Appalachian Trail hikers get a break in New Jersey

Boardwalk and bridge built by volunteers across Pochuck Quagmire

October 27, 2002|By Robert Hanley | Robert Hanley,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

VERNON TOWNSHIP, N.J. - For those who trek from peak to peak along the Appalachian Trail, this is a definite low point. Aptly called the Pochuck Quagmire, a broad valley of empty meadow and soggy marshland here has long forced hikers to detour and dodge traffic along 2 1/2 miles of shoulderless highway.

But now, thanks to years of hard work by a small army of volunteers, the quagmire has been turned into a scenic panorama that is attracting even casual strollers.

State officials recently dedicated the new mile-long elevated boardwalk and a handsome 144-foot timber suspension bridge that traverse the meadow and the marsh. They provide a pristine link to two long-disconnected sections of the trail and take hikers away from whizzing cars and into a world of rustling cattails, songbirds, a swiftly flowing creek and serene acres of field.

Few lowland sections

The bridge, boardwalk and vista are unrivaled along the 2,169-mile trail, said Pamela Underhill, manager of the Appalachian Trail for the National Park Service. "There's nothing else like it on the whole trail from Maine to Georgia," she said. "It's just so extraordinary."

Most of the trail, Underhill said, is on wooded hillsides and the tops of ridges in the 14 states in which it lies. Although a few lowland sections exist here and there, none are as big as the valley here, she said. And none are crossed by anything as elaborate as the curving, 4-foot-wide boardwalk and the suspension bridge, which arches nearly 17 feet above Pochuck Creek and is designed to withstand the worst flood that might occur every 100 years.

But just as unusual, she said, is who built the bridge and boardwalk. Customarily, volunteers who work along the trail perform smaller tasks like clearing brush, cutting new trails, maintaining shelters and building rock stairways and small bridges. Here, hundreds of volunteers spent thousands of hours building the bridge and boardwalk through soggy wetlands.

"The project could not have been built without them," said Larry Wheelock, trails director of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a federation that builds and maintains trails in the two states. "Probably half the value of the project was in volunteer labor."

Raw materials, including lumber for the bridge and boardwalk and the hundreds of galvanized steel posts that support the boardwalk, cost about $400,000, he said.

Started in 1999

Construction of the boardwalk started in 1999 and was finished a few weeks ago. The bridge was completed in 1995 and stood alone and unused until the boardwalk was completed. The start of construction on the boardwalk was delayed while the corridor was surveyed and changed several times, and permits for construction in wetlands were obtained.

The impetus for the project was a 1978 federal law intended to stop the increasing rerouting of the Appalachian Trail from privately owned land to roads. The law gave the Park Service and states along the trail $90 million to buy land for new, publicly owned trail corridors. For the project here, the Park Service bought 86.5 acres in the Pochuck Quagmire for $265,000 and the state bought another 128 acres.

The project was a joint effort of the Park Service; the state Department of Environmental Protection; the Appalachian Trail Conference, a federation of 31 clubs that provide volunteers to maintain the trail; and the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, which recruited the hundreds of volunteers.

These workers were a mix of men and women from their teens to their 70s. They included retired teachers, a former diplomat, doctors, lawyers, nurses, Vernon police officers and highway workers, high school students and members of local churches who cooked meals and brought them to the site. Many lived in the Vernon area; others drove up to 90 minutes one way. Out-of-state members of the Appalachian Trail Conference came on weekends and lived in tents.

Among the most back-breaking chores were erecting the prebuilt sections of bridge brought in on donated flatbed trucks, and hauling thousands of 4-foot planks and steel anchor posts for the boardwalk, then driving the posts up to 20 feet into the mushy surface with augers. The planks and posts were airlifted into the site by helicopters from the state's forest fire service.

`Long seasons'

"We ran long seasons," said Wes Powers, the state's manager on the project since 1995. "We started when it was cold in the spring and finished when it was cold in the fall. We worked in heavy rain and scorching heat."

Paul DeCoste, a retired English teacher and a former co-chairman of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference's management committee for the Appalachian Trail, said: "People came back again and again and again and again. The camaraderie was tops."

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