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To Survive The Pandemic, Vermonters Took A Hike

A man wearing a blue jacket, baseball hat and white headphones stands on gravel path.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
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VPR
Robert Peeples along the West River Trail in Brattleboro. Peeples discovered the trail after his gym closed due to the pandemic.

The reports from earlier this year are in, and all across the state, the number of people using Vermont’s hiking trails was way up.Whether it was the Long Trail, Vermont’s State Parks, or developed trails in our towns and cities, people flocked to the outdoors during the early months of the pandemic.

Before COVID-19 hit, Robert Peeples used to get most of his exercise at a gym in Brattleboro.

“I don’t know, I was just more interested in the social aspect of being at the gym,” Peeples said one recent afternoon. “Because it fulfilled two needs: one, to get exercise, and two, to have some social connection with people.”

Public gyms, of course, were some of the first businesses to shut down in the early days of the pandemic.

So at a time when Peeples says he was craving exercise and social connection, his routine was upended.

Peeples has lived Brattleboro for years, but he’d never heard of the West River Trail, a developed walkway along an old railroad bed right outside of downtown.

A kiosk at the West River Trailhead
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
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VPR
Use of the West River Trail in Brattleboro more than doubled this fall.

A friend suggested that he check it out.

Since then, walking there has become an almost daily routine for Peeples, as he tries to navigate these challenging times we’re all living through.

“It’s a certain peace that I feel walking along this river,” he said. “Nothing like walking near water, or being near water that soothes the soul, so to speak. It’s consoling during this time of great anxiety and isolation.”

And Peeples is hardly the only person who’s taken to the woods during the pandemic.

Pedestrian traffic on the West River Trail more than doubled this fall, according to findings from a recent use survey.

"There's a certain peace that I feel walking along this river. Nothing like walking near water, or being near water that soothes the soul, so to speak. It's consoling during this time of great anxiety and isolation."- Robert Peeples, Brattleboro resident

Jason Cooper has been spending time out there. He’s also a member of the committee that raises funds and organizes work groups for the West River Trail.

The Coronavirus has taken away so much of what we love, but Cooper says nature is still here, and it’s actually become the best place to safely get together with friends.

So Cooper wonders if all of the people who’ve discovered the trail over the past few months will continue walking even when all of this is over.

“You know, they used to go to a bar, or to a restaurant or to a movie. And now what they have, is they have this,” he said, while taking a break during a bike ride along the path.

“And they’re getting out here and saying, ‘Wow. This is really nice. And I need to do this more often.’ I strongly suspect that when the pandemic has receded, that a lot of people will continue to do this who didn’t do that before.”

A challenging summer for trail keepers

The need to get outdoors during stressful times is rooted deeply in our psyche and biology, according to Brad Moskowitz, who teaches therapeutic wilderness training at Northern Vermont University.

And he's not surprised that people, who might have never laced up a pair of hiking boots before are now finding themselves walking up a dusty trail.

“We have been holed up in our homes. We've been asked to stop socializing with our friends, and even with our family members,” he said. “And so, it's ever more important now for us to be able to get outdoors, to breathe the fresh air, to see the natural environment, to interact with it in whatever way we see fit, because the benefits are immeasurable.”

The popularity of Vermont’s trails and woods during the pandemic created some challenges for the State Park system.

Out-of-state day-use was up almost 20% at the parks. That lead to overflowing parking areas and crowded trails and mountain peaks, at a time when people were supposed to be socially distancing.

"I don't want Vermont State Parks to be that example of community spread, or you know, a hot spot. We don't want to be the problem. We're trying to be part of the solution here." - Michael Snyder, Commissioner for Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation

Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael Snyder said the season wasn’t perfect.

He knows people likely traveled from out-of-state areas they weren’t supposed to specifically to visit a Vermont lake or trail.

But all of that, he says, had to be weighed against the benefits of giving people who were cooped up inside a place to roam and breathe.

“That was one of the stress points, even for me, is like: I don’t want Vermont State Parks to be that example of community spread, or you know, a hot spot,” Snyder said. “We don’t want to be the problem. We’re trying to be part of the solution here, as we know the wellness benefits and, frankly, the COVID-protective benefits of staying healthy, mentally and physically.”

Newfound time to hit the trail

For a lot of people, the pandemic put life on hold.

Weddings were postponed, travel plans put off and plenty of people lost their jobs.

Leah Kern graduated from the University of Vermont last year with a degree in nutrition science. This spring, she was doing an internship at a hospital in New York City.

When the pandemic hit New York hard, the hospital where she was working laid her off.

Two Long Trail thru hikers stand on the summit of Mt. Abe.
Credit Leah Kern, Courtesy
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Leah Kern, right, with her hiking partner Beatrix Berry, atop Mount Abraham in August.

Kern had talked with a friend about doing the Long Trail sometime, and when they both found themselves with open schedules, they decided it was time to hit the trail.

She said the hike offered some escape. There were hours and even days when she forgot there was a public health crisis out there in the world.

At the same time, Kern said the trail amplified the respect and awe she has for the natural world.
Because when you’re going over Mount Mansfield in a cold, driving sleet, you realize how small you are; and just how big nature really is.

“I think the pandemic, sort of, is this reminder that we are not in control of nature,” Kern said. “We like the illusion that we are, but that’s something that you really, really learn, and live firsthand, when you’re hiking out in the woods for a month. So, yeah, I think  it was like this really concrete reminder that there’s more things out there than what it feels like is this end-all-be-all in our everyday life, like interacting with other humans, like there’s this bigger force. And it’s extremely humbling to look that in the eye.”

The value of Vermont's outdoor resources

The average daily use count on the Long Trail was up 35% this year, according to the Green Mountain Club.

And in September, overnight shelter use was up a whopping 80% from last year.

Green Mountain Club Field supervisor Isaac Alexandre-Leach said the pandemic really put Vermont’s trail system to the test.

Early in the spring, the state was still on lockdown and Alexandre-Leach says the GMC had no staff out when trail use was already reaching mid-summer levels.

The flood of new trail users meant not all hikers understood how to protect fragile mountaintop areas.

A crowd of hikers on the summit of Mt. Mansfield
Credit Michael Dillon, Courtesy
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Crowds on top of Mount Mansfield during the Labor Day weekend. Average daily use count on the Long Trail was up 35% during the pandemic.

And, moving out of the way to socially distance beat down an already overused trail system

But one thing everyone learned, Alexandre-Leach says, is that a lot of people leaned on Vermont’s mountains and trails at a time when there was little else around to offer strength and hope.

“I think this was definitely a year where the value of having these outdoor resources in Vermont, and having them open, really came through,” he said. “And so seeing how so many people who hadn’t been out in the outdoors, or hadn’t been as involved with the Vermont outdoors as they normally had, yeah, that was really special.”

No one knows how long this will last, or what things will look like next year.

But one thing’s for sure; Vermont’s mountains and streams will be here for us when the snow melts in the spring.

Correction 11:10 a.m. 12/2/2020: A caption for a photo in this story has been updated to reflect the correct holiday weekend.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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