BECOMING A TRAIL WORKER


A few mosquitoes flew around me as I left the Hemlock Butte area parking lot and started on the trail to Vivian Lake.  I was first; the other four workers were finishing getting their gear together, bug nets on, saws and Pulaskis together for the log out of the trail, clearing the path of fallen trees and branches that had accumulated over the winter.. I was going to the first blowdown, still outside the Diamond Peak Wilderness, and would wait for the chain sawyer behind me.  We would use the chain saw to clear blowdowns outside the wilderness, the first several hundred yards of trail; two man saws would be used further along, once we entered the wilderness.

We hoped to clear the main trail to the junction of the Divide Lake Trail and then clear the latter all the way to the Pacific Crest Trail.  If we had time, we wanted to clear a few miles to Vivian Lake, although that seemed like a tall order.

I got to the first blowdown, an 8 inch hemlock across the trail, and waited for the sawyer. The other three passed by on their way to the wilderness boundary, where a few big logs awaited them. We would be there soon enough.

The sawyer cleared the first obstacle and the next, and I threw the cut logs off the trail then moved on.  When I reached the third, an easy log across the trail, I kept my pack on, since I expected the cutting to be quick.  The sawyer arrived, and he looked at the log, planning the cut standing on the opposite side from me.

I looked up above the log and stopped cold.

There was a large log perpendicular to and resting right on the one we were going to cut.  I yelled over to the sawyer, telling him he might want to move to my side of the log.  He looked up at the larger log and nodded.  He moved over to my side, started up the saw and began cutting.  It didn’t take long.

As the small blowdown was cut through, two things happened in quick succession:

  1. The small log dropped on the trail.
  2. Immediately, the larger log dropped rolled down right over the trail, bounced, went airborne, and landed 15 feet below, against a tree.  

The whole sequence took maybe 5 seconds.  

“Thank you!” The sawyer called.  I nodded.  

That was the first time in nearly eighty times out in the woods with the group I can truthfully say I called a problem before it became one.  Most of the other times I had seen as others had, or there was no need for concern.  This one would have been nasty and might well have ended the day for us. 

The sawyer’s helper is called a swamper, which doesn’t exactly convey desire or respect, but it is the noun, and the verb is “to swamp (for)” someone.  Sawyers concentrate on logs, and they depend upon swampers to keep them safe from harm. It is another pair of eyes to look above for dead trees that may come down or tension loaded spring poles—small trees bent in a U-shape— that can do a lot of damage to one’s self-image if cut improperly.

A short while and two cuts later, we stashed the chain saw and entered the wilderness, dealing with two moderate size blowdowns (16 inches, 40 cm in diameter) using 2-man, 5-foot crosscuts. There were a modest number of blowdowns needing to be cut before we reached the junction of the trail to Divide Lake and the Pacific Crest Trail, and headed towards Divide Lake. Here, we had to cut out several large downed trees. We did some leapfrogging, where two would work on one blowdown and the other two worked their way up the trail. By the end of the morning, we had cleared the lower half of the trail.

We stopped for lunch.  Trail work is a special kind of hike. We don’t usually cover a lot of distance, but we see and hear much more in the woods, because we spend so much time in the same place. High in the sunlight were spider webs. There were signs of past storms, of trees leaning broken off, or cut in two.  There were shade tolerant wildflowers on the forest floor.  On wet days, there are small pools of water on low spots of the trail. Around us, we could see new growth. 

I have a special relationship with the ground, be it the forest or a floor. I often sit on it, kneel on it, lie on it.  When I saw patients and examined their legs, I knelt on the floor to do so. I had two chairs in the exam room, and often the patient and family member sat in them and I sat on the step stool.  I was closer to the ground and had eye-to-eye horizontal contact.  I didn’t try to talk down to my patients, figuratively or literally.

We do trail work because we like doing good, and we enjoy being out in the woods with a bunch of other like-minded people.  I still do “normal” hikes, but I enjoy helping make the trails accessible for everyone.  I enjoy eating my lunch without often snide comments about what I am eating, and I enjoy a day where we aren’t talking politics, only tension and compression, the latter causing saws to bind.  We approach a log, check how it lies, whether we can move it without cutting, or with a strap, or with only one cut, or needing two.  We look above, below, and around for dangerous objects. We try to anticipate what the cut log will do, where it is going to go, how to get it off the trail, and whether there is room for it somewhere else.

Only then do we saw.  The first time I did it, I lasted about 30 seconds. Half the time, one is relaxing, allowing the saw to be pulled by his or her partner.  The other half, one is pulling. Relax, pull, relax, pull, several hundred times, dealing with the bind, which pinches the saw and unless a wedge is pounded in, stops work.  

What was a first for me this day was when asked if I wanted a break, I said no, I was fine.  And I was.  I wanted to finish the cut we were doing, and then I would rest.  It was the first time working that not only did I have more endurance than someone, I had the most endurance of the small group we had, which I hadn’t realized, until somebody said they couldn’t keep up with me.  I had never heard that before. 

That sort of stuff doesn’t come easy. It requires a lot of work, good technique, pacing oneself, and time in the woods doing this.  I will not have days like this all the time.  I would suck wind sawing the following week, and I would learn that I don’t have the legs to hike, push logs, and be out in the woods 5 days out of ten, without taking a few days off.  But two weeks later, I would have my first “second wind” while sawing, and finished a 23 incher. 

I had called a hazard that otherwise would have been unseen, and I was able to hold my own sawing. I was doing my own definition of good and enjoying it.

Underbucking a log or cutting from underneath. Notice the kerf-the cut–on top. It started coming together and binding the saw (top bind). On the bottom, the kerf will open up, allowing the cut to finish.
Author (right) using a D-handle saw to cut a small log. This is too much for a handsaw and too little for a two-man saw (Crossing Way Trail, Three Sisters Wilderness 1 Aug 20)..

Author (right) sawing a large Douglas fir. The orange wedge keeps the kerf open. I carry two in my pocket, which Ian, the other person, adopted. It saves time having to find one in a pack when one knows a log will need it. One of my modifications to the work gear. Diamond Peak Tie Trail, Diamond Peak Wilderness.
This mess will be done in a few days. Notice the extreme top bind on the large Douglas fir log. This is going to spring up when cut through and is a hazard that will need some discussion before we tackle it. The lowest log can be pulled off, the middle log may need two cuts, although if it is dry enough and short enough, one will be sufficient (Diamond Peak Wilderness).

Hiking out the Hand Trail (Mt. Washington Wilderness), on the first of what would be three days clearing the 4 mile (6.5 km) trail. Three Sisters in the distance, volcanic rock from past eruptions on the left.

“Tailgate session” before work in the Covid era. Scorpomanders (Scorpions from Eugene, Salamanders from Salem) doing a joint project at Patjens Lake Trail. The loop is about 6.5 miles (10 km), half in the Mt. Washington Wilderness. We used chain sawyers outside the wilderness and crosscut saws inside. We cleared it in 5 hours (11 Aug 20).

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