Hauling rocks on Stissing Mountain: Volunteers build new trail from Thompson Pond to the fire tower
From left: Hem Hanaburgh, Viviann Berlinghoff, Joe Schmidt, and Brian Sikora hauling a rock into place on the Thompson to Tower trail in Pine Plains. 
Photo by Elias Sorich

Hauling rocks on Stissing Mountain: Volunteers build new trail from Thompson Pond to the fire tower

PINE PLAINS — If you find yourself in the woods of Stissing Mountain, chances are high that you’ll find Pine Plains residents Brian Sikora, Joe Schmidt and Viviann Berlinghoff hauling rocks and shifting soil as they build the newly named Thompson to Tower trail. Spanning 1 mile and over 900 feet of elevation gain, the trail is contiguous with the paths of Thompson Pond, and will take hikers from the trailhead at Lake Road up to the Stissing Fire Tower.

The trail is being constructed as a collaboration among three organizations: the Friends of Stissing Landmarks (FOSL), Dutchess Land Conservancy (DLC) and the Nature Conservancy (TNC). Berlinghoff is the chairperson of FOSL, a nonprofit that formed in the 1990s with the objective of preserving the fire tower, and Sikora and Schmidt are both members. The trail falls on a combination of DLC and TNC conserved land, and according to DLC outreach and engagement manager Brian Straniti, getting the collaboration in motion began with witnessing Sikora’s passionate work.

After meeting at a DLC volunteer event, Sikora invited Straniti to go and see the work he’d already undertaken on FOSL land with the hopes of getting DLC approval for further trail building. When Straniti saw the work already completed, he knew that empowering Sikora and FOSL to build the trail they wanted to build would result in something great: “I instantly went back and called my contact [at TNC] and said, ‘Hey, these guys are just itching to go on doing trail work and the stonework they’re doing is unbelievable. It’s like next-level stuff. Lightning is striking, let’s do this.’”

From there, the partnership fell easily into place, and Straniti began hosting DLC volunteer trail work days in coordination with FOSL. Pairing passionate and invested locals with community-oriented conservation projects is a hallmark of the sort of work Straniti hopes to do in his role, a part of the DLC’s recently developed outreach program.

Now, almost a year in, over 800 combined volunteer hours have been poured into the trail, with Sikora individually putting in over 540 hours of that work. Accordingly, Berlinghoff credited Sikora as a driving energy behind the effort: “He’s the reason that this trail is happening. It’s his total brainchild. He gets us out there, he designs it. His work ethic is amazing.”

On the Aug. 3 volunteer trail work day, the FOSL trio was joined by Straniti, recent Stissing Mountain High School graduate Hem Hanaburgh, and current Stissing Mountain High School student Cat Stoner for some invigorating work about three-quarters of the way up the mountain. As we zoomed to our work spot, the FOSL trio pointed out segments of the trail that were particularly tricky or that they were particularly proud of or that needed more work. It was a vigorous, lush, and well engineered hike: a credit to the many months of work done by Sikora, Schmidt, Berlinghoff, and the volunteers.

For the next three hours, we hauled rocks, smashed rocks, gathered rocks and placed rocks. Interspersed throughout the day’s labors were sprinkles of ecological information from Straniti, who spoke to the particular geography of Stissing Mountain.

While for other trail building efforts, the tasks might vary a bit more, Stissing Mountain is essentially a heap of stones with a relatively thin layer of dirt over it, so trail work means rocks work. It was dirty and it was fun.

For Sikora, there’s nothing he’d rather be doing. An avid hiking enthusiast who has traversed trails up and down the Northeast, the opportunity to imagine and sculpt a trail to be used widely by the public has been a dream come true: “Once you get up here, you don’t want to leave. I love being in nature and doing the work. But it’s also about wanting to leave something for the community that will last beyond me.”

Sikora and crew estimate that the Thompson to Tower trail is about 70% completed, but the trail is essentially usable and is already being enjoyed by local hikers. On Saturday, Sept. 23, all three involved organizations will host a grand opening of the trail, and there will be food, opportunities to learn about local flora and fauna, and the chance to enjoy the fruits of a community effort that a number of dedicated residents have devoted themselves to wholeheartedly.

Before the opening, however, DLC and FOSL will host two more volunteer trail work days. Hours are drop-in, and the next date is Thursday, Aug. 31, from 3 to 6 p.m. Make sure to bring water and good shoes. More details available at:  www.dutchessland.org/get-involved/events-and-programs

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