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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.

The best trailbuilders use steps sparingly, since they aren’t part of the natural landscape. But on steep, badly gullied slopes like this one, stone steps are often the only feasible way to retain what’s left of the soil.

Within an hour, most of the crew has settled into the work, at four sites along a half-mile stretch of trail. Jenny has called dibs on the high line, and within half an hour she has the rig set up and is moving rocks from her quarry site, about 50 feet from the trail. Leveraging her small size with astonishing efficiency, she quickly amasses a pile of rocks at least 10 times her weight. Then she begins setting them.

The first to go in is a 200-pound foundation stone set at the bottom to ensure the stability of the steps above it. She digs a cone-shaped hole a little deeper than the boulder, so that the rock’s perimeter will rest against the sides, like a scoop of ice cream in a cone.

A pair of middle-aged men stop to catch their breath just below Jenny’s worksite. "Hey, great, you’re building an escalator to the top," one of them says.

"Close," Jenny says. "It’s going to be a gondola."

The hikers move on. "We hear escalator and gondola jokes a dozen times a day," says Jenny, flipping the rock into the hole. "Everyone thinks they’re the first to think of it."

As she stomps on the rock to test it for wobble, another hiker huffs up the trail. "Need some help?" he asks.

"The guys don’t get this kind of thing," Jenny says a minute later. "I get people saying things like ‘don’t give up.’ One guy asked if I do all the cooking for the men."

A hundred feet up the trail, JR has already built a rock water bar, positioning it at a 45-degree angle to direct runoff away from the trail. A thoughtful 20-year-old from Québec, JR has a scraggly beard and shoulder-length hair. (Imagine Jesus as a welterweight wrestler.) As a child he traveled with his father to the Adirondacks on summer weekends; he had bagged all 46 major Adirondack peaks by age 10. Now on his third summer with the crew, he tells me that he weighed 130 pounds at the beginning of his first season. "I came back home with 25 more pounds of muscle," he says. "But you will see that with this work, smart beats strong."

Watching JR work is a study in economy of motion. Of the men on the crew, JR is the slimmest, but he moves like Hercules, slowly and deliberately, wasting no energy on superfluous action. One after another, he digs his holes, then rolls the massive pieces of granite into position. With the water bar completed, he begins placing scree to either side of a series of stagger steps. Because some hikers try to avoid even the most enticing steps–especially if they’re tired and walking uphill–trailbuilders place large, jagged rocks on the margins to channel traffic onto hard surfaces.

"Scree needs to look big and ugly," JR says, "to keep people from cutting around our work." A party of French Canadians approach and stand for a while, commenting on his physique–oblivious to the fact that JR can understand every word. After they’ve moved on up the mountain, another pair of hikers approaches. "Hey, great," one guy says sardonically, "you’re finally moving the rocks off the trail."

Many hikers, especially older ones, complain that stone is tough on muscles and joints. That younger hikers are more accepting of rock surfaces reflects an evolution in trailbuilding objectives over the last two decades. Trailbuilders and trail maintainers once sought to ease human passage through the woods. Now, the primary goal is to protect fragile wilderness areas from the effects of human traffic. A bog bridge, for instance, may keep hikers’ feet dry, but its main purpose is to safeguard wetland vegetation and water quality. Stairs can make a climb easier, but they are built primarily to stabilize steep and easily eroded slopes.

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