Acadia National Park trails work takes crew with special skills

One in a series about Acadia National Park hiking trails

UPDATED 6/13/17: Description of new North Portico staircase at White House.

When the National Park Service needed people with special masonry skills to replace the steps on the acclaimed North Portico of the White House, the agency picked two top trail builders from Maine’s national park and sent them to Washington to do the work.

acadia national park hiking

Jeff Chapin, crew supervisor, shows where stone steps were taken out on the Valley Trail, to be shored up and reset in the proper order. His masonry skills also came in handy for replacing the White House North Portico steps in 2015.

After all, who better to replace the famed staircase at the White House than two people experienced at building stone steps and repairing historic masonry on the Acadia National Park trails? The park service, which maintains the grounds and exterior walls of the White House, assigned Jeffrey Chapin, crew supervisor on the Acadia National Park trails crew, and Peter Colman, another veteran trail crew leader, and they both spent about two weeks in late summer of 2015 replacing the marble steps at the White House with Vermont granite.

At the time, there was no publicity about their work at the White House because of security reasons. “I could not tell my family,” Chapin said.

The North Portico staircase faces Pennsylvania Avenue and is used to greet dignitaries.

Chapin said the staircase is three separate flights and three patio landings and includes a new ramp for disabled people. “The old ramp was metal and added on to the old stone work,” he said. “The new ramp is a permanent stone ramp to match the stairs.”

Starting another busy season in the park, Chapin, who lives in Trenton, provided a tour of an upgrade by his Acadia National Park trails crew on a nearly mile-long section of the historic Valley Trail near Beech Mountain west of Somes Sound. The section runs from the intersection of Canada Cliffs to the junction with the Beech South Ridge Trail.

acadia national park hiking

Jeff Chapin, crew supervisor, describes the cable and pulley system, strung high between trees, that is used to move huge boulders during Valley Trail reconstruction.

Part of Acadia National Park trails work includes searching the woods for boulders and then cutting them to fashion stone steps for a staircase, a wall or decorative cap to a culvert. In order to avoid dragging the rocks and damaging sensitive habitat and terrain, the huge stones are chained to a cable strung between trees, hoisted into the air, and carefully moved with ropes and pulleys, in a bit of a high-wire act.

A cable and pulley system strung high in trees might seem a risky way to move boulders, but Chapin said the key is for everyone to be positioned in the right spot to avoid injury in case a tree falls, for example. “Everybody knows where to stand,” he said. “Everybody knows what they are doing.”

Acadia National Park trails foreman Gary Stellpflug dumps gravel into the trailer manned by David Schlag, for the Valley Trail work.

Valley Trail, other Acadia National Park trails get special care

The work on the Valley Trail, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, includes new culverts to improve drainage, retaining walls and new gravel finish coat on the trail. Workers grub out the old trail and then fill and raise it to a specific height with gravel on top of a lower layer of blown ledge.

acadia national park hiking

The improved Valley Trail will have a surface raised to the level of the string, and curve gracefully around this rock.

When restoring Acadia National Park trails, the final layout is so meticulous that it will sometimes curve to match the edge of an adjacent large stone.

Chapin said stones for walls and steps are cut and shaped by hand to provide a natural look and tight joints.

After drilling holes several inches apart in the rock surface, he hammers a “feather and wedge” to split the stone.

“We cut rock all the time,” he said. “We cut lots of rock.”

When building a staircase on Acadia National Park trails, the goal is for each stone step to rise no more than eight inches since a hiker could trip with a 4 to 6-inch rise, he said.

acadia national park trails

This stack of leaning steps on the Valley Trail will be set straight as part of the rehabilitation.

Chapin said it took him about 10 years to become good at constructing steps without any mortar to bind them together. The dry stone construction involves building a granite wall underneath the steps to hold them together.

Chapin said his job is interesting.

“We get to do other cool stuff,” said Chapin, who also worked for six months as a contracts supervisor  amid the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005  and as a research advisor for a month during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chapin is also a senior wildland firefighter and member of the NPS Arborist Incident Response Team, which can clear hazardous and fallen trees. “We have done emergency response for fires and natural disasters all over the country,” he said.

A former EMT, he is often also called to accidents in the woods of Acadia, since his trail work can mean he is close to the scene.

acadia national park hiking

At the Beech Mountain parking lot, Acadia trails foreman Gary Stellpflug, left, loads gravel into the trailer being manned by David Schlag, a crew leader.

Chapin started as a laborer 17 years ago when there were only six to eight people on the trail crew, compared to 27 mostly-seasonal workers this summer.

In the off season, Chapin, who is year-round subject to furlough, built three trailers with hydraulic pistons to place on the backs of ATVs. Those trailers can replace gurneys and wheel barrows and save the backs of people, he said.

When the terrain on the trails gets tough deep in the woods, workers have no choice and have to use gurneys and wheel barrows, he said.

The Valley Trail rehabilitation is among work occurring on some of the Acadia National Park trails this season.

The trails crew is supplemented in the summer by high school students in the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps, with salaries and equipment financed each year by the nonprofit group Friends of Acadia.

acadia national park hiking

Gavin Willow of Bar Harbor operates a Canycom track carrier to bring gravel for the Valley Trail. He first worked on the trails as a member of the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps, when he was a high school student.

David Schlag, a crew leader from Tremont, said the youths provide a lot of support with work like ditch digging, crushing rocks and carrying materials. “That is a great program,” Schlag said.

Volunteers, including those from the Friends of Acadia, also help on trail work, he said.

Work to repair steps on the Canon Brook Trail and the A. Murray Young Path is also planned this summer, as well as two to three weeks of trail work at the Schoodic Peninsula, the only section of the park on the mainland, Acadia National Park Trails foreman Gary Stellpflug said.

“We’ll be all over the park this year,” Stellpflug said. Major work is also being done in 2017 on Seaside Path, a village connector trail, a multi-year project just as the Valley Trail rehabilitation is.

The crew will also continue an effort to repair eroded parts of the popular Ocean Path, which is often damaged by storms.

acadia national park trails

A new viewpoint on Ocean Path just south of Sand Beach.

“We’ll never be done with Ocean Path,” he said. “It is so busy.”

Last year, the park for the first time used FILTERPAVE(R), a porous binder that looks like gravel and is mixed with stone, on a 600-foot section of Ocean Path, in an experiment to help prevent the path along Frenchman Bay from washing out and eroding.

Other work on Ocean Path includes a new viewpoint and repairs to outer walls, he said.

Stellpflug, during a visit to an old trailer that serves as his office, shared tentative plans for repairing trails across the park over the next six years. About 155 miles of Acadia National Park trails are found on Mount Desert Island, Schoodic Peninsula and Isle au Haut.

Some of the Acadia National Park trails on schedule to have work done on them between now and 2022:

Chapin, who has always worked under management of Stellpflug at Acadia, says a special endowment helps the trail crews do a lot of work beyond maintenance. The $13 million campaign to benefit the Acadia National Park trails was started in 1999 with $9 million in private donations raised by the Friends of Acadia and $4 million in federal funds, mostly from the park’s entry fees.

“That money allows us to do these big restoration projects,” he said.

Acadia National Park trails crew at work on the Valley Trail

acadia national park hiking

James Venable, a Tyler, TX, native, on the left, and Elizabeth Handley, a Cleveland native, smooth out the gravel on the Valley Trail.

acadia national park hiking

Valley Trail is open to hikers even during construction.

acadia national park hiking

Trail worker Eric Doherty of Ellsworth shovels gravel for the Valley Trail.

acadia national park trails

BEFORE: During this wet spring, water runoff from the right leaves pools in this portion of the Valley Trail, before the drainage improvements, below. (Photo courtesy of Jeff Chapin/NPS)

acadia national park trails

AFTER: Hidden under the dirt and the granite stones on either side of the trail are plastic culverts to improve drainage, in the same section of the Valley Trail as pictured above.