The Summer I Learned To Build Trails


Why do people carry 4-pound tools miles up a mountain to bust their butts on a day off? I’m not sure; I haven’t asked the others. As for myself, I learned of the trail work Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness coordinate after hiking Big Eddy trail #999 (to Star Peak) last year. Seeing what a gorgeous realignment they had realized, I made myself promise to help out as a sign of appreciation. Donating money would have worked, but I didn’t have any.

So I thought I’d help build trail for one or two days, but ended up joining nearly every project. Turns out all those years in the elementary school sandbox were helpful after all.

Never thought learning to use a pick-mattock, loppers, Silky, crosscut and combi would be so invigorating. Being naturally inquisitive there was an opportunity to learn how a trail is designed, techniques to create a switchback, understand why those trees died and how to move them. There was a 3-day trail work excursion to Spar Peak, which I wrote an account of here. Each workday the soil was different; we dealt with large rocks, roots tangled in an impermeable maze and loose dirt. Our days in the forest included spotting goshawk, a bear, intriguing insects, exchanging food gifts and the promise of roaring laughter. Obviously, trail work is also a great workout. Like CrossFit, but more fun.

Born terribly clumsy, I was never able to shake the odd sense that my limbs are shorter and more flexible than they truly are. Adding a pick-mattock (my tool of preference) to this psychological defect might not create the healthiest situation. It’s true—I have countless times banged myself in the shins or lost my balance, ending up in thorn bushes; returning home looking as if I’d gotten into a bar fight. In summer I wear a lot of dresses, so the damage is obvious, and just as one day’s work damage has slowly healed over two weeks’ time, the next trail day comes up and the cycle starts all over again. My office is next to that of FSPW and because everyone understands the work I’m doing, I proudly wear my cuts, bruises and scars to work.

The ages of these doubtlessly deranged folks who build trails in blistering heat or pouring rain run from 20 to 77. I met a botanist, a filmmaker, US Forest Service workers and I’m a 29-year-old Dutch marketing director with a casual passion for birds. Everyone is welcome and any effort is appreciated. Lindsey Ashton (20), the summer intern from Missoula, became known for building the most perfect tread, displaying curious driving skills and somehow looking as if she’d been intentionally rolling in the dirt after about 5 minutes. Phil Degens (77) made me realize I’m not as tough as I think, after passing me seemingly effortlessly on the steepest trail of North Idaho (#135 to Goat Mountain). Handsome Brad Smith from Idaho Conservation League led a day of crosscutting and evidently works his crew pretty hard, as we returned with a busted axe handle and a new saw missing one tooth.

Though wildly panting from exertion prohibited me from speaking during most of the work, conversation ranged from sharing secret campsites to chem. trails, to crazy outdoor experiences and musings on life after death. We giggled a lot and about every hour someone would rise, looking around mildly puzzled, consider what they’re doing and declare “I’m not getting paid enough for this”. But you know what? That cold beer that’s waiting back at the trailhead is worth 50 bucks after a day like that, and I can’t describe the satisfaction of being the first to walk a stretch of virgin tread.

I had never stopped to think how all these trails came to be as I’d been joyfully bumbling along them for years. Now I understand what it takes and hiking will never be the same again. So come on, join us for a day or two in the summer of 2017. You will not regret it.

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Categories: North AmericaTags: , , ,

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