At first glance last weekend, the group of four backpackers appeared to be making a huge sacrifice.
The September sky was brilliantly clean, cloudless and bugless as they trekked past a bounty of huckleberries on the Shedroof Divide between Sullivan Lake and Priest Lake.
It was clearly one of the best warm weekends of the summer to be playing outdoors.
But this group of volunteers was going to work – for the fun of it.
After hauling their gear to a dry campsite four miles north into the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, they dropped their backpacks and snacked. Then they continued up the trail to the “job site” packing their Pulaskis, shovels, pruners and a cross-cut saw.
The task seemed staggering. More than 80 blowdowns clogged a two-mile stretch of the divide trail that ran through an old burn.
“We’ve got two days, let’s go for it,” said Jane Baker, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the Spartans had about the same odds against the Persian Army.
None of the Washington Trails Association volunteer group seemed the least bit discouraged when Baker gave a brief safety talk pointing out that up to an hour of preparation can be required for cutting and removing a single log.
“The actual sawing usually is the easy part,” she said.
“But sometimes we can team up and just lift or roll the logs away and really move through them.”
Baker should know.
The 54-year-old Spokane physical therapist emerged last year as a cut above the field of trail advocates in Eastern Washington.
“The Washington Trails Association has a huge following of people taking care of trails in Western Washington,” she said. “To get something going in Eastern Washington, somebody was going to have to step up.”
Baker has devoted 17 weekends to training and trail work since March. She’s helped recruit and lead nearly 100 volunteer trail enthusiasts on projects ranging from the Canada border to the Spokane Valley, where she’s working with a group this weekend at the Big Rock conservation area near Tower Mountain.
She’s looking for more volunteers to return to Big Rock in October.
“Getting something done often is a matter of a few people putting in a lot of energy to get things going,” she said. “I make the time, and I have the energy.”
And she has a way of wringing enthusiasm out of her recruits.
“This is the best time I’ve ever had working,” said Randy Greyerbiehl of Spokane, noting that “the office couldn’t be prettier” last weekend on the Shedroof Divide.
Holly Weiler of Spokane Valley is another trail-clearing dynamo who’s devoted many weekends in the past few years to leading work parties and upgrading trails in the Kettle Range and Salmo-Priest Wilderness.
“I got hooked in 2005 when I signed up for a work group in the Salmo-Priest with the Spokane Mountaineers and Conservation Northwest,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite places and I liked the idea of making it a better place for hiking.”
Weiler, 30, is an English teacher, the head coach for University High School’s girls cross country team, and a former state championship-team runner for East Valley. She’s known to put trail miles behind her like a caribou, but sometime she channels all that energy into a crosscut saw.
“I own two of them now,” she said. “I’ve found trail work kind of addicting. I love the sense of ownership you have for a trail after you’ve worked on it.
“And I have a whole new appreciation of what goes into building and maintaining a trail.”
She recalled one project in which her group of eight volunteers labored an entire day to restore three-quarters of a mile of trail.
“It took us only 15 minutes to hike what took us a day to build,” she said. “Do the math. It takes a lot of effort to build these trails that we love so much.”
The trail-working weekends have all the amenities of normal backpacking trips, she said, noting that the groups take time to enjoy the wilderness, eat their meals together and enjoy encounters with moose and bears and evenings under the stars.
But they tend to leave the trailhead with more satisfaction and insight.
“I can’t walk down a trail without imagining what it took to build it, or how the crew went about clearing a huge tree, or the effort it took to set all those rocks.”
Weiler and Baker have learned the value of a sharp, craftsman-built crosscut saw.
“I know that a lot of saws out there aren’t good for much more than having a pretty picture painted on them,” Weiler said.
Baker regards her two-person saw as though it were family.
She uses a pruning saw to score the bark of a downed log before putting her baby to work. “The bark is full of dirt, so I want to get down to clean wood so I don’t dull the crosscut saw,” she explained.
Greyerbiehl, Jeff Hugus, and Denise Beardslee picked up tips from Baker on a wide range of trail-crew savvy last weekend. Preventing the saw from binding in the log is a major issue, but details are important, too.
“When you prune off branches, toss them as far down the hill away from the trail as possible, cut-end first,” she said. “That way trail users don’t see the cut ends. It’s more aesthetic.”
The group applied everything they learned on the snarl of logs on the Shedroof Divide, and by last Sunday afternoon they were digging deep into their reserves.
“We pushed ourselves to the limit, but we saw the end and we wanted to get there,” Baker said.
The group cleared 80-some blowdowns, completing a two-year effort to open all the trails in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness for the first time in years.
It was the sixth and last trip Baker would lead into the Salmo-Priest this year, noting that she had joined in efforts with other groups such as the Spokane Mountaineers, Conservation Northwest and Backcountry Horsemen.
“We never would have cleared the trails in the Salmo-Priest this year without the help of volunteers,” said Angi Christman, Colville National Forest trail crew leader based in Sullivan Lake.
“We’re trying to maintain 100 miles of trail in the Sullivan District, plus another 100 miles in the Pend Oreille Valley,” she said as she assisted the WTA group on the first of their two-day work weekend. “We’re stretched pretty thin.”
Baker took the satisfaction in stride.
“The work safely got done and we can put it to bed for the winter,” she said.