Trails Foreman Gary Stellpflug has Championed Acadia’s Trails for 35 years


His career milestones include restoring and maintaining Acadia’s hiking trails after Acadia became the first national park with a trail-system endowment and securing a place for Acadia’s trail system on the National Register of Historic Places. Stellpflug is retiring this August.

National Park Service Trails Foreman Gary Stellpflug. (Photo by Will Newton/Friends of Acadia)

There’s one “special person” who immediately comes to mind as a champion of Acadia’s trails and a devoted steward of Acadia: Trails Foreman Gary Stellpflug.

After 35 years with the National Park Service – most of it as Trails Foreman – Gary Stellpflug knows just about every inch of Acadia’s 155-mile trail system. His career milestones include restoring and maintaining Acadia’s hiking trails after Acadia became the first national park with a trail-system endowment and securing a place for Acadia’s trail system on the National Register of Historic Places.

For Stellpflug, that last milestone is the perfect culmination to his career with the National Park Service. “I’m elated, overjoyed, and extremely proud,” he said. “It’s an honor to have played a part in getting the recognition that Acadia’s trails are part of national history-like the carriage roads, bridges, gatehouses, and lighthouses already on the National Register.”

And with that accomplishment under his belt, Stellpflug is ready to pass the baton. He plans to retire from the National Park Service at the end of August.

While Stellpflug’s accomplishments are vast, he is appreciated most for his approachable and laid-back style, his sense of humor, and a deep commitment to Acadia. He’s also known for his humility.

“Stewarding Acadia is a team effort,” he said. “From the incredible trail crew and volunteers that I get to work with, to other park staff like interpretation, maintenance, roads crew, clerks-basically everyone at the park, to Friends of Acadia, we all have a role to play in protecting and preserving this special place. Doing this work, for this long, with these folks, has truly been an honor.”

We met up with Stellpflug in Sieur de Monts this June to learn more from the person who’s been stewarding Acadia’s trails for more than three decades.

Trails Foreman Gary Stellpflug leads a training on sign making and Bates Cairn building for Friends of Acadia summit stewards. (Photo by Will Newton/Friends of Acadia)

Q. Do you have a favorite trail project? What are you most proud of?

A. There are so many, and for different reasons. Getting Acadia on the National Register of Historic Places is a highlight, for sure. The boardwalk on Jesup Path is a favorite project because we worked together to get the funding, address
the cultural and natural resource challenges, and solve problems. We kept the trail-which was a mudhole when we started-opting for a different look and feel, and it is incredibly popular with visitors. Jesup is also an accessible trail that meets American Disabilities Act (ADA) specs. That makes me proud.

Jordan Pond Path was the first big project. It took years to complete, and it’s such a popular, well-visited trail. It’s feels good to get people out of their cars enjoying the trails.

Q. What was the most difficult project during your tenure?

A. We’ve done any number of repairs on the Precipice, Orange
and Black, and Homans Path. We’ve done some really hard work on Jordan Cliffs. Probably the most significant were repairs after the earthquake in the fall of 2006. We closed Homans, Orange and Black, and Precipice for a while.

Q. In your opinion, what makes Acadia’s trails so special?

A. The intimacy. We don’t have the 1,000-mile trail systems that
many parks have. People can hike our trails each way, in any season, rain or shine. The system is small enough that people get to know their favorite trails and loops. The history is important. A lot of our trails began with Village Improvement Societies. Volunteers put in time and effort on the trails and they have ownership. We saw that commitment and passion when the Acadia Trails Forever endowment was started.

Acadia is accessible-and I don’t just mean ADA accessible. If you want to hike a trail this afternoon, you can get on one of our connector trails and walk into the park and go for a hike and then go back to work. Or drive into the park and go for a hike. We have a lot of bang for the buck.

The viewsheds. You don’t have to walk for 1.5 hours through a forest to get a view. Some of our trails you walk for 10 minutes, and you’ve got a view of the ocean or the rest of the park.

Left: Gary Stellpflug (left) chats with Friends of Acadia volunteer Mark Munsell about repairing a roof on an old blacksmith shop. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti/Friends of Acadia) Upper right: Gary Stellpflug’s name patch on his park uniform. (Sam Mallon/Friends of Acadia) Lower right: Gary Stellpflug shows the summit stewards how to make a proper cairn on Cadillac Mountain. (Carolyn Rogers/Friends of Acadia)

 

Q. What was the most dangerous moment you ever had on the trails?

A. Whoa, I almost killed myself a few times, but not at work! I do remember the time a rock dislodged from above on the Beech Cliffs. It whizzed by within inches of my head. Yikes! Usually, we’re a safe bunch.

Q. Do you have a worry or concern for the future of Acadia’s trails?

A. The budget issue is always looming. Can we keep trails open? Can we afford to maintain them? Can we stop erosion?Can we repair historical steps? We can’t without budget and crew, so that is something I worry about. But I worry a lot less because we have Friends of Acadia and the endowment.

Climate change and sea-level rise are also concerns. Are we going to continually experience rain events and washouts like last year’s June storm? We just had 100 yards of damage this year on the Ocean Path. If the ocean comes up six inches, it’s going to affect us for sure.

I also worry about housing and hiring issues and how they’ll affect our ability to effectively staff in the future.

Q. How does it feel to be retiring, and what will you do next?

A. It feels great. I’ve loved my job, but now that the decision is made, I can’t wait! I’m going to play. Travel. I’m not a world traveler, but I’m a Maine traveler and want to do more of that. I’ve got a son to see in California who’s long overdue for a visit. I have a to-do list around the house that’s a mile long.

The people that are here on the trail crew now are amazing. I’m leaving things in a good place.

Acadia National Park Trails Foreman Gary Stellpflug and trail worker Nathaniel Burke lead a training on the history, construction, and maintenance of Bates Cairns for Friends of Acadia’s seasonal employees on the Bald Peak Trail in Acadia National Park. (Photo by Lily LaRegina/Friends of Acadia)

Q. How did the early trail creators get rocks up there? Where does the park source rock?

The early trail creators never took rocks up there, they got them up there! They dug and quarried them locally. A lot of early work was done with derricks. Many of the early trail crew had worked in the quarries on Mount Desert Island so they knew how to move rocks.

Today, we move rocks with our highlines all the time, from small pits right near our projects. We also do source some rock from a variety of local sources. For example, we bought some pink rock, like Acadia’s pink granite, from Jonesboro. We bought some grey rock from over in Sullivan.

Q. How has the trail crew evolved during your tenure?

A. We’ve gone from two people in late 1970’s to 1980’s when there was a lack of funding for trails, to a high of about 34 people in 2015. As the program grew through the 1980’s and the endowment came into play – thanks to Friends of Acadia—we have focused more and more on trails. This year we’re at about 18 crew, including long-term volunteers and interns. Our crew would have 4-5 more people if we had housing. Housing is a big factor, as is our pay in comparison to the larger Western parks.

Because the size of the trail crews fluctuates, stewardship volunteers have always been critical to our success. We rely heavily on two types of volunteers: long-term crew leaders that are almost like part of the crew, and stewardship volunteers and the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps (AYCC) who help with revegetation, spreading gravel, carrying bog walk, and cairn maintenance.

Q. What is your biggest engineering challenge?

A. How to organize and move material. For example, on the east shore of Jordan Pond Path we had all that gravel we purchased and moved it on to stockpiles in the winter on ice.

We’re safe and experienced at it. We use a mechanical advantage tool called a grip hoist; we also use pulleys, blocks and cables.

We’re also always engineering for climate change and the amount of people using our trails and the number of social trails.

Q. What do you do about the social trails?

A. We use a multi-faceted approach, and we get lots of help from Friends of Acadia’s Summit Stewards. We close them, plant them, and put up signs. We also harden some so they can be used. A combination of various signage and blocking methods.

"Stewarding Acadia is a team effort. From the incredible trail crew and volunteers that I get to work with, to other park staff like interpretation, maintenance, roads crew, clerks - basically everyone at the park - to Friends of Acadia, we all have a role to play in protecting and preserving this special place. Doing this work, for this long, with these folks, has truly been an honor."

Trails Foreman Gary Stellpflug

Q. In your opinion, after modifications, what trail might be the best new “adaptive” or wheelchair-accessible trail?

A. Moving forward, the park’s mandate is that we must take accessibility into account for every future large project. No, we’ll never make the Precipice accessible, but it is always a top consideration as we move forward.

Last year, at Sieur de Monts, we revamped from the bridge to the boardwalk to make it much more accessible. The Schooner Head Path is accessible … a short section of Jordan Pond. We’re slowly working on sections of Ocean Path to make it more accessible. Ship Harbor, the first loop you come to, is accessible as a loop.

We’re also working on Great Head Trail this year – mostly at the beginning on the Sand Beach side. That will improve accessibility from the Great Head Parking area to the millstone. We can’t create accessibility all through Great Head, but we try to keep loops in mind.

Q. Tell us something surprising or strange that you’ve seen on Acadia’s trails?

One surprising thing is the number of people that ask me where they parked their car and how to get back to it? I’ve witnessed a lot of family arguments over trying to figure it out where the car is parked. “It was a big parking lot.” “No, it was a little parking lot.” “There was a stream next to it.” “No there wasn’t.” This occurs at least a couple of times per year.

I also see many folks hiking without maps and, in today’s world, apps. I see people with their cell phone trying to figure out where the heck they are. They’re confused. That happens a lot.

The great rain event last June ranks right up there. In January 2017, Jesup Path and Sieur de Monts flooded and I canoed across it for fun! The earthquake in 2006 was also pretty bizarre.

Q. Have you seen or given anyone famous a trail tour?

A. Oh, yes! Lots of people. I met John D. Rockefeller III, several times. Many Friends of Acadia Board Members and donors. I’ve met Martha Stewart, but she won’t likely remember. Of course, we had Barak Obama. Barbara Bush. And in my early years, I met some of the people from the cottage era who were still hiking. This has been an exciting part of my career. I always tell my workers to be on their best behavior because you never know who you’ll meet on the trails!

Q. What is the best way to navigate a mud puddle on a trail? Can you set the record straight?

A. The proper method is to go through the puddle. That’s why boots were invented.

Usually, the puddle is there with standing water because the ground underneath is compacted and solid. Going through is better than continuously widening the trails and killing vegetation on either side. That’s a vicious cycle. We’ve seen trails 30’ wide in places. Go through it! But now a lot of people heed that advice.

Q. Can a senior citizen in good shape hike the Beehive Trail?

A. Of course! They must know their own limits and not be afraid of heights. I know one fella who is over 80 years old and hiked the Precipice last year. I am 72 and I don’t plan to stop hiking it anytime soon. But if you are afraid of heights or ledges, it’s probably not for you. Know your own limits.

Q. What’s the best way to navigate the carriage roads? How come the trail markers are not as clear as on Acadia’s trails?

A. The system we use to navigate them with the wooden signs/arrows is a historical system, which many people love, including me. We added trail section numbers in the 1980’s and most of those are on carriage road maps and apps, so pay attention to them. It can certainly be an issue when you’re at an intersection like Around Mountain and it goes both directions. On the other hand, it says Around Mountain, so what does that tell you—it’s a loop! I feel your consternation. A map is a must!

Terese Miller (left) playfully throws leaves at Gary Stellpflug, trails foreman at Acadia National Park, while clearing leaves from the carriage road as part of the Acadia Proud volunteer group during Friends of Acadia’s annual Take Pride in Acadia Day in 2021. (Photo by Ashley L. Conti/Friends of Acadia)

Q. How much guidance does the National Park Service provide on how to maintain trails?

A. There’s not a lot of national guidance on trail maintenance or treatment. That would be difficult because there are so many different types of trails—from woodland trails, high-alpine trails, desert trails.

Our Acadia National Park cultural landscape report on the treatment of trails specifies how do to do trail work in Acadia – that’s 300 pages. We also have a trail plan which guides us and now we have the National Historic Register. These are all guiding documents.

Q. Has technology changed how you manage the trails or is trail management a fundamental skill that tech hasn’t impacted much?

A. Yes, of course! We now have things we never even thought of in 1975 when I started. Including:

  • High-line systems with grip hoists–this is a game changer in moving materials safely and efficiently
  • Small generators to run power tools on site
  • Now, battery operated tools including stone-drilling tools
  • Greater knowledge of the environment such as wetland delineation
  • More field-tested knowledge of what works and doesn’t in Acadia
  • Better inventory and data
  • Scientific research that’s been done on trails
  • Trainings on stonework, equipment use, and on and on.

Otherwise, still a lot of digging, carrying, and lifting—perpetually uphill it seems!

Q. How do you handle erosion?

A. Wow, there is only a long answer to this. It all starts with trying to determine how and why erosion is occurring. Then, we use a variety of drain and out-slope treads, swales, and checks; we harden with stonework and cribs; we lower the grade, etcetera.

Q. What are the biggest changes you’ve made (or had to make) to the trail system during your tenure?

A. First, we’ve had to adjust to much larger crews, which means more vehicles, inventory, storage, and more leadership. We also make adjustments now, due to environmental and cultural compliance and accessibility, too.

Changes to the system would include opening eight miles of abandoned trail and adding the other few miles of connector trail. Also, a four-mile addition to the Schoodic Peninsula. Finally, we reverted to historical trail names on two dozen trails.

National Park Service Trails Foreman Gary Stellpflug (L) leads a training on sign making and Bates Cairn building for Friends of Acadia Summit Stewards. (Photo by Will Newton/Friends of Acadia)