By BETSY KEPES
When I arrive at the work site on the trail up the steep side of Mount Colden, the trail crew women are working next to long, pressure-treated 6-by-6 timbers, the stringers for the ladder they’re building up an open pitch of bedrock.
They have hauled up the heavy lumber in the morning from where the helicopter had dropped it at a flat spot down below. It must have been a grunt of a climb because the trail is steep and located above 3,500 feet. But they laugh about it and show me the scrapes on their shoulders.
It’s all in a day’s work for the Adirondack Mountain Club professional trail crew, but this week is special, a chance for all the women on the crew to work together, to celebrate their working lives in the woods. They call this week “Babe Crew,” a somewhat ironic title of unknown origin.
Charlotte “Char” Staats, the club’s overall professional field crew leader, tells me that Babe Crew began a few years ago when the ADK trail leadership hired enough women to round out a crew. (Usually many more men than women apply for the job). This year marks a milestone. For the first time since ADK has had a professional trail crew, almost 30 years, there are an equal number of men and women. And Staats is the first woman trail crew leader in about a decade.
The women go by their preferred crew names when they’re on the job.
Anastasia Rodak (trail name Nami) and Adeline Clayton (trail name Nips) sit side-by-side on the steep bedrock slope and pound rock drill bits with heavy hammers. Pound, twist. Pound, twist. They’re creating holes for the threaded tubes that will hold the bolts to keep the base of the ladder in place. I know this is a wilderness area and power tools aren’t allowed but I’m still slightly shocked. I mean, rock in the Adirondacks is hard.
“It only takes about 20 minutes to drill a hole,” Nips explains as she works. Nami has a carpenter’s square and is keeping track of the holes’ angles. The two holes have to match or the bolts won’t both fit properly. This job that I thought required only brute strength is actually a work of skill. I’m embarrassed by my initial assumption and I should have known better. I’ve been doing trail work since I was 18. I know the tasks that look simple to hikers are not. Generations of trail crew workers have taught each other how to use an ax and how to stack rocks so they don’t move. It takes time and skill to build those log bridges hikers walk over and the staircases they sweat on.
While the women work I sit on the side of the trail and ask questions. All five of them had other jobs with ADK before they applied to be on the professional trail crew. And all of them admit that when they got the trail crew job they were afraid. Afraid they weren’t strong enough. Afraid they’d be exhausted by the long days of work. Afraid they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the men.
Then why did they want to work on the trail crew? Their stories differ but all of them say they wanted to prove to themselves that they could do it. Caitlin Kelly (trail name Rizo) says, “I knew I could portage a canoe but I wanted to see if I could do something even more physically difficult. And after all the hiking I’ve done, I wanted to give something back by improving the trails.”
Staats’ mom was a volunteer trail crew leader for ADK decades ago and she grew up hearing stories about trail work.
Nips worked as a summit steward and a naturalist, but when she saw the trail crew come back to their cabin at Heart Lake at the end of their work week, filthy and tired and hungry, she wondered, “Can I do this?”
And obviously she can. They can. Here they are, on a beautiful clear day at the end of July, stripped down to sports bras, suspenders and work pants. They’re working and talking and laughing. Nami says, “I’m completely happy in this job.” Her smile fills her face and her whole body rocks when she laughs, but, she says, “Anything that I’ve done in this job is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The other women nod.
“You break mentally,” Nips agrees.
“Repeatedly,” Char adds.
Packing in is especially difficult. The loads that the crew carries are tremendously heavy and the women are not given lighter loads just because their bodies are smaller than the men. “We are all equal on the ADK trail crew,” Char says. “There is no gender.” The other women agree. Everyone on trail crew pushes to their limit.
Rizo admits that carrying the heavy packs is the hardest part of the job for her, but it’s not just a physical test. She says it takes as much mental strength as physical strength to get the job done. She loves living in the woods for the summer and becoming strong and healthy and dirty. “You feel like the keeper of these trails, that they are yours as long as you are working on them.”
Nips, now in her third season on trails, tells me that on her first year she could barely excavate a rock and on her second year she learned how to build massive stone staircases. This year she was the crew leader on Poke-O-Moonshine, where she labored with her crew to build rock staircases on bedrock, construction that seems to defy gravity. Nips hires on for long seasons each year and loves the work. “Trail crew is a lifestyle,” she says. “We’re like a family.”
This is the first year of trails for Lyza Berg (trail name Gramps, who uses they/their for pronouns). When I notice the long scratches on their ankles, Gramps smiles, shrugs and says, “I actually bleed every day, I think.” Gramps and Rizo, also a first-year, are chiseling holes to custom fit the base plate for the ladder around the curve of bedrock.
Char calls for lunch and the women gather under the blue tarp, passing around bread, cheese, meat, mustard and a jar of pickles (a rare treat). They add slices of heirloom tomato carried in by my friend Megan and the sandwiches become masterpieces, works of art consumed with gusto.
It’s time for Megan and me to leave as we have a long hike out. We shoulder our day packs, no weight at all compared to what these women carry. As we walk down the trail we hear quick footsteps behind us. It’s Nami, heading back to camp to get a wrench that they forgot in the morning. She trots past us, flashing her big smile, and pushes aside a bushy dead tree that hides the trail to their campsite. It’s a clever disguise.
“This morning when we left camp,” Nami says, “we almost forgot to close our door.” She laughs again, and disappears behind the tree, totally at home in the woods