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A Conversation with Caretakers Annaliese and Kelly (10/05)

During the hiking season, the Green Mountain Club has live-in caretakers at many shelters, to greet visitors, help with emergencies, and educate hikers about safety and good wilderness ethics.  The program is partially funded by a small overnight use fee at the shelters that have caretakers.

Annaliese Hesse and Kelly Walsh are both first-year GMC caretakers. Annaliese has worked mostly at Battell Shelter on Mt. Abraham, while Kelly has been at Montclair Glen Lodge and at Lula Tye, Little Rock Pond and Stratton Pond Shelters. Like all of the shelter caretakers, Annaliese and Kelly have also spent time as summit caretakers and have helped out with trail maintenance, privy care, and other tasks. Both women emphasized that a caretaker’s job is never boring.

Annaliese: “Hikers are always really curious about the privy work. They can’t believe we actually take the stuff out of the composting privies or that we have to stir it regularly. There’s always a lot of jokes and, you know, ‘ugh’ and ‘eeeyew’. But most people are really interested.”

Kelly: “There are a lot of unexpected parts of the job, things you’d never predict!” She described one project that involved carrying out the rusted old roof of the Cowles Cove Shelter in the Huntington Gap area. Three caretakers hiked up to the Shelter and then worked at bending and stomping the three pieces of roof to make flat parcels that would be easier to carry. While they were doing this, a thunderstorm blew up and the women had to wait it out in the shelter. They had expected to hike up and down in a few hours, and they weren’t sure how much bulk they’d be carrying on the return trip, so they hadn’t brought extra clothes. All they had were rough burlap sacks to wrap around the sharp edges of the roof pieces. As the temperature dropped, the caretakers huddled in the open lean-to and then had the great idea of using their burlap sacks. “We each curled up in little balls, each one of us inside a bag until the storm passed.”

Caretakers hear about extra projects in a variety of ways. Sometimes a fellow GMC worker will hike in to a shelter to request additional muscle power for something that has to be done along the trail. Sometimes it’s possible to communicate with GMC headquarters and field staff by radios or cell phones. If the project isn’t an immediate priority, caretakers may find “help wanted” e-mail waiting for them when they check their mail on their days off.

One unexpected challenge for Kelly and Annaliese was finding good places near the trail heads where their cars would be safe five days a week, June through October. Annaliese went door to door in the Lincoln Gap area, introducing herself to neighbors. She finally made an arrangement to park her car in a family’s driveway whenever she was at Battell Shelter. “I feel that my car’s a lot safer than it would be at the trail head, and the people whose driveway I’m using said it’s been nice having a car there because it makes it look like someone’s always home.”

Kelly and Annaliese estimated that they each met over a thousand visitors this summer, including individuals and groups who stayed overnight at shelters and hikers they talked with on the Long Trail’s summits.

Annaliese: “You can really interact with a lot of people in one afternoon on a summit such as Mt. Abe or Camels Hump or Mansfield – hundreds sometimes. And then there’s the whole different kind of interaction you have with people who stay nights at the shelters. They’re your guests and you’re host and tutor and guide all in one.”

Kelly: “The hikers who come to a shelter are pretty diverse. There are some people who’ll hang out till noon, talking and relaxing and just enjoying themselves. They’ll plan to get back on the trail after lunch and go five miles or so before stopping at the next shelter for the night. Then other people are driven to do as much as thirty miles a day. They’re up at dawn and they’re still munching their breakfast as they head off down the trail.”

Annaliese: “There’s also a lot of difference between day hikers and thru-hikers. For one thing, day hikers are really good at giving you food. I got a pizza yesterday, up there on the mountain, the first time that’s ever happened.”

Kelly: “We keep wanting to put up a sign: Don’t feed the animals, but please feed the caretaker!”

Annaliese: “But the thru-hikers are always hungry.”

Kelly: “They’ve been living on Ramen and water. They just about go nuts for a piece of fresh fruit. I gave one group of LT thru-hikers apples and chocolate. They finished their hike all the way to the Canadian border and then they came back to GMC headquarters in Waterbury Center and dropped off a thank-you gift of apples and chocolate for me!”

In the past, shelter caretakers sometimes experienced poorly-prepared and poorly-chaperoned groups of young hikers. Now, the GMC has a Group Outreach Specialist who works full-time during the hiking season. The Club actively reaches out to educate organizations that bring groups to the mountains – and the effort seems to be paying off. Both Annaliese and Kelly had excellent experiences with groups this summer.

Annaliese: “Most of the campers and counselors have been incredibly well-informed. They contacted GMC first, they knew about fragile vegetation on the mountain tops, and they showed a lot of respect for the woods and the trails. They also showed respect for my job and what we’re trying to do. The leaders really liked it when I’d introduce myself to the group and tell them a little about the shelter and talk with them about bear hangs, the wash pit, water sources, and so on.”

Both women have had some hikers come into shelters with their pets, but both of them emphasized that Long Trail hiking is really hard on dogs. There are sections of open rock that frighten some dogs and can damage pads and toenails. Some hikers have had to carry their dogs up and down steep ladders. And there’s always the chance of meeting up with a porcupine. In addition, dogs who are very mellow at home often get disoriented and nervous sleeping in new places every night with lots of strangers around. Kelly and Annaliese recommended that hikers know their dogs very well before taking them hiking, try short hikes first, and be sure to bring a leash to use on the fragile alpine summits.

Annaliese and Kelly have discovered that each shelter has its own unique feeling. Some are very old, and it’s the feeling of history that makes them special.

Kelly: “It’s fun to be in one of the more historic shelters and have some older hikers come by and hear them start reminiscing about staying in that shelter way before I was born.”

Others shelters are brand-new and sometimes even fancy.

Kelly: “Stratton Pond Shelter in the southern part of the state is really beautiful. It’s got plenty of good bunks plus a great sleeping loft for extra people. There’s also a covered picnic area.”

Annaliese and Kelly said they’ve thoroughly enjoyed their summer with Vermont’s hikers and campers. They’ll be staying through October. Then Kelly will be working, though she’s not sure where yet. “On my days off, I’m doing résumés.” Annaliese is planning a road trip with a lot of camping and hiking out West. “I’ve had such a great time here in Vermont that it’s just made me want to see what other places have to offer.”