Backcountry construction is all about logistical preparation. Tools and lumber are heavy, so you want to minimize your pack load but yet bring enough to get the job done. Heading to the hardware store for the correct fastener can take half a day. You better double check your measurements and write them down, because you can’t check your voicemail or look through your email when you’re in the woods. And power tools? Well, they are all fine and good, if you feel like carrying enough batteries or a gas powered generator. The logistics of lining up the work involves coordinating staff, vehicles, materials, and, of course, the helicopter company.
In building Eliza Brook shelter, we worked in phases, working from the ground up: Phase I was setting the foundation posts. Phase II was building the decking and setting the sills. Both of these phases needed to be accomplished with precision, since what Phase I and II do is set the stage for the final step (Phase III), which was airlifting the disassembled shelter built by John Nininger’s Wooden House Company and reassembling on site. We’ll save Phase III for a later post. For right now, let’s turn to the backbreaking labor and painstaking precision that attends foundation work. And, also, the reality of building a structure in the backcountry.
The logistics of Phase I began in May, when we airlifted three 8x8 posts to the campsite in anticipation of the work that would take place in August. After cutting them on site to approximate 4 foot lengths, we had our six footings.
Being well aware of the technical skill and art that goes into John’s log scribing, it was all more important that we build a solid, level, even foundation. We are fortunate in that Mike Foster, our Field Coordinator, grew up in a family that owns and operates a concrete company. So we measured, squared out the corners, marked them, and then started digging. As we hit rocks, our holes got bigger. To get a sense of how deep the holes need to be, by the time we hit the requisite three feet, we could sit comfortably in the holes with only our heads sticking out. Many whack-a-mole jokes took place during this phase of the project.
Phase I was not without some backcountry construction errors: we decided to leave the heavy rock drill and generator behind, taking the risk that the ground would be without ledge or insurmountable boulders. By the end of the first day, the crew wanted the rock drill for blasting through large rocks at or near the bottom of the holes, as well as affixing a base plate for one of the posts. The good news was that the rock drill was waiting in the truck at the bottom of the trail. The bad news was that the trailhead was 4 miles away. Retrieving the rock drill took the better part of a day.
Another error we discovered when we left the woods, after we had squared the corners, strung lines, and packed the posts tightly with mineral soil. Turns out our dimensions were off by a foot. Two of the corner posts needed to be moved. Relatively easy to fix.
But we didn’t have time to dwell too much on the mixups, since we headed directly into preparations for Phase II (building the floor of the shelter, onto the footings we had set) with the helicopter airlift scheduled for three days later. The tools for assembling the deck required more thought: wood chisels, cordless drills (and batteries), socket wrenches (with appropriate sizes), squares, autolevel and tripod, various nails and bolts, joist hangers. Two tips to pass along, should any of you desire to take up work in this field. First, write down the tools you fly in, so you know what’s up there when you’re sitting down in the valley scratching your head for the next job, wondering what you have up there. Second, cut all lumber to length before you airlift it in. It’s much easier to cut lumber in the frontcountry, armed with a circular saw and an easy way to dispose of the scraps.
Airlifts in the trails world are always exciting. They involve being dropped over half a mile away from the site, often on rugged and uneven terrain. The spots in which we receive loads from the helicopter take place deep in the woods off-trail or in a heavily canopied shelter campsite. Eliza was one of the more dramatic airlift spots: the top crew had to sprint almost a mile to the campsite from where we get dropped, and the canopy is so thick that the pilot couldn’t see us on the ground moving the loads while the tall birches whipped from the downwash. As the long sill logs came in, two people would guide the load to the landing zone, while Carl Svenson (our expert pilot from Joe Brigham helicopter services) would adjust to our movements until he had the signal to release the load from the radio person on the ground.
In less than an hour, the airlift was over. Carl flew on to a job with the AMC Huts, and two crewmembers, Mike Foster and Beau Etter-Garrett (our Mahoosuc Rover) stayed on at Eliza to relocate the two posts, cut them level, place the sill logs and assemble the deck. They made quick work of the posts, using a crosscut saw in the absence of a chainsaw operator, fixing the front and back sills to the posts with lag bolts, and then John’s side sill logs popped immediately into place. (It should be noted that the back sill weighed 400 pounds, and Beau and Mike moved it by hand). And building a backcountry deck? Well, sometimes it’s just as easy as building a deck in the frontcountry.
Phase II was completed within 36 hours, with no missing tools, no error in measurements, and with some time (a week and a half) to gather our bearings before the final Phase III, of bringing a beautifully crafted shelter together for the first time. Which, of course, was not without its own human error. More on that later.
I left off the last post talking about how caretakers operate on a day-to-day basis. How we use the simplest tool possible to accomplish the job at hand. City life makes me realize even more how valuable a life experience Garfield was. In a world filled with BlackBerrys and iPhones, where countless people rely on overly complex apps to accomplish elementary tasks, it’s refreshing to have lived the dichotomy. For example, Mike, Sally, Steph (13 Falls caretaker), and I constructed a stone waterbar and the beginnings of a stone staircase. We used nothing more than a shovel, pickmattock, and a few rockbars to move around rocks weighing hundreds of pounds. On the door to the caretakers office there is a quote by Edward Abbey that speaks to this point: “High technology has done us one great service: It has retaught us the delight of performing simple and primordial tasks - chopping wood, building a fire, drawing water from a spring.” As polarizing as Abbey may be, there are few who would venture into the woods and would completely disagree with this statement. To live a life where all you have is what you can carry on your back is truly remarkable.
Around four o’clock everyday people would begin the journey past the Garfield water source, up the spur path, and into the campsite for the night. This was a great time of day; meeting the hikers passing through Garfield may have been my favorite part of the job. People from all over the world with all sorts of backgrounds would find their way up Mt. Garfield. I met everyone from the first time backpacker to a well-known climber with a PhD in outdoor education. In the civilized world, these differences may be too great for these people to be friends or acquaintances, but in the White Mountains they were all united under a love for nature and trails, especially the Appalachian Trail upon which you find a rare bread of hikers. I particularly enjoyed chatting with thru-hikers; they were a fascinating bunch. I particularly remember Tim who recently retired from a life of serving our country in the armed forces. His philosophy on trail was, “I hike until a feel like resting and I rest until I feel like hiking.” He did not care how long it took him to get from Springer to Katahdin; he just loved being outdoors. Another man, an aspiring novelist, was hiking the trail before he was going to move in with his mother and sister. They both had developed severe illnesses and were going to require his full time care. The first thing he said to me as he walked into the campsite was “I’m living the dream” and his spirit only got better from there.
Composting was an exceptionally rewarding aspect of the job. Although at first it was a little bit gross, seeing the tangible benefits of my actions in real time made composting in the end an enjoyable experience. I loved discussing the composting process with guests as they came in and out of the site and was always proud to inform people that one of my composting runs was cooking near 130 degrees. As corny as this sounds, I will often wonder how my composting runs are doing. I’m a bit disappointed that I will be unable to spread them around the campsite. Alas, maybe I can find a composting toilet in Edinburgh to work on!
Garfield Caretaker ‘10
Week Two: AMC Vol Trail Crew Acadia National Park
Hardening trail that was being rebuilt by the Park Service along with crushing rock, transplanting vegetation and highlining rocks both up the mountain and down to a work site from a quarry were all part of the activities undertaken by the AMC’s trail crew.
Great weather, well almost.On day two we found ourselves working at a lower elevation on the ADA Trail because of severe lightning and heavy rains. We did drainage work. On Wednesday and Thursday we returned to the work site on Dorr Mountain, one mile and over 700 feet above the trail head.
Megan, the AMC Crew Leader from Dodge, Bill the Volunteer AMC Crew Leader, seven female participants
(Joanie, Eva, Colleen, Becky, Gerry, Valrie, Cheryl) and Joe quickly became an effective team in camp and on the trail. In camp we ate well, did our chores, slept well (cool nights and hard work) and had a wonderful birthday party one night. The fireplace in the library became the focal point for evening conversation. At the work site the crew quickly learned the skills needed to do the work which supported the Park Service Crew. Everyone worked efficiently and the group was as effective as any crew I have ever worked with.
A great week!
Submitted by BillB (Grumpy)
On Wednesday, September 15, 2010, New Hampshire's Southeast Land Trust, AMC Trails Dept., and over 20 volunteers gathered for a day of bog bridge construction on the Piscassic Greenway-Cole Farm trails in Newfileds, NH.
About the Crew:
AMC Cold River Camp offers unique hiking opportunities in the eastern White Mountains with steep mountain climbs leading to scenic wooded areas and open ridge walks.
Your experienced AMC trail crew leaders will provide training and supervision for your volunteer crew throughout the week. This program is open to all over the age of 18 and first time trail workers are welcome.
We will head out from AMC Cold River Camp each day to our project in the Royce-Baldface region.
Work locations may involve up to a two-mile hike in from the trailhead. The crews will work four days during the week, (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday) averaging 6-8 hours/day in the field, with Wednesday free for enjoying the area. Projects may include clearing drainage ditches, brushing back vegetation, hardening trails with gravel, constructing bog bridges, or building rock stairs or drainage structures.
While based out of AMC Cold River Camp, the crew stays in cabins. All cabins have beds with mattresses and a nightstand. There are blankets and pillows available, but be sure to bring a sleeping bag as well to be extra toasty. There is a library, dining room and kitchen, and main bathhouse with showers and bathroom facilities.
The crew and leaders will help prepare delicious meals each day. There will be plenty of food to satisfy the trail worker appetite. After dinner the crew can relax, sit by the fire and read, or take an evening stroll.
This is a great way to experience the Royce-Baldface region of the White Mountains while providing a valuable service to the National Forest as well.
For More Information:
Visit the Cold River Camp Trail Crew Description
To Register, Please Contact:
Trails Vol Porgrams Supervisor: Alex DeLucia,
603-466-2721 x8128 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Trails Vol Programs Coord.: Lesley Heyl,
603-466-2721 x8156 or email@example.com
Photos: AMC Cold River Camp
George Dixon deserves an all-out round of applause for his efforts cooking for the annual AMC Trails Volunteer BBQ!
We hold our annual Trails Volunteer appreciation BBQ at AMC Camp Dodge Trails Volunteer Center. All of the individuals that volunteered their time in 2010 for AMC Trails, and their friends and family, are welcome to attend. We had over 95 people attend this year!
All of the volunteers and guests enjoyed the good company, raffle, volunteer awards, and of course the food. George Dixon was grilling and slow smoking pork butts for BBQ pulled pork, beef brisket, and baby back ribs for hours on end. Running the smokers for over 15 hours took George through the night and into early morning in preparation for the big event. Hands-down that was the best pulled pork I have ever tasted. George had help from Pat McCabe and Peg Nation and many others to prepare, serve, and clean up for this meal.
I want to say thank you to all of the AMC Trails Volunteers for a great 2010 season, but a special thanks to George and his culinary skills!