Closing the caretaker season

The only thing that really closes the field season is two feet of snow. Right now, although the majority of seasonal employees have dispersed, leaving behind a string of campsites prepared for winter and a glorious new shelter constructed at Eliza Brook, the gears are set in motion for projects for 2011, 2012, and beyond. Priorities need to be set, proposals drawn together. Repair? Rehabilitate? Or, sometimes, replace? Or, even rarer, construct anew? The only way to answer these questions is in the field, before the snow obscures the ground, the platforms, and the lower sill logs of shelters.

At this time in the year, snowpack can accumulate rapidly and without warning. October and November so far have been mild, light dustings. As a result, in the past three weeks I managed to visit half of the 14 sites in the Whites and Mahoosucs, as well as return to the Grafton Loop Trail. In the next week I have three more. The field season is most definitely still in swing.

While the purposes of these visits were to look ahead, I was most inspired and impressed by the work done in the past season by this season’s caretakers. I saw strong sturdy cairns on Bond, I saw flocks of saplings transplanted at all sites from Garfield to Carlo Col, I saw newly stabilized tent platforms at Nauman, and I saw rock after rock after rock placed in the ground. The work is evidence of a dedicated crew, caretakers driven by protection of the resources they rely on: water, soil, flora and fauna.

Resource protection is the essence of the work we do here at the Trails Department in general, and in the caretaker program in particular. Our AMC campsites are proof of the benefits of the caretaker program, as trees regenerate in areas that had been heavily impacted by tents and fires and rocks stabilize fragile eroded banks and soils. The end result are campsites that blend effortlessly into the surrounding environment.

To pick one site out of the fleet, Ethan Pond is a testament to the accomplishments of the caretaker program: trees have grown around platforms, the shelter is hidden from the trail, and, most importantly, the sensitive bank around the pond has undergone incredible regeneration. Prior to caretaker work, the fragile bank was trampled bare from hikers wandering to the pond as well as camping directly alongside it. The majority of the work done at Ethan is invisible to the untrained eye, but one can pick out the flocks of transplanted trees, the long lines of scree walls, and the rock path that crosses the outflow of the pond. Ethan Pond today is a quiet, secluded site, offering opportunities for solitude and wildlife (rather than human life) viewing.

One project in particular stands out at Ethan, fresh from the 2010 season: a redesigned and reconstructed kitchen area. Ethan, along with 13 Falls and now Eliza Brook, has a designated kitchen area to consolidate food odor and storage to protect the site from black bears and other wildlife. The kitchen area at Ethan was muddy, sloppy, and severely eroded around the edges. The area was uninviting to cook at.

This is not the case any more.

Visitors to Ethan are now greeted by a tiled path to the kitchen area, which is resplendent with benches to sit on, stable rocks to cook on, and dry compact stretches of mineral soil. Beds of transplanted trees ring the area, and sticks of brush bolster them from behind. The design achieves the purpose of resource protection through managing recreational impacts. Or, in other words, give a visitor a good, dry hardened place to put their stove, and you will protect the vulnerable unhardened place where they might otherwise put their stove.

The kitchen area displays the full array of technical skills caretakers employ in resource protection: technical rockwork, revegetation, woodwork, and intelligent design of a space used by hikers, with the intelligence derived from hands-on experience in managing campsites. Use of native materials such as rough boulders promotes a primitive aesthetic. This particular project was designed and implemented by Ethan Pond caretaker Ryan Wilford with Field Coordinator Mike Foster, both in their third year with the Campsite Program.

It is a project that speaks to both their individual skills, as well as the dedication caretakers show in resource protection. It is an exemplary project, and is just one among many that caretakers quietly accomplish every year.

(Photos: Ian Fitzmorris (Cairn construction) and Ryan Wilford (Ethan Kitchen Area))

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