Sunday, June 9, 2013

Part 101 - Who Built These Trails

I was heading for the North Fork of the Feather River, a river whose every inch of streambed, whose every nook and cranny and every sandbar and pebble beach has been thoroughly searched and probed for nuggets and flecks of gold by the gold rush miners.

My days now are hard, so very hard; so much energy is required to top out at the summit of every climb, and the ups and downs of the trail go on forever.  I’m greatly fatigued and weary with exhaustion, but there is no way to quit, and I wouldn’t even if I could.  The energy output required for each climb I would liken unto a strenuous Cross Fit workout, but this is just me, not those who pass me, like fifty-six-year-old Purple Haze, who flew by me this afternoon.

It was hot on the high ridges and the trail was dusty, and when the path moved into forested areas, the tree cover was thick and dense, and made walking spooky.  Although they were all around me, I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife; occasionally I would scare up a deer or two or a grouse or a gathering of sage hens, but otherwise, the woods were quiet and lifeless.

What really intrigued me as I walked along was the layout of the trail, the particular route it took, the placement of the switchbacks, the slope or gradient of the climb.

“Who," I asked, “laid all this out, who did the work, and who paid for it?”

It was obvious there was a lot of man-hours invested in the construction of the trail, yet in the thousand-plus miles I had walked, there was no indication of who the builders were.

Before I left for the journey, my oldest daughter, Susan, gave me a book that had come into her procession; it was a book entitled The Pacific Crest Trail published by the National Geographic Society and recounted the trek in 1975 of several hikers who were writers and photographers.

In 1975, there was still about eight hundred miles of trail still under construction, mainly at the southern and northern ends of the trail.  In reading the book, I came across a passage which talked about the construction of a part of the trail.  The authors were approaching the North Fork of the Feather River when they encounter a trail construction crew.

“It was a crew of the California Ecology Corps, sponsored by the California Division of Forestry.  Under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, the men were building a six-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail from the ridgetop down into the Feather River Canyon near the town of Belden.  After we had demolished a supper of roast beef and corn on the cob, I sat sipping coffee and talking to Dick Hansen, project foreman and a twenty-year veteran of the Division of Forestry, and Rick Lawrence, the twenty-two-year-old crew leader.”

“We’ve been up here for just under three weeks, and we’ve already got more than half a mile of trail built,” Dick said with pride.  “The whole project should take no more than four or five months, we hope.”

“We’re averaging about 250 feet of finished trail per day,” Rick added, “and that’s through Manzanita, which is hard to dig out.  We have to follow strict specifications of trail width and drainage, of course, and we’re anxious to do a good job; we’re hoping that this one will lead to more contracts.”

“Following the newly constructed section, I rounded a well-engineered switchback and faced a tangle of brush.  Ahead of me a proficient team of two strong corpsmen worked with lopping shears to cut out the tough branches and trunks and form a rough corridor.  A couple of dozen yards behind them, another team wielding picks and shovels grubbed out rocks and roots and widened the initial path.  Other teams graded, cleared, and trimmed, until finally a permanent section of the Pacific Crest Trail had been completed.”

“We rotate the men every day so they don’t get burned out on any one job,” Rick told me. “As we work, we’re careful to preserve the natural lay of the land as much as possible.
We only take out boulders or trees where they would be a serious hindrance to hikers.”

I’m glad I came across this brief description of how parts of the trail were built.  Anyone who is privileged to walk the PCT can’t help but marvel at the great amount of time and labor that went into constructing the trail.

The story in the National Geographic book also contains this little bit of information about the men who are working on this section of the trail.

“I asked about the young men comprising the Ecology Corps.”

Volunteer crew rebuilding a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail.

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