Hoots, Hollers and Hard Work: Getting into Trailwork
By Nathan Oetting
As the Impact and Outreach (and soon to be Logistics) Manager here at CNOC Outdoors, I’ve been with the company for a little over a year and have learned a lot about the outdoor industry and the world of small business, both of which are new to me after a 14+ year career in the nonprofit world.
One of my favorite jobs (besides CNOC😊) was working as a seasonal Wilderness Ranger with the US Forest Service in Southern Oregon. I spent two years hiking the trails of Sky Lakes and Mountain Lakes Wilderness, and my colleagues and I were responsible for maintaining over 200 miles of trails, including 20+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.
I’ve always loved trail work. It is challenging, but endlessly rewarding. Any time I’m hiking a trail, I make an effort to leave the trail in better condition when I’m gone. That often means simply kicking sticks and branches out of the way, or covering up (aka "decommissioning") a user/renegade trail, such as short-cuts on switch-backs. I follow Leave No Trace principles when I’m hiking which encourages hikers to stick to the designated trail or other suitable durable surfaces, and to resist short cutting a trail or going around an obstacle (such as a mud-puddle).
The first couple of months of each hiking season were spent traversing every foot of trail, schlepping Pulaski’s and cross-cut saws to clear debris and fallen trees, repairing damage that occurred over the winter. Chainsaws and other motorized or mechanized tools are not allowed in designated Wilderness areas, so all trail work was done by hand! I remember spending an entire day sawing through one giant wind-blown tree to clear a trail, using a two-handed cross-cut saw! Echoes of high-fives, hoots and hollers with my cross-cut partner rang through the forest when the final saw stroke fell through the log. Using simple hand tools to repair, clear and maintain our trails gave me a great sense of accomplishment, and we took pride in being the first Ranger District to fully clear our trails each spring (take that, Rogue River). Yes, there are friendly rivalries amongst trail workers.
That job helped me better appreciate not only the trails on public lands, but the often invisible work that goes into keeping those trails healthy and open. Back when I was paid to work on trails, both the season and budget were too small for the workload - unfortunately, the same is true today. The earliest we could get started clearing and maintaining trails was March, and we had to wrap up the season by September. This leaves a lot of “shoulder season” hiking and usage uncovered by trail work. Most trails today are fully maintained by volunteers (that's YOU!) with some oversight by a limited number of public lands staff, which means many miles of public lands trails are not adequately monitored or maintained.
At CNOC Outdoors, I’m responsible for our outreach and giving efforts, including our volunteer time. As a company in 2021, we’ve committed to donating at least 150 hours per year of staff time to local causes we support. Combining my love of trail work with our giving commitments, I’ve helped get the CNOC team out on the trails with Trail Keepers of Oregon (TKO). Over the last couple of months, the CNOC team has traveled to the Oregon Coast to work on sections of the Oregon Coast Trail.
I even brought my 11- and 14-year-old with us during our last Trail Party with TKO and they loved it! It is a great family activity: My kids learned how to use hand tools, including a cross-cut saw, as well as how erosion from unofficial trails or cutting switchbacks can impact the surrounding terrain. It was a great way to get outside and spend time with my kids and colleagues. Though we all got pretty muddy and were tired, we had smiles on our faces the entire time. Some of us tested out CNOC’s new MUDPONS Traction Devices to see how they stand up to trail work; they were awesome! Trailwork parties make great team building exercises, so send a link to this blog to your company's community building organizer and suggest they plan some volunteer days on the trail!
...did we say it was muddy?
If you enjoy hiking, camping and backpacking, you have no doubt benefited from the work of volunteers and local trail associations. Remember that lovely creekside bend in the trail you sauntered over last weekend? This was made possible by laborious hours spent hauling rocks and stacking gabions to stabilize the terrain! Those switchbacks and strategically placed logs? Volunteers and trail engineers lent their muscles and brains to help get your boots up to that amazing viewpoint.
If you are able, please consider donating your time or money to a local trail organization. You will work hard and go home tired, but you will also make a difference and help keep your trails open and healthy.
What to expect when you volunteer
The work will be hard! You will be tired and sore at the end of the day, but it is also very rewarding. A trail crew leader will go over the specific project you’ve signed up for and there will likely be a safety briefing so that everyone feels comfortable with the tools involved. You will learn a lot about how trails are built and maintained, and gain experience on how to safely use a plethora of said (very cool) tools. The trail crew leaders are often experts on local history and know how to weave a history lesson into the day. They emphasize fun alongside the hard work and learning, all while wiping the dirty sweat from their brows.
On our last trip working on the Oregon Coast Trail (an amazing 363 mile thru-hike), we learned about a nearby archeological site where it isn’t uncommon to find Native artifacts alongside animal and sometimes even human bones. We learned that the peak at the top of the trail we were repairing is the highest point on the Oregon Coast and was used as a sacred gathering space for many Native tribes, like the Tillamook and Cowlitz.
You should arrive prepared for a full day outdoors. That includes proper clothing. Layers are your friend - be ready for warm and cold, wet and dry conditions! Bring food and snacks, especially if you are going with your kids (M&Ms or Sour Patch kids are great motivators). Don’t forget water (a couple of our 1L Vesica Collapsible Bottles make things simple) and sunscreen. The place you choose to volunteer with will likely have helmets and gloves for you, but bring your own if you have them. Lastly, wear sturdy shoes with substantial toes (leave the light trail runners and sandals at home). When the conditions are muddy, as they often are on the Oregon Coast, our Mudpons make a great addition to your kit! Some trail work parties span entire weekends and you will backpack or bikepack in to the site location. For those, bring a whole gravity kit and a clean hands valve!
Additional resources - Find your crew!
We love volunteering with the Trail Keepers of Oregon. TKO is a local organization working to repair and maintain trails on public lands trails in Oregon, and they advocate for better funding and policies to protect our wild places.
There are many similar organizations around the country to volunteer!
- The Mazamas
- Pacific Crest Trail Association
- Wildlands Restoration Volunteers
- Tahoe Rim Trail Association
- Northwest Trail Alliance - Mountainbike Specific
- Oregon Timber Trail - Bikepacking and Mountainbiking
- Central Oregon Trail Alliance - Mountainbike Specific
Other parts of the US:
- The Green Mountain Club (VT)
- American Hiking Society (Nationwide)
- Florida Trail Association
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy
- Appalachian Mountain Club
- Arizona Trail Association
- Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado
- National Park Service
What are your favorite trail organizations? What sort of support have you provided to keep your local trails up and running? Let us know!
By Nathan Oetting
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