Sunday, April 2, 2017

Experience Matters: Women Building Trails

Dove Henry with trail crew members, building a bridgeMarcy Dam was my first tool pack-in, back in the summer of 2012. I was fresh out of finals week, the airless world of fluorescent screens and dim libraries, and wholly intoxicated by the smell of balsam fir, the sun glinting off Heart Lake, the entire summer before me. It was late May, but the morning was already warm.

Outside the Wiezel Trails Cabin, my fellow first-years and I practiced tying-on — the artful process of lashing a share of gear and tools to one’s pack-frame with parachute cord. I situated a box full of cans of tuna and pineapple on my frame’s shelf and pulled the cord tight across the cardboard, securing it with a clumsy half-hitch. Holding the frame steady with my knee, I looked at the massive pile of tools beside me and tried to envision how they could all fit onto this small rectangle of metal, which would then, somehow, be strapped to my body.

After a lot of swearing, shaking of the frame, untying, and retying, I recomposed the pile of tools from the ground onto the frame itself.

Everything seemed secure enough. I sat down on the dirt and gravel and slipped my arms through the straps, fastening the clips at my chest and navel, pulling each strap tight against my torso. The whole process gave me the strange sensation that I had just locked myself into a prison cell. I took a deep breath, and, for a moment, strained forward in a comically unsuccessful attempt to lift the pack and stand up.

“Hey, uh…you guys? I might need some help over here.”

A more seasoned crewmember was already there. He grabbed either side of the frame and hoisted it straight up, allowing me to struggle to my feet. But when he let go, I staggered forward under the weight, my knees almost buckling.

Tools used for trail workThat was the first step. I stood there and swayed for a moment, in disbelief. How could this clearly impossible task be a legitimate part of the job description? I resigned myself to pain and took another step.

You have to lose yourself on some tool pack-ins; it’s the only way to make it through. It’s what I imagine an out-of-body experience must feel like, or maybe something religious. The sense of self-worth that comes with completing one — and the slew of other difficult tasks that trail work demands — is certainly remarkable and invigorating for any person. But I think it is especially so for women, who face a constant inundation of words, images, and norms that declare there is something intrinsic to our femaleness that makes us incapable of such mental and physical strength. Men customarily ask us if we need help; they offer to carry heavy things for us. I don’t point this out to vilify these men, because to some extent their efforts are considerate and polite. Or at least they consider them to be so.

The thing is, after years of being asked if you need help, you start to believe that yes, you do. That you are not capable. After years of being targeted by advertisements selling blemish-erasing makeup, skin-smoothing shaving cream, hair-sleeking conditioners, and thigh-minimizing bathing suits, it’s hard not to emerge with a very specific idea of what it means to be feminine. This isn’t exactly some profound revelation. Being feminine has not conventionally meant being strong, dirty, and tough. It has more often been associated with gentleness, delicacy, and domesticity, and in this way, femininity is compatible with neither manual labor nor wilderness living. Trail work requires both in their most extreme forms.

Using rock bar (pry bar) to move rocksNotions of “wilderness” as a rugged, masculine place complement these familiar ideas about femininity, naturally working to set the two — women and wild places — at odds. The modern concept of wilderness was created by and for men, and not just any men. Manly men. It was imagined as a place explored and managed by hardy, adventurous frontiersmen with “fine, manly qualities,” in Teddy Roosevelt’s own words. The myth persists today, as men dominate careers in public land management and wilderness stewardship. In my five seasons working for the Adirondack Mountain Club, there have been as little as three and never more than five women on the sixteen-person trail crew. And so the problem perpetuates itself. Women are seen less often than men working in backcountry areas, and the association between labor in wild places and masculinity grows.

I can’t count the number of times hikers have expressed surprise upon encountering me or my female coworkers in the wilderness. It concerns many — the idea of a woman out in the backcountry, all by herself. More subtly condescending are the remarks about how tough we must be, and how strong, though our male coworkers are doing identical work a few yards down the trail without being subject to the comments of passersby. Our female presence runs contrary to many people’s expectations of the workers they expect to encounter in the wilderness, and the women they might encounter in the world.

A well-meaning middle-aged man once asked my female coworker and me if we needed help. The two of us were working to move a large rock toward the site of the staircase we were building that week. Gritting our teeth, we said no thanks, later laughing about what might have happened if we had handed him the rock bar and let him try. Trail work is not just about size or physical strength, but also the ability to use tools, each of which — particularly the rock bar — requires technical skill that comes only with experience. The same goes for each variety of rock project, bridge, and trail itself, each type of native or processed material. Trail work is about having the patience to set a rock, and the intelligence to improvise when a tool breaks on the first day of a backcountry project. It’s about having the tenacity to keep trying — to keep lifting, hiking, chopping, digging—and the humility to know your limits.

While wilderness has been mythologized as a masculine place, more suitable for the labor of male bodies and psyches, the falseness of this idea becomes evident for women building trails, who live and work in the physical backcountry. It’s a place that is largely free from the attitudes and norms that prescribe particular ways of being for female-bodied people. Wild places are also free from the ever-present systems and mechanisms that ease our lives, making it possible to live at a distance from our bodies. When we go into the backcountry, we are left dependent only on our strength and instincts, both of which are tested constantly by trail work. In this environment, something very true and real about each of us becomes manifest, unclouded by all the ways we have been told we should be. Women are easily able to realize the fortitude of their minds and the capability of their bodies, which can haul lumber, carry gear, swing axes, and quarry rocks quite well on our own, thank you very much.

Two miles after that first, stumbling step outside the cabin, I was waist-deep in a creek, but almost to Marcy Dam — shoulders aching, quads burning, hips red and raw where the waist strap had rubbed them with every step, soaked in cold river water and my own sweat. But euphoric when I knelt down and sat, unstrapping myself from the pack, floating out of it feeling like a goddess. Feeling capable of anything.

Three weeks later, I took another pack nearly six miles up to the slide just below Gothics. I quarried boulders that summer that I would have never dreamed I was capable of moving; I shouldered thirty waterlogged, thirteen-foot 6x6s a half-mile at one project site, and hauled twelve-footers up a steep rock slide at another. I felt my muscles harden along with my resolve.

My friend described that summer once — her fourth season, my first — as “magic.” That’s certainly how it lives in my memory. Each image is replete with sunlight, everything brimming over with summer and all its possibilities. Of course, the sun didn’t actually shine every day in the Adirondacks. But the power and joy in discovering the sheer scope of my own strength has tinted every memory.

Photos from above: Dove Henry with trail crew members, building a bridge, courtesy Dove Henry; Tools used for trail work; and Using rock bar (pry bar) to manuever rocks, courtesy Seth Jones.

Excerpted with permission from the Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondac magazine, March-April 2017.

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3 Responses

  1. Taras says:

    Good for you! Keep shattering those tiresome old stereotypes.

    FWIW, I studied electrical engineering in the 80’s and many of my friends and classmates were women. Smart, outgoing, confident women in a traditionally male field of study. I was convinced my generation would make tremendous social progress. Thirty years later and I’m afraid our efforts rank a C+ at best. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

    Last summer, I passed a trail crew working on the Avalanche Pass Trail. Lots of heavy labor involved for that assignment and at least half the crew (if not more) were female. Kudos to everyone involved in repairing that “highway” of a trail!

  2. Thank you for all you do to build and maintain trails, and for sharing your personal story. I agree with you; wilderness offers women the freedom to strengthen their body and mind, to get muddy and dirty, and to toughen their resolve.

    “Women are easily able to realize the fortitude of their minds and the capability of their bodies, which can haul lumber, carry gear, swing axes, and quarry rocks quite well on our own, thank you very much.” Well put, Dove. You are an inspiration.

  3. Sue Capone says:

    Nice article. Keep up the good work Dove. I was one of the first women trail crew for the DEC for 3 summers back in the ’80s. It definately was a challenging job and broke some gender barriers. Though I took the job to challenge myself not as a part of some feminist agenda! Hard work paid off and I was accepted as a part of the crew.
    I continue in this spirit going on 33 plus years as the Field operations manager at the Adirondack Lakes Survey. Still out there carrying boats and working outdoors.