Gators maintain trails in Allegheny national forest

Allegheny students volunteered their time and effort to help in Allegheny National Forest supported by the North Country Trail Association.

On Sunday, Oct. 16, the crew of Gators and NCTA staff worked on clearing deadfalls, building paths and performing general trail maintenance to contribute to the construction of the hiking trail.

They spent almost a day in a small part of Allegheny national forest and gained new experiences from the professional NCTA team.

“There’s a huge benefit for people who are getting out just to see what it takes to build these trails, who uses them and what it means to their community,” said Thomas Moutsos, trip coordinator and regional trail coordinator for Ohio and Pennsylvania. “And then when it comes time to vote and donate money and things like that they can make a more informed decision about what they want to see during their lifetime and the places they live.”

Moutsos joined the NCTA in 2020. He has been involved in the conservation field for over 20 years now, including leading and managing trail crews for the National Park Service and the Student Conservation Association. He is also a two-time AmeriCorps volunteer and spent two and a half years in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. He lives with his wife and three children in northwestern Pennsylvania, where they spend as much time as possible outside.

Moutsos is responsible for trail management, wildland, firefighting and species removal in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, which is “about 1,300 miles or so (of) trail.”

“I caught up with the North Country trail during the pandemic,” Moutsos said. “I was looking for a place to take my kids hiking.”

The NCTA was established 41 years ago, and according to its mission, it develops, maintains and protects the North Country National Scenic Trail as the premier hiking path across the northern tier of the United States through a trail-wide coalition of volunteers and partners. The NCTA is a nonprofit organization that partners with the National Park Service to unite individuals, affiliated trail groups, corporate sponsors and others linked in support of building and maintaining the North Country Trail and telling its story.

However, the NCTA and the Trail itself exist because of robust and dedicated volunteerism. Thousands of volunteers build, maintain, protect and promote the North Country Trail every day, and the Association strives to provide the best resources to the volunteers.

“So we always, always, always need more volunteers to come out (and) work on the trail,” Moutsos said. “There’s a lot of work to do. So we’re always looking for ways to get new groups out onto the trail. I always think of college students to get younger folks out on the trails and start working just to introduce this type of career because it’s just an option.”

The North Country Trail is the country’s longest National Scenic Trail, 4,800 miles long, so “there are countless opportunities to get involved,” according to Moutsos.

The seven-student crew, Moutsos and his colleagues arrived at the National Park, helped move all the tools to the construction site, and got to work. In addition to building a walking route, the team planned to find and move a large rock “estimated to be about 2,000 pounds,” according to Moutsos, into a stream without harming the ecosystem. In its new location, the rock would be able to help hikers cross the creek.

Such work requires special physics, geology, environmental science and management knowledge, so the opportunity was wider than just some particular faculty and students.

Luke Chileski, ’23, a geology major, concluded his observation while doing teamwork on swapping the rock position.

“It’s neat to see people go from buddies to professional people that are doing their job,” Chileski said. “It was suddenly no jokes, go time, which like makes sense because moving something that big is a safety concern.”

Moutsos remarked that working with the Gators was different from his experiences with old timers of the NCTA.

“When we’re doing the heavier projects, like moving big rocks, sometimes their bodies can’t do it as long as the younger folks can, so I appreciated the strength and the energy that was there,” Moutsos said. “Not just the physical part, but an influx of youth also brings its energy.”

Julia Sonen, ’24, one of the Outing Club trip leaders, shared her insight on being a frontrunner on this trip.

“I could feel everyone’s teamwork and being there, being present,” Sonen said. “I was an athlete all in high school and I love those moments when everything’s clicking.”

Sonen has done two different trail works before, but she concluded that this event was different.

“I hadn’t done any rockwork before, and so it was cool to get to learn how to maneuver such a huge boulder using just what we could boat in,” Sonen said. “It gives me an appreciation for the trails I hike on, be a part of building them, and see how much work can go into two steps on your hike.”

She mentioned a specific point of a rock-lifting performance she is still considering. To push the rock in the right direction students were supposed to use special rock bars to put underneath the stone and use its mechanical advantage.

“There was one point when with my rock bar alone, I could lift my side of the boulder and which at one point had taken probably 15 of us all straining to move,” Sonen said.

Maureen Bricker, ’23, also mentioned that volunteering and manual jobs could be a relief after constant studying in college.

“I think it’s almost like a personal responsibility to try to be involved with those facilities and those trails that you utilize,” Bricker said. “It’s good stewardship in general, which is personally rewarding. When you’re doing papers on a computer all day, as a lot of environmental science majors are, it’s nice to just have the opportunity to get out for a few hours and get your batteries recharged.”

Bricker expressed her opinion on having such an experience from time to time, even if it is unpaid.

“I think it’s nice every once in a while just to leave campus and do some sort of projects that are separated from your own life that you can just not think about other things for,” Bricker said.

Moutsos mentioned that he enjoyed working with Allegheny students and will probably organize more cooperation shortly.

“The kids were great to work with,” Moutsos said. “They’re enthusiastic and worked hard. Many of the students there had some sort of schooling that dealt directly with the work we were doing. It’s always fun to hear what the students are studying and then when it pertains to what we’re doing is even more exciting because a lot of the people we`re working with are professionals in their careers, and they all went to school and had the classes that you all are having. After 20-30 years, you forget so much of it.”

“It’s for anyone who seems willing to get outdoors and enjoy their time there,” Sonen said. “And especially for something like trail maintenance, you do have to be in probably a little bit better shape than for some of our other trips, you’ve got to be willing and able to move a large boulder safely, and know where your physical limits are, and where you need to say, ‘that’s beyond what I can do right now.’ There’s no need to be environmental science or biology or any of those related to enjoy it.”