By RUSSELL JONES
WEST RUTLAND — A small group of dedicated youth have spent the past two weeks toiling in the hot sun, braving mud and mosquitos, to improve the quality of the trails in the West Rutland marsh.
The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps has been working on a project in the area to clean up the trails and install bridges and walkways through the swampy area so area bird watchers can make it to an overlook that shows off the impressive views.
The seven youths come from all over the state, and one from as far away as the suburbs of Boston, and range in age from 15 to 17. The marsh project will create a section of new trails, which is classified as a National Audubon Important Bird Area.
The crew has cleared close to a mile of trail through chest-high grass since they began on July 15, and will soon be done.
“We are very close to being finished here,” co-crew leader Hannah Russell said. “All we have left to do is tidy up the trails and lop off some roots and branches.”
The West Rutland marsh is home to 155 species of birds, in addition to many tree, shrub and flower species. The new trails are located in conserved sections of the marsh that had previously been very difficult terrain to walk through.
Now, thanks to the hard work of the corps and the town of West Rutland, which mowed some of the high grass, area birders have a much easier path to follow.
“There were a few days we struggled through the heat,” the 21-year-old crew leader said, “but we survived and got a ton of work done.”
The crew built a 16-foot bridge over a small creek bed, as well as laying down three puncheons. The puncheons are wooden walkways over wet ground and the crew laid sections of them at 10 feet, 36 feet and 45 feet in length. They also leveled the trails and made sure there were no tripping hazards for the bird watchers.
For many of the youngsters, this was their first job.
“They get to develop leadership skills and it also helps encourage critical thinking,” Russell said. “It’s also resume building.”
Most of the kids joined the VYCC because they are interested in conserving the Vermont outdoors, but some also have careers in mind.
“One of our workers has a background in construction, his whole family does construction,” Russell said. “So this kind of work is just natural for him, but for others, this is all new.”
The crew has camped out in tents for the two weeks they have been working on the trails and once they’re done, they will head back to home base in Richmond where they will have a few weeks of campus training before the summer session ends.
“The work has been difficult,” Russell said of the West Rutland project, “and there are a few things they have to be prepared for when they get out here.”
She said they go over with the kids how to spot dangerous plants, such as poison parsnip, and they make sure everyone is as protected as they can be against bugs.
“We spray for mosquitos, but there isn’t much you can do for deer flies,” Russell said. “And we always watch out for ticks because nobody wants Lyme disease.”
Next summer, another group from the VYCC will come out and work on a new section of trails through the marsh. Russell will look to continue her work as a crew leader, she said, but she can only hope to find a crew as good as this one.
“Sometimes, you get a few who don’t really want to be out here and it shows in their dedication to the work,” she said. “I may be a bit partial, but this group is great. I couldn’t have asked for better workers.”