cooks together. They’re also all expected to pitch in to clean dishes and clean their campsite, aspects of communal life that will help the teens prepare for college.
Of the nine teens participating in the second Maine crew, only one teen was actually a Maine resident — Ron Richardson, 17, of New Portland. One participant was from Connecticut and seven were from Massachusetts.
More than 50 percent of the teens who participate in AMC trail crews come from Massachusetts, where AMC is headquartered. But as the AMC continues to expand the teen programs, they aim broaden the demographics of the participants, and for Maine programs, they will aim to increase the participation of Maine teens by offering scholarships.
“We want to offer the same spread next year, if not more,” he continued. “This is an outstanding location with immense opportunity. We’re just getting started.”
At the end of the crew’s final work day, they gathered around the campfire for s’mores, the traditional graham cracker layer replaced with homemade cookies. They hadn’t completed the bridge, but next teen crew would pick up where they left off, and this winter, skiers will be thankful for their hard work.