August 9, 2013

How a Backcountry Leanto Happens

How a Backcountry Leanto Happens


A backcountry leanto in BSP
Baxter Park has about 35 backcountry sites that require some time on the trail to reach.  About half of these sites are leantos.  In the past 10 years we have been working on reviewing these leanto sites and relocating sites to better locations, replacing degraded structures and replacing smaller stick-built leantos with a now standard cedar log leanto that with regular maintenance should last at least 50 years.

While all our backcountry sites are remote, some are really remote.  Relocating or replacing these leantos can be a real challenge requiring skill, dedication and hard work on several levels.  Recently, we relocated the Center Mountain Leanto to a new site on Center Pond.   Center Pond is located on the Wassataquoik Lake Trail and is a 4.8 mile hike from Nesowadnehunk Field. The new leanto is now open for rental and serves as a good example of the process and effort that goes into a backcountry leanto relocation and construction project.

Step 1: Review and Reconniassance

About 20 years ago, we constructed a small stick-built leanto along a small upper branch of Trout Brook on the newly relocated Wassataquoik Lake Trail about 1 mile north of Center Pond.
With Center Mountain as the most prominent local landmark, the site was named the Center Mountain Leanto.  The leanto was intended to provide a spot for backcountry hikers to camp enroute to other backcountry campsites at Little Wassataquiok Lake, Wassataquoik Lake Island and Russell Pond Backcountry Campground.  In many ways, backcountry sites are like any real estate - the three most important factors to consider are location, location, location.  For a number of reasons, primarily related to location, the Center Mountain Leanto received minimal to no use.

In 2011, I hiked by the Center Mountain Leanto on my way out to Nesowadnehunk from Wassataquoik Lake.  I had a good look at the leanto.  I had been considering relocating this leanto for some time and after that hike we placed the idea on the table for consideration by the administrative team and ranger staff.  After discussion, the decision was made to consider relocating the leanto to Center Pond.  Center Pond is a beautiful remote pond located on the Wassataquoik Lake Trail about 5 miles from the trailhead at Nesowadnehunk Field and 9 miles from Russell Pond Campground.  Center Pond has a healthy population of eastern brook trout.  The Park maintained a rental canoe at Center Pond, but due to the nearly 5 mile distance from a road and no authorized campsite allowing for an overnight stay, few visitors were willing to venture into Center Pond for a day trip.  Relocating the leanto at Center Pond would likely increase the use at this very pretty, very remote pond with a good population of eastern brook trout. 

One other important reason also surfaced supporting a leanto at Center Pond during the development of the Park's Management Plan completed in 2012.  The Management Plan pointed out a lack of loop opportunities for backcountry hikers.  Unless a car can be spotted, most backcountry hikes in the Park require an in and out path on a single trail.  Two additional trail projects were suggested in the plan that would significantly address this issue.  One of the projects involved the construction of 4 miles of new trail from the Wassataquoik Lake Trail at Center Pond to the Northwest Basin Trail following a route around the south side of Mullen Mountain and into the Annis Brook drainage to the Northwest Basin Trail (see Mgt Plan Trails Map).  This one segment would allow the opportunity for a 3 to 6 day backcountry trip in the Park with only the 5 miles from Center Pond to Nesowadnehunk Field requiring repetition.

Based on these reasons in support of relocation, I hiked into Center Pond in the fall of 2012 Park Rangers Isaac Needell and Mike Martin and Backcountry Ranger Greg Hamer.  Greg is one of the Park's senior Backcountry Rangers. Greg and his fellow Russell Pond Backcountry Ranger Brendan Curran, are the Park's most experienced and skilled rangers in the construction of cedar log leantos.  After a thorough examination of the area around Center Pond, we settled unanimously on a single site on the north side of the pond several hundred feet from the Wassataquoik Lake Trail.   

Rangers Needell, Martin and Hamer at Center Pond (photo by J. Bissell)
We hiked out that day happy that we had decided on what we knew would be a great spot for a backcountry leanto that would be enjoyed by many campers in the years to come.  We brought our proposal out and placed it on the table for more review, including a consideration of the impact on the brook trout fishery of Center Pond based on the higher expected use with a local leanto providing the opportunity for overnight camping. After another round of consideration, we decided to move ahead with the relocation.

So, in late October of 2012 the Center Pond Leanto consisted of some orange flagging hung on some trees near the pond.  This is when the hard work was about to begin. 

Step 2:  Staging Materials, Planning

Many aspects of the maintenance of Baxter Park involve northern white cedar. Cedar is a very long-lived and ubiquitous component of the Acadian spruce-fir forest.   If you have hiked in the Park, you have seen lots of cedar. We use cedar for sign posts, day use shelters, picnic tables,bog bridging, leantos, bridge decking and cribbing for hiking trail bridge abutments.  The wood is light, easily worked and very resistant to decay.  Because cedar is preferred for so many uses, we have been shunting cedar from the normal harvesting operations of the Park's Scientific Forest Management Area (SFMA) for many years for use in Park maintenance.  Leaving the SFMA as logs, the cedar is milled locally and returns to the Park mostly as 6', 8' or 12' long sticks with two sides slabbed off so the piece is either 4" or 6" thick.  Cedar log leantos in the Park start with about 40 pieces of 12' cedar slabbed to 6" thickness.  Materials also include dimensional lumber for the floor and roof, some smaller round spruce logs for purlins, shingles and a few lengths of drip edge.  We also will need 4 to 8 round cement pads to set the leanto on, spikes and nails for assembly.  We also need a fire ring and recently, we've been throwing in a bear canister to leave in the leanto for use by campers.  Lastly, all the tools and equipment necessary clearing the space for the leanto and any necessary access trail and for assembling the leanto are placed in a secure and waterproof container.

Every leanto we construct in the backcountry comes with a companion building - an outhouse.   Backcountry outhouses are constructed at the carpentry shop at Park HQ in accordance with a specific and proven design.  The completed outhouse is de-assembled and packed for transport as a kit. 

The placement of an outhouse requires appropriate siting and approval by a soil scientist.  The Park has been fortunate to have the dedicated volunteer assistance of Roger St. Armand.  Roger has sited many backcountry privies in the Park and his expertise is greatly appreciated.

Roger St.Armand at Center Pond (photo by S. Guay)
Once acquired, all of the materials are then transported to the the roadside location closest to the backcountry site.   In the case of the Center Pond Leanto, the materials were staged at Nesowadnehunk Field. This work typically takes place in the short window between the end of the Park camping season on October 15 and first significant snowfall.  The materials are piled carefully on supports to keep everything off the ground.  The stack is then covered and we wait for winter to arrive. 

Step 3:  Transporting Materials to the Site

Some Park leanto materials have been transported by the Maine Army National Guard helicopters as part of training exercises implemented by the Guard.  While this has been an effective way to transport a leanto into the backcountry, it is a rare event.  Most backcountry leantos were constructed from materials that found their way to the site by one method - transport by snowmobile in the dead of winter through the hard work of experienced Rangers.

Army Air National Guard Blackhawk transporting Park bog bridging
To make this work as easy as possible, we spend time reviewing various gis data, park maps, satellite photos etc., to determine the best route to transport the leanto materials, including many cedar logs 12' in length from the roadside location.  Our current 4 stroke long-track/wide-track work snowmobiles are over 10' long from tip of ski to back of track.  With an eight foot tote sled on a 4'
 tongue carrying 12' logs, the whole affair is well over 20' long.  That's a lot of length to snake through the Maine woods.  Hiking trails are often unsuitable due to numerous sharp corners and narrow widths.  In the winter transport of long materials we look for old logging roads, bogs and swamps (frozen and covered with snow they are great thoroughfares in winter).

As winter settled in and snow depths rose to more than 2', we began to work on establishing a route.   After a significant amount of exploration on foot and some trial and error with snowmobiles, the Rangers settled on a route that followed an old fire road running between Center and Strickland Mountains to the South Branch of Trout Brook.  From Trout Brook, the Rangers utilized old logging roads from the 1960's and bogs and natural openings to clear a workable path to Center Pond.  Rangers cleared vegetation just enough to provide safe passage for the sleds and tote sleds and to set a track.  Most of this hard work took place in January with daytime temperatures often remaining below zero. The rule in winter transport of materials in the Maine woods is you go as soon as there is enough snow.  Maine winters are unpredictable.  Cold weather and several feet of snow may be followed by days of rain and a two week thaw.  As soon as we had conditions, the Rangers went to work. The beauty of the landscape was often effective in offsetting the cold and hard work at hand.

Hauling leanto stock into Center Pond (photo by J. Bissell)
All the materials are piled along the edge of the trail as close to the site as possible.  Each piece will have to be handled at least once again as it is carried to the site and put in place in the leanto.

Leanto stock piled near the site (photo by J. Bissell)
Eventually, the hauling was completed and there is time for a photo or two. Park volunteers such as Rick Bray often pitch in to help Rangers with the project. Rick continued to pitch in later with the leanto construction phase.

Rangers Stewart Guay and Bruce White with BSP Volunteer Rick Bray at Center Pond (photo by J. Bissell).
Stage 4:  Construction
Once the materials are in place in the backcountry, we are ready for the final step of developing the site, any necessary site access trail, and constructing the leanto and outhouse.  We typically try and schedule this work for early in May so we can use our Ranger talent in the construction effort before their campgrounds open for the summer season.  Ideally, this is during a few days of nice weather right before the flies come out.  We are usually OK on the flies, but the weather... sometimes not so much.

BSP Volunteer Rick Bray at the Center Pond Leanto (photo by B. White)

For the Center Pond leanto, the construction phase did occur early in the season, but the outhouse assembly, trail access work and canoe rack were completed later in July, delaying the opening of the leanto until August.  The leanto was constructed by a typical combination of Rangers and Park Volunteers.  For the Center Pond project this list included Greg Hamer, Stewart Guay, Bob Baribeau, Chip Jahnke, Craig Kennedy, Mike Martin, Bruce White, and Rick Bray.
Installed bog bridging to access the Center Pond Leanto (photo by M. Martin)
Canoe at Center Pond Leanto (photo by B. White)

So, there is an overview of what is involved in the replacement of a backcountry leanto in Baxter State Park.  The process usually takes about a year and involves a lot of people.  In return, the leanto should last for 50 to 100 years and provide shelter from storms and countless memories to hundreds and perhaps thousands of wilderness travelers in the years to come.