Unprecedented summer rains thwart group’s work improving paths

Viva Goetze, left, and Eva Holtoff paint a blaze on a trail on Moose Mountain in Hanover in June. (Upper Valley Trails Alliance photograph)

Viva Goetze, left, and Eva Holtoff paint a blaze on a trail on Moose Mountain in Hanover in June. (Upper Valley Trails Alliance photograph) Upper Valley Trails Alliance

By VIVA GOETZE

For the Upper Valley Trails Alliance

Published: 11-15-2023 11:39 AM

As I pursue my degree in Environmental Science at Colby College, I sometimes struggle waking up to lessons about the “wicked problem” of climate change — a crisis that cannot be solved with simple solutions.

The reality that our climate and human systems are messed up beyond repair can be a hard truth to confront repeatedly. But as a 21-year-old who wants a few more good trips around the sun, it also provides the incentive and opportunity to look a little deeper for places to find hope and moments of peace.

This quest was motivation for spending time this past summer as the Summer Crew Leader with the Upper Valley Trails Alliance (UVTA). While I am an avid hiker and outdoors person, this was the first time I had dipped my toes into trail work — and the challenging and impressive behind-the-scenes efforts that make so many of my outdoor adventures possible.

I was hoping for a respite from the daily climate lessons, but life had different plans for me. The curriculum spilled out of the classroom and followed me from Maine to the Upper Valley. One could argue that the word “unprecedented” sums up the summer of 2023.

Anyone who was in the Upper Valley this past summer would note that it was distinctly wet. We did not go a week without a good soaking, and the week of July 10 stands out to me. This was the week of major flooding across the state of Vermont and throughout the Upper Valley. Many trails and people felt the impact of the rising waters.

We were all trying to understand what were often described as “unprecedented” rains and floods.

While visiting my hometown of Richmond, Vt., the “hundred-year flood” of 1927 was constantly referenced, as were the memories of Tropical Storm Irene coming to town in 2011. Once-in-a-century floods have now happened twice within 12 years in Vermont. Reality was following me from college, to work and then home. The climate is changing. Never has it been more important to understand and learn — and also to find solace in whatever ways we can.

For me, and for so many of us, peace comes with a walk in the woods, often on the trails right outside our back doors. And my work during this past summer made these trails that I took for granted feel even more important and precious to me.

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During my time with UVTA, I quickly learned that understanding water is critical to doing good and sustainable trail work. Running water is powerful; it can push buildings, reroute rivers and erode riverbanks. A poorly constructed trail can direct the flow of water down the trail.

Not only is water a nuisance to walk through, but it will also erode a trail into a gully. I now know that a trail that accounts for water is built across the slope and with a tread that slightly banks downhill, allowing the water to harmlessly run over rather than along the trail.

So, when “unprecedented” rains become the new precedent, where does the water go? If your trail is well built, it continues down the hill.

Through my work with the good people at UVTA, including the amazing High School Trail Corps and Trail Stewards, I found hope for our future. Every day those blue-shirted, energetic high school students not only showed the tenacity of their hard work, but also their openness to learning.

Trail work is tiring work — lugging in tools, hiking miles to a trail site, only to be put to work moving rocks and digging earth. And every one of our five summer groups was completely soaked and muddy at least once.

But nothing bonds a group quite like a mud-filled day in the pouring rain, and the deluge taught us important lessons about ourselves, trail work, erosion, and the impact of a changing climate.

Even on the wettest days, we could all look back with a sense of accomplishment on the work we had accomplished.

In many ways, when facing a problem at the scale of climate change, doing manual labor and working toward tangible results offers a kind solace in itself.

And so, as we continue into a unique future, seemingly without precedent, it is in hard work and dedicated people that I place my faith. As we strive to adapt to the changes in our climate, we need to preserve the places where we continue to find peace — and the trails that help get us there. 

Viva Goetze is currently a senior at Colby College, and was the Summer Crew Leader for the High School Trail Corps at the Upper Valley Trails Alliance this past summer.