Forging a Path with New Jersey’s Trailblazers

Our reporter joins a team of hard-working volunteers as they clear the way for Jersey hikers.

Trail Conference volunteers, from left, James Mott, Linda Taggart and Jean Brennan dig beds for an elevated path through Wawayanda State Park.
Trail Conference volunteers, from left, James Mott, Linda Taggart and Jean Brennan dig beds for an elevated path through Wawayanda State Park.
Photo by Joe Polillio

The members of the West Jersey branch of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference tend to be early risers. They have to be. It can take hours to drive to the work sites where they volunteer on Saturday mornings. The volunteers maintain trails on public land and cut and mark new ones, often bridging otherwise impassable terrain.

David and Monica Day of Highland Park, both in their early 60s, have been coleaders of the West Jersey branch  since its inception in 2000. They have built a loyal New Jersey team of about 30 volunteers. The workers call themselves the Crew. The work is intense, the Crew friendly and welcoming. “People either really love it or really hate it,” says Monica.

Jean Brennan, a 60-something volunteer from Edison, remembers how difficult it seemed when she joined the Crew. “The first time I went out, they really put me to work!” she says. Now, Brennan rarely misses a trip.

Most of the volunteers are seniors, which makes their work all the more impressive. They wield picks, sledgehammers and—on rare occasions—power drills. They trek miles into deep forests and swamps. They even encounter bears. “We were chased off this trail by a bear just last year,” recalls Monica.

The first order of business for this particular late-summer morning is to pack the mule, the Crew’s trusted all-terrain vehicle. The mule carries big loads of equipment into the rugged depths of Wawayanda State Park. The current project: to raise, rebuild and extend the board system  that allows hikers to traverse a low-lying wetland area.

The morning temperature is approaching 90 degrees. Volunteers don baseball caps  and roll up their sleeves in anticipation of a grueling seven-hour workday. The mule forges ahead, driven by coleader David Day. The seven other members of today’s crew—including this reporter—hike behind.
At the project’s outset in 2013, the crew cleared an old road with hand and blade to provide access for trucks to deliver the bulky materials to the trailhead. By summer 2016, the insidious roots of the rhododendrons lining the trail had grown back, again narrowing the path.

When they aren’t reinforcing existing trails with bridges, steps or side-hill traverses,  the Crew members relocate trails or blaze new ones. Any new route must be mapped out and approved by the local park superintendent and the state Department of Environmental Protection. Upon approval, “we physically clear the way,” Monica explains, “then we come back and harden the trail. If there are steep sections, we put in rock steps or sidehilling. We find the tread so people walk in the same place and avoid impacting a large area.” She laughs, “Hikers think the rock steps are for their convenience, but it’s really more to protect the land.”

Throughout the year, members of the Crew fight the elements to protect and maintain the trails. After bad winters, a chainsaw crew clears felled trees. Heavy rainstorms cause erosion, which the Crew combats by building up sidehills with rocks. Rain can also put projects on hold, as was the case with the Wawayanda work. On this day, the Crew is catching up on lost time in a (successful) effort to finish before termination of the federal grant supporting the project.

The mule reaches a clearing about 10 yards in diameter. That’s as far as it can carry its load. From there, the Crew hauls power drills, pick mattocks and other equipment down the narrow planks of the existing boardwalk. Reaching the stretch of boardwalk in need of repair, we begin fighting back more rhododendron roots, some as thick as small tree trunks, with handsaws and loppers. Other crew members dig beds for the sleepers. The thick beams—made of 100 percent recycled plastic—are laid flat on the ground and held in place by lengths of rebar, which are pounded deep into the ground through predrilled holes. Boardwalk planks are screwed in place atop the sleepers. We repeat the process for 10 new sections of boardwalk, elevating the path above the swampy ground.

“At the end of the day, you’re really sore,” says crew member James Mott, 64. “But you sleep well!” calls Bill Taggart as he hoists a sleeper. Taggart, 67, and his wife, Linda, 66, drive north from Phillipsburg to volunteer almost every Saturday. Both are former volunteer EMT instructors. Together, they are responsible for inspecting and maintaining five New Jersey trails. “Some trails are easy to take care of,” says Linda, “but others take several days to get through.”

Trail Conference volunteers are drawn to the high-energy environment, the open-air work and the opportunity to give back. “I’ve been with the Trail Conference about 10 years,” says Steve Reiss, 73, of Middletown. “I got started when I retired and was looking for something to do. I like hiking and biking, so I started doing this.” Reiss is undeterred by the physical demands of the Crew. “He can out do any of us,” declares coleader David Day. “He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for his 70th birthday!”

Teamwork is another rewarding part of the experience. “The camaraderie is a big part of what keeps me coming back,” says Mott, a member of the Crew since 2012. “People really appreciate what we do up here.”

Lauren Yobs is a former research assistant for New Jersey Monthly. She is currently executive assistant at the World Science Foundation.

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