Written by Randy Richardson and published in the Valley News on January 27th, 2023.
While almost all of us have used a local trail and read articles or books about a trekking adventure, few of us know the story of the trail itself. Through volunteer experiences in my home town of Woodstock and professional work throughout the Upper Valley, I have learned that every trail has a unique and important history shaping its present and future.
Over the last few years, the Upper Valley Trails Alliance’s High School Trail Corps has worked on the renovation and reroute of the Bicentennial Trail on Mount Ascutney. Thanks to the leadership and support of the West Windsor Conservation Commission and Mount Ascutney State Park, we have been redesigning the trail to make it more accessible and sustainable. Each time we traveled to our work site, we stepped over beautifully built stone water bars and climbed an impressive stone staircase.
As we began each work day, I felt compelled to share part of the story of the Mount Ascutney trails with our crews to help them understand the power and legacy of their own work. These invaluable and trail-sustaining stone structures are almost 90 years old. They date back to 1935, and were built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as part of the creation of Mount Ascutney State Park during the New Deal. Thankfully, there are photos of some of the CCC crews on the kiosk in the parking area to help illustrate the story and inspire our crews to move rocks and dirt on hot summer days.
Like most trail users, I spend most of my time on the trails closest to home. Many Woodstock trails have relatively long histories and wonderful stories built over many decades. We have these vital recreational resources, used annually by tens of thousands of residents and visitors, thanks to visionaries and philanthropists like George Marsh, Frederick Billings, Mary and Laurance Rockefeller, Mary Billings French and Marianne Faulkner, among many other benefactors, community leaders and volunteers. But it is the more recent and still evolving Ottauquechee River Trail (ORT) story I know best. For decades, many in Woodstock have envisioned an easily accessible public riverside park and trail.
Thankfully, an inspired group of volunteer leaders raised funds and worked for many years to create the beautiful East End Park which officially opened last May 7. The community enthusiasm for the park inspired Tom Weschler to recruit a committee and rekindle the vision to build a trail along the river. Not only does the ORT provide public access to the unique beauty of the Ottauquchee, it is a relatively flat and accessible trail – a rare commodity in the Upper Valley.
Over almost 25 years, we at UVTA have discovered that virtually every new trail needs a champion to be successful. Tom Weschler is the man who stepped forward for the ORT, and he is a true community leader. He is persistent and determined and was able to make the trail a reality with the help of generous landowners, community partnerships, many hours of volunteer work, private donations and a vital grant from the Woodstock Economic Development Commission (EDC). In addition to professional trail work by the UVTA and Arborscape, well over a hundred volunteers have contributed hours and hours of labor to building and maintaining the trail. Tom has also developed powerful partnerships with the Woodstock Resort Corporation (also the primary landowner), the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Woodstock public schools and others.
In addition to helping to build bridges, a staircase and a ramp with our UVTA High School Trail Corps, I have been lucky enough to directly benefit from many of those partnerships and volunteer days. As a result, I have countless ORT-related connections and stories, and a core group of those volunteers has not only become our trail committee but also good friends. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic was an unexpected silver lining for trails, including the ORT. The lockdowns made many of us realize that outdoor recreation was about much more than recreating. We came to understand outdoor activity and connecting with nature as critical to our physical and mental health.
I have very fond memories of ORT work time with my sister, Betsy, who moved to Woodstock from Virginia due to the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, we spent many days together on the trail as she sat in a chair crocheting and overseeing my trail work. Betsy was very proud of the work we did together, and, along with many of her friends from Zack’s Place, came to love the trail.
Unfortunately, Betsy unexpectedly and sadly passed away last year, but her legacy will live on through the trail and its story. Thankfully, Tom just found out last week that we were able to secure another generous grant from the EDC to improve the trail in a powerful way that would make Betsy proud. This grant will make it possible for us to make the first part of the trail fully wheelchair accessible.
The ORT Committee will build on the EDC support to make it possible for even more people to see and feel the beauty of the river and hills surrounding Woodstock. As part of this project, my family and I will contribute a memorial stone bench in Betsy’s honor.
These very personal and palpable experiences have helped me develop an even greater appreciation for our trails and their champions, builders, sustainers and community stories.
Randy Richardson lives in Woodstock and is development director at the Upper Valley Trails Alliance. He also serves on the Billings Park Commission and Ottauchquechee River Trail Committee in Wood-stock. He can be reached at email@example.com.