ALBANY — “Rocks, roots and stumps and more rocks, roots and stumps,” said Bruce Barrett when asked to identify some of the challenges he and fellow trail-builder Gary Barton faced when creating the recently completed Long Mountain Trail, off Vernon Street in Albany.
Using only hand tools and a chain saw, thousands of those rocks, roots and stumps had to be removed to eliminate tripping hazards and create a relatively smooth walking surface for hikers.
On the upper part of the trail as it leaves Mill Brook and ascends to open ledges, gaining several hundred feet in elevation, several design elements were needed to help hikers negotiate the steeper sections while preventing erosion.
In addition to stone steps and switchbacks, a sturdy ladder built from a red oak cut near the trail brings hikers safely to the top of a small ledge.
“This work is all done by hand without any mechanized equipment other than a chain saw and a drill, in the case of the ladder,” Barrett said. “It’s very labor-intensive.”
The rocks used to create steps are moved by hand or with the aid of steel rock bars, he added, noting that it took more than a week to create the section of trail that traverses the ledge and includes both a long stone staircase and the wooden ladder.
Getting needed building materials to the trail also presented a challenge, especially in the case of a 600-foot-long boardwalk that was built through a forested wetland and required the trail crew to retrace their steps many times while carrying heavy timbers.
Where gravel fill was needed, the crew made their own on site.
“In many cases, we crushed stone with eight- and 20-pound hammers to create gravel to fill in around steps and areas on the trail where holes developed from rock and stump removal,” Barrett said.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
In 2015, Mary McFadden and Larry Stifler bought land formerly belonging to Wagner Forest Management along Vernon Street in Albany, including the property surrounding Mill Brook and the western slope of Long Mountain.
The following year, Barrett, the Stiflers’ trail manager, began designing and building what is now a two-and-a-half-mile hiking trail that first meanders along the brook, then climbs to open ledges with views of nearby Round Mountain, as well as the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Western Maine.
With the exception of a short stretch where the trail joins an old logging road, Barrett said there were no existing trails in the area where the treadway is now located.
Work on any new trail begins with establishing property boundaries and identifying the destination, as well as any points of interest along the way.
While any walk in the woods has its own merits, most mountain climbers like to be rewarded for their efforts with a scenic vista or two.
On Long Mountain the ledges below the summit yield impressive views, making them a great trail destination, Barrett said.
The next step is to locate the trail head and find the best route from there to the destination. That entails balancing aesthetics with factors like the sensitive ecology of wetlands and geological features that prevent easy passage.
“Streams and wetlands are obstacles for the obvious reason that it takes a great deal of time and money to build structures such as boardwalks and bridges, so avoiding them or finding the path of least resistance over or through them is most efficient,” Barrett said.
“Ledges and large boulders can often be used as features in the overall trail design from an aesthetic point of view. Conversely, these features are also obstacles to be negotiated or (sometimes) avoided.”
In the case of the Long Mountain Trail, a former log yard on Vernon Street offers convenient parking at the trail head. Mill Brook, which originates near the foot of Long Mountain before winding its way to Bethel to meet the Androscoggin River, provides ever-changing scenery along the first mile-and-a-half of the trail.
Because the trail follows the brook, “negotiating various feeder streams and identifying overlooks to cascades and waterfalls ultimately determined the final route,” Barrett said.
Parts of the Long Mountain parcel were recently logged, which he said can sometimes present trail-builders with additional challenges.
“Routing trails through recent timber harvests requires a great deal of work such as slash removal and continued brush cutting over a period of years, and is best avoided if possible,” he said. “Also, the ruts from the logging equipment make for more difficulties and labor in hiking trail construction.”
However, because the logging that took place near Long Mountain left a generous forested buffer along Mill Brook, Barrett said contending with the aftereffects of the harvest was not an issue for his crew as they laid out the trail beside the brook.
The work doesn’t end once the trail-building is completed. Blazing and signs must be installed to help hikers find their way, and annual maintenance is required to keep trails cleared of fallen limbs and trees.
“In the year following trail construction it is important to return to the trail in order to identify problem areas where drainage may not be working as planned or to remove tripping hazards which may have been missed,” Barrett said.
“Finally, once a trail begins to be used by the public, the treadway becomes more obvious, leaves and sticks often get brushed aside or decompose more quickly, and a well-designed trail becomes well-worn and user-friendly.”
Barrett’s experience with building trails dates back to the summer after his 1988 high school graduation when he served as a trail crew volunteer at Arizona’s Chiricahua National Monument with the Student Conservation Association.
He continued to do trail work during a college internship with the SCA as a wilderness ranger in the Wenatchee National Forest and two summers of leading SCA trail crews.
“I have been doing trail work in Western Maine since 1999 and have learned a great deal in that time through my own experience,” Barrett said, adding that Barton, of Greenwood, “has extensive mountaineering and hiking experience and has been working with me for around 10 years.”
They have built many trails together in that time, sometimes with help from a third crew member, Kyle Snogren of Bethel. Their trails on Stifler Family Foundation land include Round Mountain Trail in Albany, the Overset and Sanborn River Trails in Greenwood and Speck Pond Trail in Norway.
“Bruce applies the same creativity, expertise and care to all of the trails he designs and builds,” said Larry Stifler.
“To create trails like these, he has to be part woodsman, part geotechnical engineer and designer.”
50+ MILES OF TRAILS
There are more than 50 miles of trails on land belonging to the Stifler Family in Albany, Greenwood, Norway, Waterford and Gilead, including many miles of snowmobile, ATV and jeep trails, all of which are maintained and open to the public.
“Several snowmobile and ATV clubs use these trails, and they serve as important links to other regional trails,” Barrett said.
There are over 20 miles of diligently maintained hiking trails, with the potential for many more to be developed, including a connector between the Long Mountain Trail and the nearby Round Mountain Trail.
One of the newest trails on Stifler land is a recently completed 2-mile mountain bike trail at Bacon Hill, near the foot of Long Mountain, constructed by Mahoosuc Pathways.
It shares a trail head with the Long Mountain Trail, and several more miles of mountain biking trails are planned for the same area, although Barrett noted that only foot traffic is permitted on the Long Mountain Trail itself, and said signs to that effect would soon be in place.
“With nearly 11,000 acres available for trail construction, there are many possibilities and opportunities for all types of trail-based recreation,” he said.
“We appreciate Maine’s tradition of private land being open to the public for recreation,” said landowner Mary McFadden, adding, “We enjoy meeting others out on the trails and sharing the beauty and tranquility of the trails.”
“Being out in nature is important to physical, mental and spiritual health, and today more than ever we appreciate connecting with nature and with community,” she said.
Hunting is permitted on most of the land belonging to the Stifler Family, provided hunters exercise caution and follow all hunting laws. Bear baiting, bear dogs, and trapping are not permitted except in individual cases in which permission has been granted.
“As a hunter, I believe it is best to know whose land you are on and to seek permission regardless of whether it is posted,” Barrett said, adding that he believes hunting along developed recreational trails is “reckless, dangerous and irresponsible.”
“The greater Bethel and Oxford Hills communities are very fortunate to have a neighbor who is so generous with their land and committed to providing public access, particularly in times when other large landowners are eliminating access for everyone,” he said.
Barrett added that he is very concerned about the potential negative impact on all recreational opportunities in the area posed by a proposed industrial wind power project with 600-foot towers in Greenwood, adjacent to the Stifler property.
Blogger and freelance writer Leigh Macmillen Hayes of Bridgton recently hiked the Long Mountain Trail with Marita Wiser, author of the popular guide Hikes and Woodland Walks in and around Maine’s Lakes Region.
Wiser plans to include the trail, as well as the hiking trails Barrett created and manages for the Stifler Family at Overset Pond and Speck Ponds, in the upcoming sixth edition of her guide.
“We were full of admiration for the work these two have done — all by hand,” wrote Hayes, a Maine master naturalist and the education director of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, on her blog, which can be found at wondermyway.com.
“In fact, if you ever think you want to do some trail work in your neck of the woods, I highly suggest you locate these two and spend some time working with them, for theirs is the best I’ve ever seen,” she wrote.
A sign marks the trail head for the Long Mountain Trail, which is located 6 miles from Main Street in Bethel, just past the Sumner Bean Road on Vernon Street.
Open ledges below the summit of Long Mountain offer views of western Maine and the White Mountains. (Amy Wight Chapman/Bethel Citizen)
A 600-foot-long boardwalk traverses a forested wetland on the Long Mountain Trail. (Amy Wight Chapman/Bethel Citizen)