by Jeff Pengel

While hiking in spring you come across a spruce tree that has fallen across the trail. What is your reaction?

A – Go around them

This is absolutely the worst possible thing you can do! We’ve all been drilled to stay on the trails in alpine areas due to the fragile vegetation. While staying on the trails is vital, the reasoning we’ve been given is false. Alpine plants are some of the hardiest and most durable on the planet. They are designed to withstand high winds, rime ice and temperature extremes. They are still not able to withstand even a few footfalls. The issue isn’t the fragility of the plants. The issue is the size and number of humans. Let’s put the ‘blame’ in the proper place.

The non-woody plants outside of the alpine zone are actually considerably more fragile. A single footfall on a growing sprout will typically end that year’s growth and potentially kill the plant. A single misplaced step on Reindeer Lichen will instantly destroy 50+ years of growth. Rare plants do grow in these non-alpine areas and non botanists would be hard pressed to identify many of them. If you have hiked Caribou, Tumbledown, or Rumford Whitecap, you have been within inches of one of these rare plants. Silverling is an S1 species in Maine – there are fewer than 5 occurrences in the State. You will not find that plant in any of the common wildflower guides.

Another issue with going off trail around blowdowns is soil erosion. The glacially derived soils of Maine, especially that in the hills and mountains is not very durable. Take into account the low accumulation of organic matter due to climate and these sandy soils are a key factor in trail design in the northeast. A single off trail group can create an erosional scar that may last decades – or worse expand over time. Please always stay on the trail, alpine zone or not!

B – Grumble that some one should clear it

It turns out that virtually all of the trails in Maine are maintained by volunteers – unpaid and uncompensated. These volunteers often work solo. Most have had minimal training in trail maintenance and construction technique. Massive blowdowns, trail hardening projects, and even minor relocations are often impossible to remediate in a single work trip, if at all. The resource limitations of the land steward, most often people, means priority projects can be deferred for years, in favor of simply keeping the trail passable.

The few paid trail crews (i.e. skilled workers) spend most of their time on trail building projects or reconstruction of severely damaged trails. AMC, MCC and MATC all fund pro crews annually. The relatively new WMNF parking fee does contribute some funds for the trails there, for those of us that actually pay it. It does not compensate for the erosion of funding that has occurred over the past decade.

Perhaps a better thought would be to thank the few folks that forego a summit hike to keep a trail in proper condition.

C – Notify the responsible party

This is of dubious value. While trail condition information is helpful, honestly 7 reports of the same thing become annoying. What we need is resources not information. That being said, a 5 digit accuracy GPS location from a smart phone of a 3 foot diameter tree across a specific trail is far more helpful than “there are a lot of blowdowns after the second stream crossing”.

Determining the responsible entity can be challenging. The Maine Chapter of the AMC is directly responsible for fewer than 10 miles of trails outside of the MWI properties. The Appalachian Trail is maintained by no fewer than 3 independent entities in Maine. The Maine Land Trust Network list is approaching 100 entities.

D – Remove it from the trail

Excellent choice. Thank you!

If you can safely drag the blowdown off the trail please do so. If each hiking party cleared only 2 or 3 blowdowns, even partially, the impact would be enormous. And for there and back hikes, the back is much easier.

But what if it is too big to drag? You can buy an adequate folding pruning saw from any hardware store and many mass merchants for under $20. I personally prefer a $12 saw with sheath that was purchased online. It weighs less than 8 ounces so I carry it year round. It has been a godsend on several late winter hikes in spruce thickets. (It also came in handy removing a post hike fallen tree as I was trying to exit Mt Blue State Park!)

Usually I can remove the blowdown with only a few carefully selected cuts. Are there too many blowdowns or are they too big? I’ve run out of moxie on work trips after hard winters many times, but something is better than nothing. Clear enough of the blowdown to at least keep the tread established and protect the resource from degradation. If you can only clear the first 5 before conceding to mother nature, so be it.

Now I am certainly not condoning indiscriminate sawing or lopping and some land stewards may frown on ‘common hikers’ cutting trees. But common sense should indicate a blowdown across the trail needs to be removed. And the sooner the better.

The following is a link to the AMC’s free Trail Adopter’s Handbook. It is blessedly succinct and 100% modern. I recommend a quick read for anyone with enough initiative to start packing a saw. Look for it on outdoors.org under the Volunteer tab under Volunteer Resources. You can download the PDF directly. Did I mention it’s free?

The US Forest Service has an online Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook. It is considerably more detailed than the Adopter Handbook as it deals with trail design and construction as well. It too is free.

Maine has an ever growing list of publically accessible trails. Every trail needs to be maintained every year. Any one of them could use a little of your help. Connect with your local land trust or search Trail Work on the AMC website. Get outdoors!


Jeff Pengel is presently the AMC Maine Chapter Trails Chair. He has been maintaining trails for over 2 decades and is a former MCC crew leader. Jeff was trained as a geologist and botanist. Both he and his wife Lisa, are Maine Master Naturalists (as well as AMC volunteer naturalists). Jeff presently works for a growing Maine based ISP & IT provider.