Skip to main content


The Hiking Experience: Then and Now (7/00)


The name Daan Zwick is known to many GMC members. Daan is a hiker, GMC lifetime member, summit caretaker, teller of tales, and benefactor to the GMC. Daan describes changes between his caretaker experiences on Mt. Mansfield in the 1990's and his adventures six or seven decades ago.

No, we didn't ride wampahoofi on the Long Trail in the thirties, but things were different then. Trails were different, rules were different, even the people were different. Some of these changes evolved, unremarked at the time. However, seen from a perspective of almost a lifetime, they become notable. For example:

While successive guidebooks note the relocation of trails a few miles this way or that to accommodate encroaching human occupation of primitive lands, a fundamental movement of trails toward the center of the earth has not been documented. A prime example is the two-and-a-half miles of the Long Trail between Smuggler's Notch and the Adams Apple of Mt. Mansfield.

Sixty years ago that trail was a soft, springy walk on top of the earth, grass, and leaves of the forest floor. Increased traffic of Vibram-soled boots scoured this soft surface, inviting running water to follow the trail. The combined effect of human traffic and flowing water removed this humus layer to the rock below. The present trail is almost entirely on this rock, in some places being a ditch almost a foot deep.

Profanity Trail above Taft Lodge has some short stretches eroded almost waist deep, probably helping to keep its name current. In its early days the Halfway House Trail was used as a horse trail that gently zigged and zagged its way up the steep west slope of Mansfield. Even in 1930 it was an easy walk for an eight-year-old. The hiker of today, scrambling up sheets of bare rock, would find this hard to believe.

Trail maintenance, of course, had to change. In my early days on the trail, maintenance had only two functions: marking and clearing. Hardening was an unknown word. Yesterday's blazing was hard on the trees. We would chop a sizeable hunk of bark from the tree with a hatchet, and then paint the gaping wound or leave it bare. Some of those old wounds can still be seen as scars where the bark has grown almost to cover the injury.

A later refinement used a disc of metal nailed to the tree and painted the appropriate color. However, in time, the metal would gradually disappear into the tree as growing bark engulfed it.

The Burlington Section was fortunate to be the recipient of a large supply of pre-enameled metal pieces, punched out by the local General Electric plant during its refrigerator manufacturing process. Today's less intrusive blaze is a standard strip of white or other colored paint on trees or rocks at suitable intervals.

Trail clearing, then as now, was the cutting back of encroaching underbrush or tree branches. Most of this is still done by hand tools, although I have seen gasoline-powered whackers being used. Removing downed trees before the advent of the ubiquitous chain saw required muscle-powered saws and axes. Small trees were usually handled with the axe. A six-foot long two-man crosscut saw, plus some axe work, took care of the larger trees.

After the hurricane of 1938, the wind left rows of large spruce blown over the Kingsford Trail on the side of Mt. Dewey. We soon learned to saw the downed tree just once on the uphill side of the trail. As soon as the weight of the branches was removed, we could lift the remainder of the trunk from the trail, helped by the counterbalancing weight of the roots. We left behind us a trail marked by rows of short, stubby telephone poles. The Kingsford Trail no longer appears on guidebook maps - it would be an interesting adventure to locate that stretch of trail and see if the stumps are still standing.

I do not remember seeing a water bar on any trail, although there might be an occasional cut in the downhill side of a trail to encourage incipient streams to go elsewhere. A large rock or two might be dropped into a mud puddle to make it seem more like a footpath.

The top of Mansfield sported a few stretches of boardwalk, thanks to the proximity of the hotel. Now, some trails, particularly in the National Forests, have long stretches of sturdy puncheon walkways. Elaborate series of water bars, some of logs and some of stone, help to stabilize miles of trail. In other eroding places stone stairways have been constructed to protect the path.

Trail hardening has become standard practice everywhere. When I heard of the Vermont helicopters bringing logs and supplies for the rebuilding of Taft Lodge, I was reminded of seeing, in the eighties, British military helicopters transporting huge slabs of slate for repairing the heavily-used trails on Mt. Snowdon in Wales.

Personal camping gear has changed, definitely for the better. The serious hiker of the 1930's might carry his gear in a pack basket or a European-made rucksack. More used the simple “Boy Scout” knapsack, feeling every item from mess kit to canned soup poking him in the middle of his back. Some used the horseshoe blanket roll, with hard items like cans and flashlight rolled up in the middle of the bedroll, and perhaps an oilcloth cover for rain protection. Internal or external pack frame technology is a big improvement. Light-weight sleeping bags and tents, breathable raingear, light headlamps, and clothing of insulating or wicking fabrics make camping and hiking more comfortable.