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High Ho, High Ho...

I'm just back from a week working on a volunteer trail crew in the Mokelumne Wilderness. The trip into Moraine Lake was organized by the American Hiking Society, and led by staff from the US Forest Service. And it was full of fun, adventure, and damn hard work.

Day One: We began by camping together on Sunday night in the Cole Creek Campground above Bear Valley Reservoir. That's where we met Jacob, the team leader from the AHS, as well as Dylan, a summer intern with the USFS who was going to point us in the right direction.

Day Two: The next morning we were up and at the trailhead, meeting the pack team that was going to carry our tools and food into the spike camp. Small problem, not all the food would fit. We quickly did a recalculation and hoped we got things right. What's the worst that could happen?

It was a five-mile hike to Moraine Lake, but we didn't start until nearly 11 am, And one of our team struggled in the heat and dry air on the last two-mile climb to camp, so I stayed behind with her. Dylan came back down from the lake to collect her pack, and I kept feeding her salt and electrolytes and insisting she drink more water. In the end, with small steps and a slow, steady pace, we managed to make it up that last mile into camp, and we were all present and accounted for. The mules had arrived and delivered their cargo, and I set about hanging more than eight heavy bags of food with a single fifty-foot quarter-inch line. Not so easy.

After dinner we did a quick inventory, and Jacob radioed to request more line, more cooking gas, and a few other essentials.

Day Three: We broke into two teams. Dylan led one team up the hill to clear the trail above the lake, while I took another crew back down into the canyon to clear bushes and trees with loppers. Jacob day-hiked back to the trailhead to collect the needed gear delivered by the Forest Service.

After lunch, we switched teams, and Dylan headed further down the trail with a couple of people to wrap up the lopping, while I took the main group further up the hill. A quarter mile from camp there was a huge tree across the trail, and we were going to leave that for Chris Sailor, Wilderness Ranger, to supervise when he arrived on Thursday. But the good news of the day is that we got all the way to the tree by the end of the day, making the rest day on Wednesday a real vacation for the crew.

The good news was that with 125 feet of new rope, our bear hang got a lot easier. and I was able to develop a system that worked for the rest of the trip.

Day Four: A vacation day except for Dylan and me. We tackled the need for a few stone steps up the steepest part of the trail, and spent the morning on that. By lunchtime we had two of them in place, and the third ready to go. Meanwhile, most of the rest of crew had taken off for a hike towards Mokelumne Peak, trying to follow the trail that was under not only trees and brush, but plenty of snow.

After lunch, Those of us in camp rested and relaxed and watched the clouds build to the west. And sure enough by two o'clock a major thunderstorm cracked in to camp. Non-stop lightning and thunder, heavy rain combined with hailstones--some as large as marbles--made for an exciting couple of hours spent watching the rainflies of our tents and hoping those out on the trail were safe.

Eventually the storm let up, and we crept out of our tents, delighted to find all the missing hikers had made it back in time, and only slightly pelted by the early hail. Only Nadal, whose rainfly was destroyed by the hail, had any problems. But he set his gear out to dry, and by dinner time there were more or less smiles all around.

Day Five: We set the last stone step, cleaned up the new trail, de-commissioned the old trail by covering it with brush and slash, and just as we were finishing up the very last of these tasks, Chris sailed into camp (sorry for the pun) and took over the crew. He and I walked the next section of trail, and he laid out a new route that would avoid the delicate marshes and make a much better route for the long run. So after lunch I took a crew to push that new trail for another few hundred yards, while he took a team to saw through the massive trunk we had left for him. By the end of Thursday we had pushed the new route to meet up with the old trail, and cut through the big log as well.

We were switching teams so everyone got a chance to saw, lop, dig, tamp, and do whatever it takes to make a trail work. But I managed to hike more than ten miles this day, back and forth between the various workers, and by evening I had nasty stomach cramps. After consulting one of the team who was a nurse and Jacob as team leader, I took some meds, rested, and drank tons of water. Happily, by the next morning I was hydrated and fine.

But Chris brought some bad news, as well. There would be no mules for the hike back out. We could leave the tools and mess kit for the following crew (scheduled to arrive in the next few days) by all the food and garbage needed to be hauled out by our crew. That set us to attacking the food

Day Six: This was gravy. We'd already done far more than Chris had hoped, and so today we were backon the existing trail, clearing trees and whacking bush. We chopped out ferns from the tread of the old trail, cut through logs, lopped back trees, and by lunchtime we headed back to camp with a job well done.

After lunch, Chris asked my team to head to the top of the ridge, and just McLeod down the trail back to him, cleaning it up as we went. And he tackled two more trees. By break time we were both done, and so we headed up to the next section of trail.

A massive 40 inch tree lay across it, and Chris said to me; "That's not a Friday afternoon tree. That's a Tuesday morning tree." So we by-passed it, and hiking another 100 years to a mess of smaller trees across the trail. With Chris supervising, we chipped off bark, chopped with an axe, sawed through smaller trees, and eventually cleared the way to attack the largest trunk at the top. All went swimmingly until we were half-way through the log and the saw stuck frimly in the cut. Wedges didn't help. Pulling didn't help. Finally, with me leveraging a rock bar against the trunk, Chris was able to pull out the saw. Phew.

But we were done for the day. There is another crew schedule in a few days, and they could take it from here. Ann-Marie is resting the shadow of a single tree trunk--a finely honed skill on a trail crew.

We went back to camp, cached the tools and mess kit for the next team, and settled in around camp for a last dinner and an evening of stories.

Day Seven: The plan was to have everyone packed up and ready to address the extra loads by 7:30. We were ready by 7:15. Chris had already left at 5 to take a first load, and then return to take another one later in the morning.

Thanks to some very aggressive eating, we had finished up a lot of the food. Yes more than one person had eaten a tortilla filled with peanut butter and tuna on Friday, and the Parmesan cheese found its way into almost every menu item. but we managed to break the remaining food and garbage into manageable portions, and each of us hoisted an extra load on the way out.

But the adventure wasn't over. Ann-Marie, young, fit and carrying a ton of weight, smartly headed up the uphill section of the trail and left Paige and me in the dust. So when Paige finally arrived at the trailhead, she was surprised and concerned to find no sign of Ann-Marie. I arrived a few minutes later and shared her concern. Then another team member arrived, and then another...and then finally Ann-Marie hiked out, smiling but a bit embarrassed that she had missed a turn and added Shriner Lake to her itinerary. And then we waited for another hour for the rest to arrive, including Steve, who had generously taken on two additional weights to lighten the load of a couple of people who were struggling.

As we packed up into our cars, Jacob did a quick count, and we noted that Kelly was not among us. Oops. Just as we were preparing to organize the search party, Chris arrived with Kelly in two--she had taken the same turn as Ann-Marie, and Chris had decided to inspect the trail to Shriner Lake, only to find Kelly along the way.

We drove back to the Cole Creek Campground, gave hugs all around, and drove off to our various destinations, from San Diego to Seattle, Phoenix to Boston, Napa to Pollock Pines, all feeling tired, a bug bitten, sun-burned, and damned satisfied with a job well done, and a great crew of people.

For a few more photos:

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