Trail-building requires element of art

By Jonathan Milne, 7 Lakes Alliance Land Steward



7 Lakes Land Steward Jonathan Milne used a chainsaw to carve this directional sign on a trail that will soon make its public debut

A hiker once asked me, “How do you even begin to build a trail through a tangle of downed trees and the impenetrable Maine woods?” My response was concise: “It’s part GIS mapping, part ‘ground-truthing’ and part visual art.” The hiker pondered that response and headed downslope. Not sure if I scared him or if he had a coffee date at Hello, Good Pie, so I reflected on my response, internally.


GIS (Geographic Information System) is always my first stop for any natural resource work. GIS mapping software allows one to visually assess a landscape and the known natural features that occur there. With GIS, I can locate wetlands, streams, deer-wintering areas, soils, slopes, etc. Once I finish this desktop exercise, I use the mapping to “ground-truth,” or check the accuracy of the remotely sensed data with on-the-ground observation, the potential trail corridor. Now the real fun begins!


Armed with my phone and a tablet, I begin the slow process of walking the contours of a potential trail. While there, I note any additional sensitive habitat and begin weaving my way through the forest. The technology tracks my every footstep, measures the distance and shows areas I should avoid. While progress can be slow, the process allows a trail to be flagged for further work. Most would say cutting downed trees, moving boulders and prepping a trail surface is not their idea of fun on a hot and humid day. But it really is an enjoyable exercise.


The visual art portion of trail-building is one of the great joys of performing hard work in the Maine woods. Within minutes of beginning a trail, I get lost in the pure bliss of building a trail that will capture a hiker’s eye. A large rock here. A super-canopy Eastern Hemlock there. An area of solid moss just visible in the sunlight. It all works together to make a trail a memorable and sustainable experience.


Our trails offer places where I’m reminded of my early days in conservation in Oregon or my decade working in Maine’s Baxter State Park. That is one of the best results of a well-designed trail – it touches our hearts and minds, and reminds us of the power of a simple walk in the Maine woods.

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