Saturday, July 20, 2024

This trail feels like a ‘different, beautiful world,’ and his job is to help keep it that way

Baker McCutcheon, Noland Trail technician, stands on one of the trail’s long bridges on Lake Maury in Newport News. (Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum).

NEWPORT NEWS — Not long after Baker McCutcheon traded his life as a teacher for a job as Noland Trail Technician, he got a giant assignment.

The entire wooded, winding 5-mile trail in Mariners’ Museum Park needed resurfacing. Ultimately, that would involve 500 tons of material — 200 of a clay/sand mixture, topped off by another 300 of stone dust for better cushioning and aesthetics.

McCutcheon and his grounds co-worker Josh Bailey moved it in with an all-terrain vehicle, a half ton at a time, but unloaded and spread it all manually.

“It was supposed to take two years, but we went all out and it took us less than a year,” McCutcheon says. “I was always kind of a big, physical dude, but I definitely lost some weight that summer.”

Maintaining the Noland Trail, a popular wildlife-filled path around the 167-acre Lake Maury in Newport News, is never a dull job for McCutcheon, who has the lead on the assignment with regular support from Bailey and their manager, Dave Kennedy.

That’s especially true when the museum showcases the trail during public events, and this year will have a big one: the Noland Trail Marathon and Relay, a new race scheduled for Oct. 14.

As of mid-April, 356 runners already had registered for what will be a total of 1,000 available spots. Museum staff expects the event to sell out quickly.

The trail is “a gem for local runners,” notes Jason Todd, president of Flat-Out Events, the company producing the race.

The inaugural marathon, part of a pirate-themed festival, will be “a signature event that we hope to have around for many years to come,” Todd adds.

McCutcheon, a 33-year-old graduate of Christopher Newport University, is happy to help runners enjoy the trail. Before starting at the museum in February 2017, the Midlothian native taught middle school math for nine years and was ready for a change of pace.

Always a lover of the outdoors, McCutcheon also grew up with a building contractor father who passed along his jack-of-all-trades skills.

Instead of kids, McCutcheon now shares his “office” with plenty of animals. That includes deer, foxes, possums, raccoons, owls, herons, ducks, geese and even a few wild turkeys.

“I had no idea what I was looking at the first time I saw one of those things,” McCutcheon recalls. “If they don’t spread their wings, they look like these weird bulbous creatures.”

Other than one gray goose that can be a bit testy on occasion, the Noland’s wildlife simply avoids or stares at humans.

About five or six times a year, the grounds crew has to remove a dead animal from the path, almost always a squirrel. They also must clear away debris such as fallen trees, big sticks, sweet gum tree balls, leaves, dog poop and trash.

People generally are good about not littering, although McCutcheon once discovered a “pretty nasty” used baby diaper.

Most weeks, McCutcheon and Bailey drive the length of the trail at least twice, on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons.

They check for obstructions, precariously hanging branches and clogs in the more than 100 trench drains built to limit erosion.

Those inspections take anywhere from 90 minutes to more than four hours if the weather has been windy or rainy.

About once a month, McCutcheon blows leaves off to the side of the trail, although that can increase to once a week in the fall.

The grounds team also repairs any wood damage on the trail’s 29 large and small bridges.

“It’s hard work, especially in the heat, but it’s really rewarding,” McCutcheon says. “The walkers and runners who pass by are very thankful. They love this place.”

The trail was dedicated in 1991 as a gift from the Noland family, which has offered ongoing financial support. The annual maintenance cost is about $200,000, drawn from a combination of public and private funding.

The museum often has assistance from volunteers, too. One man comes every couple of months to spray orange paint on protruding tree roots that can be tripping hazards – “blazing it up,” as the grounds crew calls it.

Youth and adult groups also help remove invasive ivy, tend to flowers and remove debris.

“The community takes a lot of ownership in the trail,” McCutcheon notes. “It really does feel like a different, beautiful world out there, and my job is to help preserve that.”

John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo ( is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.

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