Pat Hart relishes the selfless enthusiasm that volunteer trail crews bring to the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. She seldom hears volunteers grumbling, even when they’re filthy, cold and wet.
“You watch these people work their butts off – and walk away happy,” said Hart, the Bonners Ferry Ranger District’s trails and recreation program leader.
During Hart’s tenure at the district, volunteers have logged more than 10,000 hours of trail maintenance. They’ve hacked out overgrown trails, reconstructed bridges, moved boulders and built mountain biking trails. The value of their unpaid labor is estimated at more than $200,000, and in an era of shrinking Forest Service budgets, they’ve helped keep hundreds of miles of trails open for public use.
Hart, 61, recently received a national Forest Service award for her role as a volunteer coordinator. She’s an integral part of the program’s success, creating a volunteer experience that draws people back year after year, her supervisors said.
“People really get a boost out of her energy and her whole persona,” said Greg Hetzler, a recreation staff officer for the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. “Pat puts so much energy forth it can’t help but rub off on you.”
From May through early October, Hart supervises volunteer groups who spend a week at a time in the woods. Along with forestry technician Steve Petesch, she backpacks with the volunteers to a base camp, the jump-off point for the work projects. The volunteers camp at the site during the week. Hart does, too.
Hart’s husband, Chris White, is a commercial fisherman in Alaska. He understands that she won’t be home to make dinner during the summer, because his work is like that, too, Hart said: “It would be like me dropping in on his boat while he’s hauling in salmon and saying, ‘Can you take me to a movie tonight?’ ”
Hart is silver-haired and fit. She says she’s not as physically strong as she used to be, but stories still circulate about the days when she carried a 60-pound backpack and toted a chain saw, too.
In addition to supervising crews, she does all the camp cooking, rising at 4:30 to make breakfast. Her dinner specialties include lasagna and chicken breasts with gorgonzola sauce.
“I can’t believe she does it with a backwoods Coleman stove. Some of us were saying that we ate better with Pat on the trail than we do at home,” said Bob Groff, a retired software engineer from California who was on one of Hart’s trips in August with six other members of the Sierra Club.
“Pat never asks you to do anything she wouldn’t do herself,” said Ray Newcombe, a Coeur d’Alene physician who’s been part of Hart’s trail crews since the early 1980s. “She doesn’t wear the uniform, she gets down and dirty to get the work done. She’s a perfectionist when it comes to trails.”
Hart discovered her joint passion for trail work and volunteer coordination through a roundabout path. At Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she majored in Eastern religions. After graduation, she and some idealistic college pals decided to build a house in the woods. They ended up in Bonners Ferry “on a lark,” Hart said.
The friends eventually drifted off, but Hart stayed. She went to work for one of Bonners Ferry’s largest employers, the U.S. Forest Service.
Over the years, Hart has worked with more than 100 volunteer groups, including teachers, attorneys and statisticians, Eagle Scouts and backcountry horse groups. The work crews come from far and near. Some volunteers have trail-clearing skills, and others learn on the job.
The American Hiking Society, based in Silver Springs, Md., sends a volunteer contingent every year. So does Camp Thunderbird, a summer camp for girls in Minnesota.
The Wilderness League, a Catholic men’s group from Ohio, has come three times. The group brings its own priest and celebrates Mass at the end of each workday.
John Bradford, the league’s founder, said he’s been on 20 Forest Service volunteer projects. “No one takes care of us like Pat Hart does,” he said.
Hart’s projects are always well-organized, Bradford said. Hart also spends the winter baking and freezing goodies, so her volunteers can have homemade chocolate chip cookies and brownies.
Not that it’s an easy week, Bradford added. The men, ages 20 to 60, seek to test themselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. In North Idaho, they’ve woken up to deep frost on their tents and wind gusts of 25 miles per hour. On one trip, it rained the entire week.
“We saw this as a challenge,” Bradford said. “God was saying to us, ‘Man up!’ ”
Hart said she enjoys watching the growth that takes place in volunteers.
“I like … getting people to slow down, to feel what the forest is like,” Hart said. “And when you walk out, you’re on a trail you built yourself. How much better could it be than that?”