As PJ Beaumont hands the leadership of trails and shelters maintenance over to Matt Vezina, here’s a profile of a past Co-ordinator of Trails and Shelters for our Bennington Section of the Green Mountain Club.
Hamilton doing trail work in snow, April 2020
Hamilton Topping studied forestry at Paul Smith’s College in upper New York state and, after working as a surveyor, took the New York state civil service exam, passed that and began his career as a forest ranger. He served most of his career in the Catskills region of New York State, living in Tannersville and raising two daughters there. His duties as a law enforcement officer included building trails, fire control, responding to calls of disorderly campers, search and rescue for missing persons, and recovery operations after plane crashes. Much of his work was solitary, with freedom to determine his own schedule and activities, but he was usually accompanied by his dog.
His first dog, Streak, came into his life when he was six years old and had just returned from the doctor after a cousin smashed Hamilton’s finger with a mallet. The puppy, given to him for comfort by his mother, hid under the buffet and the little boy, hurting, also crawled under the buffet with the frightened pup.
As an adult and serial dog-owner, Hamilton owned an Airedale (Hector), a husky (Aspen), and Sam, all large dogs that accompanied Ham in his forest ranger truck. One would not let an assistant into the truck to get the equipment Hamilton had asked him to get; the resourceful assistant resorted to simply opening the door and the dog jumped out to run and join Hamilton, letting the assistant easily obtain the equipment.
Working in the woods, the dogs were sometimes unable to resist chasing porcupines; the resulting removal of quills from the dog’s muzzle was always painful. But, even after enduring removal of a mouthful of quills, one dog stood quivering with indecision on seeing his next porcupine, finally unable to resist chasing it and getting a second mouthful of quills.
During his career as a forest ranger, Hamilton volunteered for numerous forest fires in the western US, serving as leader of a troop of men. Perhaps the most extreme incident occurred when he watched from a distance in horror as a huge tree fell directly on one of his men who had been unable to tell what direction the tree would fall. Rushing over, Hamilton and his men found that the man was uninjured, having fallen where a large rock protected him from certain death.
Later in his career, Hamilton was promoted to captain and accepted a position on Long Island, New York. There he supervised other rangers and, as a law enforcement officer, investigated reports of unauthorized activities such as burning without a permit and issued appropriate tickets. Earlier, in the Catskills, he had needed to approach a noisy and disorderly group of camping bikers. Approaching them alone but with his night stick, he realized the night stick might be turned against him so wisely turned and left the night stick in his truck, and dealt with them unarmed except with the authority of his words.
Always an outdoors man, he enjoyed hiking and canoeing. In his 40s, he took up running, joining an informal club and entering races, including five marathons (New York and London, England among them).
Late in his career, he took a leave of absence from work to through-hike the Appalachian Trail, starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia and hiking half the 2200-mile trail before a serious muscle tear forced him to leave the trail.
Besides running and hiking, Ham took up contra dancing at the urging of a colleague and later English Country dancing in New York City. At a dance weekend in New Jersey, he met Lorna Cheriton; their first dates were hiking, canoeing the Esopus Creek during spring flood, and contra dancing.
Hamilton took early retirement in 1994 after 34 years as a forest ranger. His first goal was completion of his Appalachian Trail hike. He and Lorna traveled to West Virginia and began the second half of the trail, hiking north through forests where hordes of gyspy moth larva, seeking cooling breezes, hung from the trees, nipping the skin of hikers who bumped into the dangling worms. Then through the Pennsylvania section, notorious for rocks standing on edge and making hikers’ feet very sore. After one fall, he lay on the ground, certain he had broken his wrist which would have ended his second attempt of the AT. Another time, a black-faced hornet flew into his forehead and stung, the pain almost making him pass out. One eerie occurrence was the darkening of the sky in mid-day; away from news, he had not known an eclipse was expected and could appreciate the mystery it had been to native Americans.
After standing atop Mount Katahdin in Maine in triumphant completion of the AT, Hamilton accepted an assignment in Guatemala with the Peace Corps to which he had applied before retiring. During his year living in the old colonial city of Antigua, he volunteered with the God’s Child Project, leading teams of American volunteers in building concrete floors in kitchens to protect crawling children from the parasites and infections so rampant in poor people’s dirt floors.
Returning to the US, Hamilton chose Bennington for its proximity to natural forest and because it was close enough to his aging parents for him to help them, without being so close that he would be always at their beck and call. He quickly became involved in the Bennington Section of the GMC, hiking, skiing, paddling, leading outings and doing trail work. Among the trips he led was the yearly and challenging cross-country ski to Heartwellville, until the route became impassible because of blowdowns from a hurricane.
Becoming Co-ordinator of Trails and Shelters for our Bennington Section of the Green Mountain Club, he planned and led spring and other trail maintenance projects. He continues to do trail work, to volunteer as a community member on Restorative Justice panels, has served as deacon and trustee at Second Congregational Church, and uses his 1996 truck to pick up vegetable donations from Mighty Food Farm and deliver them to the Kitchen Cupboard.
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