2021 Corps Trail Steward Blog

Our Stewards have been bringing face-to-face user education and sustainable, on-the-ground solutions to some of the region’s most popular outdoor destinations since 2013. They are key in protecting the ecological integrity of these special places being threatened by issues such as misuse and high usage. By encouraging public participation, Stewards are a solution multiplier.

Learn more about the program.

Table of Contents

Vernal Pool Stewards

April 2021 Vernal Pools Spring to Life in the Hudson Highlands by Rosa Bledsoe

This month we spent Saturdays and Sundays stewarding at the vernal pools on Mt. Taurus in Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve. This allowed us to try out a different style of stewarding, interacting with visitors during their hike about the ecological resources versus helping them before they embark on the trails. It was also a great learning moment for us both, as we were not familiar with vernal pools. We will use our experiences to train volunteer stewards later this season so they can be in place next spring when the Spring Peepers are singing and the eggs are being laid.

We observed the progression of egg masses over 5 stewarding weekends. At the start, we saw many salamander and frog egg masses in the two pools along the Washburn Trail. Egg masses can be hard to spot as they sit under the water's surface and are milky white or semi-transparent. We quickly started seeing more and more tadpoles and salamanders as the season progressed.

The main challenge we encountered was dealing with unleashed dogs. While some dog-owners were aware of the park regulation, many did not grasp the impact an off-leash dog can have on the wildlife in the area, especially at the vernal pool. Not only is it safer for other visitors and other dogs, but they can also accidentally spook the wildlife we may not notice or see right away. The egg masses in the vernal pools are susceptible to disturbances, resulting in hundreds or even thousands of eggs unable to turn into tadpoles and eventually frogs. Over our stewarding days, we encountered 18 off-leash dogs and informed their owners of the regulation and its purpose.

Another challenge we dealt with was how to engage with visitors as the Spring Peepers quieted down. Their mating calls begin in early spring after the ice and snow melts and usually die down after a few weeks once mating is complete. Without the clear chorus of frogs to peak hikers' interest, we had to be more engaging and forward with our knowledge of the pools. Despite this, it was exciting to show interested visitors the tadpoles and talk about this vital resource.

Hudson Valley Trail Stewards

May 2021 by Rosa Bledsoe

Bear Mountain

While Bear Mountain is a destination for hikers, it is also a place where friends and families come to grill, fish, visit the zoo, and generally enjoy a beautiful day outside. Unlike our other Stewarding sites, we interact with many more beginner hikers and people of the general (non-hiking) variety here. During our training, I wanted to emphasize this as it is unique to this site. There are many times when you talk to someone and hiking up Bear Mountain is their first hike EVER! It’s a huge opportunity for Stewards to teach them how to read trail blazes and stay on trail, and talk about Leave No Trace. It really shows the impact we as Stewards have when they finish their hike and tell us they had such a great time. For me personally, it’s a great feeling knowing I helped facilitate a good first hiking experience for someone who may not have felt welcome in this space before.

The first true weekend of Stewarding was rainy and cold so the first busy day we had was Memorial Day. In classic Bear Mountain fashion, the smell of grilled meat wafted over to our tent throughout the day. Because it is a multi-use area, we field all sorts of questions and now that we have very official looking uniforms, we have to be super knowledgeable about all the amenities the park offers. As there are multiple hikes that begin near our Steward Station, I encouraged my team to explore and familiarize themselves with other hikes besides the classic Perkins Memorial Tower loop. Steward Noelle Hedgcock hiked the Doodletown loop, a hike we recommend to people who aren’t up for much elevation gain, and realized we needed to be more precise in our descriptors as there were multiple opportunities to take a wrong turn. What I love most about this job is the collaborative energy within the team. We all respect each other’s experiences and learn from them in order to become better Stewards.

After just having become certified in Wilderness First Aid, I, with the help of my fellow Stewards, assisted a woman with a sprained ankle. She had stepped off a rock wrong, sustained a sprained ankle and the swelling had begun already. Luckily, it had happened after their hike and she was sitting on a rock near our station and her daughter came and asked us for assistance. Stewards Rose Eid and Jen Meikle called for a Park Ranger and helped provide me with the necessary First Aid supplies. I assessed the situation and asked for consent to wrap her ankle which she agreed to. Shortly after, a Park Ranger arrived in a golf cart with an ice pack and drove her and her family back to their cars. It was a great real life test of the skills we had just learned a few days earlier!

“I also took out a plastic grocery bag and started to collect some of the trash that was gathering around the trailhead. It didn't take a lot of effort, but picking up the trash made me think about how we can quickly affect the “first impression” hikers get when they come to a trail. From a friendly face to a (hopefully) litter-free environment in the immediate area we are working in, it’s important to help hikers start off on the right foot and to feel good as they approach the trail and get started!” - Noelle Hedgcock

Breakneck Ridge

With our first official Stewarding weekend landing on a rainy and cold Memorial Day weekend, the crew managed to make the best out of a less than ideal situation. On Saturday, the Stewards made use of the lack of hikers to pick up trash near the trailhead. A good reminder of the need to communicate Leave No Trace Principles to visitors, they picked up over 6lbs of trash.

The rain finally broke on May 31 and proved to be a popular hiking day with around 750 visitors throughout the day. The Stewards took turns hiking on the Short Loop, engaging with hikers along the trail which is much different than seeing people before their hike begins. Often our interactions on-trail take the form of pep talks, helping redirect people away from potentially dangerous alternate social trails, giving advice on other great hiking spots nearby, and reassuring them that “yes, you’re almost to the top!”

 Trail Steward Stephen Schuler reflected on what he observed and learned over the rainy weekend:

“Unsurprisingly, we only saw about 20 hikers that day and even that number was shocking.  What I realized by spending the past two days at the trailhead  during a rainstorm was that people are going to hike no matter what. For some people, this is the only time they have off to do this hike and they are ready for the additional challenges they will face. For others, this is their local trail that they do regardless of the weather conditions.“

Trail Steward Lily Gelfars was reminded that the outdoor experience is for everyone; it just might look a little different from your own!

“Most people will not show up to the trailhead in full Patagonia and it is not our job to shame them into conforming; it is also not our job to decide what they can or cannot accomplish based on our limited views of what a recreationist looks like. The outdoors and iced coffee are not mutually exclusive. One can crush miles in makeup. There is no right way to nature.”

Croton Gorge Unique Area

Memorial Day Weekend was both the first weekend of stewarding but also the first weekend the Croton Gorge Unique Area became open to visitors. After being closed due to COVID and habitat restoration for the past year, it is an exciting opportunity to try to help keep the area pristine and impress upon people the beauty of the area.

Learning from last year, and knowing we would no longer have to turn visitors away, we were able to tailor our training to accommodate for an open Unique Area and for interactions with hikers along the Old Croton Aqueduct (OCA). We focused on how to educate visitors on Leave No Trace and how to delicately handle violations of the Area’s regulations.

Because our Steward Station is alongside the OCA, we are able to talk to more than just visitors to the Unique Area and about more than just the Unique Area. In a few weeks, the Stewards will have a second training specifically about the history of the area including the Croton Dam, the OCA, and the industry that took place where the Unique Area is now. On the first day of Stewarding, we were able to talk to a hiker who, despite the weather forecast, had planned to hike the entire OCA trail that weekend. We answered his questions about the trail further South and about who we were and why we were there. His energy was infectious and lifted our spirits, reminding us how rewarding stewarding can be!

After two rainy days, May 31 saw 18 people visiting the riverside in the Unique Area for a short time as well as bikers, hikers, and dogs along the OCA trail. It will be interesting to see how fast the word spreads about it being reopened. Utilizing the good weather, the Stewards worked with Diane Alden to remove invasive Garlic Mustard along the OCA trail near our Steward Station. In total, they were able to pull 75 lbs. “Lots of people on the trail asked us what we were doing, so this was a great opportunity for us to explain about invasive plants. People were very receptive!” said Steward Marionela Gavriliuc. While our main job is not pulling invasives (we leave that to the Invasives Strike Force!), it is an option for the Stewards at the Croton Gorge Unique Area when the site is not busy. Importantly, it is a great way to feel connected to and responsible for the area where we work!

June 2021 by Rosa Bledsoe

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work (or at least more enjoyable!)

Each Steward has now rotated through each site, noticing the differences and similarities in each location and tailoring their approach to the various groups of visitors seen. A key component of this program is working as a team: learning from each other, supporting and encouraging each other, and keeping each other entertained in the lulls between groups. It is clear that the team has learned that there isn’t one singular, perfect way to communicate the information. There are as many different ways as there are members of the crew.

“Each weekend, I feel like I pick up a new strategy to give directions, or to talk about the Trail Conference, or to talk about what we do as trail stewards. Watching others adapt the information so that it is the most impactful for each group of hikers is insightful and interesting, and also reminds me how important it is to be adaptable (with communication, expectations, etc) in this position.“ wrote Steward Noelle Hedgcock.

As a team of 11, we are lucky to have enough people to be able to get on the trails and engage hikers along their hike. In the case of Breakneck Ridge, it is exciting to talk to groups at the trailhead and then see them halfway through their hike and check in with them since it’s such an intense hike. Usually, these interactions come with a surprised “How did you hike up here that fast?!” which is always a nice confidence booster! These interactions generally are longer than those at the trailhead, with hikers eager to be on their merry way. Here we can talk more specifically about the area or about our role with Americorps and the work of the Trail Conference or Leave No Trace.

We are looking forward to the rest of the season and seeing how the numbers compare with last year. The new Nimham Trail at Breakneck Ridge will be open in July which will give us another talking point to share. We will station one Steward at the intersection to promote it and record usage. Now that schools are out for summer, we expect to see an uptick in visitation and we are ready for it!

July 2021 by Rosa Bledsoe

At Breakneck Ridge, the new Nimham Trail opened at the beginning of July which has provided us another route to suggest to less experienced hikers or those who have done Breakneck many times and want to try something new! It Is named after Daniel Nimham who was a sachem of the Wappinger Indians whose ancestral lands include the Hudson Highlands. Surprisingly, none of the brand new signage mentions this! It is a beautiful and user friendly .7 mile connection from the Breakneck scramble to the Wilkinson trail. The number of users is increasing as we area able to spread the word every day. Over the course of the month we counted 410 hikers using the new trail!

At Bear Mountain, we hit a record number of visitors on July 4th with a total of 1,713 visitors counted. With ample parking and attractions for the whole family it is now consistently our busiest site. Steward Noelle Hedgcock reflects on the differences between Breakneck and Bear Mountain:

“Though we do undoubtedly get first-time hikers at Breakneck, I’d like to say that most of the time people at least know they are going on “a hike.” Bear is different in that it seems like a lot of families come to the area to enjoy the park, sit in the grass, grill some food, etc., and hiking is sort of an afterthought once they are there. It just becomes “something else” they can do in the park, like going to the zoo or renting one of the pedal boats. For this reason, we get a ton of people who want to see “THE view” but also want “the easiest and shortest” way to the top. Though we warn that there is no “easy” way, just one that is stairs versus a more traditional trail and rock scramble, tons of people try to hike to the top of Bear Mountain.”

At the Croton Gorge Unique Area, we have seen the number of visitors growing each weekend as word spreads. We have begun to hand out trash bags to each group, encouraging them to pack out their trash. The majority of visitors have been very receptive and understand the importance of keeping the area clean for all to enjoy. We also began piloting a survey for visitors to get a better sense of why people are drawn to the area and where they are travelling from. We get a range of visitors coming from Ossining, Yorktown, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Hoboken to picnic, swim, fish, and enjoy nature. We are also trying to spend more time by the riverside to be a positive presence for visitors, dispelling the assumption that we are law enforcement instead of our true purpose of being educators.

The Stewards have also been exploring more areas in each park in order to better answer questions and recommend hikes to visitors. A few have been able to check out Doodletown, Fort Montgomery, and even Anthony’s Nose near Bear Mountain. A few have hiked longer loops at Breakneck after fielding many questions about hikes with more mileage than the 4 recommended routes. It’s beneficial to the whole team as we are a very chatty group and are eager to share our findings!

Catskill Trail Stewards

May 2021 by Myra Romano

A cold, rainy, and icy introduction into stewarding in the Catskills

The Catskill Stewards have had an exciting first couple of weeks of the season. We started with training at each specific location, which required some pretty intense day hikes and an overnight backpacking trip on the Burrough's Range. During these excursions, we learned about the challenges of each location – focusing on activities like removing fire rings, covering social trails, and educating visitors on Leave No Trace principles. These skills will be beneficial in areas like Giant Ledge, where camping is very popular, and Minnewaska State Park, where the sensitive vegetation is suffering trail widening due to trampling. We also completed a 3-day intensive training on Wilderness First Aid / CPR / AED, giving us the confidence and skills to assist any injured hikers who may need our assistance.

The first weekend of stewarding was quite challenging since Memorial Day weekend saw unseasonably cold weather mixed with rain, sleet, and even ice at the higher elevations. Despite this challenge, we counted a total of 1,182 hikers over three days at the six locations and were able to educate 473 of those hikers. We also counted 8 lost hikers who we were able to help and assisted 2 people with injuries.

This year's seven Catskill Stewards will cover six different locations, an increase from last year where we only had four stewards covering four locations. This is also the first year the Trail Conference has secured housing for four of the Catskill Stewards in nearby Hunter, N.Y.

You can find us on Saturdays and Sundays on the Burrough's Range (Slide, Cornell, and Wittenberg), Giant Ledge, North Point, and the Blackhead Range in the Catskills, and two locations in Minnewaska, Gertrude's Nose and the Verkeerderkill Falls Trailhead at Sam's Point.

June 2021 by Myra Romano

Summertime Stewarding in the Catskills and Minnewaska

The days are long, summer vacation is in full swing, and more people are coming out to explore the beautiful views and serene wilderness that the Catskill Mountains and Minnewaska State Park Preserve provide. While we've seen far fewer daily visitors in most of our locations than last year, we still face many challenges that inspire us to think swiftly and creatively. Except for our trail maintenance days during the week, every Catskill Trail Steward works alone for the duration of their day. While this is a good thing for many of us, it can be lonely, especially on a slow day.

During long stretches of downtime, we can take extra special care of the trails. We focus on brushing over social paths, removing fire rings, capturing photos and GPS coordinates of any issues to share with DEC and parks staff, and exploring further to become experts on the trails in the area. These activities help us feel a strong connection with the areas we steward in and provide us with a wealth of information and advice to share with any hikers who stop to talk with us.

Because most of our interactions with park visitors are on the trail or summit, we have an excellent opportunity for more extended conversations. Many people see us in our uniforms and get excited to come up and talk to us, especially larger groups of hikers and families with children. We have been using these moments to educate about Leave No Trace principles and the importance of being prepared for a hike.

Heat-related illnesses are some of the most common injuries we see during this time of year. One sweltering day at Gertrude's Nose in Minnewaska posed a challenging situation: "After lunch, a man came up to me worried about his friend who was suffering from heat exhaustion and low blood pressure farther along the trail. I met up with the injured hiker, who was being assisted by the rest of his hiking group. The doctor in their group led the charge, and we helped guide the man into the shade. After slight improvement, I contacted the rangers and updated them on the man's condition. When Ranger Steve got there we were able to hike out the injured hiker and his party back to the carriage road where a truck was waiting to take them back. Luckily, no one was seriously injured, and everyone seemed to be in good spirits once we got back to the visitor center," writes Trail Steward Rachael.

While we can't always prevent situations like this from happening, we always hope that our presence and expertise can help hikers become safer, more responsible, and more respectful of the areas they're coming out to enjoy. As Trail Steward Iona reflected after a day at the Verkeerderkill Falls Trailhead in Sam’s Point, "I had great convos with patrons, and I love when they leave happy after I've answered a question they had. It's the best feeling."

July 2021 by Myra Romano

July was another busy month, filled with more training and special events on days when we weren't out stewarding or performing maintenance on the trails. At the beginning of July, all six stewards became certified Leave No Trace Trainers. In mid-July, we participated in a special Leave No Trace Hot Spot event at Minnewaska State Park Preserve. This was exciting as it allowed us to meet with park staff, land managers, and other stakeholders who have a hand in improving the conditions of this park. Social trails, trampling of sensitive vegetation, and improper disposal of waste are common problems at Minnewaska – especially on the trail going out to Gertrude's Nose. We collaborated on the most effective ways to tackle these challenges, and it was reassuring to see the research from the Leave No Trace team that showed how effective on-the-ground stewardship is.

The Catskill Steward team has decreased from 7 stewards to 6, but with the help of Hudson Valley Stewards subbing in on weekends at Minnewaska and Sam's Point, we can continue providing the same coverage at all our locations. Trail Steward Rachael reflects on some of the lessons she's learned so far, now that we're halfway through the season:

As a Trail Steward in the Catskills, I have to be prepared for anything. This past month's adventures included mountaintop lightning storms, freezing mornings with boiling afternoons, and days with humidity so high that my uniform was drenched even before I started. More often than not, preparing for the day meant that my rain gear was always within arm's reach. Every morning the checklist included a raincoat, hat, rain pants, gaiters, change of clothes, and warm layers. A good pair of sturdy hiking shoes can make a world of difference! And although it might seem like a bummer to be stuck on top of a mountain in the rain, it can often lead to the most rewarding and exciting experiences. I tend to have my best visitor interactions on rainy days – the hiker and I both in disbelief that someone would willingly be out in the cold and dreary weather.

Rainy days also mean that I get to introduce visitors to the aspects of hiking that don't necessarily mean peak bagging or finding that perfect view. My new catchphrase has been, "Sure there's no view, but you are literally in a cloud! How often do you get to say that?" For many visitors, it can be disappointing to have driven 2 hours (or more!) for a hike, only to get to the summit and see an endless expanse of white as a reward. But, as the ever-positive trail steward, I like to remind hikers that while views are fantastic, a little bit of rain can lead to quieter trails, more wildlife interactions, and a greater appreciation for those rare and lovely sunny days.

Since we’ve seen rain on 50% of the days we’ve been out there, it’s important for us to find the silver lining in more challenging weather, not just for ourselves but for our interactions with other visitors. We look forward to the rest of the season and all the excitement and challenges it will bring!