|The Laughing Man, a natural feature on "Secret Mountain"|
Report from Secret Mountain (3,???’)
Corridor Monitoring and Preserving the Wild Experience of the Long Trail
One enchanted summer afternoon, a teen aged boy who was hiking the Long Trail stopped for lunch on a bare little mountaintop. He munched and looked north, up range where he was headed, and wondered how far he might get toward the bigger peaks today. While he had a strong sense of the magic of the mountains, details like the bunchberry blooming at his feet barely registered with him. He hadn’t seen, either, the bear claw marks on a half-dozen beech trees along the L.T. back at the last “gap”. Nor did it cross his mind that the treelessness of this lower peak was anything unusual. Focused on moving, it wasn’t long before he finished his peanut butter and honey and hit the trail, never thinking to explore some of the nearby ledges. While he trekked on toward Canada, the roughly crafted stone benches that had been obscured behind some low spruce on those ledges for over a half century looked out to the horizon, alone and unnoticed.
The inscrutable course of everything brought me, long after, to live near that same little mountain. It’s a local favorite day hike, and was already part of a circuit of neighborhood hikes I regularly did when I discovered that they needed something called a “corridor monitor” up there. The idea is similar to being a trail adopter, but not concentrating solely on the trail. The Long Trail ( like the Appalachian Trail) exists in a “corridor” through a variety of national and state forests, state parks, and private lands where it is protected in an invisible swath, here about 1000 feet on either side, through which the trail passes. A corridor monitor volunteers to walk the boundaries of a section of this strip on a regular basis. They check that the applicable markings, like red or orange paint blazes, are intact. Good map and compass skills, fine-tuned at a monitoring workshop, help to interpret survey maps and the “BDR” (baseline documentation report) monitors work from. There are tree tags to hang at intervals that differentiate state, GMC, or private lands. These are the most tangible and straightforward tasks. But mainly, what you are doing is observing.
The standardized form monitors fill out after every site visit outlines the day in the woods, with headings like “Boundaries Walked” and “Observations of Wildlife, Plant, Natural or Cultural Resources”. We’re also noting trail and shelter conditions, though there are adopters who take care of them. We record any wildlife encounters or sign. Monitors are on the lookout for any changes in the corridor (like, say, the cutting of an impromptu ATV or ski trail, logging road, etc.) that could affect the protected trail. We’re just eyes and ears, and the only direct action we take is marking the boundaries and maybe scattering an occasional fire ring. There is a neat blending of passive and active roles in monitoring; watching the land, maintaining the markings.
It turns out that these two roles are more integrated than they seem at first. When you go out to spend the day re-marking old blazes, you’re also going out hiking on the trail-less mountainside. There is no footway, even if you can follow the faded paint marks. To see land features best, we try to work in the “shoulder seasons” when the leaves are off, which can mean snow, mud, and ice on the hill. Secret Mountain’s boundaries had last been painted in 1997 when I took it on in 2007. Some were still clear, but ten years of blow downs, peeled bark, and fading meant they had to be renewed before they were lost. So I got right on a program of identifying the previously blazed trees and flagging them to return and re-paint. It gave me a chance to get to know the whole “tract”, surrounding about 2.7 miles of trail, while making progress on the vital preservation of survey marks.
Immersion in a task creates a unique freedom of mind. Up on Secret, I am focused completely on what I’m doing (“Where IS that next blaze on line N 15’31”E ?”). If I were simply hiking up a trail, it would be easier for my thoughts to drift toward stuff in my daily life - but not here. Everything is about opening my senses, peering ahead over my compass for that next old orange axe mark or remnant of flag tape. The terrain is usually steep side hill in moderately dense spruce-fir, sometimes dropping into hardwoods, around huge rock outcrops and boulders, in and out of ravines. The survey line doesn’t allow for topography, so if there’s a cliff in the middle of it, you take a bearing and find a way around to the top. Sometimes light ice or snow will be melting off branches as the day warms up, making for a micro-monsoon in the woods. It can be slow going, but time evaporates. Because I am sort of inhabiting that part of the mountainside for the day, as I go about my business, I start to pick up on some of the little things. That raven, for instance, that wasn’t leaving before me- I was the one being monitored. The super fresh bear tracks in the snow, headed up the cirque in November. The time a barred owl flew out past and landed on a high branch where you never would have seen it. The way robins seem to not mind the cold snowy mountains anymore and exploit high growing sumac berries like crazy! How moose, deer, and rabbit pellets can look mostly the same, just different sizes, and bear scat can look like anything from charcoal briquettes to cow pies, all depending on when and what they’re eating... Traces of the ancient road through the gap…
Thoreau wrote about something like this in his journals, in his miniature piece “Woodchopper and Scientist”. He called it “relaxed attention”, but he got the idea from Wordsworth’s thoughts on “wise passiveness”. When you’re intent on your work, as the woodsmen were, you’re somehow in a very receptive state for what is happening around you. A naturalist might study particular species and habitats to follow theories, and miss much by preconception and trying too hard. The woodsman just happens to be there all the time, he sees the plants change color and the animals change their coats, while he labors methodically nearby.
I learn about a conifer stand where the moose have been browsing heavily, not because I’m looking for that, but because the straight-line easement boundary I’m following happens to run right through there.
I know that the lean-to on this piece of the Long Trail has a watertight roof. The clouds keep darkening one afternoon while I re-flag the western boundary with my dog. Finally, it turns a weird twilight and I can smell the rain. We bushwhack east and get into camp just as the storm lets loose with thunder, lightning, and a torrent. It was time for a break anyway. The dog naps while I read the shelter log, snack a little, and doze off a bit myself. An hour and a half later we’re walking out in the drizzly aftermath, satisfied with having accomplished marking about 1500’ of line.
I find the stone benches one day while scrambling around looking for an opening so that I can see a nearby beaver pond, to check the seasonal level. A rocky area grown over with low spruce hid the way. The seats are partly moss and lichen covered and look really old. I start coming out here on my rounds, leaning against the cleverly positioned seat back, wondering who enjoyed this spot enough to build these, and when. Sometime after this, I accidentally discover a very similarly constructed “view seat” near a summit a few miles away, also mossed over and long forgotten. As the “eyes and ears on the ground” of the GMC, I list these finds as cultural resources on my report, along with the surmise that they may have been built by early 20th century L.T. pioneer Prof. Will Monroe and his crew. The Professor was famous for routing the trail past every interesting or scenic spot, so they seem to fit in with his taste - and his vintage. Although it’s usually the natural features of the landscape that grab me, I’m fascinated by the personal stamp on these antique neatly arranged rocks. It shows how attitudes about the land have shifted; it’s not something we would do on a mountaintop today. We’ll probably never know the whole tale, but the air of history surrounding these artifacts adds to the magic on this ridge.
Like many other trail volunteers, I live reasonably near my assigned area, making it easy to visit it more often than the one or two times per year that we agree to. I thought I was getting out a lot until I heard someone say they had filed 24 reports one year on their section. It can be very satisfying, locating a stretch of boundary and feeling like you’re really getting to know this part of the mountains. Every corner post or axe-blaze discovered is a little mystery solved. There’s also an awareness of taking part in something enduring. You, or someone like you, will be perennially circling, inspecting, and maintaining these borders as long as there’s a trail. Plus, it’s another excuse to hike.
Sometimes I approach the easement by bushwhacking up old logging roads, to shorten the distance when I’m working the section far down the L.T. from the day hiker’s trail up the peak. When I reach the corridor boundary, I’m always struck by how far it is from there to the actual trail. These “trail sanctuary” areas can be several hundred to a couple of thousand acres, and sort of constitute little wildland shires, each with their own unique summits, notches, wildlife, ledges, beaver ponds, and waterfalls. I cross this mini-wilderness and, finally, tumble out into the Long Trail itself.
Maybe the most important reason for maintaining a protective buffer around the trail is that it preserves a hiker’s sensation that they are walking through a “footpath in the wilderness”. It should give you the feeling that the natural space around you is all that exists. Access to this kind of immersion in nature is a big part of what is being conserved.
The teenager on his first thru-hike up the L.T. was living in a somewhat different era than the guy in his 50’s who volunteers on the mountain these days, but they both hiked a Long Trail that is in many ways the same. Sure, some things are a little different up here. The spruce-fir around the summit of Secret Mountain has started to close in the view, as the land slowly recovers from a now centuries old wildfire. There are also more folks out on the trail these days, though it’s still pretty low key north of where the Appalachian Trail turns off. There remains a sense of being on a remote, crag-studded green ridge with peaks pointing off forever to the north and south. Yet this is the same world whose population has almost doubled since that first end-to-end hike. That you can still climb up here and get this primeval feeling is an amazing and precious thing. On a long trail, it can be like you’re witnessing the earth as it once was, and feel yourself belonging in it. This is the hidden resource that will always be so essential for people to have access to, this feeling of being completely in the wild. Electricity, cars, laptops, and shopping malls are relatively new to human experience. To really thrive we need a way to connect to our origins, and a place like a pristine trail can take us there.
On the Long Trail, any tokens of the faraway industrialized planet usually come up with the hikers themselves. One blue sky day last fall I was trekking back from the gap when I overtook a distance hiker who didn’t seem to hear my hello - then I realized she was using “ear buds”. I managed to not startle her when I passed, and we both smiled. Later it occurred to me that she was hiking with 4 out of 5 senses, with an iPod substituting for one. Like the boy on his long-ago L.T. hike, she might not have quite yet opened up all the way to the entirety of what was around her. But then, probably after a bit the earphones got put away, and the song of the trail came on. I expect that before long the sounds of birds, insects, the wind, and her heart pounding as she scrambled up the dome of Secret Mountain were more than enough.
-John Drew Petersen, April 2012