Trail Magic: Many Hands Keep Hikers' Feet Moving

A volunteer with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club cuts a tree that was blocking the trail near Barren Mountain last September. Courtesy Dick Welsh

The Leeman Brook Lean-To, built alongside the Appalachian Trail near Monson, Maine stands only three miles from the southern terminus of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, yet when my buddy Phil Plouffe and I tramped past it years ago on the first day of a week-long hike we encountered a scruffy crew whose forward progress had stalled.

We soon learned the merry band, which appropriately called itself The Loud Crowd, had spent several days trudging back and forth between the wooden shelter and the village package store, lugging cases of beer and partying hearty long into the night.

One of the hung-over celebrants gave me a note to leave on a tree in 60 miles or so, informing friends they would be late for a planned rendezvous en route to Mt. Katahdin.

I remember shaking my head doubtfully but dutifully carried that note for days, and damned if we didn't run into The Loud Crowd again, way up near Potaywadjo Spring. Not surprisingly the revelers had abandoned their hike, but somehow they hitched a ride and hacked their way back into the wilderness from the other direction.

"Wow, you guys made good time!" one of the Crowdsters cried out when he spotted Phil and me with our backpacks.

I often think about that first day in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness – not just because of The Loud Crowd, but also because of the hairy stream crossings, my nervousness about not being able to resupply food or gear over the next 100 miles, and about finding room to sleep in shelters because we left a tent behind to save weight.

One aspect of the hike I did not consider was the path itself. This, after all, was the fabled Appalachian Trail, which extends some 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, and I took for granted that even though the path rose and fell sharply with the undulating terrain – we took to calling these sections "MUDs and PUDs" for "mindless ups and downs and pointless ups and downs" – it would be cleared and well-marked.

All too often hikers, myself included, forget that countless dedicated but unheralded volunteers toil laboriously to maintain thousands and thousands of hiking trails from sea to shining sea.

The other day I spoke with one of these workers, Dick Welsh of Quaker Hill. It turns out Dick, who spends a fair amount of time in Maine, helps maintain those first seven miles or so of the AT from Monson, past the Leeman Brook Lean-To to the 60-foot Wilson Falls, one of the highest cataracts on the entire trail.

"I enjoy giving back to the community. Some people give to the United Way, but I'm not just sending in 50 bucks. I'm giving my time, something that's meaningful," he said.

This year Dick has volunteered about 80 hours of time working on the trail – clearing brush, cutting trees and otherwise making the path passable for pedestrians.

An avid hiker who often backpacked with his son, Dick joined the Maine Appalachian Trail Club 12 years ago. He and his wife, Marie, built a summer home on Lake Hebron in her native Monson, and during vacations there they often hiked the trails he now helps maintain.

Dick earned his sawyer certification from the National Park Service — a requirement for anyone using chainsaws in nationally preserved lands — and in September he and fellow MATC volunteer Patty Harding hiked three miles up Barren Mountain to clear blown-down trees from the trail.

"I was the donkey," Dick said, meaning he agreed to carry the saw, tools and other equipment.

After they finished cutting up two fallen trees that had blocked the trail, the pair hiked to a bog between Fourth Mountain and Barren Mountain, where they joined other volunteers who were clearing trees and debris.

That's where Dick snapped the picture accompanying this dispatch.

"It was a horrible, drizzly day," Dick recalled, so he borrowed Patty's waterproof camera.

The MATC judged Dick's photograph the best in a contest the club sponsored on its Facebook page.

I agree its worthy of a prize, not just for photographic excellence but also by illustrating that trails don't magically stay clear for hikers.

Founded in 1935, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club is an all-volunteer, donor-supported nonprofit that manages and maintains 267 miles of the AT in Maine. It is one of numerous organizations performing similar chores along the entire AT corridor. These groups are always looking for volunteers and financial support.

More information about the Maine club is available at www.matc.org. Additional information also is available from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (www.appalachiantrail.org), which works with 31 individual clubs, including those in Connecticut and other New England States, to manage the entire AT.

Thanks, guys and gals, for a job well done.

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