Interested in backcountry skiing? Trail maintenance is a great way to contribute to the community and to prepare the trails for winter.
My Saturday started just before sunrise, when I departed the Champlain Valley on a series of winding mountain roads, moving towards the rising sun. Cows stood in fields glazed with the first hard frost of the season. I descended into Randolph as the sun broke free of the horizon and bathed the landscape in warm morning sunlight. After stopping for coffee, I headed into neighboring Braintree and turned onto a dirt road, into a shady hollow flanked by steep hillsides. The thermometer on my dashboard blinked and dropped into the 30s.
On the side of the road, a cluster of pickup trucks and Subarus had parked at the intersection with a class four dirt road and a crowd had gathered, sipping coffee and exchanging good-mornings. Of the roughly 40 of us, four had chainsaws, two had pole saws, and the rest of us supplied hand tools; a small armory of bucksaws, hatchets, clippers, two Swedish brush axes and one double-bit felling axe. To any bystander, we appeared ready to clear some serious brush or pillage a small coastal village.
As it turned out, we were there for the former. The Saturday morning group was there for a glade-cutting day in the Braintree Mountain Forest, approximately 1,500 acres of forest donated last year by landowners Paul Kendall and Sharon Rives to the New England Forestry Foundation. The mountainous terrain extends up a ridge capped with four peaks rising to 3,030 feet, known locally (south to north) as Round Top, Twin Peaks, Skidoo, and 30-30. And under the guidance of foresters and trail building professionals, volunteers with the Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance have begun to maintain skiing glades that are open for the enjoyment of everyone. For those of us that drove from as far away as Burlington, the day’s work was a win-win situation: the glades were maintained and the forest was kept in good health. Plus, when snow covered the hillsides, we who rolled out of bed early on a Saturday morning would know exactly where the stash was.
At 9:45 we piled into the beds of pickup trucks, which rumbled up the narrow dirt road to a trailhead, where we followed an ancient logging road up into woods. Us younger guys alternated hauling a plastic sled laden with tools, a first aid kit, more clippers and saws, gasoline and for when we were finished, coolers filed with food and growlers of beer from nearby Bent Hill Brewing. We hiked about a mile to a secluded, if somewhat dilapidated cabin, which RASTA hopes to one day restore for overnight trips.
At the cabin, we left the sled and shed layers before we ascended again, this time up a series of switchbacks that would be the skin-track in the winter. The track paralleled the 950-foot glade RASTA cut the previous year. Near the summit of 2,900-foot Skidoo mountain, we got a primer; striped maple, hobblebush and other overabundant species could go; softwoods like pine or spruce stayed along with anything in good health. With the introductions out of the way, the chainsaw guys donned chaps and helmets and the rest of us pulled out the saws and clippers. With the sun at our backs, we started a long walk down the northeast aspect of the mountainside, cutting as we went.
Those with the chainsaws and pole saws walked point, doing the heaviest work while those with hand tools followed, cutting up and hauling the deadfall. Any tree limbs and saplings were placed in natural depressions or on either sides of drops for gentle transitions. When the snow covers the landscape in the coming months, Braintree Mountain Forest will have well-spaced trees and tempting drops and kickers.
We paused only for lunch and when the chainsaws stopped roaring in the afternoon we had created a 700-foot glade and celebrated the end of the day with chili cooked on a stove, a bonfire, good company and high hopes for the coming winter.
If you’re excited about Vermont’s growing backcountry skiing scene and want to contribute to the discussion, check out the third annual Vermont Backcountry Forum, Nov. 5 at the Pierce Hall Community Center in Rochester, Vt.