“A trail-builder never feels the trail is finished.”

Margaret Gerber, stewardship manager, Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust

There are more than 800 miles of hiking trails in Yosemite National Park. The Appalachian Trail is 2,200 miles long, though that number goes up and down as sections of the trail are altered or rerouted. Some trails go straight up, others achieve vistas via switchbacks. Trails ford creeks and seasonal streams, meander through forests and bisect meadows. Someone – more likely many someones – built the trail you hiked last weekend or plan to trek next summer. 

How do trail-builders do their work? Like hiking itself, it’s done in steps.

I. Assess the land

Maps help establish a sense of familiarity, but nothing works quite as well as boots-on-the-ground exploration. What’s the terrain like? Hilly? Wet? Thickly treed?  When Margaret Gerber, stewardship manager for the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust, was getting acquainted with the Land Trust’s Tarbox property in Topsham, Maine, she discovered wetlands, fern gullies, fields, upland forest and active vernal pools (seasonal ponds of water that are home to distinctive flora and fauna) in the 123-acre property that includes 4,000 feet of frontage along the Cathance and Muddy rivers.

II. Do the paperwork

Maine, like most states, has laws on the books designed to safeguard fragile ecosystems, including features such as three vernal pools at Tarbox. It’s Gerber’s job to know what rules and regulations her trails must adhere to, and she’s careful to file the right forms to keep Land Trust trails in compliance. She and the Land Trust, like the state, want to protect the salamanders and frogs that depend on vernal pools for shelter, food and breeding grounds. The trail Gerber built at Tarbox includes a 250-foot buffer between any bridges or disturbed soil and vernal pools.

III. Think like a hiker

What do we hope to see, hear, smell, feel when we set off from a trailhead? Gerber keeps those hopes in mind as she plans. She aims for a trail that will offer a connection to nature, exercise, discoveries, safety and information about the preserved area. She’ll ask herself, What’s the best way to approach that hill? And should the trail wander east so hikers encounter remnants of the old stone wall? 

IV. Flag the route

Once the trail-builder has tested her theories by walking the path over and over, checking and rechecking her plan, it’s time to mark the trail with flagging strips that are tied to trees. Next comes more walking. Gerber says she spent about 15 hours walking and flagging the half-mile Tarbox trail.

V. Gather resources

Tools: Chainsaws, handsaws, pick mattocks (combination pickaxe/ adze), loppers, rakes, little snips for trimming and fine-tuning. At Tarbox, the trail and its bog bridges are made of wood chips, pea stone, riprap (larger loose stone often used to armor embankments and stream beds), split hemlock, landscaping cloth. 

Muscle power: The Tarbox trail was built by a team of five: Gerber, one intern, and three crew on loan from the Regional Field Team. It took the team 300 hours to clear brush, saw branches, and remove stumps and roots. They also built bog bridges, and employed a technique called sidehilling. (Sidehilling, verb: To cut a “bench,” or obtuse triangle, into the earth to form a flat, walkable surface. Allows a trail to follow a slope’s contour rather than the fall line, where it’s more susceptible to water erosion.)

Miscellaneous essentials: tick and mosquito repellent, sunscreen, water. (The Tarbox trail was built in July.)

VI. Blaze the trail

Hikers look for painted marks, called blazes, on trees to mark their progress and move from one trail to another. Gerber uses the Appalachian Mountain Club’s blazing standards, which dictates the distances between blazes, their locations and other pertinent details that yield consistent trail markers.

VII. Maintain the trail

Trees fall and blazes go with them. Bog bridges, though built to last 10 to 15 years, need upkeep. Brush grows back, branches crack. Although hikers, in the very act of hiking, help establish a trail’s permanence, they also undo some of a trail-builder’s work. (For Gerber’s philosophy on maintenance, see the quotation at the beginning of this story.)

The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust has built and now maintains more than 20 miles of trail. For information on where you can go hike in the area, visit www.btlt.org/trails.