Those of us who lived had fun
Have you ever wondered how the hiking and nature trails get built, or how
they’re maintained (if they’re maintained at all?) Well, it’s hard work, as
you might expect, probably the hardest unpaid volunteer work one can do out
in the outdoors and still have a whole lot of fun while doing it.
Almost a year ago a band of extremely hearty and physically fit individuals
undertook to clear every downed tree from the Mount Waterman Trail located
in the Angeles National Forest of Southern California, a very popular hiking
trail that has a good view of the Mount Wilson Observatory facility way off
in the distance.
Some parts of the trail -- those in meadow areas where underground water
allowed plant growth -- were virtually invisible so the effort was to also
include cutting back growth and redefining such trail sections that were
kind of ambiguous.
This was to be a gruesome, hot, sweaty, exhausting weekend with muscles
tested to their limits, gloves worked through to the bone, and, for some of
us, legs barely capable of walking out of the forest when it was all done.
I lost 18 pounds over these two days.
July 28th, 2007 First Day
Saturday began like so many others: A restless night spent dozing off and
on from my blanket spread out on the floor, coming fully awake at Sunrise
with the renewed realization that I’m not getting any younger. When I had
achieved the age of 40 such mornings culminated in distressed screams upon
waking however now, six years later, I have worked my way down to merely
audible groans to greet the rising Sun -- while my poor abused spine snaps
back in to shape for another volunteer day in the forest.
I stumbled from one wall to the next, managed to get my computer turned on
and searching for email, then I started throwing things into my old canvas
backpack, topping it off with a laptop computer and a video camera (actually a web camera, suitable for indoor light only but modified with a lens from my sunglasses taped over it with duct tape.)
The instant I finished responding to email and cinching up the last rope
strap on my backpack, Mike drove up and we piled my backpack on top of his
forest tools and I crammed myself into the passenger seat of his old dying
car -- a classic -- sitting next to his six foot long crosscut saw. With
Benny Goodman and a whole slew of really old dead white guys coming from the speakers, we took a short drive to the meeting place.
At the meeting place there waiting for us was Ben and Janette. Brad and
another volunteer met us and promptly at 8:00 a.m. we left the meeting place and drove up to the Rincon Fire Station of the San Gabriel River Ranger District of the Angeles National Forest along Highway 39 (also known as Azusa Blvd. also known as San Gabriel Canyon.)
On the way up we were passed by many insane motorcycle riders -- organ
donors, they’re called, because one of them dies every week end, often
ramping off into the Morris or San Gabriel reservoir or ramming head first
in to granite boulders lining the highway. If the remains can be located
and recovered within a couple of hours of the donation, the organs can be
sent to where they can do some good. The parts that can’t be found after
three days are usually just left where they came to rest, lodged in among
the dead tree trunks pressed up against Morris Dam, often enough.
At Rincon we met Tom, John, Larry and Dan, and together we numbered ten. We would lose Ben and Janette later on but we would gain Phil for a grand total of nine crew working this week end -- and what a week end it was!
From Rincon (after acquiring the special permits that were needed) Mike got
on the radio and officially logged us in to the Forest Service roster of
volunteers and USFS employees working on the project and then we headed
North toward Crystal Lake, past Crystal Lake, along the section of Highway
39 that remains closed (due to parts of the highway having slid into the
canyons below) and up on to Highway 2 -- Angeles Crest Highway -- which is
also closed due to parts of the highway missing.
From there we headed approximately West toward where we would enter into the Mount Waterman hiking trail and the beginning of The Ordeal.
Those of you who might know a little about me know that I like low
technology in favor of high technology, and my backpack of choice is no
different: Old when it was bought second hand in the mid 1970's, the
backpack became even more the worse for wear after being slit open
lengthwise by a bear up at Crystal Lake when there were a bunch of Boy
Scouts up there cooking hot-dogs one night. Argh! (Good thing the bear
didn’t get my iPod Shuffle!)
Because my pack is old technology and the straps are macramé (which I did
myself with green twine) Ben suggested that I might live to see the project
through to its end if I were to strap my old pack to one of the
Trailbuilder’s cargo packs. That turned out to be a very good idea since
without a doubt I wouldn't have made it with only my narrow, flesh-eating
Two weeks ago we had squirreled away 10.5 gallons of drinking water up at
the base of Twin Peaks on the saddle, and because of the heat and the effort we would be putting in this week end, we knew that we would need all the water we could get.
Because of this some Sierra Club members carried up at least 16 bottles of
drinking water and left it at the Mount Waterman / Twin Peaks trail split
with a sign letting other hikers know they should leave it alone (unless
they were dying, any way, then they could take one, at most two bottles.)
In addition to all that water we each had brought what we hoped was enough
water for two days of heat and fortunately, accounting for all the water
that we ended up using during the two days, we all had plenty and most had a container of water left over when we finished the effort and hiked back down to the Buckhorn trailhead.
Whew! And I think it was a close thing, too, since another two hours in the heat might have drained us dry of drinking water. (Actually we would have cut the second day short had we seen we wouldn't have enough water to see the project through to completion.)
Since we started with 8 people -- six volunteers, two USFS people -- we
broke into two teams, each with a crosscut saw, and each with wedges, ax,
shovel, and whatever else is needed for this kind of work. Since I knew
that Mike would be on the largest downed tree across the hiking trail (twice across the trail since it fell on a switchback) and since I knew that would be the most technically challenging bucking, I joined the team Mike was on.
Team A -- the higher quality, most excellent, better looking team members
team -- consisted of myself, Mike, Tom, and Dan. Team B -- the lower
quality, less handsome team -- consisted of John, Larry, Brad, and the
younger volunteer -- the guy who runs six miles every day regardless of the
weather. Later on in the first day Phil would join the A team (though he's
not nearly as pretty as the rest of us in A team to officially qualify.)
At the trailhead Mike went carefully through the Job Hazard Analysis
evaluation and all workers stepped through it and commented on the aspects
of the JHA. When that was completed we shouldered our equipment, picked up
tools that we would hand carry into the wilderness, then we started up
toward Mount Waterman.
Power tools are not allowed in the designated wilderness but truth be told,
crosscut saws do just as good a job -- if maybe taking longer. When it
comes to carrying weight on one’s back, the old crosscut saw is a whole lot
easier than gasoline powered chainsaws and all the support equipment, fuel,
oil, repair tools, and replacement parts that comes with chainsaws.
It's not a difficult hike up to Mount Waterman, and it's not that difficult
to get to Twin Peaks and from there up to Three Points. Carrying tree
bucking equipment makes the effort difficult, and doing it in hot weather
makes the effort fairly brutal.
As it was I was fairly lightly loaded. In addition to my camping equipment, food, enough water to drown cats in, a laptop computer, a video camera, and my book to read at night, I got a two edged ax which I really enjoyed carrying (since my bright yellow safety hat and the double bladed ax upped my overall manliness
considerably!) and I got the long-handled shovel to carry in my hands.
Mike was carting up about twice the weight I was porting, and he also had a
Forest Service radio pinned to his chest -- along with a GPS receiver, FAX
machine, and some other unidentifiable bit of electronics I didn't inquire
At the first downed tree the group split into our two teams, the team I was
on continuing on up the trail and the other team stopping to take out that
first tree that needed to be removed.
The hike to our team's first effort wasn't a difficult one despite adding
more water to everyone's backpacks once we made it to the water bottles that the Sierra Club members had stashed for us. Along the way, incidentally, we talked with many hikers, all of which thanked us greatly for our efforts -- the efforts done this week end as well as all the countless hours we and other volunteers have done in the past.
Hikers love us!
The first large tree was, as I said, a technically difficult one. Tom is
very good at these things -- he's got an engineering talent -- and Mike has
a lot of experience with the crosscut saw and with bucking difficult trees.
(Mike was responsible for our safety and John was responsible for our health AND safety -- the USFS works glove-in-glove with its volunteers and safety is the top priority.)
The first thing that everyone agreed upon was to swamp out the bark,
branches, and other debris surrounding the area so that we would have a safe working environment. The sawers made sure that they had escape routes away from the tree that they are cutting, and they constantly made sure that their escape path was kept free from people standing in the way in case they needed to walk quickly away from the tree.
The second thing we did was to remove all of the branches from the sections
of the downed tree that we would be removing. Removing the limbs is a safety issue however doing so makes it easy to roll the bucked log off of the trail. Removing the branches took a great deal of time.
There's a great deal of discussion about the tree to be bucked, how it lays, and the general lay of the land. We also discuss possible circumstances which might occur, such as hikers coming from either direction so that we know in advance what to do and how to handle anything that might crop up during the cut (this was important because on the second day we did get some hikers at a critical point.)
Safety. That's the word that matters on these things. Cutting apart downed trees isn't something that's totally without risks. Even when the tree is laying flat on the ground, using a six or seven foot long saw comes with a certain amount of risks. When the tree is on a hillside supported in a number of places, sagging or otherwise binding in other places, the risks increase -- so safety is a big issue on these kinds of efforts.
The actual cutting took time however a great deal of time is spent
evaluating the task, progressing for a bit, and then stepping back to
re-evaluate the task again to see if anything has changed and to see if any
new approach should be discussed.
The final part of the bucking effort consisted of placing the first cut on
the tree up on the high point above the upper trail section. This cut
started out with a great deal of rotting wood and bark removed such that
when all was done, we had about three feet to get through. When the first
cut was completed, overall the lower section of the tree moved perhaps a
quarter of an inch -- it turned out to be a highly skillful cut, aided
greatly by the removal of the limbs and ground cover.
The second cut was a bit more complicated since the wood was harder and it
involved a bit of a compound cut. We wanted the section that dropped to
pivot a number of degrees while dropping and to side roll a bit as it did
so. In the video (YouTube links provided below) of the first section
dropping out we see it worked perfectly: one last draw on the crosscut,
noise from the holding wood fiber separating, the sawyer gets time to step
back, and the section drops and rolls about four feet, perfectly aligned to
be shoved off the trail and over the side.
With the successful bucking of the first section of the downed tree, we
looked at what had been done and we decided to not yet start on the third
cut which would clear the lower section of the hiking trail. The amount of
time we had spent sawing and cleaning the ground already was enough.
Coupled to the hike we had done, we decided we would do the smart, safe
thing and finish the tree in the morning.
We hiked to the Twin Peaks saddle and all nine of us went off into our own
separate directions from there. Tom and I stayed on the saddle and we got
to listen to a tree fracture, splinter, and then fall about 100 feet or so
from us just as it started getting dark and the Moon hadn't risen yet (the
Job Hazard Analysis specifically mentioned not sleeping under hazardous
trees, by the way. We slept out in the open on the saddle with our packs
hauled up trees with ropes.)
Most of the other workers went either up to the top of Twin Peaks or to the
helicopter landing pad however I decided that the additional half mile hike
there and back would finally kill me so I dropped my stuff there on the
saddle, stumbled around on sore feet, and had dinner -- crackers, mustard
and green olive sandwiches, and Good N Plenty candy -- with about a half
gallon of water!
You would think that all the exhaustion would have led us all to sleep well. I don't think any of us did. There were flies bothering most of us -- only Tom had brought a netting to keep the flies away. I don't know if anyone brought a tent but I don't think anyone did since we were already loaded down enough with the weight of our tools and stuff.
So the only way to sleep was to cover our faces with shirts, sleeping bags,
and other hot, stifling things, just to keep the flies off. I found that I
could cover myself with my sleeping bag and prop the unzipped side open on
my removed boots so that I got cool air and the flies rarely learned to fly
under the sleeping bag flap to try to suck my blood. It was still a fitful, dozing kind of rest that rarely got to the actual sleeping point.
While lying there out in the open I could watch the bats swoop around in the twilight and the gathering dark. The night sky was filled with them, swift creatures darting in pseudo-random vectors seemingly burning up their
delta-vee in pursuit of acrobatic fun. Instead they were hunting the
insects and, since I was becoming murderous thanks to the endless annoyance
of the flies, I welcomed the air show.
Since it was extremely silent most of the time (with only the wind and
high-flying jet aircraft occasionally rising above a whisper) I was able to
listen to the bats echo-locate their insect meals. Individual bats in my
hearing range used two distinct frequencies of sonar but within those two
frequencies the individual bats pulsed at differing rates.
As a bat swooped and dove hunting its dinner, it would echo range its
surroundings with a constant rate of pings, disappearing into the dark if it didn't find anything nearby. When a bat found something close, it would
increase or decreases the rate at which it issued its pings and I could
watch it home in on an insect as it did so. Once the bat acquired its meal
it would resume its trolling rate of ping.
When a bat encountered something larger than its dinner -- another bat or a
Good N Plenty -- it would alter its ping rate for a moment and then it would dodge away and resume its normal trolling ping rate until it found something small enough that would be worth eating.
The air show was a good one. The acrobatics would have made Russian jet
pilots turn white with fright. And to my left, King Jupiter rose above the
horizon, followed by his mistress, the Moon. As evening drew on and I could not sleep, high clouds moved in from the North East and turned the ground below dark once again. A wind kicked up and high above me the clouds started breaking up, turning the ground below into a patchwork of
brilliantly lit splotches surrounded by pitch dark.
I prefer the dark and the quiet. I also prefer the cold and the rain, but
despite a small possibility of rain, we didn’t get any, at least not on Twin Peaks Saddle.
Did I mention the aches and pains? The blisters? Did I mention the
Sunburn? I recall mentioning the inability to sleep the previous night and
the difficulty sleeping this night, but I don't recall saying much about how deleterious the day had been to my general, overall health. An accurate assessment was made as I lay there and (an hour past midnight) I realized that I felt damned good!
Day one had been successful and nobody had gotten the least bit hurt. With
that realization -- and with my sleeping bag over my head -- I got a few
hours of fitful sleep.
July 29th, Second Day
There was no point in knowing what time it was when I woke up, and in fact I don't wear a watch since time is in any event an illusion, something that is equated to money, and since we're volunteers who aren't paid, the money equaled zero and thus the time was likewise unimportant. Time only becomes an issue when we start to run out of it so whatever time it was, we got up in time.
Um, also we don't wear watches, rings, or anything else like that on these
projects since such things can get caught in our tools. And that's a Bad
Thing. You put a watch on and it gets ripped off and crushed by boulders or trees within a day. Put a ring on your finger and if you’re dumb enough to grab a tool without your gloves on, we might wind up calling you “Stumpy” from then on. Chains around the neck? Might as well wear a noose.
I got my backpack lowered from the tree that I had hung it in since the
bears around these parts like to shred things -- including people who they
suspect might be holding something tasty. I topped off my water container
and strapped a gallon container from our stash to the top of my borrowed
cargo pack, then I left the saddle and headed toward the work site.
When I got to the downed tree to start the second day, I got there ahead of
everyone else enough for me to take a little walk around the place. A side
trail that leads from the switchback we were clearing down to the bottom of
a ravine that normally carries water held some promise however I found the
ravine to be utterly dry. Had there been any water at all I would have
afforded myself a cool bath, scrubbing off the encrusted dirt, dried blood,
and snot (okay, so I'm not nearly as pretty as I like to claim I am.)
Since the place was dry I sat on the shaded trail sideways, dangled my legs
off the trail and out into space, leaned back against the hillside, covered
my face with my old leather hat, and tried to sleep before the rest of the
crews resumed work.
The third cut was started and the other team headed toward Three Points
where six or seven other downed trees were across the trail. The third cut
on the big tree that we bucked was done slowly and with extreme caution.
The two-handed crosscut saw was used until there was about four inches of
holding wood, and then one handle was removed from the saw and the cut
continued with one sawyer. A tie wedge was hammered across the cut to hold
the bucked section in place in case any side bind was present and the cut
Three wedges were used while the cut progressed until at the very end the
saw was removed and the wedges were hit with a hammer, then the sawyer stood back, waited, watched and listened, and then hammered again. With a whack of the hammer we got noise from the holding wood and some movement.
The sawyer stepped back, waited, checked the position of all the other
workers once again, and then stepped forward to strike a wedge once last
time. With the final whack the holding wood parted and the final section of the big bucking dropped away -- exactly where and how it had been predicted. Success! Damn! We are good!
Dan did most of the finishing trail restoration work after the bucked
section had been shoved off of the trail, using a McLoude tool. At the end
of all the hot, sweaty work, the switchback looked great! No more need to
climb under or over a fairly dangerous dead tree any longer. We win!
Remember that two-edged ax that I carried all the way up? The heavy,
back-breaking two-edged ax? I handed it to Mike who promptly shattered the
handle -- which in Trailbuilder Lore means that he got to add it to his back for the trip back down. Ha!
After packing up the tools and calling the other team on the radio, we
headed toward the other team, met up with them at a downed tree across the
trail that they were working on, then we passed them to work on the next
downed tree in line. We leap-frogged each other until all but the very last tree was removed from the trail (the last one is something that people just step over but John and Larry would return to remove it later.)
At one large tree -- about two or two and a half feet wide -- we had some
difficulty in that we appeared to have top bind AND bottom bind. The saw
was pinched regardless of whether we worked from the top of the tree or from the bottom so it was giving us difficulty.
Phil suggested that we cut the hillside side of the tree first, dig out the
dirt from under that section, then sit on the section so that the top bind
on the lower part of the tree would be removed. The second cut would go
slowly enough so that everyone could vacate the tree once the sawyer got to
the single-bucking point.
This worked well. After making the first cut on the other side we tried to
top cut, found we still had a problem, remove a supporting branch from the
bottom, found we still had a problem, tested under bucking from the bottom
up, found that slow and exhausting, then we dug out the dirt and sat on the
tree, allowing the second cut to be made from the top.
A metal wedge followed by a rolling wedge kept the cut open and eventually
the people sitting on the log could leave.
About two inches of holding wood remained when three hikers approached my
side of the log (the same side that Mike the sawyer at the time was on.) We had discussed this eventuality and we asked the hikers to pause a moment
since we were at a critical, unsafe-for-hikers point in the cut. The sawyer and the rest of us continued the effort and watched to make sure the hikers didn't approach.
About half a minute of more sawing and the section of the tree dropped.
Some shoving and cussing and the bucked section was rolled off of the trail
-- and we got some welcomed thanks from the hikers who continued on toward
Eventually all of the downed trees except for the last one got bucked up,
including two trees that weren't on the schedule but needed to be moved just because we were already in the field. All nine members gathered and then we started the Virtual Death March back to the paved highway some three or so miles away.
I called it the "Death March Segment" since that section of the trail
crosses over long hikes of exposed San Gabriel Granite escarpment, and given the 100 plus heat some areas were kind of like a furnace. One section that we crossed, by the way, was a meadow complete with dense grass and ferns.
Water seeping from the hillside under ground waters a large and spread area
so there's a micro ecology stuck in the middle of the trail that is
completely unique from all the rest of the trail. Trees grow above the
grassy ferns and, in fact, the trail itself at times disappeared under the
growth. On any other day, it would have been the perfect place for me to
pitch a tent in the cool shade, far from other humans, emerging from time to time to demand water from any hiker who might come within range.
It was during the Death March that the blisters on my left foot all kind of
merged together and, ironically, that made each step more comfortable than
they had been back when there were several smaller blisters. Disgusting,
ain't it? Toss in a nose-bleed from the heat and exercise (which several
people pointed out to me) and you get a better idea of how it was.
Toward the end of the day, after most of the work had been done and we were
hiking out of the forest, I was beyond exhaustion, having to keep tell
myself that I was not going disgrace myself or fall out, asking for help
carrying my tools down. The heat, altitude, and exercise caused things to
look bright and out of focus, but because there was enough water, nobody
A quick nose-bleed, one major blister, exhaustion, and Sunburn was actually
extremely fun. We should do this every week end.
Larry, the six-mile-a-day-runner, and I think one or two other volunteers
exited the trail at the Buckhorn trailhead, followed by John and myself
which paused at times to try to locate some major asshole who was shooting a firearm somewhere in the forest.
Hitting the flat paved road with all of our gear was kind of strange.
Sailors being at sea for any length of time might hit land and find it just
as strange. The feet get used to being cantered a bit to the left to brace
against the slight slope of the hiking trail that allows water to roll off
of it and when getting to flat land, the inclination toward resisting the
slight leftward-leaning list translates into mild vertigo.
Some how we had humped the Death March quickly enough that we were about an
hour early ahead of Ben and Jeanette who eventually arrived to take us back
down to Rincon. At Rincon Tom replaced a flat tire on his vehicle, the
tools were put away (after being inspected) and then we headed back down the mountain. One broken two-edged ax was left for Ben to repair.
We should do this again. It's not something we should do every week end or
once a month, but it's something we should do maybe four times a year.
Smaller, less difficult tree removal projects are done all year around, of
course, but they are half-day or one-day projects and they're usually on
trails which are short and thus don't acquire a great deal of hiking with
tools and water to get to before the work can be done. Also we usually use
gasoline powered chainsaws when we're not working in the designated wilderness.
These efforts are vital, however. Hiking trails are used frequently, some
getting large numbers of hikers, and hiking trails are greatly appreciated.
When a downed tree alters a trail and people walk around, they'll create a
trail which may not be exactly safe and which may cause unacceptable
erosion. Many times people will climb over or under a tree and that also
conveys a certain amount of hazard to the hiker.
Tree removal is a constant need and the people who use such hiking trails
really do appreciate the effort that volunteers and United States Forest
Service workers put forward to re-open trails and to keep trails reasonably
safe and open.
On the flip side I find myself extremely privileged to volunteer and work
with such super people. I've said it again and I'll always keep saying it:
The San Gabriel River Ranger District Forest Service people are the BEST
USFS people anywhere in the United States, and the San Gabriel Mountains
Trailbuilders volunteers who join forces with the USFS so often are without
question California's premier trail building and restoration organization -- bar none!
This effort was a blast. It was fun, it was difficult, and it certainly
stretched me to my limits -- and beyond. I'm looking forward to the next
project -- hopefully after my feet have had time to recover.
Videos of the effort are on the NotSoOldHippy YouTube channel:
Part 1 Would Have Killed Normal Men Mount Waterman Repair
Part 2 Would Have Killed Normal Men Mount Waterman Repair
Part 3 Would Have Killed Normal Men Still Photographs
The fourth and final video of the trail clearing project