National Trails Day of June 3rd, 2006: A Report
National Trails Day, 2006.
National Trails Day of June 3rd, 2006: A Report
Another National Trails Day has come and gone, and this year's gathering in the Angeles National Forest was a good one. The event took place at Crystal Lake (North 34, 19.457 by West 117, 50.115, 5635 feet) and consisted of a number of different trail building and trail maintenance organizations, at least one Boy Scout troop, some hiking groups, and members of the California Conservation Corps. Oh yes, and the U. S. Forest Service and REI, a corporation that sells outdoor equipment. Both the USFS and REI organized and funded the event.
Crystal Lake was a good choice for hosting the event for a number of reasons. The camping and hiking grounds are the largest in the San Gabriel Mountain range, as I understand it, and there's relatively easy access to the area from all of Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County. A great deal of time, money, and effort has gone into the area to route power lines up to the camping grounds and to restore roads and safety equipment along the way.
The area is a perfect location for tens of millions of city-bound people to experience relatively wild forest for a day or a week end, something that helps alleviate stress and show kids that there's more than just pavement, gas stations, and shopping centers in the world.
The lake and surrounding camping and hiking areas are typically closed to the general public, and have been closed since 2002 when a series of fires and beetle infestation events occurred (the Curve Fire and the Williams Fire. NOTE: "Williams Fire" is the name of the burn event and is not related to the company with the same name. The beetle infestation is covered briefly in the Time Magazine article referenced below.)
Thursday morning I loaded up my bicycle with my bedding, tent, and ropes, shouldered my back pack, and bicycled to where Ben from the San Gabriel Mountains Trail Builders was waiting. Jannet (spelling?) was already there and my bicycle and gear was tossed into the back of Ben's pickup truck and the three of us headed up to the Rincon Fire Station to sort though and collect the tools we would be bringing up.
Most of the equipment that we loaded consisted of McClouds, Pollaskis, and shovels. Having plenty of room we filled out the load with a griphoist, rock moving bars, loppers, saws, buckets, and other assorted gear. Other groups of volunteers were bringing some of their tools but Ben decided we'd go ahead and bring all that his group had -- which was a good thing since there were plenty of volunteers to use them.
From the Rincon Fire Station we continued on up toward Crystal Lake to drop the tools off. The highway remains closed around mile marker 29.6 where there's a gate that was installed after the fires. (Falling limbs and trees were a safety hazard for a long time due to the burns and infestations. The trees up in those mountains are considerably stressed and a great many of them -- the majority, it looks to me -- have died. Also parts of the highway cleaved off into the canyon and had to be rebuilt and certified safe. Some sections of the highway had actually melted into pools during the fires.)
After getting through the gate it was another 5 or 6 miles to the gate leading into Crystal Lake, then another two miles or so to where we unloaded all of the tools and cashed them in the shade. We then drove to the Visitor Center (one building on the edge of a parking lot) where I was dropped off with my gear.
After setting up my tent a long way down Soldier Creek Trail (out of the way where people wouldn't come anywhere near it) I walked around Crystal Lake policing for litter. The area hasn't been really occupied since 2002 so there wasn't much that needed to be picked up. The U. S. Forest Service people have kept the entire camping and hiking grounds extremely clean, and being unoccupied for so long the whole place was very clean. Yeah, there were road signs that had fallen and broken up, but there was very little catches-your-eye-immediately litter.
When I returned to my tent I found it covered in killer ants -- just like that old Ronald Reagan movie. By the time I rescued my things from the ants, I was hopping around slapping at myself and screaming, "Get 'em offa me! Get 'em offa me!" something I cured by sliding head first into the creek. I relocated to a safer area under a tree -- which was surrounded that night by deer which argued among themselves most of the night.
Nighttime alone up there is -- well it's magical and breathless, actually. There's still the city lights to the South and West that will at times intrude, but it's mostly entirely dark with just a sliver of Moon and some star light to light things up (Jupiter, I believe it was, was also very bright.) Away from the creek it's also very quiet with only the occasional gust of wind making noise. From time to time a troop of deer would come through to look over my tent -- and at times to chew on the bottom edge of my tent until I made noise to make them stop.
The deer up there, while I'm at it, are numerous and the does that I saw appeared well fed. They are absolutely fearless of humans and Saturday night after the trails event I stood beside the Visitor Center building and had deer walking around me in circles less than 5 feet away, pausing to examine me, walking around a bit more, and pausing to look me over again.
Friday morning was the day before the event. I waited in my tent until Lois, John, and Larry (all from the U. S. Forest Service) arrived with some equipment. We put up tables with canopies above them, distributed chairs and what not about the place.
John had seen my bright orange single-speed bicycle stored next to some tools upside down on its seat and told me that when he'd seen it he had thought about throwing it into the trash dumpster! Argh! My best friend ever being thrown into the dumpster?! A few minutes later he laughed and I found he had something of a mildly sick humor. (I paid $10 for my bicycle and spent a lot of time sanding it down and making it work after it had been stored in someone's back yard for decades.)
Larry was tasked with swamping out two of the camp sites down near the trailhead of Pinyon Ridge Trail and Solder Creek Trail where the two camp sites were to be used for demonstrations. When Lois and John went to set up tables elsewhere, I found Larry slinging a McCloud and shovel at the first camp site, raking and bagging needles, leaves, twigs, rocks, and dirt so that it could be moved. I got a square shovel and joined him.
After the first camp site was cleaned up, I went to look for a McCloud, couldn't find it, then returned and found that a construction crew from Chermo Construction had joined in swamping out the second camp site while he waited for his water truck's tank to fill from one of the electrically pumped underground cisterns. (That takes over an hour.) It was extremely nice of this crewman to leave his comfortable water truck, come over with his own tools, and spend over an hour with us sweating in the heat.
Note to self: Larry might not be human. The guy worked hard in the hot Sun and never sweated a drop, never got tired, never paused for water, was cheerful, even. Keep an eye on him.
The USFS people finished everything they needed to do for now so they packed up and drove back down to Rincon. John returned that evening since he was going to be spending the night camped in one of the official camping areas (I had parked my tent in a place that wasn't officially designated for it.) Strange, but I can't recall whether Lois or Larry returned for a bit that evening. Blame it on sunstroke.
When it started to get dark, the trail crew that offer their horse and pack mule team to trail projects arrived and set up camp not far from where I had had my tent, then representatives from REI showed up, something we hadn't known for some time until three of them walked to the Center -- two women and a little boy. (The little boy said, "Hello!" to all of us when we were introduced. Polite and friendly.) They'd been there for a while and set up camp while we wondered whether they were going to make it up tonight.
John suggested I move my tent since it wasn't in an approved spot. I had a suggestion in mind for him but instead I moved my things across the road. He also said that tonight we were going to all get together for a pre-Trails Day around a camp fire, roast marshmallows, making Smoores, and sing "Kumbaiya" -- or however it's spelled. I immediately started thinking, "Do I want to come to that? Would it be rude to decline?" About a half an hour later I realized he had been joking -- which was a relief. I can't eat marshmallows.
The local Sheriff's Office came by, two Officers in an "Explorer," according to the legend on the side of the big huge gas guzzling stink-spewing thing. Ha! I had to laugh at how much they were paying for gasoline to drive it up here until I reconsidered how much it was costing ye ole tax payer. But these Officers were great -- good people so far as I could tell. They had driven around the area checking things, making sure we were safe, then stopped in to visit with us -- and spotlighted the deer that were handing around the tables we'd set up so we could watch them.
These great Officers also reported seeing Big Horn Sheep up around Angeles Crest, I believe it was, which they attempted to take photographs of using a telephone with embedded camera. If they could get a real camera and carry it around with them, they'd get photographs they could post to their corkboard at their headquarters or maybe on to their Office web site.
These Officers that work up here -- at least those I've talked with over the years -- also tend to vehicle accidents along the Highway 39, injuries, drunk drivers, and they keep ever alert for smoke and fires. Their worst jobs are scraping people off the highway, dragging their remains out of canyons, and dealing with cocaine-addled drunks -- how they do such hard work and still have smiles on their faces and be warm and friendly I can't imagine.
I've traded horror stories with some of them. Unless you've spent years bicycling slowly through the canyons, or unless you're working daily among the populace that drives through the canyons, you can't honestly know or feel internally how stupid, dangerous, and disgusting some humans can get once they think they're in the mountains far from the reach of The Law. The people who start fires annoy me the most, and it's been my pleasure to tag a Sheriff down at the Off Road Vehicle area with the exact location of a bunch of people standing around a fire kicking leaves and branches into it.
Friday night wasn't quite as quiet as it had been the previous night. There was a baseball game playing on a radio, it sounded like, but distant and far away at low volume. The deer tromping around the place made much more noise.
The next morning was the day of the Trails event with all of the various volunteer groups showing up before 9:00 a.m. or so. There was a sign-in sheet for people who wanted to join in a raffle for a number of prizes, but if I'm not mistaken a lot of people didn't bother to sign in. And I mean a lot of people: like 10% of the people up there, it looked to me, parked and walked right past the sign-in table. It's no big deal, I suspect, but it means we won't get a very accurate count for how many volunteers attended the event.
Around 10:00 a.m. the volunteers split into two main groups, one of which -- the larger group -- were to utilize the San Gabriel Mountains Trail Builders equipment we'd cached to work on Lost Ridge Trail, and the other group to work on Pinyon Ridge Trail.
The larger group then split into two other groups, one consisting of at least one Boy Scout group which would utilize the griphoist and other equipment to move downed trees, and the other group to string themselves out along what used to be Lost Ridge before -- well before it was lost.
The smaller group collected at the trailhead of Pinyon Ridge and Solder Creek trails where we then split into two groups: Wayne would take a number of volunteers along the start of the trail and then follow the left loop, and I would take about 15 or 20 or so other volunteers on the right side of the loop. Pinyon makes a loop of about a mile, climbing and then dropping a couple of hundred feet, I believe, crossing about six streams, three of them seasonal and the other three running year-around, I believe.
My segment contained six members of the California Conservation Corps as well as trail workers of both genders and a wide variety of ages. The trail was flooded in two places along the segment we were to work and there were two places where rock "bridges" spanned small creeks. I'd mentioned to the CO of the CCC that there was a difficult heavy lifting job at the first creek crossing so he took his CCC crews to tackle that -- and they did a splendid job of it; when they were done it really looked nice, safe, and professionally done.
All of the volunteers laid into the trail with McClouds and shovels, finding were the trail used to lay in spots where it had almost disappeared, and moving brush and growth to one side of the trail. The hardest parts were those that had water flowing either on the trail or under the soil. The easier areas were the dry desert rocky gravel areas that lead to higher altitude.
Everyone worked hard until around 12:45 when I thought maybe we should all try to get back to the Visitor Center to see if there was any lunch left (REI provided lunch.)
The volunteers had spread out a lot along the trail, leap-frogging whole sections for some reason. That was probably due to different people's trail maintenance styles. Some felt that since parts of the trail were easily recognized as being the trail, there was no real reason to expend energy flushing them out. Others felt that since they were out there anyway and the trail was "dim" along such sections, even if it was recognizable it should be scraped and otherwise cleaned off.
No problem: the trail ended up being a variety of different maintenance styles with volunteers sweating buckets as they worked in the heat all along our section of the trail.
I rejoined the CCC crews -- young women and young men who attacked the job quickly and professionally without a single complaint. Of course they were all some 20 or 30 years younger than me, but I tried to keep up with them anyway and had a hard time of it. We hiked back down the trail toward the trailhead with our tools, humping quickly like we were in a fire fighting crew, almost.
Wayne was there to collect the tools and get them sorted into his vehicle. We then went to see what was for lunch.
REI provided lunch -- it consisted of something hideous called "turkey roll" that looked for all the world like the dead raw fish you roll up with rice and bean sprouts and call "lunch." I couldn't eat it since I don't eat rotting animal carcass but there was a salad of sorts along with tomatoes, carrots, apples, and oranges (all of which I loaded down my plate with. Three times. Later I heated vegetarian beans and had it with salt crackers and five gallons of water.)
I asked one of the REI guys if they had brought anything for vegetarians and he said no, not unless turkey aren't animals. Apparently the lunch that was planned didn't work out -- the family that normally provides the good healthy stuff had a family problem and wasn't able to yield meals enough for such a large crowd that we had. He said that next time REI will have a backup plan and will ensure that next time there'll be vegan with organically grown treats, things I think the REI guy had wanted this time as well because so many of the volunteers -- nearly all of them -- were in such good physical shape and lots of people skipped the "turkey roll" like I did. No problem though, really. The rest was quite good and well appreciated!
I thought about asking the REI guy if he had any "Dolphin free apples" but I could see the guy was very busy and might suffer vapourlock if I messed with his head. Laugh! "Dolphin free apples." A guy who had worked at providing vegan meals would probably understand "dolphin free tuna" but probably shred his gears on "dolphin free apples."
After lunch there were a number of things to look at and do, if that be one's wish. There were reptiles on exhibit including a desert tortoise, and there had been a cooking demonstration which yielded peanut butter chip brownies and some kind of cake, neither of which I got to sample, alas. A team of Judges got to sample them, however, hot and fresh out of the Dutch Ovens they came from. I believe they reached a consensus that the brownies were marginally superior. These things are usually extremely difficult to judge.
We had a raffle and I won a T-shirt (ticket number 323044 which reads "KEEP THIS COUPON" so I think I'd better do as it says and keep it.) I told everyone else from the San Gabriel Mountains Trail Builders that I was hoping to win a new bicycle -- or at least a new rear axle -- but I was happy to win a shirt.
Ben won a prize offered by REI -- sleeping equipment. Lois won what looked to be a canvas beach bag filled with beach stuff. I'm not sure but I think that neither Tom and Mike from the SGMTBs won anything, and neither did Larry or John from the USFS. REI also gave away a tent and some other useful things -- like maps -- and I guess the USFS gave away maybe 30 prizes in all. Everyone present for the event got an REI "VOLUNTEER" shirt so everyone at least got something to take back home with them.
There was also the horse and mule packing team to check out. The volunteers who maintain the animals had set up stations where trail maintenance volunteers could practice packing a mule. (By the time I got down there it was pretty late so I missed out on trying it.) It was great just seeing the horses and mules because they do so much of the heavy work -- like hauling heavy metal beams long distances to repair foot bridges.
Another reason why I greatly appreciated the horse and mule team is because these animals work hard and aren't well recognized for their efforts. To be sure their genetic predisposition toward operating in packs lead by an Alpha Male had been hijacked by humans into bending them to obeying their new primate masters, but there's a lot of humans out there who don't live nearly as well as these animals do, nor get nearly as much exercise and fresh air. I really enjoyed watching them walk around.
There was also a set of tables that contained written information on the plants and animals in these mountains, backed up with volunteers who really knew their stuff about what could be eaten, what should be avoided, when such things grow, what to do when something bites, stings, pinches, punctures, stabs, sucks blood, scrapes and so forth while working in the mountains.
Note to the field craft crew: Some people _like_ poison oak so not everyone will want to be able to recognize it to avoid it. And after I've been covered so many times by now, I think I might be immune since I'll walk through the stuff and not have any problems.
By 6:00 p.m., everyone else had left Crystal Lake. The USFS collected their equipment and stacked it to be picked up in the morning, making sure that all the trash and recyclables were sorted and ready to be transported. (Yeah, USFS! They recycle!) There were a lot of left over recyclables plastic bottles of water left over and whoever organized the water made damn sure that everyone was well hydrated and always had plenty drinkable water. Whoever organized that made sure we wouldn't run out -- a good safety issue and quality thinking ahead.
Note to Ben: The safety meeting before we broke up into teams failed to mention the need to drink lots of water. "If you're not peeing, you're not drinking enough" wasn't mentioned that I could tell. We got poison oak and poison ivy comments but I don't remember a note about making sure we all drank lots of water. The trail leaders all carried extra water and water runners came along the work crews occasionally with extra water so it was well covered any way.
Since there was about 2 hours of light left and everyone was gone, I went down to Soldier Creek for another much needed bath and took the opportunity to wash a few things -- and some laundry. Gosh, what a sight! Naked in the forest under a waterfall slapping my dirty socks against a rock while singing John Denver songs.
Feeling much better, I walked the camp site all over the place looking for litter and surprisingly found about 10 recyclable plastic water bottles and three soft drink cans. "Surprisingly," did I say? I was in shock and was expecting to find the place completely spotless once again since nearly all of us were trail builders, Boy Scouts and stuff that I'd expected to be 100% litter-free.
Because there was still daylight left I walked Pinyon Ridge Trail again wanting to make sure there were no tools left behind. On the segment I had been assigned to I found a McCloud leaning against a bush, one marked with paint to show that it belonged to the group that Wayne is with. Since I was trail leader for that section, the responsibility to get it back to Wayne was mine so I brought it back to the Visitor Center and leaned it against my bicycle.
After I lost daylight I went to stand quietly near the Visitor Center to watch the deer walk around investigating what the humans had been up to. They sniffed and stepped on things, looking at the freakish bipedal monster standing there on the pavement quietly doing nothing. As the stars came out the deer gathered around me, staying about five feet away, walking around me wondering what I was and then wandering off to allow someone else a turn to look me over.
One deer wouldn't come any closer than about 10 feet despite the fact that I never made eye contact with it. The rest came much closer but maybe this one's sense of smell was more acute and just didn't like how I smelled or something. I told it I didn't eat meat and that it was meat so it had nothing to fear --this while looking off into the distance, still not making eye contact.
Since that didn't assuage her fears, I elaborated. "Most humans," I told her, "would put a BULLET through your HEART, SLIT your THROAT from ear to ear, then HANG you up by your hind feet to DRAIN YOUR BLOOD before they EAT YOU!" I told her. "But I'm not like most humans. Trust me." She didn't and trotted away when I looked her in the face to see if she believed me.
Sunday morning John and Larry were back bright and early to pick up the equipment waiting for them. I was packing up my bicycle and figuring out how I would carry the McCloud back down to the Rincon Fire Station where it could be stored until it could be returned to Wayne's group. This tool has six fairly sharp and sturdy prongs on one end and something of a hoe on the other, probably donated to the group by a fire fighting station which has to swap out their tools with new ones from time to time.
I think John and Larry saw me from a distance... I waved whether they did or not and then mounted my bicycle and shouldered my pack, coming down the mountain with a wicked-looking tool pointing out in front roped to my bike frame, inviting everyone to get out of my way.
Saying "Good bye" to Crystal Lake and, in fact, to the San Gabriel Mountains is always a sad time for me even when I'm hot, sweaty, exhausted, sun burned, and covered in blisters on my feet and hands.
It's such a privilege to be allowed to work up here with USFS professionals and highly experienced trail maintenance groups, and I've been pretty much living in these mountains every week end camping in canyons and along streams for 20 years. I spend so much time up there that some USFS people have wondered whether I was homeless. I've been asked a number of times to relocate every 21 days since they've seen me up there so much. I have to laugh.
It's good to lend a hand to try to alleviate human erosion by maintaining trails and when the highway is re-opened and the Lake gate allows paying customers, there will be reasonably safe trails up there and no excuse for people to drop their trash because it's too difficult to carry it out.
When Crystal Lake opens again, Adam will open up his "Snack Bar and Store" and bicycle riders who exercise up the long highway will have a place to buy cold tea, get a sandwich, and head back down again. (Of course along with a re-opened road we'll also get more cars and pollution along the highway -- as well as more medical calls and more fire calls.)
The people who bicycle up to the Crystal Lake gate (and then no further) are respectful of the mountains, I've noticed. I've watched them, sitting on hillsides camped or resting when they've not known I was there. They'll pause in shade for something to eat or drink and I've _never_ seen any of the bicycle riders ever drop their trash; they always shove it into a pocket or a back pack. The fewer hikers I've seen around the area also stuff their trash away properly. It's the people in vehicles with the radios on full volume that dump their garbage and set trash bins on fire and stuff like that.
The trip back down was a bit difficult since I didn't have any breaks and it was just under 100 degrees down below. My bicycle uses -- or I should say "used" -- the old Bendix coaster break which had broken pretty badly when coming down the mountain at high speed some weeks before so I dragged my shoes along the ground while speeding into curves and pretty much killed another pair of inexpensive sneakers.
Coming up to the barricade around mile marker 29.6 I discovered I was once again going way too fast despite having both feet scraping hard against the ground (this is the second time I've done this.) Seeing that I wasn't going to stop I decided to hit the dirt mound on the left and ramp off of it. Otherwise I would have run smack into the heavy metal gate at a good clip.
I came around the curve with my shoes squealing and a guy and a van full of children parked on the other side of the barricade watching me with his mouth open. I ramped off the dirt mound which killed a lot of my momentum until I was coming almost straight back down in a helicopter-like landing. When I landed I yelled to the guy, "Ha! I lived!" He yelled back, "Wow!"
I dropped the McCloud off at Rincon next to the SGMTBs' tool box, checked in at the Off Road Vehicle area to see if there was anybody I know, then took a couple of hours getting back down, pausing at the Ranger station below to see what Lois was trying to ask me. "Have you seen John today?" "Yes, he was at the Visitor Center up there this morning." "Okay, thanks!" while she continued to trade parking permits for $5.00 fees to customers in vehicles.
They have a hose there at the Ranger station so I took another brief bath (laugh) before arriving home an hour later.
It was a good event. National Trails Day was organized by John and Lois and if I'm not mistaken other parts of the event were organized by other USFS people. It wasn't perfect: I don't think the number of people we had hoped would show up ever did, and the food provided had a glitch that probably won't happen next time.
Next time there's a National Trails Day, I hope that it's held at Crystal Lake again because there's a lot of clean up work that still needs to be done there and (even more importantly) it's something within a half-day's bicycle hike I can get to.
That URL link above contains all of the photographs.
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