Professional Trail Crew

Ryan Graig working on a bridge.

“I have no idea how we’re going to do this”, I quietly said to a fellow crew member. “Yeah, this is absurd”, he replied, in a apprehensive tone. We were peering over the hundred foot upper cliffs of Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills. From these cliff edges we would soon be hoisting down over 200 rock steps to the site of a new staircase we were intending to construct.

I was Crew Boss that year and nearing the end of my 5th season on the Adirondack Mountain Club’s (ADK) Professional Trail Crew. As well trained and experienced as I had become through my time working on the pro crew for the past four seasons, I was still asking myself, how can I possibly do this?

It all started with my 9th grade earth science teacher, Mrs. Kohn. After class one day in the spring of 2007, Mrs. Kohn called me over and handed me a pamphlet from the Adirondack Mountain Club. She explained that ADK had a trail crew that maintained and conducted construction projects on hiking trails throughout the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. She told me that they offered a program for high school students to volunteer on a selected one-week project with a small crew consisting of two leaders and a few other volunteers. I perused the pamphlet and was captivated by the photos of wild looking women and men moving large stones with metal bars and their bare hands. I was immediately convinced – I must work on this crew.

High School Volunteer Trail Crew

Ryan Graig (back left) with his Volunteer High School Crew

A couple months later I arrived at the volunteer crew campsite at the Heart Lake Program Center near Lake Placid, NY. I got out of the car and was greeted by two shaggy and stinky young men in rolled up Dickies®, weathered t-shirts, and ratty old sandals (the weekend wardrobe of a trail builder). They introduced themselves as my crew leaders. Several other bright eyed, soft palmed, and slightly nervous looking volunteers stepped from their parents’ vehicles – awkwardly carrying their overstuffed backpacks of camping gear. We nervously met each other and were quickly put to work chopping vegetables and preparing for the infamous first dinner of the week; “burger night”.

The assigned project for the week consisted of building a few rock water bars on a blown out trail that climbs up popular Prospect Mountain near Lake George. My task was to harvest suitable stones to set in the ground to create a solid barrier to divert water off the trail and prevent tread erosion. It’s amazing how such a perceivably simple task such as moving a boulder through the woods is actually quite complex and dependent on artful strategizing, Rube Goldberg-like understanding of physics, and sheer determination. I was a confident young athlete who thought I could simply make the boulder do what I wanted – how quickly was I proven wrong and defeated countless times.

Professional Trail Crew

Professional Trail Crew member moving a boulder

“I don’t think I can do this” I told my crew leader. He told me never to say the word “can’t” on this crew. After trying everything I could think of and exhausted all my muscles (and all of my questions for my leader about how I could move this rock), I finally began to efficiently move the stone to where it needed to go and set it solidly right where it was needed in the waterbar.

Looking back on this seemingly inconsequential event, some may think it to be trivial. Yet this one event, in this one week, inspired me more than any other experience I had ever had. I can still recall my first experience of “burger night”, the smell of the Trails Cabin basement – stocked with linseed coated tools and motor oil, the grueling pack-in to the project site, and the exact Bowie song we listened to in the van on the way to the project. That week of living with a group of peers, camping in the backcountry, and building things with my bare hands led to an understanding of satisfaction that I had never encountered before.

Seven years later as a crew member and I struggled to comprehend the enormity of the task at Kaaterskill Falls, I found myself asking similar questions as I did on my first volunteer project. How can I possibly do this? I see this not as a negative trend yet, but as an example of the privilege of being continually exposed to situations of positive challenge, and overcoming those challenges through the help of crew members, leaders, and pure determination to succeed.

Being able to efficiently move an 800lb boulder with a metal bar may not be highly regarded skill in today’s working world. However, through five seasons of a devoted practice of accepting mental and physical challenges, I have gained a certain mental fortitude and an understanding of my own capabilities that I don’t think I could have found elsewhere. As we had always been able to do, my fellow crew member and I answered our own questions of how we were going to complete our task. We figured out how to hoist those 200 plus rock steps down to the location of the staircase at the bottom of Kaaterskill Falls.

Working on a Volunteer or Professional Trail Crew offers individuals the setting to work hard, live deliberately, and learn skills in ways that simply are not as easy to come by in other settings. Trail crew embraces challenge as a necessity. It is a necessity which reminds us of the importance of humility and the understanding of dependence on your crew members.

For more information about the High School Volunteer Trails Program visit our website.