Life at Liberty

Liberty Springs tentsite clings to the side of Mt Liberty, a string of platforms among spruce forest. The hiker must earn their arrival at Liberty, either along the steep Liberty Springs Trail or across the ridge line from Lafayette. But despite the tough trail, Liberty remains one of our top three busiest sites (2,161 overnight visitors in 2011), and arguably the busiest site for day visitors.

The original (removed since 1970) Liberty Springs Shelter
For these reasons (the rugged beauty of the site, the high-use location), the “over love” of Liberty Springs had AMC Trails identify Liberty Springs shelter a “problem shelter” by 1969. At that point, the shelters built of native logs in the 1900-1930s (of which  Liberty was one) were seriously deteriorating, and accompanying this deterioration was increasing visitor use. Liberty was a prime example of that unsustainable damage. Trees were hacked to stumps in a 200 yard radius for firewood. Trash was piling up by the ton. The area in front of the shelter was bare and exposed and impacted tenting areas had sprawled into the hillside. But the most pressing problem was human waste, which was collecting in pits that turned the landscape into a landmine and threatened the water quality of the spring.

AMC Trails decided that the site required more than a weekly check-in by trail crew. The solution was to remove the shelter and replace it with tent platforms and a caretaker on site in July and August of 1970. Platforms promoted privacy, and encouraged lower-impact small-group tenting rather than consolidated heavy-impact shelter use. While on-site, the caretaker’s primary role was to protect the natural resources of the site: the soil, the water quality, and the trees—instructing hikers in “modern mountain ways” of carrying out trash, and discouraging campfires.

Liberty Springs Tentsite today: rehabilitated
“The role of the caretaker is a central one,” the report of that first year at Liberty Springs states, as printed in Appalachia in December 1970. “Although he works on trails, transplants trees, and assigns tentsites, his primary job is education. Very few people who hike in the backcountry consciously seek to destroy the environment, but often, carelessly and thoughtlessly, they do….With a caretaker at the area, however, hikers can be reminded of their role in preserving the environment.”

Over the past 42 years since that pilot project at Liberty, the caretaker program has grown to steward nine sites through the White and Mahoosuc mountains. Many things have stayed the same in the work that caretakers do: as hikers swarm to the White Mountains, the caretaker’s primary role is to serve the resource and educate the public. But there are many things that have changed. Lightweight camping stoves are now the norm, understanding of Leave No Trace has increased, and we see more people picking up other people’s trash along the trail. We have further refined the techniques of campsite rehabilitation, we have replaced shelters and redesigned campsites and (importantly) we have developed an efficient human waste composting system. And, of course, caretakers now include women. One of whom helms Liberty Springs tentsite itself for 2012.

Liberty Springs is currently staffed by first year caretaker Emily Gamber. Emily came to AMC through the Camp Dodge Teen Trail Crew program, and decided that caretaking was the trails job for her. She is independent, easy to talk to, and dedicated to Liberty’s outhouse and trails. She also is a creative cook and is one of the few (maybe even the only?) caretakers that has requested Molasses as part of her food supplies.

Emily and Liberty's composting outhouse
I went to visit Liberty and Emily on a sunny Sunday, as day hikers tramped up to Liberty and some even braved the steep slabby descent of the Flume Slide. The constant train of hikers, and the swelling parking lots, speak to the continuing high use of the area. The wooded beauty and dense foliage of Liberty, the clear cool water of the Spring, and the rock steps of the Liberty Springs Trail speak to the work of the backcountry caretaker program over 42 years.

Emily will be at Liberty until Labor Day, where she will trade her life on the mountain top for her junior year at Wellesley. Until then, she’ll be greeting hikers and visitors, transplanting trees, turning poo into dirt through composting, and building rock steps and waterbars on the Liberty Spring Trail. Stop by and say hi!