PRINCE CREEK, Wash. – Jim Springberg unsheathes a long-toothed, one-man crosscut saw, ready to slice into a fallen, fire-blackened pine tree. It’s only about a foot in diameter, so the job will go quickly once it’s begun.
“There’s a couple of things going on here, so you have to be careful,” said Springberg, a member of a Washington Trails Association trail crew working on the Lake Shore Trail this spring. Springberg, a 70-year-old retired maintenance man for Seattle Public Schools, explained how the fallen tree – blocking the trail near the Prince Creek campground, about 11 miles south of Stehekin on Lake Chelan – could spring up or sideways once the first of two cuts are made.
A second member of the three-person trail group – 58-year-old Weyerhaeuser forester Phil Cook – cleared an escape path of brush behind Springberg, while the third person – vacationing legal aid attorney Sarah Glorian, 42 – stood guard on the trail to stop oncoming hikers from walking into danger.
A couple of cuts later the crew rolled the log off the trail and moved on to another fallen tree blocking the trail. A dozen workers in all were spread out along the trail clearing logs, cutting brush and widening and leveling the path before the busy summer hiking season.
Volunteer crews from the Washington Trails Association worked on the trail near Stehekin for a week at a time through May.
They paid to do the strenuous work and camp out in their own tents. It’s their vacation. And who’s to complain about a few sore muscles when the sun is shining, the air is fresh, hillsides are covered with wildflowers and the views of snowcapped mountains and the serene north end of Lake Chelan are spectacular?
“I never envisioned I’d be packing these things around 12 years after I retired, but you gotta do something to stay active,” said Ray Delger, a 78-year-old former construction worker from Everett. In his hands were a shovel and a grub hoe, a heavy-duty hoe used for widening trails.
WTA crews repair, reclaim and sometimes blaze hundreds of trails across the state each year, ranging from the Olympic Mountains and Cascades to the Salmo-Priest Wilderness and Liberty Lake County Park.
The crews are often made up of retired folks who want to get in shape, make friends and get outdoors while accomplishing something constructive.
WTA youth crews also put hundreds of high school students to work each summer. Young adults join the WTA for outdoor experience before they start a career or between jobs.
Working adults such as Cook and Glorian use vacation time from their jobs to work on a trail.
“I love it. There’s no computers, no email and no phone,” said Glorian, senior attorney for the Northwest Justice Project in Aberdeen.
Janice O’Connor, leader of the 12-person WTA crew working at Prince Creek, recalled a backpacking trip in the Olympic National Forest more than a decade ago when she ran across a crew of several adults clearing a trail of brush and fallen trees.
“They were laughing and talking away as they worked. They were having such a good time I wanted to do it, too,” said O’Connor, 66.
She didn’t have to wait long. The crew leader, Greg Ball, told her to pick up a shovel and get to work. She’s been doing it since.
The trails program grew from 250 volunteer hours in 1993 to more than 100,000 hours last year. It’s the largest state-based program of its kind in the nation.
“I probably work harder here and in conditions I never would if I were getting paid,” said Jim Miller, 66, a retired residential contractor from Seattle. “You have different expectations here. You’re not getting paid and there’s no real boss.”
“It’s gratifying work,” added his wife, Dona Snow-Miller. The greatest reward, she said, is when hikers pass through their work area and thank them for their efforts at keeping the trails open and in good shape.
Trail work has become more the responsibility of volunteer groups as government funding has diminished.
When the work day is done – usually by 3:30 p.m. – one volunteer grabs his fly rod for catch-and-release fishing on Prince Creek. Others head for camp for a nap or a shower with hot water heated in a black plastic bag left lying out in the sun.
WTA crew leaders are also camp cooks. O’Connor prepared salmon one night and steaks another. Propane for the camp stove was running low by the end of they week, so she prepared large pots of vegetable chicken curry and rice over the campfire.
Having changed out of their Carhartts and work boots to more comfortable fleece and sandals, crew members sipped wine, snacked on chips and chocolate and traded camp stories while the meal cooked.
After dinner, O’Connor praised the crew for their hard work and encouraged them to take time from their toil to open their senses and take in a full appreciation of the outdoors: “Smell the ponderosa pine, use your mind’s eye to be more aware of the environment as you walk down the trail.”
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