The Trail Conference Conservation Corps’s Trail Crews, funded through diverse grants and donors as well as contracts with government agencies, build, renovate, and repair trails in northern New Jersey and New York’s Hudson Valley. They support the Trail Conference’s overall mission by using high standards and best practices to create trails that are not only safe, enjoyable, and accessible, but also durable and sustainable over the long term.
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Taconic Crew: by Brian Mott, Taconic Crew Leader
May was a month of success for the Taconic Trail Crew and the rest of the corps! We welcomed our new 900hr crew members in early May. Taconic was the first site that we would train all of them on, so a lot of work was done! Prior to the 900hr members, the trail crew leaders of various sites worked together at Taconic to finish the stream crossing begun nearly completed in 2021. In just under a week, three leaders were able to install 3 large stone steps, finishing just in time to bring on our new members.
Once they arrived on the 12th we wasted no time and quickly got them out to our project site on the Wilkinson Trail to begin training. New crewmembers trained on new trail construction fundamentals while breaking ground on a section of reroute below the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. Over the course of just 3 days, the trail crew members as a group were able to benchcut 210 feet of completed, walkable tread- our new crew members certainly learn and work fast! Some sections of our route traverses steep sideslopes, so in some areas where extra tread width is needed, rather than dig further down we installed “junk” rocks excavated nearby as a small 10 sq foot retaining wall to raise tread height and hold in fill material.
I’m extremely proud of this corps and crew! Even though we only had a few days to work at Taconic and the focus was on skills training, we were able to get a lot done. The season certainly is off to an amazing start. As for next month, we’ll continue making progress on our current reroute, cutting new trail and building crib wall as needed. We also have a decent amount of stair work planned which will involve a lot of rock sourcing, drilling, and some rigging to move stones through the trees on cables. Aside from the main work on Wilkinson Memorial Trail, later this season we plan to take a detour back to the Undercliff Trail as well to put in a few more stone steps as well as making repairs to old staircases. It’s going to be another exciting month here in the Taconic Region!
June proved to be a solid month in terms of work for the Taconic Trail Crew. We accomplished a lot in such little time with various tasks. This was our first month together as a fully trained crew, and it was good to finally be working on our official projects- we were stoked and ready to build some trail!
We started out our month with straight forward bench cutting and general cleanup from trainings the month before. However, a bit further down trail we reached a more challenging section. Instead of nice hillside and dirt, which is ideal for bench cutting, we were faced with an extremely rocky section. We had to do more of a strategic bench cut, pull out certain rocks, leave some in, and even build up the back end of our tread using a method we call retaining junk wall. These sections take a little more time due to the amount of rock.
Further down the same reroute, we set aside an easier section to help teach our Hudson Valley Stewards how to bench cut trail. In just one day, with joined forces, we were able to complete a 54ft stretch of tread. It was awesome to have the extra hands and the stewards seemed to have a lot of fun doing so. We look forward to future workdays with them.
Lower down on Wilkinson by our stream crossing section, we got into another small stretch of bench cutting. The old trail descends a bit too steeply, so we rerouted the trail leading into the stream crossing by benchcutting 25 ft of hillside to create a more gentle approach. We also closed part of the old trail by junking rock in strategically and revegetating the area with organic soil, tree limbs, leaves, and plants.
Directly across the same stream where we bench cut and did trail closure, we put in some stone steps on the other side. The hillside is much steeper on this side so stone stairs were needed to gain the proper rise. The crew was hyped to start their first official stair project. We needed about 6 stairs to get enough height and the crew managed to get 5 throughout a shortened month spent tackling a variety of projects- it’s coming along nicely. The crew took a couple trips up to Undercliff as well and managed to get in 2 steps in! Not bad progress for a month’s of work.
The official Taconic Season is off to an amazing start. The crew is really working well together, and everyone is getting along nicely. It’s a great atmosphere to be in. When the vibes are good, the work is good, and it showed this month. We made a ton of progress on our Wilkinson reroute and are still cranking away. Stonework is always a great way to get your head out of the monotony of bench cutting constantly. So, the crew was stoked to get their hands on some stairs, and they have turned out amazing so far. We are beyond excited for what’s to come next month!
Palisades Crew: by Alexander Nayfeld, Palisades Crew Leader
The first weeks of the Palisades Crew being off on its own has been a resounding success. Work is consistently getting done at a streamlined and superb pace, and the interpersonal dynamics within the crew keep morale high and the individual members highly productive. The 700 ft stretch of the McKeags Meadow Loop on which we are currently working is improving every single day, and the crew is becoming more efficient and capable all the while.
The nearing of completion of the base tier of the main retaining wall structure was profoundly challenging. The logistics and engineering needed to execute the build with the limited tools at our disposal took some creativity and a lot of grit, but it’s drawing to a beautiful finale very soon. The goal now is to reinforce the base tier with a structural junk wall downslope of the structure itself, as the terrain proved impossible or impractical to dig into to properly bury the enormous base tier pieces. This idea evolved from multiple sessions of collaboration within the crew and with superiors within the Trail Conference as well.
Unfortunately, in late June, I sustained a minor crush injury on my finger upon flipping a large rock on tricky terrain after a long and fatiguing week. This prevented me from working at my normal capacity for an extended period of time, which enabled me to work on soft skills such as leadership, teaching, and management/delegation of tasks. The rest of the crew, therefore, was required to exhibit greater hard skills and rapid uptake of practical tools for trail building. The silver lining of the minor injury, therefore, was an overall enhancement of the total breadth of skills for the entire crew, and greater competence in key areas was acquired by all as as result.
Upon completion of this portion of McKeags Meadow Loop to connect with the newly constructed Augusta Mine Connector, we intend to finalize the closures to the old McKeags Meadow Loop trail via revegetation and sustained renaturalization, then move on to complete another section further south!
Throughout the pre-season and into the regular season, Sterling has been the focus of the most fascinating work of my entire year with the TCCC. Strategic lowering of water tables via the extension of inside drains, drainage armoring, and large-scale turnpiking (60 linear feet in total in 5 days alone) have all been highly instructive projects during this period. I am particularly proud of the extension of the inside drain, which drained the entire surrounding water table such that it sank below the tread while also inadvertently becoming a highly aesthetic yet natural-appearing trail feature. The extension of only 15ft of the inside drain backwards into the backslope was highly difficult, as it required substantial excavation, boulder-moving, and drilling of obtrusive rock. Working on the drainage structures in the aftermath of multiple significant rain events was especially difficult, as it required excavating beneath deep running water at certain periods. In turnpiking, sourcing rock for fill became an increasingly challenging task uptrail, as accommodating rock became scarcer. Future work on the section will require either delivery of fill material or deliberate sourcing for such purposes.
The preseason took on various challenges in terms of interpersonal communication. In discussing drainage structures and the related cause-and-effect relationships between certain key areas, for example, there was a clash of opinion and tempers flared. Through careful and honest communication, however, everything was expeditiously resolved, and the work progressed at an even more rapid pace than ever before. I would absolutely qualify this as a breakthrough moment between the crew leaders, as the importance of clear, open, and honest communication between workers is demonstrably paramount to consistent success. Work was largely concentrated within two main sections of the McKeags Meadow Loop Trail, marked with magenta and bright green on the attached map. The magenta section to the south was the section within which the turnpiking and “cribbing” was achieved, including 154.25 square feet of cribwall, with the help of the seasonal newcomers. The bright green section to the north was the focus of all of our drainage structure improvement during the pre-season.
Much was accomplished in only the cumulative two and a half weeks or so spent at Sterling through April and May, and it served as a highly informative training site for the crew leaders and all of the fresh Americorps members alike. Drainage and buildup of tread to grade are both elements which are essential to sustainable multi-use trail, and will both be focal points of our efforts at Sterling Forest for the rest of the season and particularly the reroute of the McKeags Meadow Loop. Prioritizing communication in difficult circumstances remains at the forefront of my mind for maximal crew cohesion and productivity as well. In the coming months we shall be working northward on the McKeags Meadow Loop to complete substantial retaining wall projects and refinement of tread-work, and, upon completion of this by the end of July, hopefully, we shall be finalizing relevant reroute closures via revegetation and naturalization.
Harriman Crew: by Mike Morris, Harriman Crew Leader
In the month of June, the Harriman Trail Crew accomplished a whole lot, especially given how short it was in terms of actual field work. Between training events and holidays, we worked at the site for a mere 15 days. In this time, we set 13 stairs but also prepared and moved a lot of stone that will make future building faster. This is a good pace for any crew, but especially one made up of members that only has a month of stonework under their belts. I am very proud of the progress we all made.
On top of stair construction, our crew drilled and split several rocks to create stairs and “gargoyles”, which is our term for side rocks that complement and protect each stair riser. Many of these were moved nearly 200 ft. via our highline rigging system (check our @tcconservationcorps Instagram page to see it in action!). The highline was in use until the end of June and was critical in moving rock pieces from our quarry site. Not only is moving stone a slow, labor-intensive process, but it can also damage vegetation and impact soils. Using a highline allowed us to stage dozens of stones high up on our worksite, ready for use as we continue to build, without this damage or back-breaking labor. This, combined with our crew’s experience level increasing, should make progress continue to speed up over the season.
As crew leader, I also feel compelled to mention some of the growth I’ve seen in my crew in the month of June. When the month started, there were some challenges. The crew was constantly unsure of stone building principles, asking questions, and requiring supervision. This is just a part of learning, and I certainly remember this phase of my own education in trail building. Very quickly, though, their confidence increased as well as their ability to take on projects alone, whether it be drilling and splitting a rock, setting a stair, or building a platform. While I am very happy with the amount of work we got done in June, I am even happier with the progress made in the crew’s skills and confidence.
Our near-term goals include setting 5-7 more steps in the lower section which should get us to the existing stairs, where our focus will shift to repairing and improving existing steps in this area, rather than building from scratch.
In the month of May, the Conservation Corps Trail Crews accomplished a good amount of work in Harriman State Park. First, the Trail Crew Leaders, along with two staff trail builders, prepared an area at the trailhead of the Ramapo Dunderberg Trail for an informational kiosk to be installed later. This entailed digging out a section of the hillside to make room for the kiosk and installing a crib wall to retain the remaining soil. This crib wall measures 4 feet tall by 11 feet wide, or 44 square feet. After this, we headed farther up the Ramapo Dunderberg Trail toward the Tuxedo Park Lookout. The trail leading up to the viewpoint had gotten so eroded that there were tons of loose rocks and exposed roots. These tripping hazards only exacerbate the problem, as hikers choose to walk on the sides of the trail, furthering trail braiding and erosion.
To combat this problem, we decided to improve upon the existing stairs, build new stairs where necessary, and plant big stones as obstructions to guide hikers on to our stairs, rather than off-trail. Upon the arrival of the 450- and 900-hour AmeriCorps Trail Crew Members, we began to stage rocks for this project. The hard work of these members, many of whom are going to be working on trail crews other than Harriman, will make for easier construction in the coming months. This rock staging was done by hand-flipping, with rock bars, and by using a highline set up from a quarry spot to our build site.
We also began construction on the stairs themselves. By the end of May, we had set 3 stairs on a staircase that will require 4, and 2 stairs on a staircase that will require 5. One challenge that this section presents is continuity: how will we build stairs that are up to our standards in terms of longevity and walkability, while also not looking terribly out of place on this trail which has a distinctly backcountry feel? All my trailbuilding in the past has used bigger, more uniform stones than we’re likely to use in this section. It will certainly be a change of pace to try to match the existing “feel” of this old, historic trail.
During this time, we were actively teaching the new members the principles of stonework. It was challenging to shift roles from builder to educator, but I am very excited with the progress that the new members are making and am sure we will have more beautiful stonework on this stretch of trail soon. In summary, the Harriman Trail Crew is up and running, improving and learning, and ready to turn this terribly misused stretch of trail into something more durable, long-lasting, and appealing. Our short-term goals include finishing up three lower staircases, two of which are the ones that have already been partially constructed, in order to move construction farther up the hill, where our focus will shift to improving the existing stonework.