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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.

A quarter-mile above JR’s worksite, I find Woody and Jeff crashing like bears through the understory, locating boulders and rolling them down the hill into a log barricade they have set up. Suddenly, a distant call–"Foooo!"–comes down the mountainside. Woody and Jeff each cup a hand to their mouths and reply in unison–"FooOOO!"–as similar cries echo up from JR and Jenny’s site. "Foo" is the trail worker’s one-size-fits-all signal, used to announce meal breaks, wake-up times, and emergencies (with a double-foo). Adam and Ed stash their tools in the woods, grab their axes, and begin trotting downhill.

The group meets in a clearing where JR had stashed the lunch pack. JR begins tossing around bagels, hummus, cheese, tomatoes, peanut butter, cookies, apples, and oranges. As the rations make their rounds, JR opens a large tin of tuna and passes it around so everybody can get a sip of the "tuna juice." Then he adds mayo to the can and spices it with chili powder, garlic, and pepper.

"There are mini chocolate chips in the gorp," Woody says. "This is stupid."

"Woody!" snaps Adam. "Would you stop talking and send the cheese?"

Woody slices off a thick chunk of cheddar and throws the slab, hard and fast. It arcs over Jenny’s head toward Adam, who raises his knife and impales the flying hunk.

Despite the great catch, Adam is frustrated; it has taken him most of the morning to locate the tools left behind by the previous week’s work party. But elsewhere, the work is going well. Woody and Jeff have unearthed a pile of boulders and are itching to get their hands on the high line.

"We’ve got a dozen rocks ready for liftoff," Woody says.

After lunch, Woody scales a red oak tree, climbing with his boots slung through loops of webbing tied around the trunk. Ascending without a harness, he hugs the tree with one arm and slides the knots up with the other. "If OSHA knew about trail crews," he observes, "they would not be amused. We try not to cut too many corners on safety, but we’ve got to get the high line set up quickly and efficiently."

Earlier, Lampman told me that trail-crew injuries are actually rare, and limited to sprained ankles and such.

"That may change," deadpans Jeff, "if we get that beer sponsorship next year."

Once they’ve hung the cable from the tree-supported webbing, they anchor it at both ends around stout tree trunks, and rig a Griphoist winch at one end. Woody descends and wraps webbing around the boulder, hooking it to the cable via a traveling snatch block. Jeff fells a dead tree with a few strokes of his double-bit axe and chops it into short logs, which he places around nearby trees to serve as bumpers. Then he carefully sheathes and stashes the axe in his pack.

I often noticed other tools left lying around, but axes never stray far from their owners. The reverence for the axe has roots in the era when trail crews worked only with wood. Stone is now the most common material, but the axe is still revered as a symbol of craftsmanship. Whereas freshman crew members get single-bit axes, veterans are issued double-bits, in a ceremony involving plenty of fire and melodrama.

"A first-year person who lets his axe out of his sight," says Jeff, "can expect axe elves to run off with it and work their mischief. Maybe it will come back smeared with tuna, or hidden in a tree. If you’re careless more than once, the handle might even get cut off."

The high-line rigging system (called a skyline in other regions) was adapted to trail work in the 1980s in Maine’s Baxter State Park. By the mid-’90s, trail crews around the country had started purchasing Griphoists and rigging, finding that the system amplified their capacity to move materials through steep backcountry. For the guys working the Algonquin Peak Trail, the high line also happens to be a great prop for meeting women.

"Wow! So that’s how you do it." Two fit, 20-something women have stopped in their tracks to watch Woody and Jeff move a rock toward the budding staircase. Often, crew members answer hikers’ greetings and inquiries on the fly. But on seeing the women, Jeff and Woody set down their mattocks. After a short conversation, the women are ready to move on. Jeff asks if they would do him a favor.

"There are two other guys working a little farther up the hill. Would you mind asking them to send us down a couple of log peelers?"

Though a tool called a log peeler may actually exist, on these trails it is solely a device to chat up members of the opposite sex. I follow the two women uphill until, a quarter-mile later, they come to Ed and Adam’s worksite.

"Those guys down below wanted us to ask you to send down a couple of log peelers," one of the women says, smiling. Adam stops trying to roll a rock into a hole, and stands up.

"Thanks!" he says, smiling back at them. "We’ll bring them down." He leans casually on his rock bar. "So, where are you guys from?"

"FooOOO!" At 7 p.m., Adam yells for quitting time. The crew members stash their tools in the woods, grab their axes, and trot downhill. Upon arrival in camp, they exchange few words. Everyone picks something up and begins preparing dinner: chopping onions, cutting cheese, boiling water. What little conversation there is comes in staccato shorthand, in the service of getting food into calorie-starved bodies.

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