The superintendent of Acadia National Park and other National Park Service employees and supporters gathered recently to bid farewell to retired Acadia hiking trails foreman Gary Stellpflug, sending him off with high praise and lots of laughs.
Stellpflug, who retired at the end of August, led an extensive rehabilitation and expansion of 155 miles of Acadia hiking trails over the past 20 years, made possible when Acadia became the first national park in the country with an endowment for a trail system.
People at the retirement party lauded Stellpflug’s expertise in stone masonry and craftsmanship in trail building at Acadia. They said his work helped in the successful nomination of Acadia hiking trails to the National Register of Historic Places in April.
Gary Stellpflug kidded as “loose cannon” at Acadia, with a heart
The event also turned into a roast at times, filled with stories about Stellpflug’s tenure over 35 years as trails foreman at Acadia and poking fun at his love of tea and unconventional management style.
Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider said that every national park has “a loose cannon” and Stellpflug was Acadia’s loose cannon.
Schneider said he was reminded of that earlier this year when Stellpflug spoke to a reporter about a story and the superintendent’s office knew nothing about it. “Somewhere up on that Gary time flow chart, you have to add something… ‘Oh and by the way, notify the superintendent’s office if you are talking to the media.’ It is a nice courtesy.”
But “in all honesty, the work you have done here is incredible,” Schneider told Stellpflug. “And you have an incredible legacy here at Acadia and across the National Park Service…. Although you might have been a loose cannon, your heart was always in the right place.”
Acadia hiking trails are the envy across the National Park system, Schneider said, thanks to Stellpflug and the endowment called the Acadia Trails Forever campaign, a partnership between the park and the Friends of Acadia, started in 1999 with $9 million in private donations and $4 million in federal funds.
Laughs galore at retirement party for Acadia hiking trails foreman
Few laughs were spared at Stellpflug’s expense during the party at The Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor attended by about 80 people on a sunny last Sunday in August, and hosted by Keith Johnston, Acadia’s chief of maintenance and Stellpflug’s boss.
Heather Cooney, administrative support assistant at Acadia National Park, said she was the first person hired by Acadia National Park to be Stellpflug’s clerk.
She had the audience in stitches with her flow chart for computing how much time Stellpflug would be out of the office and out on the Acadia hiking trails on any given day. Stellpflug often said he would be gone two hours from the trailer that served as his office, but the actual time was different, she said.
“When you are computing Gary time, you need to factor in distractions,” she said.
“Gary is a big fan of dogs and there are a lot of dogs being walked in Acadia National Park. If they are friendly, add a tenth of an hour. If they are not friendly, subtract a tenth.”
“After you factor in the potential distractions, you have to ask yourself, ‘What is Gary avoiding in the office?’… There might be phone calls he has to return.”
History of Acadia to include story behind Stellpflug’s promotion
Stellpflug is known for his sense of humor and it was on display again at the party when his longtime friend, retired Ranger Charlie Jacobi, played a taped recording of Stellpflug repeating a swear word during an interview for an upcoming administrative history of Acadia National Park. When asked how he became foreman of the trail crew after starting as a seasonal laborer on Acadia hiking trails in 1974, Stellpflug, during the tape recording, recalled his promotion by Carroll Douglass, a former maintenance supervisor at Acadia who used spicy language.
Douglass asked Stellpflug if he would like to replace trail crew foreman Frank Anderson. At the time, Anderson had run a trail crew on the east side of Mount Desert Island with only two to four college students during summers, and a separate foreman was in charge of trails on the western end.
“My second summer, I came back and it was Carroll Douglass at his best again,” Stellpflug said on the tape, quoting Douglass. “That f—— Frank Anderson. He is not f—— coming back. You’re the only f—— person who walks around those trails. You run around those f—— trails with those f—— kids.’ ”
“That’s how I got on trails,” Stellpflug said on the tape. “He asked me, I said, ‘Yeah, I would love to do that.’ “
Stellpflug worked in the eastern district and served as crew leader from 1975 until his appointment as trails foreman for both sides of the island in 1978.
Retired trails foreman knows every inch of Acadia hiking trails
Jacobi said no one knows Acadia hiking trails better than Stellpflug. Stellpflug left his position at Acadia for about 10 years in the 1990s, but was hired back about 20 years ago.
“It is not just every inch of trails,” Jacobi said of Stellpflug. “You can talk to him about some place out in the middle of nowhere and he will pretty much know something about it or where it is.”
“Or, make it up,” Stellpflug said from his table.
The party included some serious moments about Stellpflug’s immense legacy at Acadia. Stephanie Clement, conservation director at the Friends of Acadia, read from Stellpflug’s Marianne Edwards Distinguished Service Award, the Friends of Acadia’s highest honor, which he received at FOA’s annual meeting in July.
The award, in part, commended Stellpflug “for meeting the highest preservation standards of trail restoration and maintenance, for his wildly humorous and kind mentorship of numerous staff and volunteer teams, for…leading one of the world’s most expert trails crews in dry stone masonry and other rock work.”
“Your genius and bright spirit has exceptionally guided our efforts and embodies the vision of land stewardship and partnership at Acadia National Park,” Clement said to cheers from the crowd.
Other colleagues, friends share stories about Stellpflug
Carriebeth Pellett, trails office clerk at Acadia National Park for the past six years, told the crowd that shortly after she was hired, Stellpflug sent her out for a hike to become familiar with the park and the trails. Stellpflug directed her to the hundreds of spiraling stone steps on Emery and Homans paths at Sieur de Monts and after that walk, she became exhausted and questioned if she would hike again.
Luckily for her, she said, Stellpflug kept sending her out to the Acadia trails. By her second year, she was hiking summits with him. “He never made me feel like I was slowing him down,” she said. “The third season came along, and instead of me slowing him down, he kept saying, ‘Carriebeth, stop running up the mountains. We are not in a hurry.’ “
“Thank you for the last 6 years,” she told Stellpflug.
Brian Dominy, a law enforcement ranger at Acadia National Park, said Stellpflug never hesitated to volunteer trail crew members to help carry a visitor in a stretcher after an injury at the park. Occasionally, Stellpflug himself would be at the scene and would allay the worries of the injured with a joke or a comment about how he has seen worse.
“That is one of things I will miss, the help and just the laugh,” Dominy said.
Stellpflug brought artist’s touch to trails, ranks among path builders
Margie Coffin Brown, integrated resources program manager at Minute Man National Park in Concord, MA, said that Stellpflug ranks among the great path builders at Acadia including Herbert Jaques, chair of the Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association Committee on Roads and Paths; Edward Rand, an early map maker; and Waldron Bates, who developed the “Bates-style cairn” that Stellpflug helped restore on Acadia trails today. Stellpflug is worthy of a plaque, she added.
Stellpflug contributed his artistry to trailhead signs, trail layouts, reroutings of trails, bridges and more, she added. Stellpflug also shared his expertise at other parks including at Minute Man, where his assistance included trails program planning, trail layout, construction and maintenance needs, she added.
While she worked at the NPS’s Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation in Boston, Coffin Brown prepared the 2006 “Pathmakers” report on the historic hiking trail system on Mount Desert Island, with help from Stellpflug and others at Acadia. She also worked with Stellpflug and others on the Acadia Trails Treatment Plan.
While federal reports often can be forgotten, Stellpflug was commended at the party for completing almost all of the work spelled out in the 2006 treatment plan and a 2002 Hiking Trails Management Plan for Acadia.
During his own short speech, Stellpflug thanked Johnston, trail crew supervisor Christian Barter, trail crew members and others at the park, past and present, as well as the Friends of Acadia.
“I could not be here without everyone helping,” Stellpflug said.