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For H.S. Trail Corps, Elbow Grease Goes a Long Way

Thursday, July 16, 2015
Lebanon — In anticipation of its 100th anniversary next year and to encourage the use of natural areas, the National Park Service has introduced a campaign called “Find Your Park.”

Thanks in part to an NPS grant, for the third straight year the Upper Valley High School Trail Corps is helping area teenagers find multiple parks in the region — and improve them.

Facilitated by the nonprofit Upper Valley Trails Alliance, this year’s Trail Corps is comprised of 45 students from 11 schools. Split into four groups serving for one week each, the groups visit various trail sites to work on important maintenance and construction projects.

This week’s group of 11 began Monday by building a wildlife viewing blind at Lyme’s Chaffee Wildlife Sanctuary before starting a stone staircase at Gile Mountain in Norwich on Tuesday. Wednesday’s mission was to remove railroad ties from the defunct Boston & Maine rail corridor in Lebanon, making way for the future Mascoma River Greenway. A concept more than a decade in the making, the Greenway will be a 4-mile multi-use path connecting downtown Lebanon with West Lebanon and extending the 48-mile Northern Rail Trail to just shy of the Vermont border.

Aside from the vital work being performed by the students, the UVTA is hoping the Trail Corps fosters enthusiasm for community trail networks while introducing principles of maintenance and stewardship to a new generation. Industry leaders around the country have pointed to the graying of such stewards and the need for commitment by younger age groups.

Wednesday’s group was led by UVTA executive director Russell Hirschler and intern Kellen Wartnow as well as Lebanon director of recreation and parks Paul Coats and Lelia Mellen, the regional director for a technical assistance program administered by the National Park Service. Mellen’s contributions — as well as a $25-per-day stipend awarded to each student — are made possible by donations and an NPS grant.

Coats, a chief driver of the Mascoma River Greenway’s progress over the years, explained the importance of the Northern Rail Trail and the MRG to the group before getting started Wednesday.

“Whether you live in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Upper Valley, something like the Northern Rail Trail has a huge impact,” he said. “It helps make people want to live here. It makes for great recreation opportunities, but it’s also a driver economically because it brings people here and improves real estate values while providing a transportation network. I’m sure you’re all getting psyched to be getting your driver’s licenses, but eventually you get sick of driving everywhere and you just want a place where you can get out in nature and explore. This corridor will be somewhere you can do that, so I hope you’ll be taking some excitement and pride in the work you do today.”

This week’s group is comprised of students from five high schools — Hanover, Woodstock, Hartford, Lebanon and Thetford Academy — many of them incoming freshmen. Trail Corps organizers enjoy the far-reaching range of students the program draws.

“When you think about the Upper Valley, you think about a lot of different schools. You might not see each other a lot during the school year, except maybe in competition,” Coats said. “Here is a chance for you to be unified, one railroad tie at a time.”

That is, one heavy railroad tie at a time. At 10 feet long and 8- by-6-inches thick, the creosote-soaked ties weigh up to 200 pounds each. Laid out in the 1920s and ’30s by Boston & Maine, many of the splintered units were still attached to steel plates the group had to remove with crowbars before loading them onto a city dump truck.

It took plenty of collaboration to negotiate hoisting them from the sides of the rail bed, carry them 10-20 feet and then lifting them at an angle to feed to Hirschler and Coats on the truck bed. It took about 40 minutes to fill the first truckload, but the group had plenty of fun doing it.

Joe Zhang, a Hanover High junior, said he doesn’t take advantage of area trails all that much, but was happy to be contributing this week with the Trail Corps.

“This is fun, to be involved in this kind of teamwork,” he said. “I’m really not out on the trails all the time, so this is helping me get outdoors and meet some new people.”

Anna Dieffenbach, a junior multi-sport athlete at Woodstock Union High, has experience riding horses in trails near her Bethel home and has explored those at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Park, where her father works. She’s always been curious about what makes the networks possible and is discovering it’s not easy.

“I’ve always kind of wondered what goes into trail maintenance,” Dieffenbach said. “This is a way for me to see it, and it’s a lot.”

While Coats made a trip to the Lebanon landfill — where the ties will be churned up and used as a top layer to help control odors, saving the city hundreds of dollars in disposal costs — the group kept busy by organizing the ties in rows for easier transport to the truck the next go-round. They also discovered a large garter snake, spotted by Thetford junior Gabrielle Curtis and carried fearlessly by Woodstock freshman Yeabi Miles, and spent time digging out metal from the ties. That included nails stamped with the dates they were used; the oldest ones discovered and kept for souvenirs were from 1928.

By the time the truck came back for the second go-round, the Trail Corps had a solid routine in place, lifting and loading seamlessly.

“Their comfort level absolutely increased as the day wore on,” said Hirchsler. “They also had more fun.”

Hirschler called the Trail Corps his favorite annual UVTA initiative and was glad to see its breadth increase from 36 total students and three groups in 2014 to 45 and four this summer. He hopes it will get even bigger.

“There’s always trail work to be done, so it would be great to increase the capacity even more. We had to turn people away this year,” Hirschler said. “If we had more resources, more interns like Kellen, for example, we could have six or seven crews out at a time. ”

Jared Pendak can be reached at or 603-727-3306.

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