A makeover for the Lonesome Lake Trail

By MEGHAN MCCARTHY MCPHAUL
Special to the Sunday News
September 15. 2017 8:21PM

FRANCONIA NOTCH - By the casual banter flowing between Hanna Mellor and Ashley Fife Tuesday as they worked on the Lonesome Lake Trail, you'd never guess they were hefting hulking boulders and shoveling heavy loads of pebbly dirt as they put the final touches on a stone staircase that had taken several days to build.

They'd quarried the rocks - including some as big as the women moving them - from the trail and adjacent woods and wrangled them into place using rock bars and pick mattocks and grip hoists. They'd dug holes called "cones" into the rocky soil to make sure the rocks fit snuggly and lay level. As they worked, they cheerfully greeted passing hikers, the beneficiaries of their labor.

Through the summer and into the fall, professional trail crews from the Appalachian Mountain Club - including Mellor and Fife - have worked on this popular trail in Franconia Notch State Park so hikers will have a smoother trek, and the footpath will hold up to the heavy use it sees throughout the year.

"The amount of traffic that trail gets in the summer time is crazy," said Zack Urgese, White Mountains Trails Supervisor for AMC, who noted the work on the Lonesome Lake Trail spanned eight weeks during the summer.

"The trail's been severely eroded. We're trying to tackle every problem we come across - new rock steps, brushing-in the braided trail, reinforcing some of the hillside with rock, improving the drainage structure."

Urgese wasn't sure how many hikers travel the Lonesome Lake Trail in a year, but FNSP General Manager John DeVivo estimated several dozen trekkers hit the trail on any given weekday from spring through fall, with hundreds of hikers on the weekends.

With easy access to the trail from Interstate 93, a relatively short, though quite steep, length from trailhead to the lake (about 1.5 miles), the location of an AMC hut at the lake, a network of other trails branching from this one, and the sheer beauty of the trail's namesake Lonesome Lake, backdropped by the mountains of the Franconia Range, it's little wonder this trail is so popular. Hikers get a whole lot of bang for their buck here.

"It's no surprise that it gets so much use," said Urgese. "It's a sweet spot."

So much use, however, leads to several factors that can undermine the integrity of a trail. Hikers trying to avoid mud or rocks or maneuver around other hikers create "social trails" or "braiding," leading to trail widening and erosion along the designated path. Old check steps, large logs dug lengthwise into the treadway to hold soil in place, gradually rot and become ineffective at best and obstacles at worst. Stone staircases - and Urgese estimates there are more than 100 stone steps on the Lonesome Lake Trail - need maintenance and replacing.

The season-long effort has included the AMC's White Mountain Professional Trail Crew, comprising about 20 members during the summer season (May through July) and a smaller fall crew in August and September, as well as the AMC volunteer trail crew.

Last week members of the AMC's Roving Conservation Crew (RCC), which over the summer worked on trails from Maine to Massachusetts, joined the Lonesome Lake Trail effort.

Urgese estimated the total cost of the work over the summer at $45,000, with funding mainly through grants from the state's Recreation Trails Program, the Fields Pond Foundation, and the AMC Four Thousand Footer Club.

Tuesday's trail workers included the RCC's Nicholas Amadeo, who was installing check steps near the bottom of the trail. Amadeo was working with large logs the crew had carted over from the AMC's Camp Dodge in Pinkham Notch, figuring out where to locate each one, measuring and cutting logs, and digging trenches to place them using a shovel and pickmattock, a tool whose steel head acts as a pick on one side and an adz on the other.

A bit further along the trail, AMC professional crew member Johnny Mc (that's a trail name, given to some crew members by their trail-working cohorts) was working on a stone staircase he'd started five days earlier.

His tool of choice for the job was a rock bar - several of them, actually - which looks like a giant crowbar with a beveled tip at one end. Trail crew members use these to lift, spin, and flip rocks into place.

Above Johnny were crew leader Mellor (trail name Penny)and Fife (trail name Switchback), who were working together because of the size of their staircase. The pair was nearly done with the stairs, placing a few final touches before they would be ready to "brush-in" along the edges, which involves placing branches and cut brush to cover social trails and keep hikers on the designated treadway.

Both women are trail crew veterans and transplants from the west, Mellor from Albuquerque and Fife from Denver, who relish the physical and mental challenges of trail work.

"I really like the lifestyle of going extreme for your work week, then going back to civilization for the weekend," Fife said. "You also have to have a lot of mental creativity to figure things out."

That creative problem-solving includes locating and moving large rocks, fitting in the steps, as well as placing "pin rocks" to squeeze the steps together and serve as a guide for hikers, and "scree rocks," also called "gargoyles," along the outside of the staircase to prevent hikers from walking around and causing trail damage.

A day on the trail can be taxing, and not all the work is creative; some of it is purely repetitive. Still, the crew members, although not quite whistling while they worked, seemed happy to be moving dirt and rocks and brush last week, making the trail a smoother experience for all those hikers who journey up and down.

"Getting out in the woods and having the opportunity to work where so many people come for enjoyment on their time off. It feels a little bit like cheating the system," said Amadeo.


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