PINHAM NOTCH — Hard work, at times in challenging weather, coupled with great camaraderie and teamwork in a beautiful mountain setting — from its beginnings in 1919, that has been and remains the Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Professional Trail Crew way of life.
That time-honored legacy was celebrated anew at a gathering of the faithful Aug. 24 at the base of the Mt. Washington Auto Road as the AMC professional trail crew alumni and current members gathered for the trail crew’s centennial celebration, held under a big tent all day long and into the night.
A historical timeline along one wall of the tent shared many interesting facts about the past 100 years of the paid trail crew, including that future New Hampshire Gov. Sherman Adams (later chief of staff for the Eisenhower White House and founder of Loon Mountain Ski Area) was the head of that first 1919 paid crew, setting the crew’s high standard for quality workmanship.
As the display showed, trail crews back in 1919 only patrolled the trails while chopping out blow downs and maintaining the trail corridor.
Today with high use, steep graded trails, and high annual rainfall the trails suffer from severe erosion. They employ trail construction skills and techniques that help keep erosion at bay by installing drainage structures to get water off the trail and rock steps that create a hard and durable trail surface. The crew (15 to 20 in size) still patrol all 360 plus miles of AMC trails but focus more on erosion.
Starting pay in 1924 was $6 a week for a six-day work week; today, it starts at $423 a week for a five-day work week.
Another significant timeline pinpoints the marked growth in hiking starting in 1969, which put a strain on resources for trail crews, who had to respond to the increased strain on trail networks in the White Mountains.
Many of those interviewed at the gathering last Saturday shared that being on trail crew left a positive lasting impression.
“This was one of the greatest employment experiences I ever had,” said Chip Miller, 60, formerly of Connecticut and a lifelong educator at the high school level and former school administrator in Cody, Wyo., now employed in private industry. He who worked from 1980 to 1983 for the AMC as a shelter caretaker, volunteer coordinator and then shelter coordinator a few years.
“It was a fantastic opportunity of working with a great team of young people (male and female alike) and we all rose to the challenge,” said Miller.
Sharing that fond outlook during the night’s dinner of pizza, pasta and pork barbecue was trail crew veteran Dennis Danici, 59, of Bethel, Conn.
Now a pharmaceutical industry employee, Danici said he knew nothing about the AMC and the trail crew life prior to stopping by the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to ask about employment possibilities. He was part of the crew summers from 1981 to 1983.
“Working there was like an enhanced Outward Bound experience, almost like the military. What it did for me was it reinforced having a strong work ethic,” said Danici.
Part of his assignment his second year was to work with three others to open up Camp Dodge in 1982 after the AMC received a special-use permit from the White Mountain National Forest to create a volunteer trail base at the facility, located near the 19 Mile Brook Trailhead a mile north of Wildcat off Route 16.
Prior to that, crews had been housed at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, having moved there in 1971 from their former base at a house and barn in Whitefield, later named Hutton Lodge, where they had been since 1940.
The Camp Dodge facility is now in the midst of a renovation project, about which an update was given during the night’s proceedings by Steve Rice, capital campaign chair and a 1974 AMC trailmaster (see below).
Also at the table was William “Willie” Janeway, 56, who went on from his AMC experiences to a career in outdoor recreation and land management, now serving as executive director of New York state’s Adirondack Council.
“I was a trail volunteer in 1982, and returned to work on the trail crew from 1983 to 1986, serving as trail master in ’86” said Janeway, who grew up in Concord. “This guy Dennis (Danici) here got me started. I saw an ad in the Concord Monitor to help repair trails. It said they needed volunteers and they would feed you all you could eat. I signed up instantly, spent a week, and at the end of the week they said, ‘Why don’t you come back, and we will feed you and pay you!’ And so, I came back for the second half of the summer and helped with the volunteer trails program for the first year at Camp Dodge, and the next year I worked Camp Dodge, and then three years on the TC (trail crew) and ended up as the trailmaster.”
“It was the most memorable experience I’ve had,” added Janeway, “of being with a team of men and women, rebuilding trails and moving impossible sized rocks and allowing the White Mountains to have a lot of people hiking without being loved to death and doing good work, doing something really important.”
In other interviews, alumni female trail crew members said that the trail crews have featured women in addition to men since 1977, when Joan Chevalier, Joy Miller and Anne Michelac become the first female trail crew members and caretakers.
Another milestone was achieved in 1995, when Rachel Wheeler became AMC’s first female head of trails.
Ashley “Switchback” (her trail crew nickname) Fife, 26, of Intervale, trail crew member 2013-2016, and now a member of the AMC construction crew, on Saturday said women have always been accepted as equals on the trail crews.
“In the ’70s and ‘80s, there tended to only be a few women at a time on the crew but now there are a lot,” she said. “In the ‘90s, and throughout the early 2000s the 25-person work crew tended to be about half and half; then in my era it was about 25 percent women. Today, the majority are women, and half and half is what we are going for, so that’s pretty cool. I was the third female trailmaster in 100 years, and now we’ve just added a fourth one, so the way that women are becoming a more active part of trail work is really exciting.”
“I’m a carpenter; I used to be a mechanic, which are both male-dominated fields,” she said. “I think one thing that trail crew taught me is: they expect you to do the work and not do less than any man. We are taught our whole lives that we are not strong enough and that we are not good enough but given the chance, women always prove that they can. We all put 100-pound packs on our backs; we all get there eventually; we all set rocks. We sometimes have all-women work weeks just to have a little time away from the guys and we set amazing amounts of rocks, so men and women work differently, but they make the same product. ”
Zack Urgese, of Brownfield, Maine, current White Mountains trail supervisor for the AMC, said the AMC Trail Crew Association always holds reunions in the fall, generally in November, but that this year being the centennial of the first paid crew, the TCA’s Bruce (trail name, “Jake”) Jacobson – AMC trailmaster in 1977 – organized last Saturday’s celebration at the base of the Auto Road.
The day’s festivities included shuttle bus trips to Camp Dodge to see the renovation work, and concluded with Rice’s update on the capital campaign to upgrade the trail crew lodging facility there.
Rice in his remarks reported the campaign has reached 93.5 percent of its $200,000 goal over the past six months.
“We’ve raised $187,028 in campaign pledges to date,” said Rice, once AMC director of North Country Operations and now a principal with the ski and resort investment company, CNL Lifestyle Properties Inc. of Orlando, Fla.
He said the campaign is supported by the Centennial Planning Committee and Trail Crew Association Board. Part of the campaign is to create an endowment in memory of late AMC trails supervisor Bob Proudman, author of “Appalachian Trail Design, Construction, and Maintenance” and other trail manuals, and a self-taught wilderness advocate who Rice and others said “personified the inventive, freewheeling era of backcountry management.”
AMC CEO and President John Judge announced an award of $100,000 for the endowment fund.
The new Camp Dodge will feature a stone plaza and seating wall along with educational displays on the role of trail crews over the years and on trail work ecology and tools. It will also feature a new Hutton Lodge, named after the original farmhouse in Whitefield used by the trail crew. The Pavilion will serve as a training resource for trail volunteers and organizations and the kitchen will also be expanded for trail crew and volunteers.
The campaign and endowment, Rice said, will propel the trail crew into a second century, with Judge and AMC senior vice president Walter Graff both noting in their remarks that the trail crew represents the heart and soul of the 1876-founded conservation and hiking organization.