On Building a Bridge

 

Man next to half-constructed bridge
Drew standing by the new bridge frame

By the time our bridge was near completion, with its skeletal wooden frame arching over the stream, Niko turned to me and said he wished we had time lapsed the whole progresses from a single vantage point, so we could have some sort of documentation from demolition to driving the Gator, our trail vehicle, across its deck. I knew what he was imagining: a flashy go-pro video that sped up and slowed down to the exciting “we are building a bridge” music put in the background.

 It was a Friday near the end of June and the Hopkins Memorial Forest Summer Crew – Drew, the manager; Niko and I, the forest caretakers; and Gabo and Jude, the Williamstown trail crew and our borrowed strong men – had spent the better part of the last week and a half either demolishing, rebuilding, or thinking about  a beam supported foot bridge on the upper loop trail.

Gabo, Jude, and Niko lifting the ramp

The Hopkins Memorial Forest is the home to the Birch Brook Watershed, a series of streams that web across the forest, so it is also the home to a series of bridges that cross those streams.  We know a lot of information about this watershed, thanks to decades of water flow and chemical analysis by the US Forest Department and Williams College, and there has been a lot of interesting writing and thinking about it (for some of that visit our “Data” section of the website!), but not a lot of writing or thinking about getting over it.

Bridge in forest
The Finished Product!

Silently over the years, however, like clockwork, generations of caretakers and managers have constructed, maintained, and replaced the many bridges in the Hopkins Memorial Forest. I’ve hiked and driven the trails in HMF many times over and haven’t given a thought about these bridges or bridges in general until I started working on one of them. As a prospective English/Envi major who got very confused by the basic engineering I learned in 8th grade science, I would actually say I actively chose not to think about bridges. Now, I can say with complete honesty, that I have given these bridges and all bridges a lot of thoughts and you know what, I was better off not thinking about them.

Men huddled around bridge
Gabo, Jude, and Niko leveling the bridge

You see, the key thing I have learned is that bridge building is nothing like a flashy go-pro video that sped up and slowed down to the exciting “we are building a bridge” music put in the background. In fact, bridge building is as tedious as reading a blog post entirely devoted to a footbridge is. I tried very hard to write a humorous piece about the whole process, but honestly building a bridge is a pretty boring and entirely disappointing process. If I broke down the components of our work, “standing around and staring at the bridge (or lack thereof)” would easily take first in time allotment, followed by “offering thoughts on how level a beam is,” and “figuring out how to transport three 500 pound logs to the middle of a forest,” (the irony of the fact that, in a forest, we were surrounded by 500 pound logs, was not lost on me). There was also a fair amount of digging, getting drill bits stuck in wood, and sawing the edges so they look pretty. My favorite parts – the demolition of the old bridge, using power tools, and watching the others struggle to move the logs into position while I directed traffic and took pictures –, however, took minimal time. 

Men with tools
Niko and Drew placing stabilizers

There are a lot of sayings about bridges. Most people have heard one that goes like “build bridges not walls” but a brief internet search (I recommend the website “BrainyQuote”) offers hundreds of others. One that I have heard most recently has been Drew chiming that this summer was the “summer of bridges.” I guess that isn’t really a saying, it’s just a fact (we worked on two more than most summer caretakers do). Since I have not only successfully built a bridge, but photographed the process and wrote a couple pages single spaced about it, I thought I would add some pearls of wisdom to the mix. I hope they end up like inspirational posters. 

Half-constructed bridge
Niko aligning the decking

1-   “Building a bridge is more about thinking about how to build a bridge than actually building the bridge.” 

 

2-   “Next time you walk over a bridge, thank the people that built it because without them you would be walking in water.” 

Two guys demolishing bridge
Niko and Gabo demolishing the old bridge

3-    “Demolishing a bridge is much more fun than building one.” 

 

– Alice-Henry Carnell, 2019 Summer Caretaker, Williams 2022