How AMC Responds to Trails Damage from Extreme Weather

February 27, 2019
trails and extreme weather
Brittany Richard / Paula ChampagneLeft: The Halloween Storm of 2017 brought widespread trails damage to the White Mountains. Right: A member of AMC’s White Mountain Professional Trail Crew repairs a stretch of Crawford Path after an especially stormy 2017.

On a crisp early November morning in 2017, Zack Urgese, AMC’s White Mountain trails supervisor, and Joe Roman, AMC’s campsite program and conservation manager, were hiking up Mount Pierce for the umpteenth time. But this hike was different for the coworkers and friends: Urgese and Roman weren’t sure exactly what they’d find when they reached Nauman Tentsite, a group of eight camping platforms clustered about a mile below Pierce’s summit.  

It had been just a few days since a wind and rainstorm had crushed the area on October 29 and 30, and outside word had been flooding in: calls and message-board postings announcing widespread destruction throughout the White Mountains; an ominous report from a helicopter flyover; and a startling photo showing the decades-old Nauman sign on its side, surrounded by downed trees. 

“The [Mizpah Spring] hut croo were saying things like: ‘Nauman’s destroyed. Nauman’s gone,’” Roman recalls. “But people exaggerate, so I just didn’t know what to expect.” 

Urgese and Roman needed to see for themselves. With two axes and a chainsaw strapped to their backpacks, the pair witnessed minimal damage along Crawford Path in the lower elevations. But as they crossed 3,000 feet, just before the cutoff to Mizpah Spring Hut, they begin to see more downed trees, known as blowdowns, and debris. When they reached the hut and took a hard right on the path toward Nauman, the campsite was barely recognizable.

“It was a sea of blowdowns,” Urgese says of the fallen spruce and firs. “It was unreal. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”  

Urgese and Roman, both skilled backcountry veterans, could proceed no further. They had no choice but to clear their way in, Urgese operating the chainsaw and Roman with an ax, cutting as they went. Although working less than 15 feet apart, at times the two could barely see each other through the fallen trees. The mess was so thick that Roman, in charge of all 19 AMC-run campsites, had trouble recognizing where the trails had been. Entire clusters of softwood evergreens were upturned, root ball and all. It would take the two more than four hours that day to clear some 50 trees felled by the Halloween Storm, as the backcountry community dubbed it. 

The Northeast is no stranger to big weather, but storms have increased in both intensity and frequency in recent years, sometimes seeming to come out of nowhere. Weather events once considered ten- or hundred-year happenings—the Halloween Storm of 2017, Superstorm Sandy  in 2012, Hurricane Irene  in 2011—are occurring every few years or even annually, leaving downed trees and washed-out trails and bridges in their wakes. This weather, combined with the impacts of hikers and other recreators, puts untold stress on trails in AMC’s region—and, by proxy, the  trail crews who maintain them. 

“We’ve had a lot more wind storms than normal,” says Andrew Norkin, the director of AMC’s trails department. “It’s increasing the amount of time we spend clearing the trails and repairing the erosion caused by the heavy rains.” 

Unlike in the past, trail staffers say they’ve barely cleaned up from the last damaging storm before another hits, complicating their routine maintenance of the 1,800 miles of recreational trails AMC maintains. As Urgese and Roman chopped and chainsawed their way through Nauman Tentsite in November 2017, they did so knowing spring would bring new droves of backpackers and thru-hikers seeking shelter along the Presidential Range and the Appalachian Trail. What they didn’t know was whether all of their work would be undone by the next weather event. 

All of this has yielded a sea change for AMC, with an intentional strategy shift  toward  building  and rerouting  trails  that can withstand wind and rain events.

Warm Planet, Weird Weather

Amid the cocktail of challenges wrought by climate change, storms may be the hardest to discount. The National Weather Service reports that more storms pass over the Northeastern United States than anywhere else in the country. Fueled in part by warmer seas and an increase in both seawater evaporation and the amount of water vapor the atmosphere can hold, the Northeast saw a 55 percent increase in the amount of rain or snow falling in the heaviest 1 percent of storms between 1958 and 2016, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment. Some models project monthly precipitation between December and April will increase 1 inch by the end of this century. 

“You can’t take a single storm like Hurricane Irene and say, definitively, that climate change caused this,” says Georgia Murray, an AMC staff scientist. “What we do know is climate change is causing more moisture to be in the atmosphere, and we know that will contribute to more extreme precipitation events. Seeing more of these kinds of intense storms is what you’d expect in a warmer climate.” 

Besides extreme weather, warmer winters are impacting outdoor recreation in the White Mountains and surrounding towns. Murray cites long-term data collected in Pinkham Notch that shows an increasing number of combined days in January and February where the average temperature remains above freezing. The melting that results from these midwinter warmups can make mountain rivers and streams dangerous highways for debris: overflowing their banks; sending  trees and ice hurtling down mountainsides to pile up along roadways and streams; taking out trails, bridges—anything in their paths. In 2008, debris flow from an unusually long January warmup wiped out an expensive new bridge built four years earlier across Cascade Brook, near Franconia Notch. The bridge, meant to withstand a 100-year flood, was no match for mother nature. It hasn’t been rebuilt. 

“It was not just knocked out of place; it was blown to pieces,” says Alex DeLucia, AMC’s volunteer trails program manager. “There were splinters of this bridge for a mile down the brook. That was a heartache.”  

One-Two Punch 

As for storm impacts on recreation in AMC’s region, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy proved to be two nasty women. 

Irene punched first, on August 27, 2011, slamming Outer Banks, N.C., as a Category 1 hurricane before skipping up the East Coast as a tropical storm and into northern New England as a post-tropical cyclone. The high winds created a few tornadoes, took down trees, and knocked out power throughout the region. Heavy rainfall sent water from lakes and rivers into roadways and homes. In Vermont, Irene became the first cyclone to directly hit the Green Mountain State since the infamous 1938 New England hurricane. 

In the White Mountains, Irene’s floodwaters obliterated entire sections of trail, including the old Nineteen-Mile Bridge, which allowed passage up to AMC’s Carter Notch Hut. Dry River and Rocky Branch River, both of which flow south from Mount Washington, became so engulfed they destroyed their bending riverbanks downstream, reshaping topographical maps and severely damaging three nearby trails. 

Less than a year later, Sandy hit. After weakening from a hurricane to a post-tropical cyclone over the Atlantic Ocean, it made U.S. landfall as a superstorm on October 29, 2012, north of Atlantic City, N.J. Sandy continued across southern New Jersey and west through Pennsylvania, dumping 7 to 10 inches on much of the mid-Atlantic.  

Most Americans remember Sandy for the astronomically high storm surge that demolished homes and boardwalks up and down the Jersey Shore and flooded much of Lower Manhattan. But her fury was felt inland as well. The bulk of Sandy’s damage to recreation infrastructure occurred in the mid-Atlantic. Van Campens Glen Trail, which parallels the Delaware River in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, near AMC’s Mohican Outdoor Center, experienced significant blowdowns, extreme river overflow, and rampant erosion. 

Now, says AMC’s DeLucia, “That trail’s not there.”

A Halloween Trick

Irene and Sandy churned slowly across the Atlantic before making landfall, giving the region ample time to prepare for impact. News outlets remained glued to the progress. In New Hampshire, the U.S. Forest Service closed the White Mountain National Forest prior to both storms’ arrivals, asking AMC to shutter its huts and lodges and have backcountry workers stay home, an extraordinary step “that’s only happened twice,” says Urgese: for Irene and Sandy. 

On the other hand, October 2017’s two-day bomb cyclone known as the Halloween storm caught Northeastern trail officials, and many meteorologists, off-guard with its intensity and destruction. Over the course of 21 hours, the barometric pressure at the storm’s center plunged rapidly, increasing its wind strength and creating a meteorological phenomenon called bombogenesis. Few adequately prepared because few saw it coming. The event reserved its most severe lashing for the coast and the mountains, where sustained winds and wind gusts were significantly stronger than forecasted. Vermont’s Mount Mansfield saw winds of 115 mph; a 131 mph gust was recorded atop Mount Washington; and more than 5 inches of rain fell over much of the White Mountains. 

Rain-soaked soil, combined with high winds, turned into a recipe for widespread destruction. When AMC trail crews surveyed 436 miles of footpaths in the months that followed, three-quarters of the area showed some damage, from erosion to compromised bridges to blowdowns, with nearly 20 percent classified as major. Urgese says the higher elevations saw the most widespread impact. “Anything below [3,000 feet], the trails, in terms of blowdowns, were pretty good,” he says. “Once you hit 3,000 feet and going up, it just became a total cluster, if you will.”

Trails Triage Today 

Following events like these three storms, restoring trails and campsites to usable condition starts with information-sharing. In the hours and days after a severe storm, calls flow into AMC’s trails department, with partners including the U.S. Forest Service, local mountain clubs, trail adopters, and state parks swapping reports of downed trees, eroded trails, and washed-out bridges. Social media and online message boards, including viewfromthetop.com and nhtrailconditions.com, help provide a sense of what trail crews may find when they venture out to start cleanup.  

Time is of the essence after damage is reported. Given the year-round popularity of many Northeastern trails, the longer a tree lies across a footpath or a sinkhole goes unrepaired, the more hikers will walk off the path to go around it. Besides creating a safety risk for hikers, experts say this trail widening further damages vegetation off the trail. And if a storm hits in the late fall, as has been the case lately, crews—limited in number once seasonal staff has gone home—must triage trails in the higher elevations, racing to beat the first snowfall. 

In the wake of a storm, AMC calls on whatever staff and volunteers it can muster to get out as quickly as they safely can. Chapter volunteers, trail adopters, and area residents are critical at this stage, both in reporting damage and in clearing trails where they’re able. 

“Those folks are doing what they can,” DeLucia says. “Most importantly, they are serving as the eyes and ears on the trail for us, whether that’s for resource protection or storm damage reporting or future project needs.” 

While fall cleanups prioritize imminent risks, such as removing precarious blowdowns, fully repairing the trails begins in April. That’s when AMC’s White Mountain Professional Trail Crew, which turns 100 this year, starts its spring patrols. Over the course of a month, a crew of about 15 splits into several teams and ascends into the mountains, axes in tow, to clear trails and campsites of remaining blowdowns, to clean out drainages, and to fill washouts and sink holes. 

After clearing 150 blowdowns in 2015, 439 in 2016, and 576 in 2017, Urgese says his teams removed an incredible 1,731 blowdowns in spring 2018, in addition to clearing thousands of drainages. The crew had to add an extra team its final week of patrols to beat the official opening of hiking season. Urgese says his team relishes the challenge, but he admits there’s a point where tree-chopping loses its luster. 

“Toward the end, it was like, alright, we’ve had enough,” he says with a laugh. 

Restoring a damaged section of trail to pre-storm conditions requires money and time. When Irene destroyed the Nineteen-Mile Brook Trail Bridge in 2011, it took four years for AMC to plan and fund a replacement that wouldn’t be washed out again. Staff selected a site downstream, where abutments could be located farther up the riverbank, making the bridge less susceptible to highwater events. In fall 2015, a helicopter airlifted sturdy beams to the site, setting the foundation for a 40-foot bridge that was completed in cooperation with the White Mountain National Forest and the National Forest Foundation Matching Fund, as well as a $5,000 donation from the AMC Four Thousand Footer Club. In total, Norkin says the bridge cost around $80,000 to replace. (Watch a video of the project, including the airlift, here. See more photos of the project here.) 

Building for the Future  

Northeastern trails weren’t originally built with high usage or extreme weather in mind. Unlike trails out West, which feature gentler grades and plenty of switchbacks, trailblazers here often took the shortest route possible from base to summit: straight up a mountain’s fall line. (Read about one example in Mahoosuc Notch.) A couple centuries of hikers tramping those trails down, combined with snow melt and heavy rain, has resulted in channeling, where a trail essentially turns into a streambed. DeLucia says erosion is so bad on sections of Kinsman Trail, for instance, that a hiker can be standing on the trail, and the surrounding forest floor hits at their shoulders. 

Faced with such a scenario, trail workers have two choices: relocate the trail or harden it. Given the age of Northeastern trails and the limited availability of public land, crews most often end up hardening existing trails with rock and gravel. Where a trail was composed at first of organic matter, an AMC trail crew might effectively pave it with small stones. An older wooden staircase with a 20-year lifespan might be replaced with a rock staircase that can last much longer. Even if a trail retains its steep grade, hardening it allows for better drainage and “consolidates our recreators’ impact to the smallest area possible,” DeLucia says. 

On occasion, AMC is involved in a trail relocation, such as on Mount Prospect, part of Mount Greylock State Reservation near Williamstown, Mass. The trail to Prospect’s summit gains more than 1,700 feet of rocky elevation in less than 5 miles, frequently turning the steeply graded path into a river. To avoid the water trenching down the middle of the trail, the public—including thousands of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, who come this way—have broadened the footpath to several times its original width, according to Aaron North, AMC’s supervisor of southern New England trails.  

Using a $27,720 Recreational Trails Grant from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation in 2012, plus more than $49,000 in matching funds, AMC’s Berkshire Teen Trail Crew has been cutting switchbacks at some of the steepest points, rerouting where needed, to make the trail more hiker-friendly and more storm-resistant. “Everything they’ve done there is something that will stand the test of time,” North says. 

AMC trails staff knows that all of the preparation and sustainable trail building in the world can never completely safeguard human-made infrastructure from extreme weather—especially with storms coming stronger and closer together. Roman tells his team of campsite caretakers each year: “We will never win this war [against erosion and weather], but we will never give up. Let’s just try to leave this place better than we found it.” 

Sometimes there’s a silver lining to the storm clouds, as Urgese and Roman discovered after the Halloween Storm. For the first time since the area was logged in the early 19th century, Nauman Tentsite has a vista again. “There was a fir [stand] encroaching toward the hut over the last 10 years, but this storm knocked everything over,” Urgese says. “[Now the clearing] looks down Crawford Notch, toward the southern edge of the Willy Range. It’s a nice view.”

EDITOR’S UPDATE: Our story reported that Van Campens Glen Trail in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area was severely damaged by storms and is closed. According to the National Park Service, Van Campens Glen trail is now open to users. Several trails in the Delaware Water Gap remain closed, however, as park service officials clean up storm-related damage.


LEARN MORE

  • Revisit a timeline of AMC’s 100-year-old White Mountain Professional Trail Crew.
  • Watch a video on the trail crew and see construction of the Nineteen Mile bridge.

 

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt is the associate editor of AMC Outdoors.