The trail-building artistry of Eddie Walsh


Tahawus Trails designed the Stony Kill Falls trail at Minnewaska State Park.

Eddie Walsh at work

Since he was a teenager growing up in Rockland County, Eddie Walsh has been building trails. He first volunteered for the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, followed by professional seasonal stints in the Adirondacks and White Mountains. For two years, when he was in his early 20s, he managed the trail-building program of the Adirondack Mountain Club. After working for himself, in 2005, Walsh founded Tahawus Trails, LLC, which now has a staff of 15. The company designs gorgeous trails for preserves, land trusts, parks, municipalities, schools, resorts and private landowners.

Walsh designed and with his company built the trail network at the John Burroughs Nature Sanctuary, the rugged preserve surrounding the naturalist writer’s Slabsides cabin – a project that involved the construction of 100 stone steps, a stone bridge, ladder and 90-foot boardwalk. Tahawus Trails also has constructed trails at Bear Mountain; the connecting stairs to the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail’s railroad trestle by Joppenbergh Mountain; Minnewaska State Park, where it built a new trail to Stony Kill Falls; an award-winning, boulder-hugging staircase at Niagara Falls; and a wheelchair-accessible pathway at Nichols Hill Island, along the St. Lawrence River. In Pennsylvania, the firm designed and built a series of stone steps and viewing platforms at Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Fallingwater house and, outside Philadelphia, rustic-style kiosks at Wissahickon Valley Park.

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Particularly here in the mid-Hudson Valley and Catskills, where there are so many preserves and places to hike, Walsh’s unique skill set has an impact on our lives: how we access and experience the local forests and fields, mountains and waterfalls, with all the details of rock, swamp, cliff, tree and stream. Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently interviewed Walsh, who lives in High Falls with his wife and three children, about the art and science of trail-building:

How did you get interested in building trails?

When I was a kid, my dad got laid off from work and was looking for something to do with his two sons. That’s before there were $600 Gore-Tex jackets. He took us hiking every weekend. I knew I wanted to have a job that was outside, so I volunteered for the Adirondack Mountain Club when I was 15, doing trail work. We worked with simple hand tools and native materials. You’re doing legacy work. The rocks I set in place will still be there until the next Ice Age. That’s very rewarding.

After working in the Adirondacks and White Mountains, you moved back downstate in 2001. What brought you to the Hudson Valley?

Downstate is more populated, and so there’s greater demand for open space and resources. I also finished up school at SUNY-New Paltz. My initial work mostly involved leading volunteer groups, and then I started working on more complicated projects and my clientele grew.

How do you start a project?

Normally it takes a lot of time in the field. We look at every inch of the available terrain and start ruling out constraints, where it doesn’t make sense to put a trail, perhaps because there are sensitivities. We also look at opportunities, at places that are really interesting; those that are ideal for building is a secondary factor. We seek to highlight the uniqueness of a property. Maybe you want to get to the top of a cliff or to a waterfall, or just take a walk in the woods. We build experiences for the user.

What are some of the challenges?

It’s an art and a science. It’s done differently now than in the past: Older trails were about getting as quickly as possible from Point A to Point B. That approach led to a host of problems. It often created a lot of erosion and degradation of the trail. The science of designing a trail is to try to minimize erosion and trail degradation. Particularly in the Adirondacks and Catskills, there are steeper trails, and people are looking to get quickly up the mountain. To make those trails sustainable, we have to harden it with stone steps and ladders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to climate change, we’re having more intense rainstorms than in the past. How are you accommodating the heavier runoff?

It used to be, with a skilled eye, you could easily identify the highwater mark, but with the new weather patterns, you can’t look at the landscape and determine what a ten-inch rainstorm in half a day will do to the site; it’s much less predictable. We’re designing for bigger water flows now, particularly around bridge and stream crossings. On the trails themselves, we’re thinking about hardening the surfaces differently than in the past, to get the water to flow across the trail and create a greater slope side to side so water can move quickly off the trail, or stone armoring or paving. We want the water to flow over the trail without damaging it.

That relates to the science of trail-building. What about the art? What do you look for in designing a new trail?

Obviously, the big discoveries have been made. There are no more secret amazing waterfalls. We try to provide an experience for people to see something they wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. We’ve done a lot of work so that they can make discoveries. At Stony Kill Falls, for example, it’s 1,000 feet to get from the parking lot to the waterfall, and we designed the trail to wrap around certain rocks. We’d like to think we’re letting the user make new discoveries, so that they might think they saw a particular rock for the first time. We try to give people that kind of surprise.

Your firm offers many skills, including building bridges, stairways, boardwalks and kiosks. How did you learn all this?

Every trail has a unique challenge, so I started to seek out techniques from other trades, whether it’s rigging from sailors or from the stone-quarrying industries.

What did you have to learn rigging for?

One of the biggest challenges in trail work is moving materials. Two years ago, when we did the Stony Kill Falls trail at Minnewaska, two- to three-ton stones had to be moved from the top of the cliff to the bottom. The easy way to do it would be to push them off the edge, but we wanted to get the construction done with very low impact [to the land], so we used rigging systems to move them.

Do you still primarily use hand tools?

If we can build with small, appropriately sized equipment, we’ll do that, provided it doesn’t have a negative impact on the land. We’re working with wood, stone and earth. We have an eye for the material, and what we don’t know how to do, we learn from others. We do bring specialists in occasionally, especially engineers. Local natural materials are also desired, and we’re going to use the materials most appropriate for a particular site. For example, we’re not going to bring bluestone from the Binghamton area to the Adirondacks [which has a completely different kind of stone].

You also built rustic, Adirondack-style gazebos in Minnewaska and Roxbury.

We built those out of black locust and red cedar, which are very durable, natural and local species.

What’s one of the more unusual projects you’ve worked on, and what’s your geographical reach?

At Fallingwater, we redesigned and rebuilt many of the visitor access trails, which incorporated different views of the building. At historic sites, you’re there to experience the historic relevance, rather than natural beauty. We’ve also designed trails at Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, which is a Revolutionary War site. We work mostly in the Northeast, concentrated in New York State, although we have also worked as far away as the Virgin Islands.

Why did you name your company Tahawus Trails?

I founded the company while I was working in the Adirondacks. At the time, I thought our business would be based there. Tahawus is an Iroquois word that means “Cloudsplitter.” It was the name used by European settlers of the Adirondacks for the highest mountain in New York (which was later officially named Mount Marcy, after the 19th-century governor who commissioned a survey of the High Peaks).

Do you still do work in the Adirondacks?

Yes, we’re currently relocating some of the popular trails in the High Peaks. It’s an interesting challenge, where the goal is to keep the wilderness wild. It’s different at a place like Bear Mountain, where close to half a million people are using the Appalachian Trail [each year]. In the Adirondacks, masses of people are using the trails for a wilderness experience, and the trail has to be rugged. You don’t want a formal stairway. We’re entering into contract this year with the New York State Department of Conservation to work primarily on Cascade Mountain, which is the most-hiked trail in the High Peaks. We’re identifying the location of a new trail.

What’s the season for building trails?

March to Thanksgiving, though we try to work year-round. In winter we do migrate south. In the Virgin Islands we worked on a project for a private landowner. There were logistical problems, in that everything gets shipped in: all equipment, tools and materials. Most of us live in the Hudson Valley, and when we have the opportunity to work close to home, we really are proud of those opportunities and enjoy them. Trails we have connections to are our favorites.