The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 57: Reprise of 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. This week on The WildeBeat, A reprise of Volunteer Trail Crew.

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

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

This is program number fifty seven, a reprise of number ten.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

[Intro Music: 0:04.5 ends]

STEVE: The wilderness act prohibits almost all man-made structures in protected wilderness areas. But one of the structures is does permit is trails. When you're on a well maintained trail, do you ever wonder how it got that way?

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

STEVE: Keith Fields never thought about it, and neither did I. But from time-to-time I noticed announcements for trail maintenance trips. And I wondered, why would somebody spend their vacation on one of these trail crews?

So I tracked down a crew to find out. I went backpacking 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 isn't up 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 for 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 gathers their tools. They hike about a half mile to a steep section of trail they're replacing. The new section reroutes the steep trail over some more gradual switchbacks.

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

CAROL HALACY: 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.

KEN MURRAY: We see our role as assisting the professionals in getting the work done that needs to be done.

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

KEN MURRAY: 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: Without any powered equipment, the crew digs and fills to smooth the new trail section. They pry out car-tire-sized rocks with heavy steel bars. They pulverize some of those rocks with sledge hammers to make gravel trail beds. They dig shallow trenches backed by stone or wooden 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, I meet-up with the sawyer group. They're cutting some 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, cross-cut saw. Crew members take turns at the saw. Keith Fields is a long-time trail crew volunteer.

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: They keep sawing for more than an hour, and make two complete cuts through the tree. After they're through, five guys work together to 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, everyone is upbeat. They all seem to be having a great time. Ken Murray is proud of the difference they're making.

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 enormous 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 mood around camp is one of accomplishment, and contentment.

[Background 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.

This story was originally posted on September fifteenth, two thousand five.

[Closing Music: 0:10 and under]

Next time — The rim round Lake Tahoe.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

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

[Closing Music: ends.]

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