Tripping Out || Day on a WTA Trail Crew

Nearing the finish line after pounding in a 3-ft stake (Photo: Evonne Ellis/WTA)

It was shortly before I found myself standing ankle deep in mud, sawing through a 10” log with a 12” saw, my leather gloves muddy and soaked through, I realized all the hard work that goes into every mile of trail.

Ever been on a hike and passed through the cut-out section of a fallen tree, climbed up intricately stacked stone steps or found yourself crossing an icy stream via convenient log bridge? How’d that stuff get there? Who builds it? There are no nearby roads to truck in supplies or backcountry hardware stores if you forget a tool. The answer is: by hand, foot, sometimes by mule and very rarely by helicopter. With a basic but specialized set of tools including shovels, pulaskis, loppers and handsaws, projects ranging from trail breaking, rock wall construction, step building and log removal help maintain the thousands of miles of trails in Washington alone.

Like a city worker standing there holding a shovel. (Photo: Evonne Ellis/WTA)

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a day with the Washington Trails Association, helping do some work on the Barclay Lake Trail, just outside Baring, WA. Since 1966, the WTA has been spearheading efforts to preserve, enhance and promote hiking opportunities in Washington through collaboration, education, advocacy and volunteer trail maintenance. In partnership with the Forest Service, the WTA helps coordinate volunteer work parties all across the state.

Giving a 10" tree an undercut with a 12" saw

We needed to cut two, five-foot sections of log for a couple steps we were building that led to a small creek crossing to keep people from slipping on the mud or having to go off trail. Back in civilization, this task would be as simple as running to Home Depot and picking up some lumber and nails, but two miles from the trailhead, this task proved to be more difficult. In fact, everything that can’t be found in nature, like logs and rocks, needs to be carried in by hand, sometimes over many miles.

Joining me was a small but experienced group consisting of two retirees, each with 300 days under their belt over the span of 20 years, a small-in-stature, but very determined, stay-at-home-mom with 30 work party days in the last year alone, and our seasoned WTA crew leader based out of Skykomish. Work crews tend to be as small as ours or up to groups as large as 20 people. From day trips to multi-day backcountry backpacking work trips, WTA has a wide range of volunteer options. Being my first trip, I decided to start small.

After our two-mile hike to the lake, we went over a quick safety talk and introduction to the different tools we’d be using before getting an overview of our day’s project. Early on, it was apparent anyone and everyone can have fun and feel successful on a WTA trail project. Safety, fun and the goal of working at our own pace was preached from the start and our crew leader did a good job of keeping things light.

No matter how hard you work, you still have to save energy for the hike out.

From rolling giant boulders uphill in the mud and digging through dirt, rocks and roots, to sawing logs and stripping the bark, the five of us worked hard for the entire day. When it was time to start the hike back to the trailhead, we had not quite finished two steps. It was hard to leave a project unfinished, but knowing a crew of 16 volunteers was coming back out the follow day gave me faith it would be completed soon.

Pre-work conference

The thing is, no matter how hard you work, you still have to save energy for the hike out. Luckily we only had two miles, but some work sites can require full day hikes in and out. While hiking back to my truck, I found a new appreciation for every trail improvement we passed. Just knowing the amount of time and effort we put into our small project, each set of steps and stone retaining wall was looked at with a new respect, not only to the work that goes into it but to the selfless people who volunteer and do it with a smile.

Once back to the trailhead, I felt a sense of accomplishment that complemented my sore muscles for the rest of the weekend. Overall, my time spent with the WTA was rewarding and gave me a taste of wanting to volunteer more. Looking at their project schedule for the summer, there is something nearly every week all across the state. If you want to know more about the WTA and how to volunteer check out the links below. I know I will be back for another project soon.

Washington Trails Association

Find a WTA Trail Work Party near you