The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps crew that constructed the Allen Brook Nature Trail is pictured in the summer of 1996. The author, Elizabeth Allen, is on the far left of the first row. OBSERVER COURTESY PHOTO

The genesis of the Allen Brook Nature Trail


Special to the Observer

The Allen Brook Nature Trail, located behind Williston Central School, just off the rec path, begins with a boardwalk. The wooden boardwalk extends across a wetland created by beaver damming activity on Allen Brook. On the other side of the boardwalk, the trail enters a mixed deciduous forest, then an area of old-growth pines and enormous ferns. Among densely packed ironwood saplings, the trail doubles back and makes a loop.

For 25 years, Willistonians and others have traveled this short route for education and recreation. But why was it built? And who constructed it? Read on for a firsthand account of the Allen Brook Nature Trail’s genesis.

The idea for the trail began in the mid-1990s with WCS third and fourth-grade teachers Karen Halsted and Jane Wilson. They wanted a place to take their students for locally inspired lessons.

With the help of other teachers, they designed a proposed route. The town approved the teachers’ idea, and Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) provided a day crew. Based in Richmond, VYCC offers teenagers and young adults paid summer work running state parks, maintaining and improving public trails and performing other conservation work. Established in 1985, VYCC has service projects across the state. It also has its own farm, trail network and classrooms, as well as partnerships with AmeriCorps, SerVermont and other nonprofits.

I joined VYCC in 1996, the summer after I graduated from Essex High School. Because I am a sedentary book-loving writer, my choice of manual labor might seem unusual. But I grew up in an outdoorsy family and had some familiarity with local trails. I really liked the idea of hacking a trail out of the undergrowth and then proudly giving tours along it. It sounded fun. Besides, the fun came with an hourly wage, so why not?

I joined a VYCC day crew that, under the direction of two crew leaders in their 20s, created the Allen Brook Nature Trail during that summer. My fellow crew members and I were a bunch of eager but inexperienced kids from Chittenden County, between 16 and 20. We knew nothing about conservation work.

Fortunately our VYCC stint included on-the-job training. The crew leaders emphasized safety in all things. They instructed us in the proper use of every tool from scythe to crosscut saw; we even devoted Friday mornings to cleaning and maintaining our tools.

We dressed for safety, not for style, in pale green button-down shirts with VYCC patches on the shoulders, long pants, leather work boots and leather work gloves. We carried one-liter water bottles everywhere and topped our uniforms with mandatory forest green hard hats. Our uniforms protected us from ticks, UV rays and wayward tools, but they also retained heat during a typical sunny, humid Vermont summer. We sweated a lot.

We were serious about safety, but we also had fun. One day was so rainy that we ended up (getting paid for) watching Apollo 13 at one of the crew leaders’ friend’s houses. Toward the end of the project, two crew members swung on the thick wild grapevines in the trees, yodeling like Tarzan. On our last day, a crew member gave everyone silly award certificates.

My crew labored in almost all weather, except extreme heat or thunderstorms. We graded the boardwalk site, sank posts, cut and nailed lumber and built the boardwalk and bridge from the ground up. (We even hid under the boardwalk once when a rainstorm surprised us.) Then we marked the nature trail’s route and cleared it, removing stumps, weeding and felling trees. We strengthened our legs with constant walking, our arms with constant sawing and our backs from hauling supplies.

Of course, we built much more than just muscles. When the Allen Brook Nature Trail was completed, hikers had new ground to cover and WCS students had a new outdoor classroom.

“What a terrific hands-on learning experience it was for the kids.” reminisces teacher Karen Halsted. “They identified bugs and trees. We collected leaves and plants and did art projects back in the classroom with them. The bridge that the youth corps built gave us some cool lessons on design and construction.”

At the end of every workday, I felt gross. Sweat acted like glue, adhering dirt to my skin. My bug bites itched. My boots and socks were dank. I immediately dove into the shower to remove the

I was physically uncomfortable, but also very satisfied. I was learning new things, growing stronger, changing the world and having fun at the same time. Nowadays, when I return to the trail and say hello to fellow hikers, the same sense of pride returns.

Past Times is a biweekly trip down memory lane with members of the Williston Historical Society.