Trails for everyone, forever
Between building new trails and repairing damaged ones in preparation for the coming spring and summer, WTA crew leaders have multiple projects to balance when the weather turns cold and rainy. | Story and photos by Erika Haugen-Goodman
On a cold, late-fall morning, before the sun had risen over the Cascade Mountains, I met LeeAnne Jensen at her home in Snoqualmie, Washington. LeeAnne is one of a handful of Washington Trails Association staff who lead volunteer crews in building and maintaining hiking trails around the State. LeeAnne's territory ranges from Issaquah all the way to Snoqualmie Pass, a 36-mile stretch of highway that is home to more than 140 hikes.
When I knocked on the door, it was still dark. LeeAnne and a wet dog nose welcomed me in. In the kitchen, LeeAnne’s husband ate breakfast, and their dog, a big brown mutt named Tobie, curled up next to a backpack and hiking boots. Bruce the cat surveyed the activity from a corner near the stove. A kettle on the stove heated water for the hot chocolate that volunteers would later enjoy.
We said goodbye to the pets gathered at the door, and headed back out into a brisk morning with temperatures hovering in the low 30s. I asked if she had worked on a trail when the ground was frozen.
“Oh yeah,” she said, “just this week, actually.” It makes things a bit more challenging, she explained, but it doesn’t stop crews from getting work done.
When we reached her truck, LeeAnne loaded up two giant thermoses containing hot chocolate for volunteers, a container full of cookies and her personal gear. The tools were already waiting for us at the work site, left over from the previous day’s work party. The truck was loaded in minutes, and then we were off to the trailhead, our headlights cutting through the early morning dawn.
Our destination for the day was Grand Ridge, a trail system on the outskirts of Issaquah that provides an area for hikers, bikers and equestrians to recreate. WTA has been working in the Grand Ridge area for 17 years in partnership with King County Parks, building miles of new trail through the lush, forested terrain. It's the sort of place that makes you completely forget you're only a couple miles from a Starbucks at any given time.
After a quick drive down I-90 and up into the hills of Issaquah, we reached the trailhead. Frost covered the ground, and I fumbled for my down coat, thankful I remembered to pack it. The volunteer Assistant Crew Leaders (ACLs or "orange hats") weren’t set to arrive for another 30 minutes, so LeeAnne got to work setting out the hard hats and a volunteer sign-up sheet on the tailgate of the pickup. It wasn’t long before a few of the ACLs began showing up, eager to get the work started.
That’s something I’ve noticed on every work party I’ve attended—volunteers show up keen to get their hands dirty. Many of the volunteers arriving at the trailhead had at least 50 work parties under their belts, but they were so excited to get a tool in their hands you’d think it was their first time out. It’s that enthusiasm and dedication to the work that truly makes WTA work parties something special.
Once the remaining volunteers arrived, LeeAnne did a quick round of introductions so everyone could become acquainted. She gave a brief safety talk covering physical safety, a priority while working, but also volunteer emotional and mental safety. She emphasized that everyone is welcome on WTA work parties, and if anyone had any issues throughout the day that they could come to her for help. It's a principle that WTA takes seriously; LeeAnne and other staff work hard to ensure that everyone who comes out on a work party has fun and feels safe.
With the morning briefing over, volunteers began the hike to the work site.
“Remember,” LeeAnne reminded the group, “don’t work too hard. We have to hike out of here at the end of the day, too.”
Her comment was met with a few laughs, but there was wisdom in her words. Building a new trail is hard work, and breaks are encouraged through the day.
The group of volunteers hiking to the work site was comprised of a near equal split of men and women of all ages. There were retirees, software developers, yoga teachers and everything in between. They were normal people who had taken their own time to improve the experiences of other hikers, and I was about to see firsthand just how much work they could get done in a day.
After about 30 minutes of hiking we reached the work site. A pair of King County employees met us to talk about the day’s work while the tools were set out on the side of the trail from their overnight resting place. The partnerships between WTA and land managers is key in making sure the work is done properly and to both groups' satisfaction.
In this case, King County helped lay out the trail design and consulted with WTA on exact specifications for how the route should weave between trees and how angled certain sections of trail can be to accommodate bikes, as well as hikers and equestrians.
Building a trail solely for hikers allows for a bit more leeway in design, but when other trail users enter the equation, certain safety factors go into the planning and building, like making sure sharp turns aren’t near hazards like trees or drops. It’s details like this that can be overlooked easily as you hike, ride or bike along, but every inch of trail has been planned to serve specific purposes.
Once the day’s work was discussed, the tool talk began. The tool talk is one of the most important parts of the day. It’s where volunteers learn how to use and handle each tool effectively and safely. LeeAnne gave a brief introduction, then let volunteer ACLs who have been out before go through each of the tools that would be used. The list included Pulaskis, grub hoes, saws, shovels and Mcleods, each with their own specific use to maximize efficiency and safety.
With tools in hand, the volunteers broke into two groups—one which would work on a new structure that would support a portion of raised trail, while the other focused on going back over existing trail with drainage issues.
I followed LeeAnne and a handful of volunteers to the “borrow pit”, a hole about 20 yards off the trail under a tangled tree root that would provide quality soil for trail construction.
Volunteers were bundled up in jackets for the first few minutes of work, but quickly shed layers as shovels were used to fill buckets with soil. It’s hard work, and breaks are encouraged throughout the day. At 10 a.m. the group reconvened and LeeAnne went around with a bag of trail mix and candy for the volunteers. The candy break (a WTA trail work tradition), as well as the energy boost, was welcomed by the crew. During the downtime, volunteers talked about which crew leads provide the best snacks. The group agreed that LeeAnne does a pretty good job picking out quality candy and trail mixes.
“The peanut butter snacks are the best,” one volunteer said. “They just give that little extra boost.”
Work continued after the break, and LeeAnne gave me a rundown on the project. A few sections of trail had seen some drainage issues with all the recent rainfall, so crews were going back and ensuring that standing water was kept to a minimum.
“Keeping water off the trail does a couple things,” LeeAnne explained, “it’s better for keeping the tread intact as well as making sure trail users don’t have a reason to go around it and widen the trail and cause erosion.” As she pointed out problem spots she continued tamping dirt down using a McLeod, a type of rake with a flat edge on the back like a hoe and big, pointy teeth on the other side. It’s an effective tool for multiple jobs, and is a favorite among the crew.
As lunch approached LeeAnne came around and gathered up all the volunteers.
“A few of them sometimes want to keep working when it gets cold so they stay warm,” LeeAnne explained as we walked back toward the starting point of our day.
I glanced around as we arrived at the meeting point and noted a few jealous looks from volunteers aimed at those who had brought hot soup in thermoses. I looked down at my sad-looking bagel with peanut butter and joined them in coveting the hot lunches.
Lunch topics ranged from the work that day to how the ancient Greeks built the Parthenon (and how it compares in quality to the structures the volunteers are building), to weekend plans. The common ground of being out there, no matter anyone's age or background, tends to be enough to get a conversation started. First-time volunteers chatted with ACLs who had been out on more than a hundred work parties; the connection of being out there producing a mutual respect for each other and the work being done.
With lunch over, only a couple hours of work remained. Through the moss-covered trees, the sun slowly began sinking, despite it only being just after noon. Winter work parties often have considerations that summer crews generally don’t, like daylight hours, cold conditions, rain and sometimes wind. I asked LeeAnne how she combats the winter conditions and was met with a laugh, indicating that these conditions weren't anything new.
“Making sure volunteers have the appropriate clothing is a big one,” she replied. “There are also some cases where if the weather is particularly bad, we’ll call the work party a bit early. We don’t force anyone to be out here having a bad time.”
I checked in on the crew building a crib wall (a type of retaining wall) as the day wound down and was impressed by how much the small team of five had accomplished. They had stripped logs using Pulaskis and then driven the stakes into the embankment to keep the trail from eroding down the hill, giving a nice, smooth route around a tree that bikers could navigate safely. A curve was designed in the trail just before that spot to provide a natural slowing point, which, of course, was all part of the project plan.
As the day wrapped up, LeeAnne once again gathered the volunteers from their various projects and brought them back to the area where we had started the day. I asked her how she makes a first-time volunteer’s day more enjoyable as we gathered tools from the side of the trail.
“I think giving them a project where they can see their progress and follow it throughout the day has a big impact,” she said. "Being able to tangibly build something seems to connect with a lot of folks."
We made our way back out to the trailhead as a group, hauling the tools that would be deposited later at WTA’s tool storage facility in North Bend. Spirits were high, and the volunteers felt accomplished with the work they had done. Structures had been built, drainage problems fixed. Plenty of work remained on this new stretch of trail. As we hiked out, a few volunteers talked about the work still to be done. I turned to a first-time volunteer and asked her how her day went, and if she would come back to do more work parties.
“Yeah, definitely,” she said, a smile on her face. “I knew I would come back before I even got out here. I have good intuition on these kinds of things.”
When we reached LeeAnne’s truck, the tools were loaded into the back and the hot chocolate and cookies were put out on the tailgate for volunteers to enjoy. People stood in groups, talking and enjoying the beverages in the winter sun. In the shade I noted that frost still clung to the ground. It never reached too far above freezing in the forest that day, but I didn’t hear any volunteers mention anything about the cold. It was just another day of trail work, and for LeeAnne, her 136th for the year.
As I turned to leave, I overheard a couple volunteers talking about how one of the day's projects didn't get finished.
"Good thing there's another work party tomorrow."
"Yeah, I'll be there."