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Trailhead in sight

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HADLEY — On a sweltering late July day, Henry Kahan, 16, took a break from building a boardwalk for a trail through the forest in the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge in Hadley. He got a drink of water and relaxed in the shade with a group of six other young workers. Though hot and tired, he still grinned while describing the work he and his peers were doing.

Kahan, a student at Greenfield Community College, is returning to work on building this universally accessible trail for the second year in a row.

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing in the summertime,” said Kahan, of Shutesbury. “I like every person I work with and the work is satisfying because we are actually doing something that’s impacting the world in a positive way.”

Planned to open in October, the handicapped-accessible trail covers about 1.2 miles along the Fort River off Moody Bridge Road, winding through grasslands, wetlands and forest. Though only about a mile off the busy and loud Route 9, it feels as though it is secluded and natural, miles from developed malls and highways.

The trail is part of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, which is a 36,006-acre swath of protected land in the Connecticut River watershed area traversing four states. This project, long in the making, will help make this section of it open to all.

“There aren’t a lot of universally accessible trails,” said Andrew French, project leader at the refuge. “It makes areas available to those with mobility challenges, including parents and grandparents with strollers, all kinds of people.”

Built to be fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the trail is wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass each other, and also has siding, allowing for those who are visually impaired or those with canes to walk along it easily.

For French, the mission of building universally accessible trails is personal: After a motorcycle accident when he was young, he was in the hospital for eight months and in a wheelchair for six months, an experience that helped him understand the struggles of having mobility challenges.

The trail is being built by about 12 local youth each summer, who chose not to have traditional summer jobs in order to become a part of the Youth Conservation Corps, a program through the National Park Service, to work on the refuge.

There are also members of the Student Conservation Association stationed on the refuge for about 10 months out of the year. Along with these groups, community volunteers have been instrumental in the trail project, said Arthur McCollum, a private lands biologist on the refuge.

Over the past four years, these high school and college students have cleared the land — formerly the site of an old horse racing track — and laboriously built the trail. All the while, they learned skills such as carpentry, as well as how to build a trail like this while taking into account the habitats around the area.

The trail is built entirely aboveground, as it is on an important ecological site. It is made up mostly of gravel and stone dust, though it also has many boardwalks that allow wood turtles in the area to cross unhindered. Wood turtles are a species of concern in Massachusetts.

There are also seven overlooks built in to allow viewing of the many habitats on the land.

In addition to building the trail, said McCollum, the workers remove invasive aquatic plants, primarily water chestnuts, which can cause major issues in the ecosystem.

While most youth conservation workers noted that it was hard work to lift heavy gravel in sweltering heat, all said the rewards far outweighed any challenges they have faced.

“It is so rewarding to look back at the end of the day at where we started, and we have completed a whole boardwalk or part of the trail. It just feels great,” Kahan said.

It has also offered them new insights.

“This ADA-certified trail will allow people who can’t enjoy nature as much and can’t necessarily climb a mountain to at least be a part of nature and experience what we sometimes take for granted,” said Miguel Reda, 20, of Amherst, an assistant crew leader on the refuge.

Reda, who is studying forestry at the University of Vermont, said he is happy to have seen the project through from start to finish. “It’s definitely character-building,” he said.

The ultimate goal for French is fairly simple: “To build a high-quality nature and birding trail accessible to all.”

Funding for this project came from a combination of sources, include $250,000 worth of pressure-treated lumber from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, additional funding from the Fish and Wildlife Service, workers from the SCA and AmeriCorps, and from the Silvio O. Conte Refuge budget.

McCollum said he envisioned many different people coming to the trail, from avid birders, to painters hoping to capture the Holyoke range on their canvas, to families looking to enjoy a walk together.

“I think it’s a really neat opportunity, because we often think of wilderness as being miles and miles away, and this is kind of a nice example that you can have a natural area in your backyard,” he said.

Meanwhile, during the week of July 7, about 60 Youth Conservation Corps and Student Conservation Association workers from all over the refuge converged at the Hadley trail for “spike camp,” when they all camped on the land and worked to get as much done on the trail as possible.

The presence of so many young people with so much energy created an industrious but fun feel to the work site. McCollum figured the extra help pushed the project to being about 97 percent finished. The volunteers expressed an excitement about the work and a sense of pride in the sections that they had done themselves.

“I’m super-psyched because I started out when the trail was barely walkable by one person, and hopefully by the end of this year it will be fully completed,” said Reda.

He’s worked on the trail since the beginning, and noted that he is especially excited “to be able to bring friends and family out here. My grandma is in a wheelchair now, so it will be nice to be able to bring her out here.”

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