Breakfast is over. Trail crew members wrap up morning stretches, as the crew chief goes over the day’s assignments. Then it is off to pick up tools and head out for a long day of building check dams, water bars, cutting brush and making other trail improvements.
The base camps change every couple weeks, but the focus is the same. These mostly college age volunteers are here to improve trails; many of which have been around for decades; hailing back to the Civilian Conservation Corps---the CCC days—of the Great Depression.
For AmeriCorps volunteers, it’s hard work, sleeping in tents, dinner back at camp. They receive a living stipend, and when their contract is complete, can get an education award for college. After four 10-hour days, these crews get the weekend off. Through late July, crews are working at Brushy Creek State Recreation Area near Fort Dodge and Pike’s Peak State Park near McGregor; where steep trails and beautiful vistas are the primary park feature. Severe flooding has eroded away sections of those trails.
Earlier in the month, they were based near Lake Macbride State Park, at Solon. One day it might have been setting fence posts or building water diversion practices on steep paths. On the day I caught up with a crew, it was widening the multi-use North Arm Trail, which runs from Solon, five miles to the main entrance of Macbride.
“Its corridor clearing; removing limbs and leaves, especially on corners so bicyclists can see joggers. We’ll replace gravel that has washed away; pull out honeysuckle by the roots. It’s an invasive plant and that will keep it from growing back,” are among the chores trail crew foreman Peter Englund lists.
ISU Forestry student Henry Moss worked close to his Sioux City home last summer. This year? “I wanted to learn about trail maintenance and construction…as a career direction,” assesses Moss. “Outdoor recreation is becoming more popular. Everyone makes good use of the little public land Iowa has. I am learning how to manage trails for multiple users.”
They learn that trails don’t last forever. “We build check dams, water bars, reinforce grade dips, drains,” lists Englund. “Last year, was more heavy structural work; retaining walls, railroad tie box steps (on hillside trails). This year, it is more about maintenance; trail drainage, hand railings. That’s the most important part of trail work; the maintenance. We want sustainable trails.” If a trail is sustainable--if it holds up--future crews don’t have to come back for decades.
And it is hard to get to most areas in the first place! Hand tools are predominant. Power tools get heavy, when they have to be walked in a mile or more. An all-terrain vehicle might fit. Or not. That is when limestone slabs, creosote-soaked ties or split logs are hoisted carefully and walked into place.
“(We ask) how many do we need back there; how far apart should they be placed?” asks Englund. “(We are) setting them in place with hand tools. It is tedious work at times. But it is the most important work that we do.”
Doing some of the heavy lifting is Stephan Petryczka, from New York. “I’m interested in environmental work. (Here), we build a few basic structures. The trails are now sustainable. Sustainable is the key,” he emphasizes.
Fellow crew member Michael Tipton has done a lot of hiking out West. “But I never understood trails. I just walked them,” he admits. “Now, I can spot where to put in a water bar; to divert water off a trail.” Englund jokes that noticing trail flaws will ruin hiking for Tipton.
Iowans get trails out of the deal; at a time when we hear ‘get outdoors!’ more and more. And these trails are renovated to last. That might mean an erosion friendly zigzag pattern, replacing a straight, steep 1930s era path. It means diverting rain or snow runoff away from the trail, to prevent deep ruts.
And the crews? Besides a financial boost for college, they learn…about trails, teamwork, hard, sweaty work…and sleeping in a tent all summer. That is experience they would not get as office interns or retail clerks; driving home to air conditioning and a soft bed each evening.
“The summer is about the experience,” underscores Englund. “It is like being able to use a GPS. That’s fine (if you can). However, without knowing how a map and compass work, you don’t learn anything.”
----- AmeriCorps Trails Help Wanted Sign Still Out---
AmeriCorps’ trail crew has a few ‘fall’ openings. Two contracts are available for August through October work on the trails. There are three one-year positions which start in September. Contact Whitney Davis, email@example.com