Occupational Hazards

John Morton
Posted September 28th, 2009

Many outdoor enthusiasts who know me, enviously assert that I have the ideal job. I can’t disagree with them. As a trail designer, I spend much of my time “at work,” walking through the woods, exploring possible routes for proposed trail systems. Usually, I’m by myself, trying to notice natural features in the landscape, suitable potential stream crossings, and which stand of trees would add to the scenic beauty of the finished trail. Pretty good duty if you love being outdoors.
However, like any occupation, trail design work does have a few drawbacks. This past summer, a frequent irritation was the rain. If you are walking out the driveway to get the paper in a downpour, you simply put on your raingear and get going. If, however, you are planning to spend eight hours exploring a wooded site for a proposed trail, you can count on being soaked to the skin for most of the day. I think Goretex is a valiant effort, a fabric intended to keep the rain out while allowing an active body to “breathe,” but I can testify that it doesn’t work for a full day of trashing through the pucker brush. An added detriment to rainy days in the woods is that everything—fallen logs, roots, leaves, and rocks—becomes very slippery. Early last summer, my feet went out from under me, and I hit a flat rock so hard I saw stars. By the time I arrived home that evening, the side of my leg was an unbelievable purple from my waist to my knee. What almost compensated for the pain and stiffness was the disbelief and sympathy it engendered in
my wife.
I suppose one of the unintended consequences of our mobile society and global climate change is ticks’ migration north. I spent much of my childhood in the woods, and I can’t remember ever finding a tick, but times have changed. Although their prevalence seems to vary year to year, both deer ticks and the larger wood ticks are now common throughout most of the northeast. The good news is that they seem to take their time, up to three hours, attaching themselves to a new host. I make a habit of showering immediately after a day in the woods where I suspect a heavy infestation of ticks. My personal record is 13 ticks discovered during one shower.
Another reality of summertime bushwhacking is finding spider webs with your face. In the mornings when they are covered with dew, it is often possible to see the spider webs, but later in the day, with the dappled sunshine, the spider webs are invisible. While walking in the woods, I’ve developed a sort of nervous wave that discourages black flies and mosquitoes, as well as sweeps the remnants of webs and spiders off
my face.
As you might expect, I’ve had a few adrenaline-producing encounters with moose and black bears. One young bull moose made a half-hearted false charge, and a sow black bear gave me a convincing growl after she cuffed her cubs up a fir tree. In each instance, I tried to speak reassuringly as I backed away. After hours of walking alone in the woods, nothing gets your pulse up like a steaming pile of bear scat or the racket of branches and saplings snapping in the path of a running moose.
Birds are rarely an issue, but last summer, I encountered a pair of nesting Goshawks who were definitely upset that I was in their neighborhood. These birds are relatively rare and extremely territorial. Initially, they voiced their displeasure with a raucous chorus, but then advanced to swooping through the trees just over my head. I recalled an incident in Anchorage, AK, where a trail runner was attacked by a Great Horned Owl, resulting in 80 stitches to repair the lacerations in his scalp. I routed the trail I was designing well away from the Goshawks’ nest.
Not long ago we landed a trail project in New York’s Hudson River Valley. The site is honeycombed with caves, mines, and kilns, the remnants of a thriving cement business in the 1800s. Although I rarely worry about snakes in Northern New England, the limestone cliffs and rock outcroppings seemed like ideal snake habitat. I asked the site manager if he’d encountered any copperheads. “Sure,” he responded, “all the time. I’m surprised you haven’t stumbled across any yet. And the caves are full of bats and spiders. It’s really fascinating!”
I can hardly wait…
John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, VT, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.

John Morton

John Morton is a former Olympic biathlete and Nordic ski coach. He lives in Thetford Center, where he designs Nordic ski trails. You can reach him through his website, www.mortontrails.com.