“Make it better.”
Three memorable words written on a note from Matt Brownlee, Trails Manager for the USFS. These three words describe the unrelenting hunger to nurture the Western States Trail, and have become my mantra for running the trail stewardship program since 2014.
Beginning in the early 1990’s, trail stewardship for the Western States 100 has been imperative to the success of the race. Maintaining and repairing the trail requires an enormous amount of hard work and expertise. The trail travels through remote areas, mountainous terrain, deep canyons and creek crossings, and is regularly impacted by fire and winter storms.00
A group of dedicated and passionate trail stewards and volunteers have spent thousands of hours working on the trail, spilling blood, sweat and tears while developing the many skills required to properly build and maintain trails in extreme terrain. Acquisition of saws, hand tools and safety equipment, organization of their storage and maintenance at the warehouse facility, loading and unloading of tools for events and leadership of groups on event days are a small part of what our tireless trail stewards do year after year. As the Western States Trail Manager, I could not do my job without the small core team who helps me with these tasks.
In a typical year there are approximately 8-10 trail work days during which our stewards and up to 30+ trail volunteers form a work crew that takes on trail repair or maintenance projects on a specific section of the trail. Such days start at 8am and the work continues until late afternoon. The day flies by and the crew is often disappointed that they can’t work longer and do more on that day. Every day is different – our goal is to proactively maintain the trail so that it can withstand intense rain without water damage, or so that downed trees as a result of disease or storms are safely removed from the trail by the saw team. But inevitably we are reacting to the ravages of fire and storms that have literally rendered the trail impassible in some sections, particularly in the higher elevations. In recent years this has intensified and the scope and complexity of trail (and bridge) repairs has only increased.
Through the experience and leadership of folks like the USFS and myself, each event is an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of trail maintenance and repairs in the field. Drainage systems are built or enhanced, allowing for proper runoff during heavy rains. Hinge work and improvements to the overall slope and grade of the trail are implemented, once again to improve the trail tread for water to travel across the soil with minimum erosion. In areas affected by fire, tree canopy has been replaced by sunlight, inviting non-native species to thrive. Removal of these plants is necessary to encourage native species to return, and to stem the threat of more wildfire. Preservation of historical areas and overall uniqueness of an area are vital to maintenance plans. Such trail prescriptives are put into place long before the organized work parties gather.
Tools of the trade include:
McLeod: A heavy-duty rake on one side and a large hoe on the other. This tool works well for constructing trails through light soils and vegetation, or for reestablishing tread when material from the backslope sloughs onto the trail. It’s also great for compacting tread and is helpful for checking out slope, allowing water to sheet across the trail, rather than down it.
Mattock: This is a standard tool for trail work. It has a pointed tip for breaking rocks and a grubbing blade for working softer materials, as well as cutting roots and removing small stumps.
Pulaski: This tool is both an axe on one side and a hoe for grubbing on the other.
Rock bar: A heavy tool used for lifting or skidding large, heavy rocks or other objects, typically called quarrying. These are only used when heavy armoring for stream crossings or eroded areas is needed.
Single and double jacks: These tools, made from high-treated carbon steel, are used for crushing rock necessary for fill when placing large boulders in eroded area, or armored stream crossings.
Helicopter: Yes, we have had to utilize a helicopter to deliver lumber and bridge hardware to a remote location at the bottom of the “precipitous” drop after Last Chance and at the base of the Devil’s Thumb climb.
Chainsaws are used outside of wilderness areas by USFS certified sawyers to buck trees blocking the trail. Inside the Granite Chief Wilderness, two of us have crosscut saw certifications (myself and RD, Craig Thornley), where power tools of any kind are prohibited.
Equally vital to all trail events, in addition to knowledge of the tools and their intended use, is safety. Trail work can be extremely hazardous and volunteers must be aware and prepared. Each volunteer is instructed to wear proper clothing (work boots, long pants, long-sleeved shirt and gloves). We supply each volunteer with FS-certified hardhats and protective eyewear.
Trail stewardship carries an abundance of rewards for volunteers who gain not only knowledge of the trail tools and their uses, but also the skills and ability to maintain safe and long-lasting trails. The stewards of the Western States Trail are like family, offering friendships accompanied by solid teamwork, all perspiring with an imperishable tenderness for the land that gives us more than can be described, even in poetry. Giving back to this trail, which has generously benefitted our community, is rewarding in unexpected and wonderful ways. If you have not yet participated on a trail crew, do not miss your next opportunity.
Editor’s Note: This article written by Elke Reimer (aka the Chainsaw Lady) is featured in Ultrarunning Magazine’s September 2017 issue.
Join us for DPMR’s upcoming trail work day, Saturday, September 23, 2017, 9am-2pm, Martis Valley. Sign up here!