NEWRY – It’s a strange height of land, this bald rock face that is covered in low Alpine bushes, a natural observatory with one heck of a hike up.
The top of 3,335-foot Sunday River Whitecap takes a 7-mile hike with a couple of steep climbs to get to, but it’s worth making in one push to see the views of Old Speck Mountain to the north, all of Sunday River ski area’s peaks to the south, Sugarloaf to the east and a vast terrace of thick Alpine plants at every turn.
The flora and fauna up here are rich because the mountain-top trail is an example of scree walls and protective Alpine bridges done right. The entire Grafton Loop Trail, actually, is a model of land protection.
The 38-mile loop trail that is just north of Bethel has been a work in progress for at least a decade. And progress hasn’t slowed.
Protection to the trail began before it ever became a common footpath when the Appalachian Mountain Club first started building it in 2000.
Protection to this land still remains a full-on effort.
This winter the state, along with the Trust for Public Land, used federal funds to protect 3,363 acres and four miles on Stowe Mountain, one of the seven peaks that are along the western Maine loop trail.
And this month the Land For Maine Future may fund a tent platform, privy and campsite spur trail off the Grafton Loop Trail on Stowe Mountain, a cost of $9,300. According to Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands Deputy Director Alan Stearns it’s all but assured.
“LMF’s decision to fund access improvements subsequent to land acquisition is a key policy decision, which is delivering results,” Stearns noted.
But since work began on the 38-mile loop trail a decade ago it has been a communal effort of access and protection.
Andrew Norkin, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s director of trails and recreation who helped build the trail, said from the beginning the Grafton Loop Trail was an experiment in how to protect steep Alpine areas of vegetation.
For example, the trail up 2,730-foot Stowe Mountain in places is a direct route, due to access limitations. Yet it covers 600 feet in a hurry with the help of hefty log bridges built into the side of the mountain.
The thick log ladders help to keep the soil intact while making travel easier.
“What happened is a lot of steep areas in the Mahoosuc area have very thin soil and could easily be disturbed with hiker traffic. It gets very steep very quickly and that can become eroded (without the bridges),” Norkin said.
Meanwhile the stone barriers, or “scree walls,” atop Sunday River Whitecap map out a generous path that is distinct from the bush-covered terrace area.
“This was very reactionary. We saw there was the potential for (damage to the trail), and we wanted to create a great hiking opportunity. We wanted to avoid damage being done. We did that before there was an impact to the vegetation,” said Rob Burbank, Appalachian Mountain Club spokesman in Pinkham Notch, N.H.
And the unique Alpine bridges that are raised above the vegetation help to limit, if not eliminate, disturbance to this fragile area.
Traditional bog bridges are low to the ground, sometimes even on the ground. What the AMC crew did was drill metal posts into the rock and set the bridges on top of these. The stakes will last longer than a traditional bog bridge, Norkin said.
“Actually we had never heard of the technique done before. We got creative. We call them Alpine bog bridges,” Norkin said.
As much work and thought as the Grafton Loop Trail has required — more work remains.
The western section that opened in 2007 still travels over three different private properties where there are year-by-year agreements. The eastern section across Route 26 also covers three parcels of private land, according to Jerry Bley, a land use consultant who has worked on the project since its inception.
“Many landowners have changed in and around the trail over the past 10 years, enough to make us fully aware we want to secure it long-term,” Bley said.
The nearly 4,000 acres recently protected atop Stowe Mountain is an example of this desire. And Bley said those working on the long-term project are confident that there will be others.
“The conception of the idea and the people who pulled it together is a fairly remarkable effort,” Bley said.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: