Following an Unfinished Trail by Scott “Fisher Cat” Lang

Scott and Michelle on Mount Hale, White Mountain National Forest

Scott and Michelle working on Mount Hale, White Mountain National Forest

It is a typical drive north. With pre-dawn skies my only witness, I have taken flight upon four wheels. I manage to slip through the choking grasp of the Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River. I bypass the vast amount of rest stops found along the parkways of Connecticut. Now, with eager anticipation, I gauge the prospect of my bailout option as I approach the hydra-like intersection of interstates 84 and 91. Yes, there are intersections much larger, more congested like it throughout this land, but I love this route because its familiarity makes me feel like I am getting home faster, yet I hate it for almost the same reason, because I have to take it to get home.

I zip through an alternate route and am now aiming for the last obstacle. It is the worst ten miles of the entire trip, the ten miles of the Mass Pike from Sturbridge to Auburn. In times past, I have committed to this section of the Pike, only to descend the entry ramp and subsequently park my car. With such experiences in mind, I forgo the Pike and ride Route 20 instead. I stop and start again at the lights, but such delays are temporary. I pass the side roads and intersections known to the youth of my wife, gas up my car, and again I am off. The rest of the drive is a breeze.

As my car slowly gains altitude, so do my spirits. My cargo is metallically clicking and clanging in the cargo area as it somewhat restrictively dances about, it seems to enhance as I enter amidst the foothills of the White Mountains, and they unfold before me. As the initial stage of my journey nears completion, I bear left into the parking lot, then a wide, restricted yaw to the right, the wheels turn slowly, ever slowly, and the car stops. I am almost there.

The door opens and my legs unfold from their accordion like stance directed by the ever mobile chorus rung out by clutching and shifting. My back hurts, my neck hurts, but when my feet hit the ground, I feel at home. I feel New Hampshire work its way up my body to my heart.

I check and load up my gear with a cinch here, an extra strap there, a little tightening, and with a final lacing of the boots, I am ready to go. As I sense the waning of day, it reminds my deliberative motions that I must be going, for I have miles to hike. Despite my preparations, the gear digs into my side and I hear my stomach begin its deep, churning echoes to remind me it is empty. After almost three miles, I reach the campsite area.

It is early June in the Whites. A few intrepid, daring pioneers of the annual black fly hordes are making an appearance and are flirting with my exposed skin. I am cold, but I sweat from exertion. The tent pops up quickly, and all my damp gear is hurriedly thrown inside, a reaction to the fact that it has begun to drizzle.

Ever so hastily, I consume my meal, savoring the last blast of heat from the stove as tonight it will be in the low forties. Like a mother bird, I find myself fluffing, shifting, and maneuvering about, as I begin to make my nest. Space is scanty, so my head rests upon the undercurrent of a root beneath the tent. My body is still, if not more, sore than before, my eyes heavy.

Sensing sleep, my body awaits its opportunity to elope to the place where my heart is always to be found, a place predetermined, where my heart resides and evermore claims its right of existence. I attempt to hurry this amorous reunion, the sweet release of consciousness so my awakened being can slip to bliss.

Trail Maintenance Tools

Trail Maintenance Tools

Then, my ever-frisky toes hit something hard. I use those toes to sense what it is. I now know I am not alone in my tent. I conclude that the object is not my axe, nor my loppers; it is none other than the hardened, wide blade of my hazel hoe. Exhausted, but satisfied with my assessment, my day is over. I can surrender to darkness to start fresh tomorrow. This day has finally breathed its last and its shadows have made their silent escape to night. While tomorrow is a fresh start, it is hardly the beginning.

Welcome, not only on my behalf alone, but that of countless others, to the world of a trail steward, for that is what I am.

We would like to fancy ourselves with the romantic imagery of the woods teeming with hundreds of volunteer trail stewards at any given moment. Their muscles heaving as they move rocks into place, hefting wind blown trees off the trail, their axes and saws moving back and forth at a breakneck pace, or perhaps blanketing an area in desperate need of rehabilitation. For many, it means the giving of vacation time, or even putting their own personal hiking goals behind them. Indeed, there are times when it is a joyous outing, a family project or a group of comrades engaged in a good, wholesome work as this. But quite often it is a solitary, quieted slip into the woods, presence unknown, and betrayed only by the occasional hiccup stammering of a distant axe, its muffled thumps bringing it ever closer to completion of its task until it finally falls to silence.

However, the harsh reality is the enormity of the task that stares each volunteer directly in the face. The White Mountain National Forest plays host to some seven million visitors each year. They come for varying reasons: camping, fishing, theme parks, photography, sports, hunting, and sightseeing. They come in boats, canoes, kayaks, snowmobiles, snowshoes, Nordic and alpine skis, and upon all-terrain vehicles. Some of them visit once, and never return, while for others it is a traditional rite. Their numbers rhythmically swell and shrink by season, such as the famous foliage month. Throughout the year, we find the population of most concern to this discussion, the hiker.

Amidst this throng is a small, splinter-like size group of people. This past season they numbered exactly 1,074. Who are they? According to the North Country Trail Volunteer Program Annual Report for the year 2011, they are trail workers. There are 400 miles of trail overseen by the NCTVP, and the mileage grows each year as more trails fall under the umbrella of needing care.

These volunteers logged a total of 24,209 hours in the field, or roughly 22 hours per volunteer. At first, the ratio of 400 miles to 1,072 volunteers makes the assignment look easy, but this is not the case.

Of the 1,074, there are 17, who specifically serve as Alpine Stewards. Their job finds them strategically located in fragile alpine areas to help educate the hiking community of both the value and vulnerability of these rare habitats.

Of that total number, another 813 serve as volunteers and sign up for predetermined trail crew, which operate for a week at a time. That leaves a mere 244, who operate specifically as trail stewards, that being volunteers who adopt a trail.

These hardy souls average 18 hours per year. What may seem initially to have been a favorable ratio, now swings drastically to the opposite. It is an unending saga to fill the ranks of this classification of volunteers. To show their determination and spirit, roughly 10% of them have adopted multiple trails. All the more impressive, due to the fact that the average commitment to an adopted trail lasts 3 to 5 years, are the handful who have been stewards for 25 years, the 20 volunteers who have done so for 20 years, and the 40 volunteers who have done so for 10 years.

Michelle clears a water bar

Michelle clears a water bar

The goals of a steward are simple. They use only the tools they can carry upon their person, and shape the works of their craft with what they find at hand. Their backs are stiff from bending down to use their loppers, doing battle in the eternal struggle with the hobblebush, as it attempts to constrict passage of their trail. Windfalls, both large and small, some involving multiple trees twisted in a knot of branches, trunks, and bark, are attacked with the downward momentum of the axe. Mud, leaves, and all the other ingredients that compose an organic stew, are moved by both hand and hoe to prevent erosion. Rocks and logs are found, dragged, rolled, and even pushed into place, as they are cradled into position forming the pleasing, natural portrait of a water bar. They achieve the almost high-wire balance of both brush and liquid, as blazes are cropped, then painted in. Steps are built and boot-grabbing roots are clipped.

Nor is the steward suppressed by the elements. For even stenciled into the background of winters opaque setting, one can detect the steward as they can be found removing the latest bounty of windfalls. Since their main priority, that being to prevent water erosion by means of rock and wood water bars and drainage ditches, they are to be found inspecting their handiwork in the worst and heaviest of downpours. Such extension of self leads to a place few will ever visit, the state of pure munificence. It may sound like a great deal of labor, and frankly, that is because it is. Nevertheless, the goal here is not to show how hard a task it is. No, the goal is to show that the work needs to be done. For we know that trail stewardship is the second oldest profession in the hiking world, superseded only by that of the original cutting and routing years ago.

All the hours, all the miles, all the spent bodies and the good results achieved are undeniably necessary. Why is this so? When we think of the millions of annual visitors to these mountains, not all are accomplished hikers, nor does everyone possess the raw spirit of the bold bushwhacker, and as a result they turn to established trails. The reality of a well-marked, well-defined, easily followed trail can make all the difference in the world to a novice. In the long term, it is of great benefit to their personal safety and is a determining factor as towards whether or not they will become repeat visitors in the years to come. In addition, every trail that is hiked, enjoyed, and forms a pleasant and refreshing memory, sends the subliminal message that someone out there cares enough to keep the trail in shape, and the actions of just one trail steward can influence others to do the same.

Consider the almost complete contrast of wilderness beauty, that of urban blight. It is no secret in cities that the abandoned or maltreated home quickly becomes the eyesore of the neighborhood. If the trash is allowed to accumulate on the property, it quickly becomes evident to others, and they in turn are unfortunately emboldened to begin using said property as their own trash drop off. The value of both home and neighborhood are therefore, greatly diminished. How much more so this can happen to our woodland home!

In the first year of a trail adoption, I remember how shocked I was to find discarded plastic water bottles, gum and candy wrappers, even torn maps. The only possible reaction was that of zero tolerance, everything had to be picked up and carried out by hand. The result of such diligence has made the discovery of trash a pleasing rarity today.

Zero tolerance is also applicable in the steward’s role of eliminating bootleg campsites, some of which are found in sensitive alpine areas, as well as along watercourses. On the same trail, different year, while doing routine maintenance, we found orange surveying tape leading to an illegal campsite located on a natural platform right on a brook bed. The worst part of it was, not only the obvious danger to the water supply, but the fact that the site was easily seen from the trail. Every vestige of the tape was removed, the site brushed in, and it is slowly melting back to its original, undisturbed state. In order to protect the elements of the wild that so many hikers find delightful, the steward cannot allow even the appearance of elements that would rob these wild places of their pristine existence.

Painting Blazes

Painting Blazes

From where then, do these stewards come? Foremost we have to accept that one does not become a trail steward as a first, initial step. For many, hiking is a way of life, with defined objectives. Hiking trails goes beyond the limits of desire, habit, even passion, for it is a state of merry bewitchment. Hikers return each and varying season because they know what to expect. They come searching, and finding, the conduit to the tramping soul, a trail system that winds through this forested enclave, enabling an exertion that harkens to the inner self.

For all of the millions who visit the WMNF to hike, something happens to a few of them. They then transition from a hiker to an ambassador of the beauty they have beheld, a steward. They then see beyond the visual realm, and perceive its purpose. Most importantly, they see how they fit into the position of a trail steward. They begin to fathom how work translates to love. In a world that has grown all too small, they see that the best way to enlarge it is to give back. While any accomplishments gained by hiking bring us great happiness, stewardship is the responsibility of that joy.

A curious lot these stewards make, they are unique, but largely unknown. They have all seen and felt the cuts, nicks, scrapes, bug bites. They all carry their scars with pride. Their fingers can be stuck between rocks while building a water bar, and in doing so pinched with such force they almost burst like an overstuffed sausage casing. They have heard their sinews bleat in exhausted, silent screams, felt the electric spasms in their muscles as they fire and twitch long after the laborious chore is complete.

Despite it all, they carry the smiles, the tears, the high-fives of satisfaction in a job well done. They are graceful in gratitude for what they can do. At the end of a day’s labor, they will pour themselves into a local eating establishment seeking both refreshment and silent jubilation, and they will just as quickly disappear. They are unmistakable in countenance when encountered on the trail, but if you were to ask them their name, they are not likely to tell you who they are. Instead, they will tell you whom they are known as. We find their trail names are as rich in color, as deep in meaning, and as endearing as the trails they care for. Names as 1HappyHiker, trailwright bratt, Forester Jake, Fisher Cat, NeoAkela, and MadRiver. Indeed, as one can see, their names are far more indicative of what they are, for they carry more than just a means of identification, they carry meaning and purpose.

It is impossible to know, or even explain, the sole motivation of a trail steward, for that impetus is as varied as the sheer number of volunteers themselves. For some it is as mentioned earlier, a feeling of duty, obligation. They do not seek adulation, but only the preservation of the trails that meander through these hills. For some, it speaks of civic awareness, the good of the public, or the giving of oneself freely. It offers the opportunity to learn about oneself, while at the same time being conscious of others. Could it be a resurgent fear of loss that inspires some, the thought of losing an area of everlasting beauty due to simple neglect? That is possible, for we all become a bit trepid when we picture ourselves teetering on the edge of losing something we hold dear. It may be a recipe of all these things, a veritable potpourri of causes, or, in my own personal case, doing so in memory of someone else.

In the timeline of every trail steward there is a starting point. For me, it was when my father purchased land to build our log cabin, doing so on the southern region of property owned by my great uncle, Donald Lennox. Uncle Donald was a man I had heard of mostly by storied accounts. I must have cut quite the picture of a wide-eyed, mouth agape youth, as tales of yore passed through my ears. His knowledge of everything that grew, flew, and walked, was trumped only by his expertise in woodcraft. His feats on trail, making trail, and physical presence in doing so were the stuff of legend.

In addition to the trails he helped maintain, for years Donald had built and maintained his own personal trail system, snaking through the hundreds of acres he owned. Now, he was making a spur trail leading to, and ending at one of the largest white pines he had ever known. So massive it required three adults and two children to wrap around its trunk. Initially for this task, he enlisted my older brother, of which of course, I was extremely jealous. However, when my brother reached the legal age to hold a job, he was off to work. Now, it was my turn.

Whether in the woods or not, Donald always smelled of fir, had dirt under his nails, a jacket more tattered than intact, with big tufts of insulating fibers sticking out of the holes. He carried the tools of his trade ever so concealed, yet they appeared at his mere behest as if they came from a dimension I never knew existed. To this day, I still cannot fathom how he hid the not-so-subtle design and frame of a pulp hook on his person. All the while, he moved with complete, unhindered dexterity and adroitness.

Human powered

Human powered

There was no schedule to this project, we simply worked on it when we had the chance to as a team, but I had found myself smitten with the idea of making a trail, now becoming a reality. It was enough for me to learn by keeping pace, imitating his smooth gestures borne from years of practice. After a hard day of exertion, my uncle was off on one of his many multiday photography projects, yet I found myself singularly perusing our work.

Step after step I went, mindful of the corridor we had cut. I reached the end of our present progress, and I wheeled about to return home. As I did, I noticed, almost as if it were an offense to our project, a lone, leaning, sapling protruding into our trail. The posture of the sapling was so incredibly obvious and I contemplated why it had remained. Using my memory, and setting my bearings, I attempted to deduce which one of us had left it there. Then it hit me. Was this a test? what if my uncle was seeing if I was observant enough to notice it? The more I gazed upon it, the larger it seemed to grow. Surely, I thought, he is testing me. I hurriedly ran home for a pair of loppers, for it never happened upon my mind that in my paranoia of failure, I could have easily have pulled it from the ground. Looking back it seems foolish I would zip so quickly through the forest because my uncle would not be back for a couple of days anyway. Nevertheless, I returned as fast as I could to the scene of the crime.

As I approached, it seemed like the sapling had grown to gargantuan proportions while I was absent. I crouched low to the ground and the undergrowth to eradicate it for the last time. Like a cat testing out a confining space with its long, sensitive, size-related whiskers, I reached in with my pair of long armed loppers. One eye on the offender, the other in the event one of its rogue companions would rise to the defense of its brethren and try to poke out my eye. Finally, with nothing more than the tips of my fingers gripping the extreme end of the handle grips, I pushed them together, and the job was complete.

However, the most telling of moments was yet to come. Several days later, we were back on the trail together, and I resumed my usual position of bringing up the rear. I knew we were coming up on the spot of my frenzied activity from days ago. If this was a test, I was soon to know, hence I was calculating my uncle’s gait, reasoning if he slowed down, with or without verbal acknowledgement, it would be all the confirmation I would need. I kept my eyes from blinking far beyond the range of normal endurance, my ears acutely tuned for the sound of hesitating feet. My heart was drumming like a partridge hitting flight. Closer, closer, we drew, and then, just as quickly, we passed it by. I detected nothing.

We came upon the start of new work, and resumed as if nothing had happened. I do not know if I passed the test or not, but I do know that I felt good about myself, and the work we were doing, even than ever before. It had gone past the realm of a mere project, and had proven to me that I could be committed to something. Perhaps I had received a silent acknowledgement, a testimony that said I did a good job, but I reasoned, that is what I am now supposed to do. My transformation was underway.

We would never finish that trail. In 1984, my great uncle would suffer a massive stroke, rendering him completely paralyzed and speechless. He would linger until 1989 when his final release sent him to a place where he had always existed, a place where the trees grow greener and taller. A place where one’s limbs never tire from daily travails, a place where the rush of a forest saturated breeze carries with it the scent of earth. A place where one is beckoned by the whisper of spruce and pine as they open to take in a soaking, overdue rain shower, where the warmth that tingles through your body as the sun’s rays break the canopy and fall upon you to warm your face so gently.

I could not finish that trail without him. It was a piece of me that needed to be reclaimed by the forest, and so I sent it on its way. A strange birth it was for this future steward, for letting a trail go seems the opposite of our purpose. Now I know what it means to do so, how others can feel loss, and it makes me value the trails we do have, even more. Never again, I said to myself. Hikers will fall in love with a trail for whatever reason they may so choose, it is our job to make sure they remain available.

My own time was over, for trail stewardship had claimed me. By the age of 17, I was already helping maintain trails in the Great Gulf Wilderness. Though this course for me was set, and it would go into a state of suspended animation at times whilst I exorcised the pure exhilaration of hiking for the sake of hiking, it did not die, never a year went by where I did not do trail work. The calling kept bringing me back and now it consumes my trips north.

As much as a steward is motivated for this work for reasons known only to them, in reality, they are doing it for an untold many that will follow the wake of their work. So, while we can always impart the answer to the important questions of what and how, it is all the more important to answer the question of why, for it is in answering that question that each individual steward will be enabled to find an unending supply of resolve to carry on. In doing so, the role of the steward in the uncultivated, undomesticated hinterlands will ever expand. Many will go on to become mountain stewards, alpine and woodland forest monitors, and really, the list is endless, all because the steward keeps asking himself or herself the question of “why”.

If in the course of hiking you find you are the type of individual that will pick up a scrap of litter, or the type who sees a branch or blow down and can quickly surmise how easily it can be removed, well, I have bad news and good news for you. The bad news is that you have been stricken with the desire and ability to be a trail steward. The good news, we have a place for you. For you will find that the hardest part of being a steward is not the actual work, the toil of mind and body, or the aches and pains. The hardest part is leaving, of stepping off one’s trail and returning to the mundane life that we go into the wild to escape. Every steward can only wish to secrete themselves under the depth of the seasonal leaves, or amidst the crevices of granite that are scoured by a tree line gale, and hope that we could blossom endlessly and pick up each day where we left off.

As my body prepares itself for the long drive back from whence it came, my mind is already plotting its return. Someday I will leave this trail, but it will not be of my own accord. It will be here far beyond my life span, but my wish is for it to retain a remembrance of me. I pass the familiar bear beech tree, its many calluses of claw slow to heal, the narrow moss-covered boulder field with the remnants of the old logging railroad cutting right down the middle of it.

Time and daylight are fleeing again, but these landmarks are all I need. All I need to remind me of where I am on this great spinning earth, while at the same time keeping me grounded amidst the constant, gesticulating dance we call life. Moreover, life is not reflected, as it were, in driving the highways. It is not about a road being straight, paved, or one that allows us to point and drive. A hiking trail leads us to ourselves. It takes but a summit vista or a look over our shoulder after we have climbed that rock staircase obviously built by someone with much longer legs than ours, to remind us why we came this way. A trail reminds us of the ups and downs of life, the exertion, the pain, the sudden arising of joy we gain by observing and witnessing the aspects of life far beyond our control. That is why we need trails, and all the more so, stewards to take care of them.

The pain and muscle tightness once relegated to my shoulders slowly starts to descend my entire body as I slide off my work pack. Tools hit the ground with a suppressed thud as metal encased in mud hits pavement. I am ending this trip quite similar to how it started: I am sore, hungry, overtired, the only difference being that I smell worse, but that is fine, for I am still happy.

It may seem oxymoronic to discuss stewardship and wilderness. Despite our efforts, we have no control over the wild, to attempt to do so would mar that very description. We cannot forestall or hasten the process. We chop, snip, clip, dig, and move on. A steward’s work is both proactive and reactionary, for the work we do is captured in the present moment. The work is not always visible, or at best, it is temporary, until it is consumed and seized by that which is untamable.

These wild areas, in both mind and map, will always be, for they are a concept greater than we are, and there will always be trails leading to its heart that will require the voluntary devotion of stewards. Perhaps I am cursed with the imaginative, Elysian dream that at some point, every mile of trail will be adopted by stewards without the help of a paid labor force, or the help and assistance of a structure larger than us. I like to believe that we know how to care for our own.

Nor is the wild as hard to find as many may think. It can be as easy as finding a trail, or tract of wilderness, and getting on or off it, or in and out of it, as much as we may selectively desire. That is where the role of the steward is to be found. To onlookers, our labors may seem futile and vain. Yet we have never sought to harness the wilderness with lines and boundaries. We are but humble servants who work under the terms and dictates the wild places grant us.

A job well done

A job well done

Our goal, as stated, is simple: keep the paths that lead to the wild, open for the feet, mind, and hearts of all those that find that call irresistible. We are not an elite, nor above, but we do find ourselves banding together to form a skirmish line, probing, seeking, and steadfastly defending the passages to where the wild both resides, and is waiting to be found.

There will be highs and lows in this unending endeavor. There will be times of plenty and always times of want when it comes to the amount of volunteers in the field. Yet, I have discovered two certainties. The first is that I have seen how the giving of self in time and energy far surpasses, and negates, the status claimed by wealth and power, and puts all of us on equal terms in order to volunteer. Noble causes abound, but perhaps none like the trail steward appeases the desire of the connection of our physical and spiritual demands and their collective need to unite in the harkened wilderness of this land.

The last point is a reality, an equation of sorts, with a solution that is infinite. People want to hike, and there is a system of trails existing for them to do so. Every tree, brook, or even a high, wonderful mountain view, all these call out to hikers in words that cannot go ignored. We attain to these places, and then struggle to find words that describe what we find. However, the trail steward hears more than a call of words that herald the hiker. The steward hears something truly unique. To us, the trails sing, in a melody only we can hear. Someday, it may just call you. It starts as a faint, streaming echo in the ear, calling upon them to locate the source. Then, it becomes louder, steady, and unquestionable. You will find it causes you to whistle along with it as you grab your tools and slip into its becoming, silent environs as you work in harmony with it.

It is really a conclusion most simplistic. There is always going to be plenty of work for the trail steward. There will be miles upon miles of trails amidst the great wild reaches of forest and hill. Perhaps this is a blessing not perceived by the multitudes, but remains the sole realization and treasure of each volunteer trail steward, for the reason that it simply guarantees our survival. And each season, as we sharpen our axes, grease our boot laces, and await the vocal invitation of the vireo and thrush, there is a quiet satisfaction, the kind of contentment in life that arises from the acceptance that we would not live our life any other way.

About Scott “Fisher Cat” Lang

Scott Lang is a Trail Adopter for the Osseo Trail and also the Region Leader for Franconia South Adopt a Trail. He and his wife Michelle, also a Trail Adopter, live in Pennsylvania, but return to the White Mountains every summer for 4 or 5 weeks to hike and do trail work. Scott is also a Historical Trekker, hiking the Whites portraying early Colonial life in the period of 1725-1789, a member of the Randolph Mountain Club, and has climbed all of the White Mountain 4,000 footers. This is Scott’s 25th year as a trail maintenance volunteer.

This essay on trail stewardship was submitted to this year’s Waterman Fund Annual Essay Contest, where it is was in the top 5 entries. Last year, Scott’s essay was in the top 3.

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3 Responses to Following an Unfinished Trail by Scott “Fisher Cat” Lang

  1. Steve July 17, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

    Fantastic Scott!

    • Earlylite July 17, 2012 at 10:47 pm #

      I love this post – the part about your uncle was very moving.

  2. Fisher Cat July 18, 2012 at 4:32 pm #

    Thanks Steve, I appreciate it!

    and thank you too Earlylite, he was, still is, an incredible man. Its amazing where the legacy of another can take you.

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