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November/December 2006

Gods Of Rock: The Adirondack Mountain Club trail crew

Sharpen your double-bit axe, get your pecs ready for action, and shoulder the biggest pack you've ever seen. Then dive into the trenches with a screwball trailbuilding crew, fixing the neediest hiking paths in the Adirondacks. Assuming you're not afraid of some very heavy lifting, this just might be the ultimate summer job.

Minutes later, the packs stood 4 1/2 feet tall and were pushing 100 pounds each–close to the body weight of the smaller crew members. "We never weigh them," said Lampman. "But I know there are people who’ve gone out with 130 pounds, easy. It’s pretty hard to get the job done with packs that weigh much less than a hundred."

Jefferson Selleck, a 3-year veteran, dragged his massive backpack over to a wall and sat down to thread his arms through the straps. An Italian major at Cornell, Jeff has curly blond hair and playful blue eyes, and a torso ripped from the cover of a bodybuilding rag. He loosely cinched his waist strap, then leaned forward, hands on the ground, and planted a knee. As the pack’s weight swung over his head, he heaved himself to his feet.

"Holy shit," he said, quietly.

Within seconds, the other Algonquin crew members were on their feet. Ed, who was serving as crew boss, cocked an eyebrow toward the trailhead and tilted forward, propelling himself through the parking lot followed by Jeff, Jenny, Adam, Jean-René "JR" Hickey, and David "Woody" Woodworth.

At 6 million acres, New York’s Adirondack Park is the biggest park of any kind in the Lower 48. It was created at a time (the 1890s) when the concept of outdoor recreation was just starting to take hold in America. Footpaths, like the one leading to Algonquin’s 5,114-foot summit, were constructed decades before anyone thought of incorporating anti-erosion measures such as switchbacks and stepping stones. In fact, much of the trail, used as a ski run during the 1932 Olympics, follows the fall line up the side of the mountain.

The impact of hundreds of hiking boots, and the eroding power of rainfall and snowmelt, create a long maintenance backlog. To get the job done, the state contracts with the Adirondack Mountain Club, which organizes the trail crews.

Ed leads the team at a fast pace through a bog and up the rocky, root-laced trail, which quickly steepens. Despite their burly loads, the crew members walk with little lateral sway.

"This is a glory crew," Ed says, turning briefly to survey the loose formation coming up the hill behind him. "There’s nobody here with less than 3 years of experience. We ought to be able to get a lot of good work done."

After about 3 miles, Ed turns and leads the team along a faint side path leading to a campsite hidden in the woods. Level ground is in short supply, so we pitch our tents on small shelves spread over 4 acres of the mountainside.

Adam begins unloading the food: jumbo cans of tuna, plastic bags of precooked chicken and raw hamburger, enormous quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables, a half-dozen loaves of bread. He curses as he inspects the eggs; penance for each of the six broken shells will be 20 push-ups. Jenny and Adam relay the food into a bearproof steel barrel (which was carried in a week earlier, strapped to a crew member’s back). Then Ed leads Woody and Jeff toward a segment of trail that park rangers have slated for reconstruction.

"It’s a bobsled run," Woody says, arriving at the deeply gullied section. "I think this is the most hideous thing I’ve seen on the trail so far."

"You mean aside from yourself?" Jeff says.

"According to the log," Ed says, "It needs a water bar on the right and some scree on the left, and six stagger steps."

"Six stagger steps? This needs 26 steps," says Woody, with a mock wince. "What do you think, Jeff? We start with the water bar, put in some riprap, maybe some stagger steps with good scree on the side…"

"I’m thinking it needs a full staircase, with a double-wide S-curve," Jeff says, making an exaggerated wave of his hand.

Ed watches them from below, shaking his head. "I knew this would happen," he says. "We’ve got too many chiefs and not enough Indians. If you have first-year people on the crew, you can make them the quarry bitches or the winch monkeys. All the senior guys want to build staircases."

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