Whether you’re hiking, biking or just passing through, volunteers at the Barnes Camp Visitor Center have seen more of you this summer than ever before.
Volunteer data from this year to Aug. 6 show visits to the small historic cabin right next to Route 108 are up 221 percent, said Ira Sollace, volunteer lead for Barnes Camp Visitor Center’s staff.
Those visits don’t include times when visitors used the bathroom or the newly constructed boardwalk without speaking to a volunteer.
As of Aug. 6, 5,481 people had chatted to knowledgeable volunteers at Barnes Camp about hiking, biking, swimming or even where to grab a bite to eat.
That means more volunteers are needed. This year, hours are up about 33 percent, Sollace said; two weekends ago, 32 volunteer hours, spread over eight-hour shifts Friday and Sunday, were staffed.
Ahead of expectations
Seth Jensen, a planner with Lamoille County Planning Commission, is the project manager for improvements near Barnes Camp, and said the recent boost in popularity is partly due to new infrastructure there, such as the boardwalk, which provides access for people with disabilities to about one-eighth of a mile of the Long Trail, the 272-mile trail that runs from the Massachusetts state line to the Canadian border.
The boardwalk, built mostly with funding secured by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, was completed last fall, and it’s been a huge draw, said Jensen.
“I know I’ve run into people who specifically made the trip up there because they heard about the boardwalk,” Jensen said.
The boardwalk also relocated that segment of the Long Trail so that the Barnes Camp Visitor Center is a trailhead, meaning more through-hikers see the cabin as a place to stop.
Jensen is enthusiastic about Barnes Camp’s popularity, and says it’s ahead of his hopes.
“To be honest, this is what we were hoping for, this level of activity, in 10 years. To be getting it at four or five is really exciting for me,” he said.
He says Barnes Camp plays an important role in nourishing the area’s four-season tourism industry.
“There are a lot of visitors in Stowe in summer. The challenge is when people come and hike, they don’t spend money in the same way as they do in the winter,” Jensen said.
Summer visits tend to be more family-oriented, so activities need to be accessible for everyone, including small children and elderly family members, or those with disabilities.
Finally, since summer visitors don’t have skiing as a central activity to plan their days around, they sometimes think there aren’t enough activities to pack a three-day weekend, Jensen said.
“Barnes Camp really is trying to get at all three of those issues. The reason for really trying to create an accessible amenity is that, for people who are traveling with older relatives or young children, the hike up to Sterling Pond is maybe not the best thing for them,” he said. “Spending time at Barnes Camp or making a special trip to explore the wetlands is something everybody can do.”
Volunteers also point people toward other tourist-friendly activities, such as a drive up the Auto Toll Road, or a trip on Stowe Mountain Resort’s gondola.
“They might not have been planning to talk about that, but after talking to the volunteers, that might keep them there an extra couple of hours,” long enough to stay in town for lunch or even another night, Jensen said.
Plus, volunteers with firsthand knowledge of the area provide the hospitable touch people from out of town are seeking.
“We really think that face-to-face connection the volunteers are providing also just fits in with Vermont’s brand of small, local, intimate face-to-face (connection), and that’s important.”
Teaching the trails
Sollace and his wife, Cindy Griffith, are both volunteer coordinators for the cadre of outdoor enthusiasts who man Barnes Camp Visitor Center.
Together, the couple has put in a total of 100 volunteer hours this season, and so they’re pretty well equipped to pinpoint what visitors want.
“Primarily, it’s hiking,” Griffith said. “We get a lot of questions from people about all kinds of hiking around the area.”
But, “sometimes visitors just pull up and say, ‘OK, we’re in Vermont, what do we do?’ Not everybody can hike,” Griffith acknowledged.
That’s when they refer them to restaurants, shops, or attractions such as the Auto Toll Road or gondola.
About 45 percent of this year’s almost 5,500 visitors are Canadian, Griffith said. The rest come primarily from New England.
Last year, Griffith and Sollace found one volunteer per shift was enough; this year, they’re pairing them up.
“We have several partners who volunteer at Barnes, and we always work together, because it’s the only way that we can even remotely manage it,” Griffith said.
The increased through-hiker traffic Jensen mentioned means volunteers gain a knowledge of trail conditions, learning about what might need maintenance, or where things are rough.
Volunteers bring snacks and sodas with them to distribute to tired hikers.
As informational as it is chatting with experienced hikers, volunteers also get a lot of joy from helping new hikers discover their abilities.
“We had a family come from New York City, and they were dressed up, but they wanted to go on a hike, and they didn’t want to go far, they’d never hiked before, and we told them about our brand new Barnes Camp Loop hike, and quite a long time later, they came back. We figured they would just go out on the boardwalk, but they kind of disappeared. Sometime later, they came back, struggling down the hill behind Barnes Camp, and were just so happy with themselves that they had come to Vermont and hiked on that trail,” Griffith said, her voice warm with the memory.
Another time, “a mom and dad and three young girls, (aged) from 7 to 13, wanted to hike Mount Mansfield. It’s not the easiest hike. Mom and Dad were talking to us, and the three girls were sort of hanging back. I remember saying to the girls, ‘You girls can do this.’ We were there in the afternoon when they (came back) covered in mud (and) sweat, and with big gleaming smiles because they made it,” Griffith said.
“There’s 10 of those every day.”
More volunteers may be on the way — a $345,000 grant from Northern Borders will fund more improvements in Smugglers Notch, Jensen said.
That money will go to improve parking, giving the swell of visitors more room to discover the outdoors.
Griffith and Sollace are always looking for more volunteers, particularly those with knowledge of the area, or the outdoors. Anyone interested can contact the Green Mountain Club at greenmountainclub.org.