Taking your family to the Trail?
Give kids a firsthand experience with conservation
Dating back to 1921, and the ambitious vision of forester and conservationist Benton MacKaye (a Stamford, CT native) The Appalachian Trail spans roughly 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It stretches across all manner of landscape – from developed areas with paved roads to the formidable 100-Mile Wilderness.
An estimated 2-3,000 people hike the entire Trail each year, through a breathtaking and remarkable diversity of plant and animal life, topography and climate. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which maintains and manages its resources, describes it as a place of “life-changing discovery.”
Connecticut is home to over 50 miles of the Trail, which lurches across Bear Mountain, the highest peak in the state. The purpose of the Trail, according to the conservancy, is to “connect the human spirit with nature – preserving the delicate majesty of the Trail as a haven for all to enjoy.”
But preserving that delicate majesty? Takes a lot of work. The conservancy estimates that between 2-3 million people walk some portion of it each year. Protecting its natural beauty for future generations and all the world requires the cooperation of, literally, countless hikers, trail monitors, paid staff, friends and volunteers.
One of those monitors is Jay Levy, who serves as an archaeology field supervisor in Connecticut and as a seasonal ridgerunner from May through September each year. As part of his work, Levy has patrolled the entire length of the trail in Connecticut and up to 10 miles in Massachusetts. He hikes in, sets up camp, scouts conditions on the Trail, collects trash, and checks in with campers; alerting them to potential hazards, including bears. Ridgerunners interact with roughly 7,000 hikers each season in Connecticut.
“The Connecticut section is special to me because this is where I was raised,” Levy said. “For a thru-hiker, Connecticut is really the beginning of the elevation changes – and the amazing views that go along with it. It goes up 1,500 feet and comes down to 500 feet. It really prepares people for the tougher climbs in Vermont and New Hampshire. It starts the New England section, and it has that wonder.”
The Trail is also a place where one wonder leads to another. Sage’s Ravine, on the western tip of the Connecticut and Massachusetts border and where Levy is regularly stationed, is one that comes to mind.
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” he said. “In the middle of a drought, in the middle of the hottest day in the summer, at Sage’s Ravine you will still have swimming pools — eight or nine of them — and waterfalls.”
Levy’s daughter, Kisuq, 13, describes her own experience on the Trail as “a peaceful moment to enjoy nature, and seek adventure.”
For those seeking peace or adventure, another advantage to the Connecticut section is its proximity to so many urban centers, including New York City. But what is an advantage for humans looking to get a breath of fresh air on the weekend, can have lasting affects on the Trail and the intricate beauty of its ecosystems.
One of Levy’s regular stations, Ten Mile Shelter on the New York border, sees a lot of foot activity, and sadly, a lot of misunderstanding about conditions.
For one, there are no garbage cans.
The Appalachian Trail is a “pack-in, pack-out” destination and visitors are asked to observe ‘Leave No Trace’ of their presence or behavior; to leave nature as they found it. This means that hikers carry in and carry out all of their resources and waste: food scraps and hygiene articles and toilet paper, (ideally).
“Anything with a food smell attracts wildlife and alters their natural behavior with serious long-term effects. There is no ‘acceptable’ waste, not even that which is biodegradable,” the conservancy advises in its “Guidelines for Groups” brochure.
The group goes on to explain: “Animals face threats from loss and fragmentation of habitat, invasive species, pollution, exploitation, poaching and disease. Protected lands offer a refuge from some, but not all, of these problems. Consequently, wildlife need hikers who will promote their survival rather than add to the difficulties they already face.”
Areas of the trail that wind closer to populated areas are particularly sensitive to pollution.
“You see a lot of trash because people are just not informed, so they’re bringing in coolers and grills and things like that,” Levy explained. “In Connecticut, the trailheads are so close to roads that people can just drive up and be on the Trail in minutes. It’s great that it’s accessible, but people have less reverence because it is so close to civilization.”
Levy picks up, and hikes out, anywhere from 2 to 20 gallons of garbage each weekend. From May to September, he estimates, the four full-time and two part-time ridgerunners remove about 300 gallons of trash from the trails. For the privilege for the picking up other people’s discarded banana peels, ridgerunners are paid the minimum wage.
A big part of his job, though, is the opportunity to educate visitors.
“A lot of people are not aware that leaving orange peels is just as damaging as leaving a plastic wrapper,” he said. Biodegradable waste is unsightly, and actually takes a long time to decompose, he explained.
But the worst part?
People don’t realize their power. A small action in nature can set off a chain of events with various unhappy endings. Most people understand what happens when bears are drawn to human food – folks get hurt, sometimes, terribly, and bears get euthanized. But there are a myriad smaller events that can and should be avoided.
“We’re all part of this web,” Levy said. “If you leave some peanuts after your lunch on the rock, you’re going to attract mice and rats, which attracts a snake, which could possibly bite the next hiker coming through.”
Tugging at one part of nature pulls the rest along.
As Levy walks under canopies of trees and greets and talks with hikers, he sometimes finds himself explaining his work in detail. A best part of his job, he said, is seeing how a little insight can turn a visitor into a trail advocate and caretaker.
“Sometimes it just takes a sentence to help someone understand what the impact is, and then they are happy and grateful to join the effort,” he said. “One time I came across a thru-hiker, and I was picking up what we call “micro-trash”; pieces of cigarette butts or the corner of a candy bar wrapper. I explained why – we pick up Styrofoam so animals don’t choke on it. We pick up bits of plastic so they’re not fed to young birds. And now, this hiker carries a little sandwich bag on his walking stick to pick up micro-trash. He had hiked for years before and never even saw it. So that makes me happy too.”
As we congress with nature, we grow in observation of the life around us, he reflected. And the things we can’t overlook multiply too.
“I do this work to make myself feel better,” Levy said. “It’s my job as a human being to take care of this land.”
“I owe a debt to Mother Earth. This Earth is here for me to stand upon. That I can take care of part of it so someone else can enjoy it- that brings me joy. I’m very thankful, very thankful for the land.”