I’ve hiked many years in the Cascades and have been a member of the Washington Trail Association for just as long. I happily paid my dues every year and felt warm and fuzzy about helping out my local trail maintenance organization. I’ve belted out, “Thank you, WTA!” while hiking through a trail team’s working area many times and took pride in knowing that I was helping them out through my donations. But deep down I had that feeling that I should be doing more. Besides, I’m an engineer, and I always wondered how they build the trails and bridges and how on earth did they build those giant rock steps? So this year I decided I would find out and volunteer for trail work. And not only that, but I was going to earn my very own hard hat by joining in five outings.
Lesson 1: Breaking Trail
There are many ferns in the forest.
I thought it would be fitting to break new trail on my first outing with the WTA so I signed up to work on a brand new trail that wasn’t open to the public yet, a new section of the Grand Ridge trail. I would learn the basics of trail building from the very beginning. I showed up that first morning with a spring in my step and found a spot in the circle of a motley crew. There were burly men, old ladies and teenagers that looked like they had better things to do than trail work early on a Saturday morning. I smiled and put on my gloves and hard hat as the crew leader started their briefing. For the first time I heard the WTA’s mantra: “Be safe, get some work done, and have fun.” That seemed easy enough.
Next it was on to the tools. I recognized the shovels and clippers among the piles, but the rest looked like mutants from some kind of hardware freak show. There was the Pulaski, a combination of an ax and a hoe named after the famous fire fighter who invented it. There was the McLeod, also a fire fighting tool that resembled a giant rake with a scrapy side. Even the shovels were modified from the garden variety to perform better on the trails. Then I learned how all those tools get to the work site a mile down the trail: you carry them of course. Now that I was acquainted with the gear, it was time to get to work.
I was assigned a section of “trail” that was not really trail yet. It was cleared of the major obstacles, but it needed some additional work to make it real trail. I was instructed to dig down and remove all the nice dark loamy soil, the stuff that you would kill to have in your garden, and get to the harder, rockier sub soil that would give the trail a solid base. You know you got there when the soil turned a light brown color. So I dug and I scraped and I leveled and I dug some more.
The crew leader came by and said it looked great, except that I should get rid of a sword fern that was just off the trail. I looked at her like she had three heads. What do you mean get rid of the fern? She said to dig around it and pick it up and put it off to the side. They may be able to replant it later. It felt so wrong to dig up a wild fern that was almost as tall as myself and minding it’s own business. But this was trail building and building trail means digging up perfectly happy ferns and other plant life for that matter. So I did it. I struggled for a long time trying to dig up that huge fern and by the time I finally got it out of the ground I was cursing the thing. So this is trail building… I like it.
Lesson 2: Breaking Trail in the Rain
Get better rain gear.
A month later I signed up for another work day, this time at Tiger Mountain. When I saw that the weather prediction was rain I was kind of happy. After all, I didn’t want to waste a good weather day on trail work. And like all Pacific Northwesterners, I knew full well that a little rain never hurt anybody. So I put on my boots and rain jacket and headed to the trail. I was incredibly sore after my last outing but it was a good sore. It felt good to break trail and I wanted to do it some more. So I volunteered to work on re-routing a section of trail. This time we were starting from scratch with only a few orange flags showing where the trail would be. We moved sticks, logs and rocks out of the way by flinging them as far off trail as possible. And I got rid of ferns, many ferns, and every one of them was easier than the last. I was catching on.
It was raining while we worked, but the forecast didn’t call for much so we assumed it would taper off any minute. I wasn’t as prepared for the rain as I should have been. I forgot my backpack cover and I was wearing non-waterproof boots with running pants. My gloves were soaked through and they sloshed as I shoveled. I was getting tired but every time I stopped to take a break I was instantly chilled. So I dug and I scraped and I leveled and I dug some more. We skipped lunch on account of the rain and by the time we called it quits I was totally beat. The rain never quit. It only rained harder and I was miserable. I envied the people shedding their rain pants before getting into their cars. My pants were soaked through with a slick layer of mud on the entire front of my body. My boots were so thick with mud I couldn’t see the laces. I tried not to touch anything in the car on the way home. When I got home I took a long, hot bath and the next day I hung up my muddy clothes and sprayed them down with the hose. I decided I must get rain pants.
Lesson 3: Building Bridges
Measure twice, or thrice, or four times. Cut once.
On my next outing I smartened up a bit and volunteered for a more interesting job. Breaking trail is great and all, but it’s back-breaking work and I began to realize that the more seasoned green hats were volunteering for the special projects. So when the crew leader, Jen, asked me if I wanted to try something new, I jumped at the chance to build a bridge. I was so looking forward to not using a shovel or grub hoe and I would get to learn about bridge building. The goal for the day was to attach the stringers (the longest boards that run the span of the bridge) to the bulkheads (the ends of the bridge).
The large bridge stringers were already near the bridge location but we had to move one to it’s proper place across the creek. Eight of us lined up on either side of the board and used straps to lift the stringer and move it to it’s new home. We would be working with Pete, a long time trail worker and bridge builder, and his daughter Jane. Pete was a great bridge builder because he knew what he was doing and he meticulously checked and rechecked everything before drilling holes for the fasteners. We lined up the bulkheads and made sure everything was square at least four times. Then every time something was a tiny bit off we would start all over again. By the end of the day Jane was beginning to lose her patience with her dad checking and re-checking, but by golly that bridge is as square as square can be.
Lesson 4: Zip Line
Always volunteer for the zip line.
On my next outing at Franklin Falls I volunteered to work the zip line. It was my favorite day of trail work yet. Near our section of trail there is a road and a large pile of gravel was dumped there to use on this busy trail. The road was above the trail on a steep slope so the best way to get the gravel down to the trail was via a zip line in buckets. It was a dual zip line. The first line got the buckets down the steep slope and the next line carried it even farther down the trail. Two of us were stationed at the confluence of the two lines to transfer the buckets from one line to the other.
We worked together at unclipping the buckets and clipping them onto the next rope. It required lifting the full buckets up so that the handles were at head height. We quickly got into a rhythm even though we frequently had to stop to let hikers go by. While transferring the buckets, I used the tops of my thighs as leverage and the edges of the bucket dug into my skin each time. I had so many tiny bruises on my legs that I couldn’t wear a skirt for a week. It sounds crazy, but I was so proud of those bruises.
Lesson 5: Building Rock Steps
It takes a team to move mountains.
My most recent trip was to Annette Lake where I finally got to learn how they make those lovely giant rock steps. Like most things with trail work, it takes a team to do the heavy lifting. We scoured the surrounding areas for large boulders that have a nice flat side then we used a rock bar or our feet to roll them to the trail. If the rock was too heavy to roll we would use a rock net with straps that allow several people to lift the rock at once. These rocks are incredibly heavy and I was amazed at how some of the volunteers could pick them up and roll them by themselves.
Once the big rocks were in place and level we filled in around them with smaller rocks and dirt. It took us all day to get just two large rocks into place. Hikers stopped and thanked us and marveled at the steps. I was proud to be on the other side of the trail now, on the working side, and now with my very own green hat. I’ve learned so much since I first dug up that fern at Grand Ridge back in February. Mostly I’ve learned how much work and care goes into making these trails. Someone took the time and did the work to make every single foot of trail and I know that I will never look at a stretch of tread, bridge or rock steps the same way again. I still have so much to learn and I am just getting started. I look forward to getting some more dirt on my fresh green hat.
Bonus Camp Read!
Dirt Work by Christine Byl
After graduating from college, Christine decided she wanted an outdoor job. Intent on avoiding the typical 9-5, she wanted a job that was physically demanding and a worthy cause. She decided to work for the Forest Service as a trail worker. As you can imagine this is not a job typical for a young woman and Christine does not shy away from the complexities of being an anomaly in this industry. In true literary fashion (she is a book loving philosopher) she starts each chapter off with an ode to a trail tool. The book is a collection of vignettes of her work over the years from Glacier NP to Denali that come together to create a rich and full story of the unconventional life of a trail dog. Anyone who has volunteered on the trail will appreciate her struggles and triumphs on the trails. I hope this book inspires you, like it did me, to get out and volunteer on your favorite trails.
Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack? Backpack
Take this with you on your backcountry response trip with your local trail maintenance organization. You will be certain to find a kindred spirit in this book.