On the Trails: Teens tackle trail work in soggy summer

By Randy Richardson

As the summer of 2023 comes to an end, it is leaving many of us with potent and lasting impressions, from the traumatic to the inspirational.

Constant rain and flooding in July were life-changing events in many instances, making it strangely validating to hear that regional weather records had been broken. The highest-ever July rainfall amounts were reported on Mount Washington, and in Montpelier and Rutland. The floods filled my basement at my house on the Ottauquechee River with over 3 feet of water; I am still cleaning up and repairing the damage.

Thankfully, I am lucky enough to have inspirational professional work that was a much-needed distraction. While we at the Upper Valley Trails Alliance (UVTA) also had to contend with weather-related challenges, these also made our work and accomplishments that much more necessary and rewarding. One of our planned projects at the Union Village Dam in East Thetford was literally washed away by the flood. Most every project was tougher, if not due to water damage, then to working in rainy, slippery conditions. Any of us who did trail work this summer ended the day covered head to toe in mud. Our washing machines got quite the workout.

UVTA’s extensive summer trail work depends on a crew of more than 50 impressive teenage volunteers to whom we owe a huge debt. The Alliance’s work to make and keep trails accessible to the public is driven by the generous support of members, donors, sponsors — and volunteers. Day after rainy day, our invaluable High School Trail Corps members and our Summer Trail Stewards disproved virtually every negative stereotype about teenagers again and again.

These intrepid 14 -to 18-year-old volunteers chose to sign up with us for at least a week of intensive community service and manual labor. They arrived every morning on time and ready to go, rain (likely) or shine (unlikely). Each individual and every group adapted to the unique location and often significant challenges presented by a given trail and the unpredictable tasks and weather.

To give you an idea, the young volunteers kept a good pace and positive attitude on the rigorous 45-minute hike to our work site on the Bicentennial Trail on Mt. Ascutney in Windsor. They transitioned straight from the hike to the very hard work of building a new trail. The geology and terrain on the mountain make for many challenges and choices. Digging in the mud was regularly interrupted by the need to move large rocks. As we were all tiring, I was impressed as I listened to two hard-working young women debate their favorite tool and activity of the week. Before calling it a day, they ultimately agreed on rock bars as their tool of choice and proceeded to move a 250-pound stone, successfully converting it from an obstacle to a step.

On another day, while building a wheelchair-accessible trail at the Chaffee Wildlife Sanctuary in Lyme, our teen corps members responded wonderfully once again. They were asked to shovel and spread stone in the rain, repetitive and challenging work moving literal tons of small stone onto the trail to harden it for accessibility. You might imagine whining, resistance and complaining in response. Instead, the entire group worked diligently all day, and made the experience better for all of us, creating amusing work rituals, playing a rock-inspired playlist and telling funny stories.

It rained non-stop during another project in Lyme as we worked to build culverts and other drainage solutions on a trail. By the end of the day, all of us were drenched, and many of us were coated in mud. Regardless, we needed to complete one more culvert, so I asked for volunteers with only the promise of more work and mud. We had just two young women on the crew that week, both of whom immediately raised their hands. Together we successfully built the culvert and closed out another productive day together.

Over the more than six weeks of work with the Trail Corps and Summer Stewards, UVTA created and improved many miles of trails, determined to build them back better and stronger in the face of climate change. As we did so, the members of the 2023 Trail Corps became much more than simply local teenagers to us. They are now experienced trail stewards, colleagues and friends.

Written by Randy Richardson and published in the Valley News on 09/19/2023