Under the Green Canopy: Hiking The Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires

When I told Harold my title for tonight’s paper he suggested it might be about a wedding! A great guess, but no, the paper is actually about my experiences of hiking on the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires.  “Under the Green Canopy” refers to the lush green foliage overhead when you are on the trail.  The AT is also sometimes called the “Green Tunnel” by thru-hikers.

I first encountered the Appalachian Trail over fifty years ago in western New Jersey as a Boy Scout at camp No-Be-Bo-Sco.  The camp, which is still going strong, sits alongside Kittatinny Ridge, near the Delaware Water Gap.

I went to camp there for several summers and we scouts hiked sections of the nearby AT. The trail skirts the opposite shore of Sand Pond. I have many memories of that lake; I came to camp as a beginner and learned to swim there, eventually earning my lifesaving merit badge, and when I was fourteen swam the Mile Swim there. I didn’t appreciate that the nearby trail was so special.

It was as a Boy Scout that I first learned to love hiking and camping. I know that when one thinks of New Jersey it does not conjure up pictures of beautiful forests and hills, but that is just what that part of northwestern New Jersey is like.  If you don’t believe me you can visit. The camp is private, but years ago it ceded hundreds of acres to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Park and one can hike the trails there, including a portion of the AT.

Eventually one of the Scout leaders at camp must have told me that the trail went all the way from Georgia to Maine, and that some people hiked the whole thing in one season. From then on it was a dream of mine to thru-hike the trail, a dream I long deferred and have finally abandoned now that I’ve reached the age where one likes to sleep in one’s own bed.

Nonetheless, the AT has been a valued part of my life ever since those Boy Scout days.  I met up with it again when I moved to New England to go to graduate school in 1971. I hiked portions of it with my future wife in the White Mountains in New Hampshire in the early 1970’s, and later with my brother in the 1980’s.

Then when I moved to Maine Martha and I took church youth groups hiking and camping on and near Mt Katahdin, which is the northernmost terminus of the AT.  I have run across the trail here and there through the years while hiking in Connecticut and Vermont.

But it has been during these last thirty years during which I have lived in Berkshire County that I have become most familiar with the trail, especially since 2000 when my hiking life took another turn.

It happened like this. In late September of 2000 I was a spectator for the Great Josh Billings Runaground, the Berkshires’ famous fun triathlon. I had been training all year to be a participant, but the month before I took a bad tumble on my bike and was on the disabled list.

As I was sulking on the sidelines with my arm in a sling, a good friend of mine approached me and asked me how I was doing.  “Terrible,” I said, “I’m jumping out of my skin for lack of exercise because I can’t ride my bike.” He replied, “Well, I belong to a hiking group and you’re welcome to come along. It’s a bunch of old guys and won’t be very challenging for somebody in as good shape as you are, but, hey, if you want to come we’re hiking tomorrow and I’ll pick you up.”

So the next day I landed with my friend at the trailhead to the AT in Tyringham, not far from Tyringham Cobble.  I saw some old friends, met some new ones, laced up my boots, and off the group went at such a fast pace that I was yo-yoing off the back for awhile.

And that was my introduction to the other men’s group I belong to which has Monday in its name, “The Monday Mountain Boys” (although to be strictly factual the name didn’t come about until a year later when the wives named us).

I liked the group so much that even after I rehabbed my body and fixed my bike the following year I kept hiking with them on Mondays, and I still often do. The hikes take us all over Berkshire County, but more than any other venue we hike the Berkshire section of the AT.

Those of us who live here tend to take for granted this iconic trail that wends it’s way through the length of our county. The entire AT in Massachusetts, some 90 miles of it, is here in Berkshire County.

Its official name is The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, but everybody calls it the AT.  It is (more or less) 2,174 miles long and travels the spiny ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains. It extends between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine.

It winds its way through the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. And of the fifteen states it passes through only in Massachusetts is the entire trail in a single county.

The making of the Appalachian Trail was a vast undertaking. How did such a project come to be? To answer that question we need to back up and have a little history lesson about mountain hiking and trail-making.

Our story really only begins around 1830, since hiking for recreation and leisure is a fairly recent development in the history of humankind.

The earliest settlers to this part of the country brought with them the attitudes of Europe, where mountains were viewed chiefly as obstacles to travel. In a famous example, Martin Luther kept diaries of his trip from Germany to Rome in 1510 without mentioning a word about the scenery, which would have included a good portion of the Alps.  And when the first English settlers reached the Berkshires they called them “the horrid hills.”

That view was widely shared. Mountains were dangerous places afflicted with unpredictable weather, wind and rain and snow and thunder and lightning.  The paucity of Indian artifacts on mountains indicates that Native Americans avoided them as well, perceiving them as places where larger powers and forces best not tampered with dwelled.  During Darby Field’s historic climb of Mt Washington in 1642 he could convince only one of his Indian scouts to approach the summit with him.

But Field’s ascent of Mt. Washington back in the 17th century was very much an anomaly.  Most of the Northeastern mountains didn’t have their first known ascent for more than a hundred years later. Mt. Mansfield in Vermont was first climbed in 1772 and Mt. Katahdin not until 1804 to give just a couple of examples.

It wasn’t until well after the Revolutionary War that men (and some women) took to the mountains in any numbers, and only during the 19th century that hiking became a leisure pastime, and mostly (as I mentioned) after 1830.

That may surprise us since for us the mountains are so firmly fixed as sublime objects of beauty. But the “purple mountain’s majesty” of Katherine Lee Bates’ song is a product of the 19th century imagination. Now that the land was tamed and settled, a movement arose that sought out the experience of wilderness as a retreat from urban life.

At the same time that Romanticism was taking hold in Europe, as a reaction to the harshness of the Industrial Revolution, there was in America a new aesthetic appreciation for the natural world.  The mountains were no longer seen as dangerous, but as beautiful and soul refreshing. We can see this change in the writings of the time, in the essays of Emerson, the poetry of Whittier, the travel journals of Thoreau, and the idealized backwoods novels of Cooper.

These changing attitudes were soon followed by changes in transportation that made the mountains easier to reach. Where once a mountain climb was the pastime of the well to do and their paid guides, with the coming of the railroads the urban masses could now get to the country and did. Mountain tourism had begun.

By the end of the 1840’s Berkshire County had better rail service than we have today. Pittsfield was connected to the Hudson River in the west and to Springfield in the east, and in 1842 the Housatonic Railroad connected Bridgeport, Connecticut with W. Stockbridge.

The mountains became popular places to visit for leisure and recreation, and this new rail access created the fad of going to mountaintops. In the decades before the Civil War mountain vacation centers and summit houses sprang up throughout New England.

The Berkshires were something of an exception, as no major resorts were built here and there were few public accommodations. This was because it was the time when the great stately homes (called “cottages”) were being built as the wealthy came to enjoy the natural world in their own way (and with their own kind).

In many places in New England bridle paths were cut to reach the summits of mountains, and urbanites would travel by horse or carriage to see the vistas.  But the summit house trend in New England ended as quickly as it began, and by the mid 1870’s many of the properties were abandoned or poorly maintained.

But hiking prevailed and more and more trails were cut throughout the region. One of the very earliest was the Hopper Trail, still in use today, which was cut to the summit of Mt. Greylock in a single day by an energetic (and obviously large) group of Williams College students in 1830.

After the Civil War hiking clubs sprang up throughout New England.  An early club here in Berkshire County was the Alpine Club of Williamstown founded in1863 by Professor Mark Hopkins of Williams College. This club was coeducational from the beginning. One young member was Samuel Hubbard Scudder would later play a role in establishing the Appalachian Mountain Club in the 1870’s.

A later Berkshire hiking club was the Pathfinders or the “Leg-It” Club, based in Stockbridge and full of worthies like sculptor Daniel Chester French.

By the turn of the 20th century a new big change was just around the corner. Just as the railroads had fueled the 19th century hiking boom it was the coming of the automobile in the new century that finally set the stage for the building of the AT.  One of the great ironies of this whole story is how decisive new transportation technologies were for changes in foot travel.

The automobile made remote trailheads easier to reach, and sadly true wilderness harder to find. The future environmental impact of greater numbers of trail users was yet unperceived, and the hiking boom continued unabated.

The auto was also instrumental in a new focus on long distance trails, and talk of connecting existing trails to make a long-distance trail began.

Many New England trails were being connected to one another to allow longer trekking, and various dreamers and big thinkers envisioned a great long trail following the spine of the Eastern mountains.

It is hard to say exactly when the AT was born, but the October 1921 publication of “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” by Benton MacKaye in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects is often recognized as the birth for the Appalachian Trail.

And if anyone deserves the title of “the father of the AT” it is MacKaye. He had a somewhat utopian vision for a series of work and farming camps along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, with a great trail connecting them, from the highest point in the North (Mt. Washington in New Hampshire) to the highest in the South (Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina). But MacKaye’s focus was not on hiking or the trail itself, but on a communitarian retreat from the city life and work.

MacKaye, a regional planner, promoted his idea within his large network of friends and colleagues in Washington, New York, and Boston.

Although MacKaye had the vision it was others who did the actual work to make the trail a reality. New York newspaper columnist Raymond Torrey organized a work crew to cut the first AT-specific miles in Harriman–Bear Mountain State Park under the leadership of Maj. William A. Welch.  It was Welch who expanded the goal to “Maine to Georgia,” and designed the diamond shaped marker still in use on the trail today.

More organization was need so the first Appalachian Trail conference was convened in 1925. Their stated purpose was to organize “a body of workers (representative of outdoor living and of the regions adjacent to the Appalachian range) to complete the building of the Appalachian Trail.” An organization of that name was formed, and Maj. Welch was named its first chair.

Real headway began when a retired Connecticut judge, Arthur Perkins, and a young federal lawyer in Washington, Myron H. Avery, took charge of the efforts as a hiking-focused cause.

Perkins died in 1932, and Avery carried on the work. Avery is an important figure in this story. He led a small corps of activists, numbering perhaps 200, in identifying and blazing routes.

They established local clubs from Pennsylvania to Georgia, set standards for the trail, and published guidebooks and maps.

They also negotiated with national parks and other federal agencies for land use and rights of way.  It is extraordinary that a totally volunteer effort could accomplish such an undertaking.

But it wasn’t always pretty, and Berkshire County is a good example of how difficult it was to put all the pieces together and get everybody to work together.

Massachusetts got an early start, but was one of the last states to finally complete the trail.

Benton MacKaye was from Massachusetts and his article about an Appalachian Trail in 1922 immediately inspired nature writer Walter Pritchard Eaton to outline a route through the Berkshires.

Eaton’s route was not the one we have today. It started by using existing trails on Mt Everett and going in a northeasterly direction until October Mountain Forest, much as the trail does today.  North of that, however, his trail went west, south of Pittsfield, and then went along the ridge of the Taconics all the way to Mt. Greylock. From there he proposed following the Bellows Pipe Trail rather than the ridge to its west that the trail follows today.

Eaton organized some Berkshire schoolboys to work on the trail, but the effort sputtered and didn’t get much traction until 1928 when the Berkshire Hills Conference, a tourism organization, created a three-man Trails Committee.  Eaton represented the south end, Archie Sloper represented the north and Mt Greylock, and Franklin Couch of Dalton represented the middle.

Couch was a popular civic leader who was a scout leader of a large Boy Scout troop in Dalton and the hill-towns. He was our member Charles Sawyer’s fathers scout leader. Under Couch’s leadership, from 1928 to 1931 the Berkshire Hills Conference group cut a nearly complete trail from Connecticut to Vermont.

The Williams Outing Club and a Williamstown school principal named John B. Clarke cut trails in the north. Sloper and some local Boy Scouts cut the southern flank of Greylock. Couch and his Boy Scouts cut trails around Dalton. A Pittsfield man S. Waldo Bailey cut much of rest. But they never quite finished it.

So far this was a purely local effort, but in 1931 the Berkshire Chapter of the AMC, which despite its name was dominated by leaders from Springfield and the Pioneer Valley, started sending work crews to the AT independently from the locals.  Without communication between the two groups they worked at cross-purposes, cutting different routes and even taking down markers from the other group.

As you can imagine the involvement of “outsiders” didn’t go down well and a schism ensued between the groups.  Eventually, in 1931, Myron Avery from the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) made two trips to the Berkshires to see if he could resolve the problem.

He didn’t. He may well have made it worse. Avery may have misread the situation, but in any case he ended up siding with the Berkshire Chapter of the AMC, who were then given authority for the trail.

Spurned by the ATC, Couch and the other actual builders of much of the trail withdrew.

The Berkshire Chapter of the AMC finally completed the Trail during the years 1932 to 1935. But the alienation of the locals made it hard to get workers for trail maintenance and the Berkshire portion of trail fell into disarray.

Between 1937 and 1940 two groups stepped up to rescue the trail, the Mount Greylock Ski Club, and Metawampe, the faculty outing club of U. Mass in Amherst. (The story of this schism is told in detail in Waterman’s Forest and Crag, p. 498-503)

The story of the problems in the Berkshires hints at what it took to get the whole trail completed with volunteers. After all, the Berkshire section in only 90 miles out of more than 2000.  Any of you who have served as selectman of a small town or on a church board knows what it is like to get things accomplished with volunteers. The Berkshire story is just one of many in how this monumental trail got built.

But finally the entire AT officially opened on August 14, 1937. It faced challenges from the beginning.  Born during the Great Depression and in a few years came the start of World War II, when gas rationing limited travel.

The end of World War II brought opportunities to fix the trail, but also brought new challenges in the form of rapidly expanding residential and highway development.

At this time nearly half the AT was still either on roads or used rights of way on private property that newly affluent people wanted for vacation homes.  The battle between public use and private property has continued throughout the life of the trail.

In 1948 Earl V. Shaffer, a Pennsylvania veteran who said he was “walking off the war,” reported to a disbelieving Avery at the ATC that he had just walked the entire length of the trail in a single journey of less than five months.  Shaffer had become the first successful thru-hiker of the AT.  He would do it twice more, in 1965 and in 1998, 50 years after his first time.  He was 79, the oldest person to accomplish it, a record he held until 2004.

Ironically, the founders of the AT had never envisioned an individual hiking the entire trail in a single season, and had dismissed the idea as a stunt. A popular one it turns out. Now every year thousands attempt a thru hike. Only about 1 in 4 finish it, about 600 a year in the past several years.

By the early 1960’s the popularity of the trail had outrun the capacity of its volunteers to run and maintain it. Long established rights of way were being lost to development and a crisis was looming.

Another important figure in this story is Stanley A. Murray, who would become the ATC’s second-longest-serving chair. Murray worked to both reenergize the ATC (by building up its base of individual members), and also to revive the idea of the federal government’s protecting of the AT and its surrounding lands from adverse development. This was something that both MacKaye and Avery had advocated.

On October 2, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the National Trails System Act (NTSA), creating within the national park and forest systems a new class of public lands, national scenic trails, with the AT and the unfinished Pacific Crest Trail the first to be so designated.

States were encouraged to acquire lands for the AT, and the National Park Service (NPS), with administrative responsibility for it all, and USDA Forest Service authorized to do so. The ATC soon hired its first two employees.

In March 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law amendments to the NTSA directing federal agencies to move forward and authorizing almost $100 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund for that purpose.

The most complicated public-land acquisition program in history was begun; NPS formed an AT Project Office and special AT Land Acquisition Office.

The ATC had to manage what would become more than 250,000 acres of public land, an estate with one of the greatest troves of natural and cultural resources in the entire national park system

In July 2005 the Appalachian Trail Conference changed of its name to Appalachian Trail Conservancy, still volunteer-based.  The cooperation of volunteers with state and federal agencies has allowed the trail to flourish despite unprecedented use never foreseen by its early founders.

What began as an ad hoc enterprise by a loose collection of regional and local volunteers is today a large and efficient organization of cooperation between volunteers and agencies.

The result of which is that the AT is currently protected along more than 99 percent of its course by federal or state ownership of the land or by right-of-way. Each year an estimate of more than 4,000 volunteers contribute over 175,000 hours of effort to maintain it.

I’ve said a lot about the history and organization of the AT, but not much about the trail itself. So let me offer a highly selective and impressionistic picture of the trail as I have experienced it.

Here in Massachusetts the AT enters our southern border from Connecticut at Sages Ravine. Sages Ravine has a series of falls and cascades that are beautiful in any season, but spectacular when there has been a lot of rain or snow melt. Since most of the AT has been logged at one time or another it is rare to see old growth forest, but there is some at Sages Ravine.

This southerly most section of the trail is also one of the most challenging for the hiker, as the trail takes one over numerous rock faces, many of them during climbs. It was near here the very first day I hiked with poles that I lost my footing on a rock face and broke one of my new poles.

The trail goes through the beautiful Race Brook Falls before it climbs to Mount Race, which has lovely open views of  the southern Berkshires and Connecticutt. The trail then climbs to the highest peak in the southern Taconic Range, Mount Everett (2,602 ft.).

Descending from the summit the trail skirts the edge of Guilder Pond (where I usually have a swim in the hot weather) and then climbs along a rocky ridge before descending steeply to Jug End Road and down to the Housatonic River Valley.  If you make this descent in the fall after a rain you are likely to slip and slide all the way down on the wet leaves.

The trail crosses Rt 7 south of Great Barrington and meanders in a general northeasterly direction through East Mountain, Beartown, and October Mountain State Forests.

There is a Shelter at Upper Goose Pond that has a caretaker during the hiking season.  It was here I met a German engineer who had quit his job and come over to thru-hike the AT. North of here the trail goes over the Massachusetts Turnpike on a footbridge

The Trail goes by Finnerty Pond, where one of the weirdest of my AT experiences took place. Several of us Monday Mountain Boys were sitting on logs having our lunch when we heard someone coming towards us on the AT from the North loudly reciting what I thought was Shakespeare.  The sound got louder and louder as the hiker approached until a young man finally emerged and greeted us. It wasn’t Shakespeare but “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It turns out this solo thru hiker was doing the International AT, with extensions north into Canada and South of Georgia. He carried a poetry anthology with him, and at night he would memorize poems and recite them aloud on the trail. He said, “It also alerted any black bears to his coming.”

Before the trail passes through the town of Dalton there is one of my favorite parts, from Kirchener Rd to Grange Hall Rd which takes you over Warner Hill, a small outcropping with beautiful views to the North and Mt Greylock. At this point you are just East of the City of Pittsfield.  I once met a couple of thru-hikers at Warner Hill who were waiting to get picked up by the sales staff at Eastern Mountain Sports at the Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro so they could buy new boots.

Another curious thing I have noticed at Warner Hill.  You have to step off the AT and walk a few feet to see the nice view.  Sometimes you will see thru-hikers make the turn and never look up. In fairness they are fighting time and the weather, but sometimes miss the sights.

North of Warner Hill is Kay Wood Shelter, one of the 15 huts and shelters in the Berkshire part of the AT, and named after an active AMC volunteer from Dalton who was once in a Bible study with me.

The trail goes through Dalton towards Cheshire to another of my favorites, Cheshire Cobble, a large outcropping with good views of Mt Greylock and the Hoosic River Valley.

In the town of Cheshire the AT crosses the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail, crosses Rt 8 and climbs along the ridge of the Greylock massif before reaching the summit of My Greylock, the highest point in the state at 3,491 feet. As at Sages Ravine another rare old growth forest may be seen on parts of the Hopper nearby.

Another interesting fact about Mt Greylock is that for thru-hikers coming from the south it is the first sub-alpine region they will have seen since Mt Rogers in VA. Mt Greylock has a large sub alpine region, the only such forest in Massachusetts, extending down to 3,000 feet, which in the south would be far from the sub-alpine cutoff. This is a result of Mt Greylock’s powerful prevailing westerly winds, as the summits along its ridgeline rise approximately 200 feet to 650 feet higher than any other peak in Massachusetts.

From the top of Mt Greylock you get clear views in all directions. To the South you can see Pittsfield’s two lakes, Pontoosic and Onota (less than a mile from my house) and Bosquet Ski Area and South Mt. To the East you can see the town of Adams and the Hoosic Range and all the way to Mt Wachuset on a clear day. To the North you can see Williamstown and the Green Mountains of Vermont (and Mt. Monadnock in NH to the NE). To the West you can see the Taconic Range and New York State.

From the summit of Greylock the trail quickly descends to the valley within 2 miles of North Adams and Williamstown, before ascending again through the Clarksburg State Forest to the Vermont state line where it connects with the Long Trail.

The Berkshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club still maintains the trail throughout Massachusetts. Volunteer trail-masters are each assigned a portion of the trail that they are responsible for looking after. They walk the trail, noticing fallen trees, water problems, and erosion. The pick up litter and organize work groups.

Another group that looks after the trail are the AMC Ridgerunners, a group of about thirty young adults who travel the length of the AT and serve as ambassadors and educators, as well as unofficial cops with no legal authority.  They use instead the “authority of the resource” to educate rather than scold the errant hiker walking off trail or washing dishes in a stream. They also carry some first aid supplies, which I have availed myself of after skinning a knee near Mt Everett.

What else needs to be said about the AT? Well, for one thing the trail is more frequently hiked from South to North. These northbound hikers typically begin in early April and finish in late summer or early fall.  Southbound hikers typically begin in June.  Northbound hikers are called NOBO (Northbound) or GAME (Georgia to Maine) and southbound hikers are called SOBO or MEGA. The entire trail is blazed with 2 by 6 inch white paint blazes. In my Boy Scout days there were metal markers, but they are rare today.

As mentioned hikers who attempt to complete the trail from end to end in one season are called “thru-hikers,” while those who complete it in separate trips are called section “hikers.” “Flipfloppers” complete the trail within 12 months using an alternate itinerary.

Thru-hikers are often given trail nicknames called trail names.  These are often whimsical. A friend of mine from the Monday Mountain Boys who is wiry and a fast hiker was known as “Slimfast.”

Some people bring their dogs on the trail, but dogs are not allowed in the Smokies or in Baxter Park in Maine and must be kenneled during those portions of the trail. Guide dogs, however, are permitted and in 1990 a hiker named Bill Irwin, who is blind, hiked the trail with his dog Orient.

What is the future of the AT? To a great extent it has been a victim of its own success. The backpacking boon of the last quarter of the 20th century to our time has put more people on the trail than were ever imagined. In heavily traveled areas such as the White Mountains erosion from overuse can easily be seen. The advent of hiking poles has added new holes along the trail. Volunteers work tirelessly to maintain the trail, rerouting worn areas, limiting access to endangered portions. The tension between access to the trail and its conservation is a constant struggle.

As my story comes to an end let me put in a word that hiking on the trail is far superior to hearing a paper about it. From the hardiest thru-hiker to the most leisurely dog walker the AT offers great opportunities to get outdoors and enjoy all its benefits.

The section from Kirchener Rd. to Warner Hill can be walked in less than half an hour with one of the best views in the county. As we have seen, it took many people to put this great trail together, and it still takes many volunteers to keep it maintained. We are in their debt.

(This paper was delivered to the Monday Evening Club on March 12, 2012)

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