Friday August 19, 2011

WILLIAMSTOWN -- The trail to the peak of Mount Prospect starts off pleasantly enough, following a narrow plank walk over level, water-logged land. But things get hard fast. And as the path works its way up the mountain's ridge, the trail turns skyward and hikers face grades that easily exceed 35 percent.

"It's way too steep," said Matt Moore, the regional program manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).

That's bad for the land, he said, because of erosion and washouts, and it's bad for pack-laden hikers because of swollen knees and exhaustion.

With the help of a $34,000 grant from the Department of Conservation and Rrecreation (DCR) and nine enthusiastic teenaged volunteers from across the Northeast, the club is re-routing the steepest portion of the trail, introducing switchbacks that slice back and forth across the grade.

The AMC's work on that leg of the Appalachian Trail on Mount Prospect is just one of 12 projects in the region funded through the Federal Highway Administration's Recreational Trails Program.

This year, the state DCR distributed more than $250,000 to different agencies and nonprofits in the region. The money is funding everything from improvements to the legendary Thunderbolt Ski Trail on Mount Greylock to the maintenance of countless snowmobile trails in the county.

The AMC received $34,000 for the Mount Prospect project in Williamstown.

The volunteer crew was just finishing up three weeks of work on Thursday when the first appreciative thru-hiker made his way down the new, gently sloping switchbacks.

Asked if the new route seemed like an improvement over the old path, Bob "Cog" Tomaskovic, 53, of New Mexico, looked confused.

"You're like, kidding, right?" he said. "This is appreciated, big time."

Moore is quick to point out that, while the new route is a benefit to hikers, his concern is for the longevity of the trail, which, in its present state catches and funnels water runoff, eroding dirt, exposing rocks, and making the path more difficult to pass every year.

"This is primarily just good land management," said Moore.

The crew worked with pick axes, rakes and long, steel levers, digging out rocks and roots.

Moore said a professional trail crew will work on the new route for two more weeks in October, when they'll build rock staircases up the steepest portions.

Moore said the re-route is critical to preserving the trail, and he said it wouldn't be getting done without the funding.

Likewise, Brian Janik, president of the Adam's Sno-Drifters Snowmobile Club, said the trail work his club is planning to complete in Savoy was dependent on the $14,000 grant the group was just awarded through the program.

Janik said the funds will make the Adams Sno-drifter Trail safer for snowmobilers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers by removing rocks and downed trees.