Trailbuilders hard at work reconstructing stairs into Niagara Gorge


NIAGARA FALLS — The hand sledge rhythm is slow and deliberate, the strokes practiced and controlled. Slowly the big rocks become small. The river roars in the background.

Tido has been at this section of wall for a few days now, first building a dry-stacked retaining wall along the Whirlpool State Park stairs, then moving on to back fill.

Backfill sounds easy until you think “whack, whack, whack” for hours with no end in sight, safely guarded by glasses and ear protection. The section of wall is maybe 2-feet high and 4-feet long or so. The work has an almost Zen feel.

“Tido” is a trail name Tom Schafer uses on his work for Tahawus Trails LLC where Partner Tom Kindling is in charge of the $1.433 million restoration of the lower half of the Whirlpool stairs. A similar crew rebuilt the top end in 2016.

“The whole trail was sliding downhill,” Kindling explained. “Everything is so steep. We see a lot of birds and notice the river changing.”

There is no easy way to move the 800 to 1,000 pound quartz conglomerate slabs into place. In another location, trees would give a leverage advantage for heavy lifting.

Here, it is a different situation. The ancient cedars on the hillside maybe lithe but they deserve respect rather than the work of bracing half-ton rocks.

Instead, the crews put in place a highline of steel cable, braced with tripods, straps and winches. They use the system (and gravity) to get the rocks close to where they need to be.

There are 6 highlines set from top to bottom. Each is winched tight and then used to brace, push, slide and roll the slabs into place with rockbars, rollers, branches and cribbing. So much leverage, so many triangles in one place would make Archimedes and Pythagorus proud.

“A lot of these things are incorporated from mining, logging and sailing,” Kindling said, pointing to a brace rapped in a belay line. “It is a lot of problem solving and at this point, a lot of tricks.”

The trail was initially built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and was rebuilt in the 1960s.

“A lot of the existing work is mortared,” Kindling said, “so they must have brought concrete in.”

The crew tries to replace dry stack construction (most of the 60s work) with more dry stack and will repair mortared work (from the CCC) when necessary.

Erin Amadon has been on the job as a professional trailbuilder for more than 20 years. On this day she was working alone, lower on the stairs.

“I’ve been doing a little bit of everything,” she said, leaning on a rockbar, “working on some bunks, moving some stone down.”

Female trailbuilders aren’t that uncommon. Much of the work, as much as it might appear based on brawn, is grounded in technique and leverage. Amadon said she recently visited a professional trailbuilders conference and was heartened to see 33 females in one session.

For her, it’s hard to figure out what’s most fascinating.

“Seeing the plants and the nature, seeing the biology and the old work,” she said, “how they did it. I like the geodes and the fossils when you bust a rock open. We put them in behind.”

Tido waxed philosophical about things.

“Every place has its own magic,” he said. “This place is beautiful.”

Weather can be a constant battle.

“We’ve lucked out so far this spring,” Kindling said. “The first week we had rain and snow but now we have t-shirt weather. We cross our fingers.”

Of course, Kindling said that before the weather turned earlier this week. Rain, snow or sleet, however, the workers were there, slowly, deliberately building what should last a century or more. They will be here, living in rented housing, with Diesel the lab mix standing guard, until sometime in late June/early July, depending on progress.