Backcountry Horsemen of America, backpacking, CCC, crosscut saw, Emerald Lake, Forest Service, Hells Canyon Wilderness Area, hiking, Idaho, Idaho Trails Association, pack string, Seven Devils Mountains, trail maintenance
Have you ever wandered down a path through the forest and cursed the fallen, sooty logs that require laborious step-overs or walk-arounds? Have you ever wondered how that path came to be there, hacked out of a thicket of greenery or cut into the rocky shoulder of a mountain? How many times have you grumbled over a partially exposed root or rock that snaked out of the path to grab your toe in a valiant effort to upend you?Most hiking trails, at least in the western US, started out as game trails co-opted by native hunters, then co-opted again by European explorers and miners. During the 1930s, the CCC were deployed throughout the west to build forest fire lookouts and trails, among many of their contributions to America’s infrastructure; their magnificent stone work in popular hiking destinations like Yosemite endure today. The US Forest Service expanded the trail system around the west, for the purposes of forest maintenance, logging, and communication.
When the ratio between labor and leisure hours shifted after WWII, hiking and horse and back packing increased demands on trails. The work of trail building and maintenance fell largely to the Forest Service until the late 1980s. A shift in funding in recent years has diminished federal agencies’ ability to keep up with infrastructure maintenance.
Today a plethora of volunteer organizations has stepped up to help clear trails suffering from years of deferred maintenance. I have participated in trail work through the Back Country Horsemen, and this year I worked with Idaho Trails Association.
Despite the backbreaking work, trail maintenance is one of the most rewarding activities I have participated in. For my most recent adventure I was in the company of four other dedicated outdoor lovers. We basked in the luxury of having a week’s worth of personal gear and food packed into Emerald Lake in the Hells Canyon Wilderness Area, also known as The Seven Devils.
Because this is a Wilderness Area, no machines are allowed, therefore we use hand tools, notably crosscut saws, most of which are highly treasured antiques.
I walked into the wilderness with four strangers. I walked out with four friends for whom I would dive under a train to save any of them from destruction.