New Acadia hiking trails foreman takes reins at key time
A new foreman is leading the way for work on Acadia hiking trails.
David Schlag, the new foreman of the Acadia trails crew, stands outside the crew’s trailer in Acadia National Park.
David Schlag, a 14-year veteran of the crew, is taking over as Acadia National Park trails crew foreman at a time when the park is facing some headwinds: trail damage from extreme weather events, increasing wear and tear on the trails with record crowds and a continuing shortage of seasonal workers.
Schlag will also oversee what could be one of the more transformational projects in years for Acadia hiking trails. The National Park Service is planning several trail extensions and a rehabilitation of the birch-lined Hemlock Path to make it more accessible, possibly with a boardwalk, as part of a more comprehensive effort to restore the Great Meadow.
This section of Hemlock Path with its birch trees is much photographed, and set for a major overhaul to improve drainage and accessibility as part of the restoration of Acadia’s Great Meadow. It’s one of the projects to be overseen by David Schlag, the new Acadia trails foreman.
Michael Kelley has been visiting Acadia National Park for more than 25 years, but he’s never seen Thunder Hole up close or been on Sand Beach. That’s because he uses a wheelchair, and an accessible ramp is either too far away or non-existent for these major attractions.
Michael Kelley, shown in his wheelchair, used an accessible ramp to reach an upper platform over Thunder Hole, but the view was limited. There is no ramp for the disabled to reach the main platform next to Thunder Hole. (Photo courtesy of Carol Kelley)
On a recent visit to Thunder Hole, he went down the ramp to a top platform, but he couldn’t see the waves crashing inside the sea crevice, like people who can walk to the lower viewing platform can. And the lack of a ramp down a long stretch of cement stairs to Sand Beach means he has only experienced it via videos taken by his mother.
“It is ironic that he has a lifetime park pass, yet can’t access the best of the park,” said Carol Kelley of Waldo, whose 31-year-old son has a rare chromosomal disorder, Triplication of Chromosome 17. People with permanent disabilities can get a free National Parks pass, but Michael felt like a second-class citizen at Thunder Hole, his mother said.
While Michael Kelley and others with disabilities can use wheelchairs on carriage roads at Acadia and otherwise enjoy the park, a recent 280-page report on access at Acadia National Park says the park fails to provide equal opportunities for physically disabled persons to visit popular sites and much of the rest of the park.
The report, by the National Center on Accessibility (NCA) at Indiana University, recommends some dramatic improvements, including a ramp down to Sand Beach, new accessible platforms at a scenic lot just short of the summit of Cadillac Mountain, at Bass Harbor Head Light and at Thunder Hole, and a redesign and rebuilding of the two National Park Service campgrounds on Mount Desert Island.
On Ocean Path in Acadia National Park, trails crew supervisor Christian Barter knelt on the ground on a sunny morning in April while he built a new retaining wall, aiming to protect the trail from climate and the relentless pounding of hikers.
Much of the work on Acadia hiking trails is still done by hand, as demonstrated by Christian Barter in building a new stone side wall along Ocean Path.
“You have to think about every bit of edge along that trail and how you can make it permanent, so that it will hold the surface in between the edges,” said Barter, who started on the Acadia trails crew in 1989 and has been a supervisor for about 23 years. “It is just a matter of going through every spot.”
Work on the historic hiking paths and trails in Acadia is stepping up as the numbers of people on Ocean Path and other trails is set to climb in the months ahead. With Acadia attracting more than 4 million visits in 2021, keeping the trails in shape is an on-going process.
The National Park Service opened the full 27-mile Park Loop Road at Acadia on Friday, including the summit road to Cadillac Mountain, which will require a vehicle reservation starting May 25. The park’s 45-mile carriage road system, which was closed for mud season, reopened to pedestrians on April 12, but not yet to bicyclists or horses.
The opening of the loop road and carriage road system increases access to trailheads and historic hiking paths in Acadia and heralds the start of another tourist season. It’s also the beginning of a busy time for the Acadia trails crew, charged with maintaining and rehabilitating the 155 miles of hiking trails in the first national park east of the Mississippi.
UPDATE on 2/15/2022: Reaction from Jack Russell was added.
UPDATE on 2/18/2022: Gary Stellpflug thanks people for their comments on his planned retirement.
Gary J. Stellpflug, longtime foreman of the Acadia National Park Trails Crew, said he is planning to retire from the National Park Service this year, after leading a sweeping rehabilitation of the historic Acadia hiking trails during his tenure.
Gary Stellpflug, Acadia trails foreman, inspects the damage done to a bridge on the Hadlock Brook Trail by an “exceptional” storm on June 9, 2021, attributed by the National Park Service to climate change. (Photo courtesy of Gary Stellpflug)
“I’ve been here long enough,” Stellpflug said in an exclusive interview. “It’s time for somebody else to step in.”
He said there is no exact date for his retirement, but it will be before the start of a new fiscal year on Oct. 1. He said he wants to help in a transition to a new Acadia hiking trails foreman and is working with Keith Johnston, chief of maintenance, on a succession plan.
Stellpflug, who has been foreman of the Acadia trails crew for more than 35 years, helped launch a major effort to restore and maintain Acadia hiking trails after Acadia became the first national park in the country with an endowment for a trail system.
The Valley Cove Trail is set to soon reopen for a summer Acadia hiking season for the first time in five years, following an extensive rehabilitation that gives new life to the historically important trail along Somes Sound.
Hikers can get this view of Somes Sound from the Valley Cove Trail, opening after a major rehabilitation by the Acadia trails crew.
Gary J. Stellpflug, foreman of the Acadia trails crew, which did the work, summed up the completion of the complex and lengthy project, which included resetting or adding more than 300 stone steps along the trail.
“Valley Cove Trail finally opened!” exclaimed Stellpflug in his annual report for “Acadia Trails Forever,” a special endowment fund for trail maintenance and restoration at Acadia National Park started in 2000 by the Friends of Acadia and the park.
The Valley Cove Trail was finished and opened on Nov. 1, but to protect nesting peregrine falcons, it closed in March, as it does each year along with several other trails, including the Precipice and Jordan Cliffs Trail. The trails usually open in early August after chicks fly.
The improvements on the Valley Cove Trail, originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, top a list of Acadia hiking trails rehabbed in 2019 and open for hikers in 2020 including Seaside Path, Bass Harbor Head Light and Kurt Diederich’s Climb.
Acadia hiking trails, totaling about 155 miles, remained open during the pandemic and use picked up after the Park Loop Road opened on June 1. More hikers hit the park trails after Maine exempted tourists from five states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, from requirements to quarantine or test negative for the virus, according to reports on the Acadia National Park Hiking Facebook group.
Hikers take a Sunday stroll during the pandemic on a newly-improved section of the Seaside Path in Acadia National Park. The wooded 19th-century path connects the Jordan Pond area to a beach at Seal Harbor.
A clue in the woods off the Beech Mountain parking lot, that there was once a carriage road here, surmises Acadia trails foreman Gary Stellpflug during a National Trails Day hike.
There are about 155 miles of hiking trails in Acadia National Park and Gary J. Stellpflug is familiar with just about every inch of them. Stellpflug, who is trails foreman at Acadia National Park, began working in the park as a seasonal laborer in the summer of 1974, began work on trails in 1975,and first became foreman of the Acadia hiking trails crew in 1978. He left for a period in the 1990s, but returned as trails foreman and has held the position for more than 30 years. We spoke with Stellpflug in December of 2018 and then again on National Trails Day in June when he led a tour of the Valley Trail, which was extensively rehabilitated in 2017 and 2018. He discussed a broad scope of topics including the effects of the federal government shutdown in January, plans for rehabilitating trails and staying true to their historic character, how work on trails is funded and the history of Acadia National Park. For this Q&A, information was also used from Stellpflug’s annual “Acadia Trails Forever” report for 2018. Acadia Trails Forever is the name of a special endowment started in 1999 for the park. The $13 million fund to benefit the trails includes $9 million in private donations raised by the Friends of Acadia and $4 million in federal funds, mostly from the park’s entry fees.
Did the federal government shutdown have an effect on the Acadia hiking trails crew?
Gary Stellpflug: The trails crew this year is comparatively small, so we needed to scale back on what we wanted to accomplish. For the past couple of years, we have had 15 to 20 seasonal workers. We could have hired 25 this year. I have that much money. But we have only 10. It was entirely due to the shutdown. It pushed hiring back six weeks or more and it made hiring so late for us that nearly everybody on my list of applicants had taken other jobs. For some reason, the Western and Southeast regions started hiring three weeks before I could and the pool of applicants dwindled. I’m not sure what other social factors are involved. One could be that park service wages are not keeping up with the private sector right now, at least in Bar Harbor, Maine. We rarely get local applicants and they used to be the mainstay of the crew. I want to work on that and see what I can do. I did have two additional new seasonal people, but one was in a car accident and could not work and the other had housing issues. We do have two new permanent workers. It took four years to hire them because of the federal government hiring process. They will be furloughed. They won’t work year-round but they do have permanent jobs. That gives us eight permanent workers.
Acadia trails crew foreman Gary Stellpflug shares a laugh with participants in a National Trails Day hike, before he leads them out on the Valley Trail.
One in a series of historic Acadia hiking trail highlights
With a possible maritime disaster in its past, a big undeveloped harbor and sprawling pink granite, the Ship Harbor Trail in Acadia National Park epitomizes a lot about hiking Maine coast.
We’ve often walked the Ship Harbor Trail over the past two decades, but for the first time this past year, we did it once in spring, summer, autumn and winter. While hiking Maine coast, we wanted to experience how a single trail changes with the weather and the seasons.
Snow covers the pink granite shore on the Ship Harbor Trail during a January hike in Acadia National Park.
In the winter, we were struck by the contrast of the snow on pink granite and tall spruce. In spring, the trail came alive with rhodora, bunchberry and other wildflowers, while in summer, it was ideal for catching some sun on the shore and enjoying close-up views of nearby islands, as well as purple iris and a thicket of salt spray rose. The fall foliage in Acadia is splendid and the trail is particularly stunning for yellow beech and blazing red blueberry bushes.
Located on the southwest shore of Mt. Desert Island, the popular hike consists of two loops, or a figure 8, totaling 1.3 miles, with colorful, newer wayside exhibits that explain the sea life in the mudflats and tide pools while hiking Maine coast.
This photo, taken in late May, provides a late spring view from the same spot on the Ship Harbor Trail.
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.
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.
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. Continue reading →
Whether you ran the MDI Marathon to set a personal record or just to finish, or whether you prefer easy jogs along carriage roads and village connector trails, Acadia National Park and surrounding communities offer a runner’s paradise.
Only in Maine would a lobster wave runners to the finish line. The MDI YMCA’s Acadia Half Marathon includes the Park Loop Road in its route.
Where else can you carve out a personal running route that could include a jaunt along the ocean, through piney woods and even up a small mountain, all within the borders of a national park?
And where else can you be cheered on to the finish by a person in a lobster costume (Acadia Half Marathon in June), or earn a finisher’s medal in the shape of a lobster claw (Mount Desert Island Marathon and associated races on Oct. 19)?
Would you run 26.2 miles for this bling? MDI Marathon’s 2014 finisher’s medal. (Photo courtesy of MDI Marathon)
Runner’s World magazine recently listed Acadia National Park first out of “10 Can’t-Miss Running Adventures,” and has previously called MDI Marathon the “most scenic” and runner-up for best overall marathon. And in 2012, MDI Marathon was selected as one of the 100 best races in North America by www.bestroadraces.com.
Beyond the magnificent scenery and the fun lobster themes, there’s a community-minded purpose to races on Mount Desert Island, as well as a sense of history. Continue reading →
It didn’t receive a lot of attention, but U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell revealed some nuggets about her agenda for National Parks — and her personal life – during a sweeping speech at Acadia National Park.
US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Department of the Interior photo.
In her remarks at the Schoodic Education and Research Center on Aug. 15, Jewell touched on a wide range of topics, including the challenges of stingy federal spending on parks, the need to start preparing a new generation of potential rangers and other National Park personnel, the scary effects of global warming on federal lands and the important role of the parks as science classrooms for youths.
Jewell, 58, the former CEO of REI, a national outdoor retail company, started on a personal note.
She said that her visit to Acadia National Park on Friday brought back memories of the first time she traveled to the Maine park 37 years ago. Continue reading →
Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park is benefiting from an important project aimed at protecting the fragile terrain on its peak.
Using rocks and stones mostly from a massive cairn on Sargent Mountain, workers are completing a new 50-foot causeway on the Sargent South Ridge Trail. The work is being done to encourage hikers to stay on the trail instead of venturing to the subalpine zone around the mountaintop.
From left to right, Liam Hassett, 16, of Cleveland, Ransom Burgess, 18, of Bar Harbor and Billy Brophy, 15, of Hyattsville, Maryland swing sledgehammers to bust stones into tiny pieces for creating a new 50-foot-long causeway atop Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park. The three are members of the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps.
The new causeway is being constructed with two layers – rocks and stones on the bottom and gravel stones on top, along with a stone border on each side. The work is shoring up a section of the trail that was deeply eroded, said Acadia Trails Foreman Gary Stellpflug on the peak on Tuesday.
“It’s really a good project,” Stellpflug said while he and other workers moved dozens of stones and rocks into the new trail section. Continue reading →