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On a sunny August morning, two couples make their way up Algonquin Peak Trail, huffing toward a summit view that many consider the best in the Adirondacks. Approaching the halfway point on the 8-mile walk, the hikers stop and wrinkle their brows at a series of curious sounds emanating from the birch forest, near a partially built rock staircase. Over the wind’s murmur come several low growls and grunts, vaguely bearlike, followed by the clang of metal on rock.
Parting the trailside foliage, one of the hikers steps into the forest, toward the commotion. She stops abruptly at the sight of a man, rippling with muscles and naked from the waist up except for a grubby newsboy’s cap. Straining at a 6-foot steel bar, 22-year-old Adam Gullo tries to pry a boulder the size of a refrigerator out of a socket of earth and roots. As the ground’s grip on the rock begins to loosen, he tosses the bar aside and throws his bare shoulder against the granite.
“That’s it, Gullo,” someone shouts from 30 feet away. “You’re a bitch!” Ed Bell, a stocky, mischievous-looking 23-year-old, cranks a Griphoist hand winch, drawing in a cable rigged through the trees and hooked to thick nylon straps wrapped around the rock. As the cable begins to take up the rock’s weight, Ed cocks an eyebrow, Belushi-style, toward a swaying oak that serves as the rig’s spar.
“Look at that tree dance,” Ed says, grinning. “This one is really maxing out the system.”
The boulder jerks into motion and goes skidding across the dirt. Adam scurries after it with the pry bar, coaxing it through gaps in the trees. The hikers retreat, mouths agape, as the rock emerges from the woods, suspended from the cable and urged along by a growling, grime-covered man.
Adam levers it over a trailside berm and yells for Ed to release the winch. As the rock sinks to the ground, Ed pulls the winch handle out of its receptacle and raises it to his lips, belting out a sputtering bugle call that echoes through the woods. He tosses the handle down and bounds over to the trail, where Adam, sprawled against a tree, is rolling a cigarette. Ed sits down on the newly arrived boulder and reaches for his Nalgene bottle as the hikers resume their ascent, moving warily past the two men.
“Nice rock,” Ed says, after taking a long gulp of water.
“Yeah,” Adam nods. “That’s a real nice rock.”
A little earlier, I had arrived in a steady drizzle at the cabin that serves as staging station and crash pad for the Adirondack Mountain Club’s professional trail crew. The crew’s three work parties, mostly college students, spend 10 weeks each summer camping in the backcountry for 5 days at a time, rehabbing the park’s heavily used trails and building new ones. Consistent with wilderness-area convention, members work without the aid of power tools.
The lodge is set back from the Adirondack Mountain Club’s campground at Heart Lake, near several popular Lake Placid-area trailheads. Wes Lampman, who spent seven seasons on the crew before becoming program director, met me on the porch. “Basically,” said Lampman, “these guys work the worst of the trails, the ones that are too remote or too demanding for volunteers. They got back on Tuesday night, and Wednesday and Thursday are tool-maintenance days. Then they roll out again this morning, right after breakfast. Today it’s eggs-in-the-hole. Hungry?”
I followed Lampman into the living room, where gangsta rap played at a hard volume. In the middle of the floor, a guy with a mohawk haircut was belly-bucking another guy who had shaved the letters “TFC” (“Trail Fixing Crew”) out of the black mane on his chest. Sprawled on sagging chairs and a beat-up sofa, a dozen more crew members watched the proceedings, hooting and gnawing at eggs grilled into the center of hollowed-out bagels.
Lampman led me past dorm rooms jumbled with bedding, clothing, and beverage cartons, then down a flight of stairs into the toolroom. We walked past a wall hung with double-edged axes toward a back-corner workshop. Next to a boom box pumping out Led Zeppelin, Jenny Thomas, 19, was bent over a vise, her dark-blonde hair flopping into her face as she filed her axe edge to Jimmy Page’s riffs. The 15-member crew is mostly men, many of whom attend prestigious Eastern universities. Jenny, one of the crew’s two women, grew up in Costa Rica, and had recently graduated from high school.
After some low-key prodding by Lampman, people began to fetch dozens of painful-looking freighter packs from the basement, laying them out on the grass. Splitting into groups of five, they used bungees and parachute cords to load each frame with axes, 18-pound rock bars, mattocks, shovels, food, double-burner stoves, and personal camping gear.
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.”
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.
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.
Among the most important jobs, due to the immediacy of the payoff, is that of making hors d’oeuvres–“derbs,” in this crew’s parlance. Jeff begins by laying a whole box of Ritz crackers onto two platters. On top of each cracker he plops a hunk of sharp cheddar, a dollop of ketchup, and a splat of Tabasco. “Derbs are up,” he says, starting the platters around, one in each direction. In less than 30 seconds, the plates are back, empty; Jeff is already working on the next round.
“Mmmm,” says Woody, cheeks puffed like a chipmunk’s. “Good derbs, Jeff.”
Ed has both stoves fired up and is working on the main course: tuna glop (tuna, noodles, and cream of mushroom soup). Provoked by the rest of the crew, he pauses to bark out some realistic-sounding bear grunts at a pair of straggling hikers who are feeling their way down the trail in the twilight.
With cooking under way, talk and laughter resume. The conversation ranges from music and literature to gossip about other crew members, updates on the work itself, and unprintable jokes. Clearly, there is no holding back with a woman present. I ask Jenny, who grew up in a household without brothers, if she minds.
“No,” she says. “The only thing hard to get used to was the wrestling. You get these nights of madness, with people rolling around and furniture stacked up in the living room and 2 inches of water on the floor.”
“Sometimes it’s pretty insane,” says Woody, who admits he often instigates the wrestling bouts. For the past six summers, the 10 weeks of intensely physical work has served as a balm for 9 months of academic work.
“Those last few weeks of school, I can’t wait to get out to the woods,” says Woody, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in French history at Johns Hopkins University. “Now, after 10 weeks in the woods, the prospect of going back to study doesn’t seem too bad.”
Yet this season would be the last for Woody, Ed, and Jeff. “Six summers is pretty old in trail-crew years,” Woody says. “Now it takes longer for the pains to go away. It’s time to retire.”
This week is the last of the season, and the crew plans to celebrate with a going-away party on Wednesday. Held outdoors rain or shine, the shindig typically draws far-flung alumni and often includes the Trail Crew Olympics, a mix of Greco-Roman tests of strength and drunken lumberjack circus. In past years, the roster of events has included mattock-tossing, tree-chopping, rock-hauling, and van-pushing, as well as breath-holding (with head submerged in a water bucket), and sumo wrestling with sheet diapers.
By 9:30, everyone is heading to their sleeping bags, leaving dishes and pots laying on the forest floor. My offer to wash up is greeted by puzzled looks.
“Over many years of trail work, much careful research has been done on the topic of washing dishes,” says Jeff, as he digs his toothbrush out of his pack. “And we have determined that there’s no point–they just get dirty again.”
Wake-up call (Ed’s loud “Foooo!” followed by five equally spirited responses) tears through the mist at 6:00 a.m. Above my tent, sunlight has reached the tops of the birch and balsam firs, which glow a mellow green against a clear sky. Within minutes, everyone has converged, wearing stocking caps and untucked wool shirts. Ed is already firing up the stove.
Jenny begins unloading the raw materials for breakfast from the food barrel. Ed announces that he’ll be making French toast.
“Wait a minute,” says Jeff. “Is there some confusion here? It’s Saturday. That means eggs-in-the-hole, oui?”
“Then you cook ’em.”
“I will cook them, and I will make some sausage for you, Ed.”
“There’s some wicked duff in this coffeepot,” Adam says. “Anyone got a fork?” Ed flings a fork, then turns his stove over to Jeff. Adam tries to light the other stove, nicknamed “the circus stove” due to its propensity for spectacular malfunction. Sure enough, the feeder tube falls off just as Adam puts a match to the burner, causing the igniting fuel to spew out, flamethrower style. Adam directs it away from the others.
“Hmmm,” he says. Adam, an upstate New Yorker, is the quietest of the bunch. He gets the coffee brewing and, as the others trade wisecracks, leans back in his pack-chair with his newsboy’s cap on and feet outstretched, looking quietly entertained.
“Adam!” Jeff says, “You look ready for eggzinda.” Adam holds out his plate. “Send it,” he says.
“No, don’t send it,” says Jenny, seated below the line of trajectory. Jeff flicks the spatula, propelling the welded egg and bagel in a 12-foot arc to the center of Adam’s outstretched plate. The sausage is the next to fly, followed by salt, pepper, and Tabasco.
By 8 a.m., Nalgene bottles have been filled and drops of iodine added, and everyone is heading for their worksites. Yesterday wasn’t particularly productive, so Ed proposes they work until dark–a motion received with unanimous enthusiaism. But as Jeff carries the highline gear up the hill, the frame of his pack begins to wobble and sway. An inspection reveals that it is cracked in four places.
A few minutes later, Jeff’s axe handle breaks. In late morning, the blackflies come up, an annoying incentive to keep moving. But at Jeff and Woody’s worksite, the pace is slow. The pair has piled large rocks next to the trail, and has begun laying their staircase. But the enormous second step, with its flattest side up, is too large–by an inch–to fit between the first step and a truck-sized boulder at trailside.
“I think we’re going to have to explore flipping options,” Jeff says. “There’s another fairly flat side that might work.”
Woody is getting frustrated. “Usually a good builder on his own can set seven or eight steps a day,” he says. “I think this is the longest time I’ve spent on a single rock in 3 years.”
Just before lunch, a bearded 40-something hiker approaches, tapping his way down the trail with ski poles.
“You’re making the trail too narrow,” he gripes. “And there’s too many rocks sticking up.” Jeff does his best to explain the conservation ethic, but the man is not impressed.
As Jeff and Woody struggle to rotate the rock, a party of French Canadians approach.
“Dose guys up dere above ask if yoo can send down two log peelers,” one of them says.
“Two?” Jeff asks, eyeing the party of one woman and two men. “I wonder why they need two.”
“Yes, first dey ask for one, but den dey call back and ask for two.” As he speaks, a straggler catches up, wearing short-shorts and a tight-fitting blouse.
“Oh yeah,” Jeff says. “On second thought, maybe they do need two.”
The two women confer in French. They have a question for the trail workers, which the man translates.
“My friends, they want to know,” he says, “what is a log peeler?”
On Sunday, the team climbs to the top of MacIntyre Falls for lunch. The hummus is showing signs of fatigue, and the remaining bagels would be considered inedible in most environments, but the laughter is fresh and abundant. The crew tosses the food back and forth over the gap between two granite shelves, taking in the view of the western High Peaks.
I ask an open question: Why does the job bring folks back year after year?
“People see how we act and think we’re savages,” says Ed. “But it’s like a second family, these dirty woods monkeys. You spend a day moving boulders with nothing more than leverage, muscle, and skill, and you get a feeling of achievement that’s beyond belief.”
“Yeah,” says Jeff. “I’m only 22 years old, and I’m putting stuff in the ground that will outlive me.”
On the way down, we stop to inspect two staircases that Adam and Woody built earlier in the season. In half a lifetime of hiking, I’ve stumbled up many a clumsily built stairway, but these are works of art. Approached from the bottom, they sweep the eye upward with graceful curves. Yet these collections of rocks, with their coat of green-gray lichen, blend perfectly into their north-woods environment. Broad at the bottom and flanked by tapering borders of scree, they seem to promise nothing less than a lift up the mountain.
Late in the afternoon, a hiker stops to watch Woody and Jeff expertly flip a 500-pound hunk of stone into a cavity. After 3 days, Woody and Jeff have hit their stride; they’ve set six rocks since lunch, and their stairway is making its way, in an artful arc, up the mountain.
The light is fading fast when Ed and Adam’s “Fooo!” echoes down the mountain. As Jeff and Woody gather up their gear, two girls stop and ask the trailbuilders if they would mind posing for a picture. The hikers position themselves on either side of Jeff and Woody, and I frame the shot. The flash seems to stop time, burning into my memory an image of two enchanted girls flanking a pair of playful Adonises, their faces framed by white birches and backed by a fairy-tale staircase. In their eyes I can see the spark of nature and youth, with its promise of summits within reach, summers without end, and friendships without fail.
A minute later, the girls slip on headlamps and are skipping down the mountain. Jeff and Woody turn and make their way toward the campsite, walking with a bounce that one wouldn’t associate with the tail end of 11 hours of hard labor. At the turnoff, Jeff pauses briefly. Over his shoulder, an orange glow hints that dinner is well on its way. Ed, presumably at the fire, is grunting like a bear, and Jenny is laughing at something Adam said. Jeff turns to me and grins.
“This,” he says, “is the best summer job in the world.”
Tom Clynes aspires to build some quality trail of his own near his home in southern Vermont.