By Rachel Goff
James Ialeggio spends his Saturdays sitting on mountains. Sundays, too.
As a backcountry caretaker for Green Mountain Club (GMC), Ialeggio is in charge of the section of the Long Trail that runs from Lincoln Gap to Appalachian Gap, traversing The Valley's western ridgeline. During the day, he talks to hikers to help them minimize their impact in the wilderness, performs light trail maintenance and checks in on campsites and privies. At night, he sleeps in a tent at Battell Shelter.
Ialeggio is one of nearly a dozen backcountry caretakers that GMC hires each summer to keep the woods looking like woods. The summit of Mt. Abraham, his main outpost, is the smallest above-tree-line zone in all of Vermont, and as such "It's very, very fragile," Ialeggio said. On a sunny Saturday, as many as 60 hikers will make it up to the top of the 4,006-foot mountain, and it's Ialeggio's job to make sure they stick to rocky surfaces rather than trampling subalpine soil and vegetation.
So far this summer, the hikers Ialeggio has interacted with have been "pretty uniformly wonderful," he said, explaining that most are either already well-versed in Leave No Trace principles or willing to listen to why it's important not to throw banana peels into the trees. Thankfully, "it seems like everyone who comes up here wants to be here," Ialeggio said, "which makes my job a lot easier."
For most GMC caretakers, educating hikers on summits "is the most visible part of our job," Ialeggio said, "but it's not the most important." On weekdays, Ialeggio hikes back and forth between Lincoln Gap and Appalachian Gap, cleaning water bars to reduce erosion of the trail and clearing trees that may have fallen down in a recent storm.
Despite traversing the same 11-mile section of trail over and over again this summer, Ialeggio hasn't gotten bored with the Monroe Skyline. "Depending on the weather, everything looks different," he said. "But there's also something beautiful in getting to know a particular stretch of trail inside-out," he said. "I feel very protective of my section and also very proud of it."
For Ialeggio, who is originally from Randolph, Vermont, working as a backcountry caretaker this summer "is kind of a welcome home," he said. This is his third season working for GMC. His first, back in 2008, "was the beginning of me figuring out what I wanted to do with my life," Ialeggio said, as it led to him living and working various outdoors jobs across the country, including stints as a park ranger in New Mexico, a wildlife biology intern in Washington state and a bird population surveyor in Maine. Eventually, the BP oil spill brought Ialeggio down south, where he got his master's degree in wildlife biology at Louisiana State University.
Ialeggio will occupy his post high above The Valley through Columbus Day weekend, "and I have no idea what I'm going to do this winter," he said. For now, he spends his free time playing the fiddle, practicing using hand tools to square timbers and reading. "I read so much Game of Thrones it's embarrassing," he said. "I'm almost done."
On the two days a week Ialeggio has off, he heads south to Randolph or north to Waterbury, but not before stopping for a swim in the Mad River or at The Warren Store to buy some black licorice.
For more information on the GMC's backcountry caretakers, including volunteer opportunities, visit greenmountainclub.org.