The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 10: Volunteer Trail Crew

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

These people have more fun building the trails, than some of us do hiking on them. Listen next, as we join a volunteer trail crew, on The WildeBeat.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number ten.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

[Intro Music: 0:04.5 ends]

STEVE: When you're traveling in the wilderness, do you ever stop to consider how the trail got there?

KEITH FIELDS: All the years that I went hiking, I never really thought about how the logs got cut, or how the trails were built. I assumed that there was a Forest Service crew that came up here daily, and just tidied everything up.

STEVE: Like Keith Fields, I didn't think about it either. But when I noticed trail maintenance trips listed in newsletters and calendars of various groups, the question came to my mind, why would somebody join a trail crew?

So I joined such a crew to find out. I backpacked-in seven miles over a nine thousand foot pass to meet the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew. I found them at their week-long base camp in California's Sequoia National Forest.

[Location sound, breakfast]

It's morning. The sun hasn't risen over the mountains yet, but the camp is already lively.

STEVE: So what are you feeding guys this morning, Norm?

NORM ALLINGTON: This morning we're going to have scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, coffee. Would you like a cup of coffee sir?

STEVE: Well, I think I'll take some hot water for tea...


[Location sound, background]

STEVE: Ken Murray, says that good food is one of the perks that attract trail crew members.

KEN MURRAY: I've been backpacking for forty five years, and I've never eaten food in the backcountry like we have on our trips. It's really what you would consider front country food -- fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats of various kinds -- and everybody eats well.

STEVE: Finishing breakfast by the campfire, crew leader Catherine Sayers runs down the day's goals.

CATHERINE SAYERS: We're gonna send out one saw crew, who's going to be training — Tony's going to lead that one and he's going to be training Ken for his sawyer's certification as well as taking out as many trees as we can get. And then the rest of us are going to go work on the trail and try to really make the connections to the old trail really clear and visible so that people can start using it. That's our goal for the day!

[Background: Digging]

STEVE: After breakfast, the crew members gather up their tools, and hike about a half mile to a steep trail section they're replacing with a new, switchback re-route.

Sequoia National Forest ranger Carol Hallacy says that she only has one member of her staff dedicated to this kind of maintenance work.

CAROL HALLACY: We utilize the volunteer trail crew to do the majority of our trail maintenance in the wilderness areas. There'd be so many trees down across the trails up here if they weren't doing this for us.

The weekend crew there's usually about fifty people; forty of those would work two eight-hour days. And then the backpack crew is usually around fifteen, and they work around seven full eight-hour days.

STEVE: Ken Murray is the Public Information and Education Director for the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew.

KEN MURRAY: We see our role as assisting the professionals in getting the work done that needs to be done. We don't substitute for something that they would be doing otherwise. So what we're really doing is we're stepping in and providing help in areas where the forest service would simply not be able to do anything at all.

KARL KRAMER: [background] Want to smack rock Thom? Go ahead...

STEVE: With ordinary shovels, the crew digs and fills to smooth the new trail section. They pry out car-tire-sized rocks with large steel bars. They pulverize some of those rocks with sledge hammers to make gravel trail beds. They dig shallow trenches backed by stone or log dams, called water bars, to prevent trail erosion.

Karl Kramer leads one of the teams.

KARL KRAMER: Doesn't go very fast, does it?

STEVE: When you're doing a reroute like this, how many feet or yards of trail do you say you do on a week-long trip like this?

KARL KRAMER: Ahh, you know this is not the average, you know, we're probably adding a half a mile of trail here.

[Background: footsteps]

STEVE: Another half mile past the new trail section, near the top of the pass, the sawyer group are removing dead trees which have fallen across the trail.

ANTHONY CORTEZ: At this point normally we talk about an escape route. We're early on in the cut, so nothing's going to happen. But as we get deeper into the first or second cut, you know, things might shift or things might roll...

KEITH FIELDS: I'm on the downhill side, so I just plan on running this way...

ANTHONY CORTEZ: A forty-five degree angle either way for Keith.

All right. Saw away, guys!

[Background: Sawing clip]

STEVE: This fallen tree trunk is nearly a yard in diameter. Two men alternate pulling on either end of a seven foot long, one hundred year-old, bow saw. Crew members take turns at the saw.

Keith Fields, a long-time trail crew volunteer, says trail crew members take a lot of pride in the work that they do.

KEITH FIELDS: I see that tree and if I'm up here with my wife or friends I say, "I cut that tree." Or we'll always remember the hard work that went into it. But I get a tremendous burst of pride when I see a trail that we've worked on.

STEVE: It takes more than an hour of sawing to make both cuts through this tree. After they're through, the coordinated muscle of five guys push the freshly cut log off the trail.

KEN MURRAY: So let's go... One... Yeah, nice and easy! A little rotation. Watch the staubs, and there we are, just like it belongs there.

CREW: Nice job!

[Background: Evening campfire]

STEVE: At the end of the work day, back in camp, these trail crew volunteers, are overwhelmingly positive about their experience. Ken Murray is proud that they're making a difference.

KEN MURRAY: Our group and other similar types of groups will increasingly have opportunities to take over more responsibilities in the forests. There's no doubt about the fact that we are having an enourmous impact on the forests in which we work, in providing protection of streams and wildlife in the area, by maintaining the trails we concentrate impact in certain areas, we remove impact from other areas, and we are certainly restoring the forest to a more pristine state.

STEVE: Keith Fields appreciates the camaraderie that develops through the teamwork.

KEITH FIELDS: I was really amazed that we could go out and just be totally dead-tired, and drag into camp nearly exhausted, and everybody is almost high — it's like a high feeling. We're laughing and cracking up and telling inappropriate jokes, and watching the food cook over the open fire. That was the biggest surprise for me, that you could be exhausted and not have to fall back into your tent into immediate slumber, but enjoy the festivities we have at night.

STEVE: But the day finally ends, and the camp falls quiet. And the feeling is one of accomplishment, and contentment.

[Backgound fades out]

You can find out more about the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, see pictures of them at work, and download a special high quality stereo version of this show, on our web site. To find out about trail work opportunities in your nearby forests, contact the headquarters of your local National Forest.

[Closing music, under]

Next time — What's it like to be a backcountry ranger?

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Future editions of The Wildebeat depend on your news contributions, and on your financial support. Please see our website for details.

This has been The Wildebeat, program number ten. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

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