46ers give back through women-only work weekends
By Betsy Kepes
Car doors slam as 10 women and two men gather in the parking lot near Elk Lake where Trail #119 leads to the southern route up Dix Mountain. They talk and laugh before grabbing tools from the pile on the ground—shovels, hoes, rakes, pick mattocks. The day’s goal is to fix drainage problems on this well-traveled trail. The day before, the crew dismantled a jumble of logs pressed against a bridge on the Hoffman Notch Trail and put a new railing on another bridge.
While most people think of the 46ers as a peak-bagging club, the organization is responsible for maintenance on several trails in the Adirondacks and does other projects at the request of the Department of Environmental Conservation. They offer trail maintenance weekends throughout the summer and fall. This WOW—Women Only Weekend—is a chance for women to do trail work on their own terms.
Mary Lamb, the volunteer trail master of this year’s group, loves the annual WOW weekend for its cooperative and accepting atmosphere. “If I miss that nail three times in a row, you guys aren’t going to laugh at me,” she says as she faces her crew.
The group hikes in a mile or so to where the narrow trail becomes a wide, rocky path when it joins an old logging road. They drop their tools at a spot that Lamb says was a pool of water in the early season. The plan is to make a raised walkway on one side of the road and dig a broad drainage ditch on the other. The women get to work, some digging, some gathering rocks, some pouring buckets of mineral soil onto the new walkway. Denise McQuade uses a pick mattock, what she calls “her big girl tool,” to move large rocks into position. Joking and laughter go along with the physical labor.
When the Women Only Weekend began in 1996, the volunteers did side cutting, the necessary but tedious process of removing brush and small trees that are crowding into a trail. The skill level was low for the women, who used clippers or small saws to do the work. Now the weekend often involves building or fixing a bridge. Volunteers learn how to use tools ranging from drills to winches to chainsaws.
The current president of the 46ers, Laurie Rankin, uses a hoe to scratch out the sides of a new drainage ditch. When I ask her what percentage of 46ers participate in volunteer work she admits it is low, very low. Last year over 800 people received patches for finishing their 46 High Peaks hikes but almost none of them have volunteered to help on the trails or work as informational stewards at trailheads and peaks.
Rankin tells me that the organization’s board of directors considered requiring some “giving back” volunteer hours before a hiker can receive a 46ers patch, but that resolution couldn’t win a majority vote. The trail masters enjoy the enthusiasm and work ethic of the volunteers who choose to help. They fear a mandatory stint of volunteer work would result in sullen and resentful workers.
This is a touchy topic with the 46ers. Their hiking challenge has encouraged hordes of hikers to pound up and down the trails of the High Peaks. This intensive use means more cars at the trailheads, more trail erosion, more “walk arounds” on wet and muddy trails, and more camping in the interior.
These volunteers have taken to heart the mission of the Adirondack 46ers “to encourage stewardship in the High Peaks region.” They dedicate multiple weekends each year to trail work and hiker education. But what about the thousands of 46ers who get their completion patch and are not interested in the “giving something back” part of their club? Enlisting volunteers is a challenge greater than climbing Marcy.
After the group has worked a couple of hours, a line of hikers appears. The 46ers crew steps back to see if the walkers will use the new route or disperse across the wide trail. A girl, about 8 years old, leads the way, dressed in a bathing suit and cowboy boots. She strides along the new walkway followed by adults and other children.
When the hikers are out of sight, the trail crew women look at each other and laugh. It seems right that the first hiker on the new trail is that confident youngster.