The motto of trail-makers is, "If the rock is small enough for one man to carry, it's too small."
So, they scour the nearby hillsides looking for rocks with squarish sides that are small enough for two to four (or even six) healthy men to carry in a "rock crib" — a net of plastic straps carried by steel poles.
These rocks are wedged in place on the vulnerable, downhill side of a trail switchback and shored up with "crush fill," which is flat rocks bashed into many pieces and jammed around the big rocks so they'll drain water, not allowing it to pool and make the trail mucky.
This is the sort of thing they teach volunteers at the two-day Big Bend Trail Skills College, held in warmer months at several locations on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Last weekend, the Pacific Crest Trail Association held a trail college at Hyatt Lake for 50 trail-makers, with one small group of five redesigning a half-mile spur off the PCT that snakes up scenic, 5,500-foot Hobart Bluff.
The work is hard and the men are choosing their rocks carefully, with crew chief Ian Nelson of PCTA noting that "rocks come in three sizes: single hernia, double hernia and too small."
You can trek along the PCT, barely noticing the rockwork that holds it up and prevents erosion, but a huge amount of work has gone into constructing the trail and configuring it so that it won't wash away or turn into a mudhole.
"We try to find rock uphill from the trail, if possible," says Nelson, "and we use native material. We use rock because it doesn't rot (like wood), and we try to avoid using volcanic rock because it's brittle and has funky shapes."
The PCTA, headquartered in Sacramento, partners with an array of interested parties, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, state forestry and parks agencies and many private, nonprofits — with equestrian trail-riding clubs being especially vital to bringing in tools and foods for trail-makers, who sometimes are many miles from vehicle roads, says Nelson.
The skills taught at these free "trail colleges" include trail maintenance, drainage, brush-clearing and use of chain saws and crosscut (two-man) saws. The manual saws are handy for Wilderness Areas, where chain saws are banned, he notes.
You might think trail-building is easy and maybe not that important, but Bob Williams of the Klamath Falls Rails to Trails Group says trails create access to vast, otherwise inaccessible areas, thus creating an sizeable influx of eco-tourists, who leave piles of money with regional restaurants, motels and other businesses that are still trying to get over the timber bust.
Williams is in the midst of building a "check dam" — a clever device to divert water into the soil by spanning the trail with a flat rock, firmly lodged against a "gargoyle" (big, naturally occurring rock that "ain't ever goin' anywhere"). This slows down flowing water, checks erosion and forces water to drain down into crush fill placed in front of it.
"Yes, it's hard work, but I've been doing it 40 years, here and in Colorado, where we helped create a recreational tourist economy" for summer, seeing it finally outgrow skiing tourism in Breckenridge, says Williams.
"These skills are hard to get. It takes a lot of finesse," says Evan Bannon of the Job Council in Medford, as he shores up a switchback with what looks like a 300-pound rock. "There's a lot of trial and error involved."
Experienced in environmental and conservation work, G'Van Tribble, a math tutor with Rogue Community College, says, "I'm here to renew my skills. It's exhilarating to know you're improving an area and repairing broken-down structures."
Scott Goldin, a PCTA technical advisor stationed in Mount Shasta, says he's learning trail restoration "to a very high standard" that's required by the association and government agencies. "It's not a three-year solution that we're working on. Much longer than that."
The half-dozen annual colleges — see details at www.pcta.org — are sponsored by REI and are also taught in the Lake Tahoe area, near Cascade Locks and in Southern California. Upkeep on the nearly 2,700-mile trail, stretching from Mexico to British Columbia, is "a never-ending and monumental undertaking," made necessary by wind, wildfire, flooding, gravity and vegetation, says the PCTA website.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.