I just participated in my first PCTA volunteer trail crew project!
Volunteering is something that I always feel like I should be doing more of, but finding projects that I really connect with is more challenging – many projects require consistent time commitments, or feature skills that aren’t necessarily in line with my strengths. And while I could probably find software development related projects to volunteer for, I’d rather do something less related to the day job, so it feels like a break.
Enter: Trail Maintenance!
The year I hiked the PCT, there was an epic blowdown near Mammoth Lakes, CA – thousands of trees fell onto the PCT, and early season hikers had to consider detours or road walks to continue their hikes because the trail was completely blocked by trees. By the time I walked through the trail was nearly clear, thanks in large part to the volunteer trail crews who partner with the PCTA and National Forest Service to keep the PCT in the best possible condition. I got to thank a couple of trail crews in person in that section, and met several other volunteer crews along the trail; I also walked through a number of sections that really needed some love!
Walking through the Sierras, I became fascinated by the engineering aspects of trail construction, thinking about how much effort it took to build such elaborate trails through such rugged mountains, and inspired by the monument for a fallen worker on the climb up the south side of Forester Pass (the highest point on the PCT, at over 13,000 feet). For these reasons, volunteering for trail maintenance projects through organizations like the PCTA and WTA feels like a natural fit for me.
This past weekend, I worked on a 2-day project at White Pass in southern Washington (just north of the Goat Rocks Wilderness, one of my favorite stretches of trail!). The trail crew convened on Saturday morning at the forest service campground on the north side of highway 12, where we car-camped on Saturday evening.
We began the day with introductions, a safety briefing and tool demonstration, and an overview of our goals for the weekend. For this project we would be working close to the trailhead, not more than a mile up-trail, improving drainage and trail tread to prevent erosion and improve hiker and equestrian experience.
Over the course of the weekend, I learned to swing an axe properly, design a drainage dip, and install a check step. I got to scout the trail with Dana, our crew leader and the PCTA’s regional representative for Northern Oregon / Southern Washington, learning how to view the trail through the eyes of a trail builder rather than just a hiker. On Sunday, I got to help select a tree to fell for our check steps, learn how to use a cross-cut saw and make a face cut, explore strategies for dealing with a tree that gets hung up in the canopy instead of falling as expected (a useful lesson, but one that we would have rather not experienced!), and experience the joys of stripping cedar bark.
I also got to work and hang out with some really cool people – I talked with a retired nurse who volunteers regularly for the Washington Trails Association and on the Burke-Gilman bicycle trail (and learned that on week-long backcountry projects, you get to do cool things like build bridges – I love trail bridges!), swapped stories of elk encounters and weird trail food combinations with other long-distance hikers, and answered questions about thru-hiking the PCT for an enthusiastic audience.
Interested in volunteering for a trail maintenance project? It’s a great way to spend time on the trails, learn new things, and meet great people. Head over to the New Volunteer page on the PCTA site (or contact a trail organization near you) and check it out!