Great Story

Your senses are different when you live in a city. It is something that creeps up on you. You don’t feel much different, but somehow you learn how to sleep in a not-quite-dark room that abuts your building’s parking lot. You can pick up on the sound of a dump truck two blocks away and just know that it’s about to come make a racket on your street. You are an expert at predicting which car is most likely to cut you off (hint: it’s all of them).

These “city senses” were foreign to me when I came back to Boston to start my service year. I had spent three months working for the Appalachian Mountain Club, my current host site, running teen volunteer trail crews in western Massachusetts. For all intents and purposes I lived in the woods for three months. My home was either an 8x10’ canvas tent or a 1-person backpacking tent. It was dark at night. Birds sang, coyotes howled. My commute to work included mud-caked clothes from the day before, medical kits, extra water, food, and tools. We worked with our hands. Teenagers are generally a noisy bunch, but life was overall much quieter.

Although it was a big change, I was excited to start my service with the AMC on Bay Circuit Trail. My first few weeks were jam packed with meet-and-greets and field visits to the BCT. The BCT is a patchwork of towns that all host a section of trail, so there were a lot of dedicated volunteers to meet. I was looking forward to field visits, which usually meant hiking sections of the trail with a point person for that section. Beth, my supervisor, was attending a conference on my second full week of these types of meet-and-greets. She set up a few hikes so I could continue connecting with people involved on the BCT. One of those people was Al.

Al French has been a big name for the BCT since its conception, and he has stayed involved in his retirement. I was to meet him at his home in Andover, MA, at 8:00am on a Wednesday morning.  As I ventured out into morning rush hour, I realized how much my city driving senses had returned to me. I could ponder why Interstate-95 North was a bonafide parking lot (shouldn’t cars be going INTO the city?) while lackadaisically honking at the person that just cut me off after crossing four lanes without a turn signal – and not rear ending him! I watched the minutes tick by as I sat in another traffic jam at the exit for Interstate-93. Why would they make the meeting of the two biggest highways in the state so terrible? Who designed this? I thought as I saw a BMW try to cut the line of stopped cars on the exit ramp. Oh no, he was not cutting the line and sneaking in front of me. I think I actually said, “No, you will wait your turn”, out loud as I closed any potential gap he could get into. I looked in my rear-view mirror at the 18-wheeler behind me and silently rooted for him to join me in this vigilante traffic justice. He heard my calls and made sure this rogue line cutter had to wait his turn. I actually cheered. That’s when I knew I was back in the belly of the Boston beast.

I hastily arrived at Al’s house ten minutes late, profusely apologizing to him for the delay. He smiled, shook my hand, and invited me inside. He offered me breakfast as we sat and chatted by the fire he had going. I mused about how different my scenery had become in such a short amount of time.  Al took me on one his favorite stretches of the BCT. The first question he asked me on our walk caught me off guard: “When someone asks you what this job is, what do you tell them?” I said, “Well, Al, I’m an AmeriCorps member so I tell them that this is not my JOB, it’s SERVICE…” Just kidding. The first time I answered I spit out the small blurb you develop in any job, the standard response to “what do you do?”. He asked me again, and I realized he was urging me to dive deeper. What is this thing I’m doing? What is the Bay Circuit? Why am I here? I was hooked.
Hiking with Al

Al had a wealth of knowledge, stories, and advice to share with me.  I was fascinated, curious, and eager to hear what he had to say. He said he loved to talk to younger people and that’s why he enjoyed running his local outdoor store; he chuckled and said, “The young folks there had to talk to me, they didn’t have a choice.” Mostly, I think he was interested in bridging the age gap that exists in the conservation world.

Al also enthusiastically answered every question I asked him, and his answers always had a tidbit of advice or wisdom. I asked him how many times he had hiked the entire trail. He gave his best guess, and then the conversation turned to something else. A few minutes later he stopped in the middle of the trail and said, “you know, I thought more about how many times I’ve hiked it. I think it was three, my wife and I went together once. You should really get out without your cell phone and go do something like that with someone you love.” It was simple yet powerful.

We neared the end of our walk and stopped at a viewing platform overlooking a large wetland area. Al said he loved this spot because it was a great place to come sit, read a book, eat a sandwich, whatever you wanted to do. I agreed, saying it was nice to have a place to get away from the hubbub of everyday life, noting that technology distracts us so much nowadays that we’re rarely ever truly present. His response was, “Ah, yes, now that’s a good lead-in. I ask all of my grand-kids this – in your opinion, what is the purpose of education?” It caught me off-guard, made me pause and really think. Al had turned a simple meet-and-greet walk into something much more all-encompassing and thought-provoking.
Viewing Platform on the BCT
Our hike ended with a stroll through the Mary A. French Reservation, where he showed me a beautiful bench constructed to memorialize his late wife whom the Reservation is named after. We parted ways at his car; he shook my hand and told me it had been a pleasure. There’s not many times you can actually say “it’s been a pleasure” and truly mean it, but I was happy to say it as a whole truth. Needless to say, it was a much more pleasant drive home.

Molly Higgins
Community Engagement Coordinator – Bay Circuit Trail
MassLIFT AmeriCorps, Appalachian Mountain Club


What I learned from teenagers: A LNT weekend with Phillips Academy’s Outdoor Pursuits program

Cato teaching the important principle of how to minimize campfire impacts
 Last week I had this conversation with more than a few people:

Me:  “I’m spending this weekend leading a Leave No Trace Trainer course with high school students. Two of the students are serving as my co-instructors”

Doubter: “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

Me:  “Not a doubt in my mind. These kids are on it.

The Leave No Trace (LNT) framework promotes training, educating and inspiring others, and one way this is accomplished is through encouraging Trainer educators to continue to lead. (What is a ‘Trainer’? Someone who has completed a 16-hour Trainer course). Last May I co-instructed a Leave No Trace Trainer course with a group of students from Phillips Academy Andover’s OutdoorPursuits (OP) program, and this past November weekend, two of the students I led in May served as my co-instructors.

This partnership and unique educational set-up is partly due to myself. As an alumni of Phillips Academy, as well as of OP, I wanted to give back to the experience and program that had given me so much confidence and validation. A discussion with Mark Cutler, the current director, led to the inclusion of the LNT Trainer course into their ‘Sense of Place’ course, which is wild blend of experiential learning, OP principles, and history and philosophy.

Rebecca, one of the student co-instructors,  facilitating a discussion on teaching styles           

Outdoor Pursuits (OP), formerly known as Search and Rescue, turns 50 years old this year and is also famous for being founded by Josh Miner, the same outdoorsman who went on to found Hurricane Island Outward Bound. OP includes many of the expeditionary learning principles of Outward Bound (and the National Outdoor Leadership School), and has that similar mix of team building, self-driven learning, and the opportunity and space for personal reflection.

When I was an Andover student, (and it wasn’t all that long ago, a mere 15 years), the technological world was much different. There was no email. There was no texting. I had no cell phone, and my computer, a first generation laptop, was the size and weight of the concise Oxford dictionary. Cameras used film and videotapes. For all these reasons, the OP experience has become all the more precious. The need for time away from technology has been fairly well discussed across the landscape, but I invoke it now because it was so apparent to me when I led these students, students who were not so different from me, but yet so different in so many other ways.

In leading the Trainer course this weekend, the one of the opening actions are discussing group agreements. How do we want to interact? How do we want to experience the course? What is it that we can do to make this a better weekend for all? One that stuck out was ‘Leave PA behind.’

We spent the next two days wandering through the ethics of Leave No Trace. We discussed simple scenarios and complex personal ethics. We wrestled with impacts in the backcountry, and what it felt like to still see those impacts on their campus. The students, as to be expected, were articulate, engaged, and curious. And, of course, still teenagers, the kind that threw snowballs and acted a little silly during games of UNO.

The closing circle, after each student had given their presentations on the seven LNT principles, was one of deep reflection. Students applied their learning and experiences to their lives moving forward. Some of it applies to functional things like trip planning and backcountry travel, but some applies to the nuances of interpersonal communication and education.

Rebecca and Owen, my two co-instructors, shone early on in the course as they led parts of the classroom portion. They continued to shine throughout as they modeled excellent feedback, supported participants, and were willing to be vulnerable and share their own challenges and ‘teachable moments.' I myself valued my time with the students, as they were inspiring, creative, and totally engaged with the ethics of Leave No Trace.

The girls in the group, ready to head home from Zealand.
On a more personal note, throughout my career in natural resources, in my stewardship of wild places, I have become thankful for the seed of validation that came from Search and Rescue (S and R)/ OP and my time at Phillips Academy. What I learned was confidence, in my choices and in my being, and the importance of time spent in wild places to cultivating self and spirit. What I strive to give back, as I lead current OP students, is that same unexpected validation that it’s ok to follow a different path, to give them the tools that create the ‘I’.

It is pretty straightforward (and very difficult to resist) to draw a line connecting my S and R experience to my gravitational pull to work in the woods and live in a rural area, to directly connect the Sanctuary to the White Mountains, to connect my first weekend backpack to Moosilaukee to the months I lives in the backcountry. The problem is that doing so suggests a simple narrative, easily translatable but, also, highly simplified. Doing so fails to acknowledge the myriad of pulls and decisions and disruptions that have affected my life’s course. The role that S and R had in that narrative thread is that it was one part of a long series of experiences that continue to inform my life and work.

But, had it not been there, my life would be lessened.


Trail maps and hand-inked artwork for Mt Jasper

As described in this blog before, Mt Jasper is a small unassuming summit located in the Northern NH City of Berlin. While the 200 acre parcel it sits on has been owned by the City, it has remained largely undeveloped.

In the past few years, AMC has helped coordinate a large stewardship effort, from parking lots to trails to community planning, and the most recent milestone in this effort is a set of signs and maps.

Since Mt Jasper is both a beautiful natural area as well as being of archaeological significance, the interpretive signs describe the natural and cultural history of the area through combining information about hardwood forests and glaciation with Abenaki phrases and beadwork; these signs are located along the trail, ending with a remarkable painting at the summit which depicts the valley without the City in it.

Artist Mike Eastman (L) and business partner Andre Belanger (R).
At the base of the trail is a beautiful map that is focused on the history and significance of the summit for the Abenaki culture. (Abenaki? Step back in time to a New Hampshire that is un-colonized, and you will find the Abenaki).

What is absolutely remarkable about these signs is that they are all drawn.....by hand. The lettering, the borders, and each painting were done painstakingly by local artist (and Abenaki himself) Mike Eastman. Once the images and signs were completed, local signmaker and artist Andre Belanger transformed them into the digital versions that were then turned into the signs themselves.

Sign installed at the summit of Mt Jasper, after the ELC students cleared the view.

This summer, the Enriched Learning Center (ELC) in Berlin, a strong and constant partner in this project, installed all four signs along the trail, as well as clearing a small view for the sign at the summit. The ELC is an alternative learning program for behavioral and at-risk youth. Students perform community service around the City, including working on trails, community gardens, and even in people's homes. For this project, special props go out to Keith (the expert hole-digger) and John (who carried signs and posts up and down the mountain more than once).

Trail map by Larry Garland, AMC cartographer
Last but not least, AMC cartographer Larry Garland created a wonderful community trail map, that shows the trails maintained on the summit. The blue trail was constructed by the Jobs for America's Graduates (JAG) program in 2011, and the yellow trail was constructed by the ELC and the AMC Trail Crew in 2013. The yellow trail project was done in partnership with the White Mtn Ridgerunner snowmobile club, who improved their snowmobile trail to make it welcoming to hikers and walkers.

Since undertaking this project in 2009, the wealth of community support for these simple developments of trails and signs has been incredible. After five years of development, the focus now is on maintenance and support of long-term stewardship of the summit and the infrastructure.



Rock Work Advanced Skills Training will be offered the weekend of the Adopter Appreciation BBQ, September 13-14, 2014.  This workshop will be open to all AMC volunteers, regardless of program.
You will join experienced leaders to learn the fundamentals of safely moving rock, trail stabilization and treadway protection.  We plan to do some trail work off the Mount Washington Auto Road. Weather permitting we will do some rock work on the upper section of the Nelson Crag Trail as it goes over Ball Crag.  This section of trail needs work to harden the treadway and provide definition with rock structures like rock steps, scree wall and rock rubbling.  There are also some cairns in the area that need rebuilding as well.

Depending on the weather we will decide upon the appropriate location for the training session which will be held rain or shine.  Lower on the mountain, rock work done in the 1970's could use rebuilding to improve the treadway and drainage on the Madison Gulf Trail as it approaches Lowe's Bald Spot.

Tools, hardhats and all the equipment will be available.  Bring work boots, gloves and appropriate clothes.

Meet Saturday morning at 8:00am at Camp Dodge for Safety discussion and briefing on the work.  Breakfast and Trail Lunches available. 

We will drive up the Auto Road to the work site and return for the BBQ by 3-4:00pm.  Overnight accommodations and meals are available at Camp Dodge, during this 2-day Rock Work Session. 

To register, please contact Brendan Taylor at btaylor@outdoors.org for a registration packet. 

White Mountain Adopt-A-Trail program needs your help to fill a void of backlogged trailwork – all while enjoying stunning vistas from the alpine zone on Mt. Washington!

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