With all the hiking I do, I often find myself wondering about the trails beneath my feet: “How did they get this trail all the way out here?!” Which is why, when I stumbled upon a trail maintenance “volunteer vacation,” I didn’t hesitate to sign up for sake of getting even a little bit of insight. Plus, it would be an excuse to get more backpacking experience, give back to the trails, and maybe make some friends with similar interests. It was clear why I wanted to sign up, but I had no idea what to actually expect from a week of volunteering in the woods--with a bunch of people I’ve never met before, no less.
The project was organized and funded by the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). As a side note, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, or PCT, is a 2,650 mile long trail that runs from the border of Mexico, through California, Oregon, and Washington, and ending at the Canadian border.
Pictured: a meadow alongside the scenic PCT in the Indian Heaven Wilderness
There were two project leaders, Justin and Wes, who were experienced and employed by the PCTA. It was up to them to facilitate the work that needed to be done by the group, as well as to plan out meals and acquire all the necessary foodstuffs, kitchen supplies, and so forth (they did a great job). We had the luxury of using pack mules and horses to pack in/out our tools and kitchen setup, so we were camping rather glamorously… aka “glamping.”
On the first day of the volunteer project, we met at the East Crater Trailhead outside of the Indian Heaven Wilderness area in Washington. While waiting for the packers to load up the group’s supplies, the volunteers made their introductions and readied their personal packs. There were seven volunteers in total; most were quite a bit higher in age than me—and most were from around here, but we had a few fellows from Mexico and Alberta, as well as a girl who just moved here from the east coast.
Our leaders went over some basic safety info with us, then we only had a ~2 mile hike uphill to the place where we would be stationed all week. Immediately upon reaching our “base” at Junction Lake, everybody pitched in to set up the big kitchen tent, filter water from the lake, create a handwashing station, and dig a community latrine (i.e. toilet) and sump hole (for dumping dirty water, etc). When the communal areas were set up, we all got to scatter and find a place to pitch our own tents in the forest or around the lake. Then, like every day to come, several people took turns cooking everybody’s dinner or doing dishes.
Pictured: wild, freshly harvested mushrooms being prepped for dinner
The real work began on Day 2. We split up into groups with two tasks: maintaining trail tread so water runoff doesn’t pool up or erode the trail; and felling a couple of trees with a crosscut saw (trees of which would later be debarked with a drawknife, cut to size, and laid into the ground to create turnpikes, or passageways that guide water under the trail). We were working in a protected Wilderness area of the National Forest, so we had to source wood from the area and be especially careful not to leave the area looking like a big work crew had just swept through.
We also made sure to put the “vacation” in our Volunteer Vacation: at lunch time, we found a sunny meadow to sprawl out in; after our day of work, there was often enough time to hike a few miles out, hunt for wild mushrooms, jump in some lakes, or just lie around your own campsite if that’s what you fancied. Mid-week, we got a free day to ourselves. After dinner every night, the group sat around a campfire--telling stories of adventures, cracking jokes you might only understand if you’ve spent a lot of time in the woods, and asking the group questions like, “What’s the coolest wildlife sighting you’ve had?” or “How did you get into hiking and camping?”
Pictured: lunchtime was spent sunbathing in a meadow.
Sometimes, people show up for these week long trips unprepared for what they’re getting themselves into—potentially extreme changes in temperature; strenuous hiking and hard work; little to no real amenities or luxuries available—but this time, we got a great batch of people with varying degrees of backcountry experience. Everybody stayed in high spirits, took care of themselves well, and got along pretty well throughout the week. We had a lot of fun, and we were productive with our trail work to boot!
On Days 3 and 4, we completed the turnpikes. We quickly realized that we could crank out turnpikes as a group in a surprisingly short amount of time. A few people dug trenches on each side of the trail to hold the recently felled, debarked logs, and the rest of the group took turns hiking up to hidden “borrow pits” with buckets, where we sourced soil and cinder. Then we laid the culverts into the drainage spots, laid the logs into their trenches, then filled and tamped (packed down) the pathway with soil and a final layer of cinder.
Pictured: the arduous process of debarking a log with a drawknife (above); a turnpike getting its finishing touches (below)
Although I had few expectations going into this trip, it went a lot better than whatever I was expecting (I admit, I had my uncertainties starting out). I write this article because I’m comfortable encouraging other outdoor enthusiasts to give back to the trails by means of a PCTA volunteer project. The communal aspects (e.g. food & kitchen features) were well thought out; the work was intimidating at first but revealed itself to be relatively easy and straightforward (albeit labor intensive as one might expect); and it was indeed a great way to meet people from many walks of life with the same passion for backcountry adventures. All in all, it was a rewarding, educational and fun experience—I will do it again next year!
If you’re interested in volunteering for the PCTA, more info can be obtained here: http://www.pcta.org/volunteer/
Pictured: the crew (above); our big kitchen tent beneath the stars & a full moon (below)