December 10, 2018
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My husband died unbearably young, but he’ll always be part of the Maine woods

Our love began on a mountain in Maine.

On my 20th birthday, I joined a backcountry trail crew as an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Maine Conservation Corps. My team was assigned to Saddleback Mountain, where we would spend the next couple months quarrying rocks from the mountainside, constructing stone staircases and waterbars, and making slow but steady improvements to the Appalachian Trail.

We spent nine-day stretches on the mountain. I developed terrible blisters from my steel-toed boots; my long braid became one tangled, knotted mess; and one afternoon shards of granite got past my safety glasses while making rock crush. I had an old-school external frame pack that was older than me, and a flimsy foam sleeping pad. We would rub our hard hats with chainsaw bar oil and see who had collected the most black flies at the end of the day. We hiked in all of our gear and food at the beginning of each stint, and, despite spending most of our living stipends on groceries, it never seemed like we could eat enough.

It was the absolute best summer of my life.

With all the hiking and long days of hard work, my body toughened, and the muscles in my arms and legs grew strong. I made friends who I would hold onto for the rest of my life. We woke every morning on a mountain, in the woods, and often ended our days with a swim in a remote lake.

One afternoon, we all hiked up to the summit, and someone snapped a photo of my future husband and me seated in the rock shelter, his arm around my shoulders. Steve and I would not start dating for another eight months, but it would always remain one of our favorite photographs.

I grew up in a small town on Penobscot Bay. After graduating from college in the Midwest, I made a beeline back to Maine. Four academic years on the prairie had made me desperate for the trees, mountains and ocean of home.

Steve and I moved into a falling-apart farmhouse on Mount Desert Island, where I worked for one of the local kayak tour companies, running the shop, and we settled into life together. The same month I finished school, after a long walk on the quiet road behind the farmhouse, we decided to get married. That autumn, we gathered family and friends and said our vows on Saddleback.

We wanted to stay in Maine, though we knew it would not be without its challenges as a young, poor, seasonally employed couple. Originally from northern Vermont, and having traveled all over the country to build trails, Steve never once asked me if we were going to live anywhere else: He knew that Maine was the only place in the world that I wanted to make my home.

Soon after we were married, we moved inland to be closer to Steve’s new year-round trail-work position and to where real estate prices were more reasonable. We bought a little house and some land and continued building our life together.

Part of what drew us to each other was our love for the land, for dirt and for quality time hiking, camping and being outside. Simple things gave us such pleasure: the rhythmic cutting, splitting and stacking of firewood; planting seeds; walks in the woods.

Steve continued to coordinate trail crews and teach trail skills with the MCC, and I took a position as the volunteer coordinator there. Twice a year we headed to Saddleback to maintain a section of the Appalachian Trail — including the spot where we were married — as seasonal volunteers.

A little over a year after we bought our house, we went for a hike on a nearby trail that Steve had designed and helped build years before. When we got back to the car, Steve was no longer speaking coherently.

The following day, he was diagnosed with a massive brain tumor. The next few weeks were a blur: He was started on steroids and seizure meds, and underwent nearly six hours of brain surgery at Maine Medical Center, followed by intensive rehabilitation. Just before Christmas, we were told that the tumor would eventually be terminal. He was 27 years old.

We held on to the Maine woods for as long as we could. Steve went back to work; we spent weekends in the yard and woods; and our daughter was born. Eventually we gave up our section of trail on Saddleback, started ordering our wood cut and split, and our hikes got shorter and shorter until they were no longer possible at all.

I tended the vegetable garden, and my arms once again grew strong as I moved and stacked wood, split kindling and carried our daughter on my hip as Steve grew slowly weaker.

Over the years, he had taught hundreds and hundreds of people how to set stone stairs, fell trees and build timber bridges. He had nurtured leadership and self-confidence and appreciation for the Maine woods. He had made folks laugh, put them at ease and encouraged their dreams.

His work and guidance is found in every corner of the state: remote stone staircases deep in the northern woods, thousands of feet of bog bridging through swampy stretches, waterbars all through the western mountains, and graveled paths winding through city parks. If you have done any amount of hiking in Maine, it’s likely that your boots have passed over trails that Steve built or designed over a long and fruitful decade.

When Steve became homebound and started hospice, we encouraged friends to visit. So many of the young men and women he had taught and mentored came to see him. Those who were unable to make the long trek to Maine called, wrote and sent care packages.

When he died at the age of 31, my world was flooded with tributes to his love for the woods, for teaching the world about trails, and for supporting others as they ventured into the wilderness and harnessed the physical strength of their bodies to build something larger than themselves, often both for the first time in their lives. Over 100 people attended his celebration of life that snowy spring, while a slideshow played in the background: pictures of us together, and of Steve with our daughter, and so many pictures of mountains, hikes and his years of trail work.

A few months later, almost exactly 10 years after that first photograph of us on the summit of Saddleback together, close friends and I made the long hike up to spread his ashes.

Though he died unbearably young, his incredible impact lives on through his teaching and trails. I smile when I think about all of the people in Maine and across the country who are out there continuing his good work: building and teaching about trails, encouraging others to spend time in the mountains, and fostering a deep love of time spent amongst the trees.

Steve will always be a part of the Maine woods, and every pair of muddy boots ascending those thousands of stone steps is a testament to that fact.

Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer and brain injury advocate. She lives in Vassalboro with her daughter. You can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com
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