By Brad Viles
Special to the Bangor Daily News
As a trail maintainer with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club I only have a few basic jobs. They are clearing downed trees, cutting new growth back away from the trail and marking blazes. Sometimes it’ s a little more complicated than that, but those are basically the functions of every maintainer.
I usually make three or four trips between May and June just to clear downed trees with my ax, especially if it’ s a bad year. Then, later in mid-summer, I make a clean-up trip, like last weekend, to clip new growth and paint white blazes on a few trees.
Unlike on my other maintenance trips earlier this year, this time I had help. Sonny Whitaker, my hiking partner from Trenton, joined me and we set out under a perfect summer morning to hike up Pleasant Pond Mountain in Caratunk, 17 miles north of Bingham on Route 201. My section of trail starts at the mountain’ s summit sign, which shows the elevation of 2,447 feet. Before we get there, though, it’ s a steep, one- mile climb with the ax and loppers strapped to our packs.
The hike starts up the south side of the mountain through an adjoining maintainer’ s section. The trail ascends 1,200 feet in a little more than a mile. Sonny and I made the top in less than an hour with only a short break to catch our breath. The trail was muddy from a week’ s worth of rain that fell the week before.
Once at the top we took a break to have a mid-morning snack. It was about 10:30. The bugs of early summer were gone and a fresh breeze barely ruffled the fir and spruce needles in the trees. The sun was high in the blue summer sky when we struck off downhill to the rest of the section.
With all humility cast to the breeze, I have a great section of trail. It’ s partly forested with huge old trees, some of which have been dated to 300 years old. It’ s 2.2 miles long down the north side to the end. Underfoot for most of the distance it’ s slate ledge and practically erosion-proof. There are open blueberry ledges and mixed, shady, spruce and fir forest. It’ s exceptional.
We checked on some rock cairns that I’ ve built to mark the route over the open top. I also decided to paint some blazes that need freshening on a couple of small trees on the top. I’ m really kind of particular in where I choose to paint the blazes, because once they are painted I’ m stuck with them. Painting them out with a different color if they are wrong is just more confusing.
Sonny and I went about a mile down the length of the section just clipping a few spots back with the loppers, widening places young trees had grown in to the trail. I checked on a few faded blazes to hit on the way back while we walked. After about a mile we stopped to have another lunch around 12:30 at a shaded spot with a view back toward the summit of Pleasant Pond Mountain. We stopped on an adjoining peak called Middle Mountain.
The strategy on these trips is usually the same for each: hike over, then work my way back. So, after lunch, we got out the paint can and the template for painting blazes and went to work. Historically, bark was hacked off the trees, and a blaze was painted directly on the wood of the tree. Now, I use a two-inch paint scraper to remove just the loose bark and to smooth the surface for painting. I hold up the template, spray it with white enamel paint and I’ m done.
We came across an old blow down lying on the trail that I didn’ t clear this spring and decide to take the ax to it. Sonny chopped through one end and I got the other. In no time the step-over obstacle was cleared and tossed beside the trail. Sonny and I worked our way back to the top of Pleasant Pond Mountain, painting blazes and lopping out trees as we went.
We stopped a few times to feast on ripe blueberries and take in the views which stretched across Moxie Bald to the north and Bigelow to the south. At the summit we stopped to restack a few of the cairns that I’ ve built over the 16 years that I’ ve worked on this section and painted a few more blazes.
By the time we arrived back at the summit sign it was 2:30 p.m. We crossed the summit and started back down the other side the way we came. We were pretty spent by then. But, we were satisfied that the trail looked better than it did before we worked on it. Before we left a section that we had brushed out or blazed we checked them all by walking through.
You might think that after 16 years I’ d be tired of walking the same mountain dozens of times. That’ s not how it is. There are moss-covered spots on the mountain where the forest floor is an uninterrupted, deep green carpet of moss. I just discovered that this year. I learn something new every time I hike it to work along the mountain’ s forested spine.
The lesson for the day Sonny and I spent working taught me this. The more I clear trees from the side of the trail, the faster they grow back in the newly created spaces. I saw the stumps where I had taken small trees just a few years ago, back away from the trail where I had just cut back a new young tree today. Trail work is like summer. It never seems to end.