Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Desolation Wilderness celebrates 50 years!

2019 is a monumental year for Desolation Wilderness as it celebrates 50 years as designated wilderness. This rugged northern California region was first called the Desolation Valley Primitive Area in 1931, later gaining wilderness status in 1969. Those who have had the fortune to visit know the inexplicable beauty to be found: 63,960 acres that span both sides of the Sierra Nevada, alpine/subalpine landscapes, 130+ brilliant blue alpine lakes, and 27 hard trails. Desolation Wilderness sees the most visitors annually for a wilderness its size and contains segments of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), as well as the Crystal Range.

For many years, Wilderness Volunteers have fielded week-long projects in coordination with the Eldorado National Forest (EDNF). Together, we’ve tackled bigger projects including trail work, rockwork, water mitigation, illegal campsite removal, and crosscut projects. I reached out to our EDNF liaison, Wilderness Ranger Dustin Bell, to learn more about the state of Desolation Wilderness (DW), what we can do to help preserve it, and what you can do to be a good outdoor recreator.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview. To provide a context for our readers, please tell us your name, your position, and how long you’ve been working in Desolation Wilderness.

Absolutely. My name is Dustin Bell and I’m a Wilderness Ranger for the Eldorado National Forest. I’ve been working in Desolation for over 10 years.

What makes Desolation Wilderness unique or special? 

Desolation offers accessibility for people to enjoy the wilderness that is unlike a lot of other wilderness areas. You can get into a wilderness area without having to trek out to Montana or Idaho and have a full itinerary. This area is very accessible from all sides of the wilderness with 15 trailheads leading in. It’s co-managed by the Eldorado National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

Desolation gets the wrap of being one of the most heavily used designated wildernesses in the U.S. Is this still true and do you have any numbers or trends you could share? 

Yes, definitely. Per acre, we’re the most used wilderness area in the country. There are a lot of numbers thrown out, but we get 150,000-180,000 visitors per year on roughly 64,000 acres. A lot of the use is on the Tahoe side (6 trailheads) and the southern end of the wilderness. As you go farther north, you’re definitely going to find more solitude (9 trailheads).

2019 is the big 5-0 for Desolation. Are there any celebratory plans happening or in the works?

We are having our annual end of the season Desolation Wilderness Volunteers gathering be a combination 50th Birthday party for Desolation. This will be open to more than just volunteers, we will have family, friends, and fellow Forest Service employees such as the visitor services people who issue permits on hand to help celebrate and recognize everyone’s hard work that goes into protecting and managing Desolation Wilderness.

How’s the season going so far?

It’s been a really good season. Obviously, the later snowpack has caused a lot of challenges for visitors and staff. There’s a lot of snow left, but it’s been melting pretty quickly in the past few weeks. Now we’re dealing with high water crossings and wet trails, but it’s also good in that it gives this wilderness area a bit of a break this year.

What are some long term challenges Desolation Wilderness faces?

I would say mitigating impacts and I don’t mean just with resources but more so on the experience. Mitigating impacts without having to limit the number of visitors, even more as it stands now. We’re only getting busier, and day hikers make up the majority of our numbers. 

Managing a wilderness is very tricky because you have to keep your resource intact but you can’t over-manage it to the point it’s not a wilderness anymore. We’re walking that fine line between making sure visitors have an enjoyable, safe, pleasant experience while also not guiding them to their exact campsite.

Are there any new obstacles on Desolation’s plate? Perhaps something that wasn’t an issue 5-10 years ago?

It’s not necessarily a modern obstacle, but over the past few years it’s been a trend: we are seeing increased bear activity including their success in getting food. For example, this year we have a bear in the Lake Aloha area that has been able to get down bear hangs. I don’t really know the quality or accuracy of these bear hangs. We have some bears who are particularly habituated in how to get hangs down. Because of this, we are advocating bear canisters even more. We have them to borrow at the ranger’s station for free. We’re communicating our bear issues to visitors any chance we get.

Something else which sticks out and isn’t a pleasant topic would be human waste. Improper disposal of these things including toilet paper. We advocate packing out your waste and TP, and we even distribute little black bags when we issue permits and ask visitors to pack out their toilet paper in the black bag. If people do their part now, hopefully, we won’t get to the point of requiring bear canisters or requiring people to pack out their waste. We need to be more responsible, especially in the heavily used areas.

What’s a positive way technology has impacted Desolation Wilderness?

A pro to technology would be the campsite inventory program that we have, allowing us to monitor all of the campsites in DW. We are transitioning to working on tablets and with GIS (geographic information system). Previously, we were carrying clipboards, tons of paper, binders, you name it. It will greatly improve our data collection abilities and it’s great that we can tie it into GIS.

What are some challenges you see with technology and its use in Desolation?

There are plenty of apps and GPS based options, like AllTrails. Some are for PCT hikers that show them were campsites are. Our staff constantly monitors these references to ensure that they’re giving out proper information and we’ll send out requests for information to be changed, clarified or removed. 

Something we see is that people use and heavily rely on these apps/technology/electronics. I see visitors not preparing and researching as well, making all their decisions solely based on their app/electronics. They come in without a map, follow their GPS and then something happens to it. It dies or gets damaged and they don’t possess the skills or tools to work outside of their electronics.

We have also noticed some worrying trends this year with Spot devices, InReaches, and other emergency communication devices. It seems that people are activating them too soon or aren’t aware of the severity involved when activating these devices. We have had some instances where it wasn’t necessary to activate; these individuals could have taken their time, made a plan, rested longer, hiked out slower, etc. This results in a drain on our resources, from unnecessary helicopter flights to someone being located. This also impacts other visitors when you have a helicopter in your wilderness evacuating someone. 

As a Wilderness Ranger, could you expand on the value and role volunteers or volunteer groups provide in the stewardship of Desolation?

With so many visitors, there’s a lot of areas our rangers can’t cover and visitors they can’t talk to. We focus our patrols in the heavily used areas and areas we are doing trail work.

Volunteers and volunteer groups, like Wilderness Volunteers, are able to help us take care of projects that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish outside of our normal job. Trail work, trail clearing, campsite restoration, campsite monitoring— volunteers are all crucial in allowing us to complete these larger-scale projects. We work with many volunteer programs, from Desolation Wilderness Volunteers, Back Country Horsemen, SCA, conservation organizations from where we get our interns.

Having Wilderness Volunteers out every year lets us tackle a major project like rock work, removing illegal campsites on popular or busy lakes over a week. The efforts from volunteers also allow us to reach the most visitors and inform about wilderness ethics and safety. Our volunteers are like an extension of the rangers as they are helping us meet our goals.

What would you say to someone who was perhaps unfamiliar with or on the fence about the stewardship of public lands?

We need to have people to manage and protect these areas so that they don’t get loved to death. Stewardship allows you to build a personal connection to a place. You get to see your work, it builds that bond with that area that trail. As rangers, we see the areas in which we work as our second homes. We want to protect it, keep it safe and clean as you would with your own home. It’s not just for us, it’s for you and for future generations as well. 

When people volunteer and work in the wilderness they really feel fulfilled and there’s pride. They’re happy to see someone use that staircase they built and it’ll be there for their lifetime. Additionally, informing and encouraging people to be on the side of wilderness. So many people don’t know what wilderness is or understand the idea of it. That’s another reason we encourage people to volunteer; some people don’t know these things exist.

How do you develop the list of projects to be done in Desolation?

We have a DW Management Plan which outlines standards and guidelines in managing wilderness. From there, it’s a combination of field reports from rangers and volunteers. Our trails person and I will also hike out, trying to take care of the more impacted areas and busier trails, focusing on restoration and clearing trails. By working here over several seasons, you pick up on areas which need attention and we try to check those off year by year. 

The campsite monitoring program & GIS help as well; they allow us to input all this information into a database. I can perform very refined searches which can help inform which projects we’ll do.

There’s a work plan which is reviewed with my supervisor in winter and spring. We share our ideas, where we want to focus our efforts for that year, in addition to coordinating with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. They are in charge of ⅓ of Desolation and they’re a partner in all of this.

What are the top 3 most common violations you encounter with recreators inside the wilderness boundary?

It’s changed a bit over the years but recently it would be people not camping in their first night’s zone. For those unfamiliar, we have a zone quota system which dictates you stay in your selected zone for the first night of your trip. You can move elsewhere after that. It’s meant to minimize the impact on the land and the concentration of people throughout the wilderness. I’ve seen a lot of people with permits who camp somewhat close and some who are way off from their zone. We try to stress the importance of abiding by your zone because when you don’t your presence negatively impacts the land and those who are properly camped in their zone.

Second would campfires, although thankfully we aren’t encountering them as much this year. The majority of visitors have their permits, which they’ve obtained online at recreation.gov. Frequently, people aren’t thoroughly reading their permits and acknowledging their restrictions beforehand. Have you read and understood your permit? Did you sign your permit? The common violations we encounter are clearly defined in your permit.

The third and frequent violation is camping too close to water. This is a big problem for us. DW requires you camp 100 ft. from water; LNT asks 200 ft. from water. This is important to bring up because our rangers spend a lot of time moving people back away from the water. Sometimes we literally have to move everyone’s camp back. Everyone wants to camp right by the water, and that creates impacted illegal sites.

Desolation offers a wide variety of activities to engage in. When you’re not working, what’s your favorite thing to do out here?

I like fishing and go quite a bit. I like reading, enjoying the peace and quiet. Taking in the sounds of the wind, birds. I like photography, it’s hard to not take pictures when you’re in such a beautiful place. Spending time with my family out there. Backpacking trips with my friends as well. It’s nice to share my world with them and open their eyes to what the wilderness is; a lot of them don’t go backpacking. Maybe I’ll climb a peak every once in a while.

What are three things the general recreating public can do to make Wilderness Rangers lives easier?

It’s the first tenet of Leave No Trace: plan ahead and prepare. If someone plans, prepares, and researches the area thoroughly and ahead of time, it makes all the difference. It goes beyond getting your permit. Knowing the regulations and current conditions. You’re heading out into the middle of nowhere for several days, you should really be prepared. Sometimes I see that lacking and it astounds me.

Number two: not camping too close to the water or in a sensitive area. It’s pretty awkward for us to tell people to move their campsite. It would honestly make our lives easier: we wouldn’t have to move everyone’s campsites and would remove unpleasant contacts. Some people get upset; I’ve been told I’ve ruined someone’s trip because I had them move their campsite back 50 more feet.

Lastly, be a good example. Everyone’s an “experienced hiker” these days and should be setting a good example for other visitors by being a wilderness steward. We need more stewards to not only spread the word about wilderness but to also actually practice good techniques out there. Sometimes I don’t see this happen with people that clearly have hiking experience.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen during your time in Desolation?

Hmmm… that depends. The Perseid meteor shower is always amazing. The height of it lasts a couple of nights… we sleep outside of our tents. It’s a really memorable, cool experience just being able to see countless shooting stars.

Is there an animal you’re dying to see in Desolation that you have yet to? (photo courtesy of CA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife)

I haven’t seen a bear or mountain lion, but I can’t say that I’m dying to see one. I would love to see a Wolverine, but that’s not going to happen. Maybe there was one reported as far south as Truckee…It’s my favorite animal and it’s not a practical answer for Desolation. I’d be interested in seeing a mountain lion from across the canyon. That’s something that I think would be cool. I don’t want to encounter one, but to see one across a lake or at a far distance would be awesome.

What’s a future goal for Desolation?

A future goal we have is to update the management plan in Desolation. We have some issues that need to be addressed and any changes would have to be done so through this update. If we have to institute bear canisters or even designated campsites, it would be a long process involving a lot of approval.

What excites or inspires you about working in Desolation Wilderness?

Our volunteer program excites me because in 2018 DW Volunteers completed the most hours ever at ~4250. Our program is growing and we add a few more volunteers each year. I’m excited about what they accomplish and know we’ll get even more done. They’re at trailheads talking to hikers, educating visitors, conducting community outreach presentations. I’m really big on reaching visitors before they get to the trails. Once they’re in the wilderness, there’s little opportunity to change.

Ok, final question. Part of my job is understanding how volunteers feel about their projects: they want to know the work they’re doing is needed and meaningful. Overall, how does working with volunteers make you feel?

After I spend time working alongside volunteers, I feel a connection with them. I really appreciate that they’re out there putting forth their time and energy in helping us maintain our wilderness area. It’s more than a working relationship. There’s a personal connection, a friendship, and I consider them a part of our wilderness family. Over the years I’ve made some really good friends. Something about wilderness brings out a personal connection between people. If you spend the time or overnight with someone, inevitably you have a deep conversation.

On behalf of Wilderness Volunteers, I just want to say thank you and that we greatly value our partnership with the Eldorado National Forest. We're excited about our upcoming September project and the future ones as well. 

If you would like to learn more or join our awesome upcoming project in Desolation Wilderness, visit the project page.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Meet our 2019 WV intern...

For the past few years, Wilderness Volunteers has had an annual intern. Our interns participate in at least 3 service projects and document their experience through writing, photography, and other expressive mediums. This year's WV intern is Alixandra Schoback, who goes by Alix for short. Take a second to meet this California native who is setting out to improve public land management.

Please tell us about yourself...

My name is Alix, I’m 19 years old, and I’m a student at U.C. Berkeley. I’m studying political science and environmental economics and policy. I’m going to be starting my senior year this fall. I’m originally from Marin County but my family moved to Santa Cruz when I was in 5th grade. My parents still live there and I absolutely love it.

In a perfect world, what’s your dream job once you finish college?

In a perfect world, I would like to work in public lands management in some way, shape or form. I would love to work with US Fish & Wildlife or the USFS. I’m not sure if my educational experience would be applicable to field positions, but I would like to do administrative stuff. I would focus on ensuring we are managing our public lands better from the top down.

What’s a fun fact about you? 

My first job was at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz making ice cream cones.

Are you planning to go to grad school?

I’m currently debating between grad school and law school. I either want to get my degree in law or get my masters in public affairs with a focus in environmental policy. I’m not sure which avenue I’ll be taking but I do plan to take some time off.

How would you describe your relationship with the great outdoors and public lands? How has that evolved over time?

My relationship with public lands began very late. My parents are very involved and into backpacking and hiking... stuff like that. As a kid, I was having none of that. I was an indoor kid. I like to read, do crafts, stay at home; I didn’t play any sports nor was I very physically active.

A couple of years back I went backpacking for the first time and it totally transformed my relationship with these places... mostly because I realized what an effect being outside for a prolonged period of time had. Distancing yourself from the typical “necessities” which are truly luxuries in modern life. Distancing myself from all that and spending time in nature really grounded and centered me. It feels like a homecoming when I go on a trip, even if I haven’t been there before. It feels like within myself I am where I should be, where I want to be. It’s an incredible relationship and I feel very lucky that I get to go to these places and experience that. Some people don't get this opportunity.

Would you describe yourself as an indoor or outdoor cat?

I’m definitely an outdoor cat. I do things my own way, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what I’m supposed to be doing. I find my own path and I like to be outside.

When you’re not in school or you’re not outside, how do you like to spend your free time?

In my free time, I like to exercise a lot, which is another reason I like backpacking and being outside. Those activities provide built-in physical activity and help with positive endorphins... they help me sleep well. I like to craft, I like to sing and play the ukelele, and I like to sew things.

Did you ever consider stewardship or conservation work before your WV internship or your WV project?

No actually. I considered going into a field that would allow me to work to protect public lands when I first started backpacking. It was really on my first WV trip where I met Taryn; she explained her experience with AmeriCorps which seemed really cool to me. It’s still an opportunity I’m considering, especially the more I go backpacking.

How do you think your generation sees public lands?

Broadly speaking for my generation, I think it depends on who you talk to, and depends on where you grow up and where you come from. That’s one of the biggest things to address in increasing public awareness and access to our public lands. You will meet people who grew up surrounded by nature, or who grew up in families who had the time, the resources and energy to take their kids outside. That’s a luxury in itself. I have a lot of friends who are very involved with the outdoors and they think it’s super important to protect these spaces.

At the same time, I think it’s easy for people of my generation who don’t have that exposure to not know that these spaces are plentiful and there is so much to be gained from experiencing them. In the age of social media and the internet, the pressures young people face in achieving success is intense. It’s easy to get wrapped up in that. Maybe thinking you can’t take the time to step back and take time for yourself, to engage and appreciate this resource. One of the big reasons that I care about this matter is that people need to know that public lands, National Parks, just don’t take care of themselves. There are a lot of hard-working people who do the work, but there needs to be much more support, funding and focus from the government. There needs to be more advocacy from the people in order to keep these spaces as they should be.

How would you create awareness or a developed relationship between younger demographics and public lands?

We all know these places exist. I didn’t have a deep connection, deep care, or deep passion until I actually went and spent time outside. I think we need to acknowledge the realities of this generation which looks like social media and the internet, to leverage those assets to appeal to younger generations.

There is a bit of a disconnect in the way we talk about preserving public lands and the way that plays into our overall environment, like fears about climate change. They are obviously integral to each other, but I don’t see that discussed as much as it should be. There’s a lot of young people who are passionate about working to mitigate climate change, but I don’t think the connection is made between public lands and climate change. I think outreach would be helpful, but unfortunately, it's a chicken-egg situation. As more young people get involved, I think more young people will be interested. Seeing their peers doing things to combat climate change and work to preserve public lands will make them see they can do it too!

How did you get involved in WV and what was your first trip?

I knew about WV because my mom donated years back. She had a WV shirt and hat. I was always aware of the organization but I wasn’t sure what they did. A year ago now, last summer, I was looking for something to do while all my friends were all off doing cool things. I wanted to do something cool too, so I came across the Hakalau NWR trip on the Big Island. It as an incredible experience. I’m being honest when I say it was life-changing.

What do you hope to learn or experience during your WV internship?

I think that the biggest thing has been meeting a variety of people from everywhere who care about the outdoors for different reasons. I’ve had so much fun learning about the technical aspect of projects: learning what all the tools are named, the different types of trail work and why we’re doing it. The different native plant species being planted and where. The biggest thing is the people because that’s fundamentally what we need. We need human involvement, we need people to care in order for things to improve and change. Learning about people’s journeys to stewardship and conservation has been really interesting. It provides insight as to where I could be going, and where I can meet other people along the way who also deeply care about this issue.

As of today, you’ve completed two projects for your internship. Do have any unexpected highlights to share from your time so far?

I’m going to talk about the people you meet on trips again. It was really incredible meeting people from all across the country. On our Big Bear project, I met a trip leader and his wife from Portland, Oregon. During our project, we all got to know each other very well. Once the trip wrapped, they reached out via email saying I was welcomed at their home in Portland whenever or even to say hi. It was so unexpected, hospitable, so kind and generous. That trip also had incredible food, which was surprising to me. I was expecting a backpacking type of food. This was a car camp trip, so I get there and I was really tired. I took a nap and woke up at dinner time. I introduced myself and was greeted with lasagna. Lasagna! It was absolutely delicious.

What’s your favorite backpacking meal or food?

I’m hungry so this is a great question. Last summer I went on a backpacking trip in Wyoming. My mom had these Tasty Bite lentils. I had never had them before but they were so delicious. We got back home and we had more in the cabinet. My mom said, “sometimes these things are only good when camping…” but I ate it and it was just as delicious!

What’s your first move when you return from a backpacking trip?

In-N-Out is my first move. This was my literal first move coming back from the Shasta-Trinity project. I was driving someone else back from our project and we stopped at In-N-Out. We got our burgers, ate them quietly and looked at each other. “Should we go again?” We got back into the drive-through line and went again. I regretted it a little bit, but it was still so great.

REI garage sales: take it or leave it?

I say take it definitely. It’s important when we talk about spending time outside and spending time outdoors is to reduce our waste as much as possible. Buying second hand, used, and fixing our current gear is a great way to accomplish this.

Who do you admire in the world?

Is it too tacky to say, my mom?

Oh my god no! That's a great answer. 

My mom. My mom has taught me so much in my life. She has taught me how to be aware of my own emotions and intelligent about the way I feel. It’s really hard and a difficult thing to learn. My mom has instilled that in me forever. She’s a great teacher, role model, and works super hard. She’s really driven and she’s the most loving, caring woman. When my friends meet my mom, they know why I am who I am. Sometimes we clash but I really admire her for everything she’s done.

Where have you been lately that’s been amazing?

This year, one of the best moments I had was skiing up in Tahoe. My friends from school and I would go up throughout the season. There’s this one run at Alpine. It was a huge powder day and we sat at the top. Eventually, we slowly made out way down and it was one of the best feelings ever. One of the best views ever and you couldn’t beat it.

Any future domestic travel goals?

I guess I’m saying it, so now I have to do it. After I graduate from school, I plan to hike the PCT. My plan is to do it in 2021. I’m taking an extra semester and I’ll graduate in fall. I’ll take the fall and winter to prepare and get ready. It’s a lofty goal, and we’ll see with the fire and snow. It’s something that has always fascinated me.

In a perfect permit world, which direction?


Peak bagging: take it or leave it?

Take it. Take it!

In camp leisure footwear: Crocs or sandals?

I'm definitely a sandals person. I had a great pair of Tevas, but they melted in Death Valley. I’ve been working with flip flops which aren’t ideal. I should probably change that...

Do you have a favorite trail working tool?


Thursday, May 23, 2019

King Range National Conservation Area Project: 10 Takeaways

On April 14th of 2019, 7 Wilderness Volunteers and 1 BLM Ranger headed into the King Range National Conservation Area (KRNCA) for a week of stewardship work. The King Range NCA encompasses 68,000 acres along 35 miles of California’s north coast. The KRNCA holds the northern section of the Lost Coast Trail (LCT) which is ~24 miles in length. This was one of the most visually stunning, memorable, and fulfilling projects I have ever done. I highly recommend it to anyone captivated by the region but know it's not an easy journey. Here are some takeaways from a newbie...

This project is unlike the majority of Wilderness Volunteers projects. Most WV projects will have the same base camp for the entire week. Volunteers might meet the afternoon preceding their first official project day, but once you've established your basecamp, that's it for the entire work week. 

KRNCA differs in that it's a traveling project. Noting that itineraries change year to year, during my project we had 3 basecamps: Spanish Flat for 3 nights, Miller Flat for 2 nights and Gitchell for a single night. Although going through the entire production of pitching/dismantling your tent three times might be a turn off to some, this extra effort afforded our group the chance to see, experience, work and hike over 17 of the LCT's ~24 miles. 

Something different the KRNCA requires of its participants is that our group had to carry our food, commissary kit, trash, and tools throughout the entire project. We lucked out and were able to design a food cache into our itinerary, but there wasn't a pack team or vehicle to do the hard work for us. This meant lean and thoughtful packing, good group communication, and great support from our Ranger.

If you want to come eye to eye with the might of natural forces, come to the KRNCA. When you're not praying to whatever higher power that it doesn't dump rain on you or blow that precipitation sideways, you may find yourself slack-jawed when you come across parts of the trail that have been eroded during insanely powerful winter storms. The shoreline is decorated with giant trees haphazardly strewn about; bold lines of debris tell the quiet and powerful stories of winter storms past. 

You'll cross a few streams on this project, and you'll have to be conscious of the rainfall before and during your trip. Any continuous rainfall can make your crossing dangerously impossible and can alter your itinerary. You'll hike past an inexplicably giant sliding mountain. Gaze at the raw dirt and full-grown trees poking out of the mountain slide, appearing like toothpicks.

With the powerful winter storms, winds and waves that batter the coastline, every spring brings a new offering of discovered destruction. During a beach clean up, half of our team hiked to Randall Creek and were asked by Devan to take recon pictures of the creek mouth feeding into the ocean. Hikers and even sometimes volunteers end up being valuable eyes for the BLM, as they provide real-time information about trail conditions and dangers. 

During our project, some of our team realigned an access point in/out of the middle intertidal zone. Devan had received word that some of the trail ground had washed out during winter. Our group rerouted and bought in the trail enough to hopefully weather 1-2 winters. The actual exit and entry point to the intertidal zone had declined into an unsafe, steep climb/scramble, especially for anyone with a pack. Under the direction of Devan, we re-graded the trail, installed a few rock steps and closed off the numerous and dangerous social trail drop-offs.

One of the tasks our volunteer group was assigned was to pick up trash along the beach and on the bluff. What might seem like a banal activity soon became a fun and obsessive pastime. Our group found countless interesting pieces of trash, tons of rope, buoys, a refrigerator, a wheel and tire, 3 ammo boxes, and tons more. The thing that stuck with me was the amount of single-use plastic we retrieved. Water bottles were the main culprit, but we frequently came across food packaging, gallons jugs, and flip flops. I do believe if people saw the volume of the trash, specifically single-use plastics, we retrieved in just a sliver of shoreline, they might at least recall this the next time they're faced with deciding to use single-use plastics. 

I had heard whispers about the poison oak to be found in King Range. Simple chatter. I've grown up around it but I still didn't know what to expect. While the concern is real, the exposure is manageable. Our team was highly aware and very communicative if we spotted it. We were cautious about where we were walking, working, where we placed our tools, backpacks, etc. We were mindful to keep any possible oil exposed articles of clothing, shoes, and gloves separate from our clean gear. This project also taught me that poison oak will gladly share your most scenic, sandy stretches of beach with you. Never let your guard down. Thankfully, we only had one participant who experienced exposure and to their credit, they came into the field with Tecnu (a soap designed specifically to remove poison oak/ivy oils).

This was a big safety discussion during our briefing for our project. Don't turn your back to the ocean, don't go swimming and always be on the lookout for "sneaker waves". Sneaker waves are defined as a very large, powerful coastal wave that approaches the shore suddenly and unexpectedly. Injuries and casualties associated with sneaker waves tend to occur on sunny days because people are not on guard and are distracted enjoying the lovely conditions. Sneaker waves can definitely happen in poor weather, but usually, there may be a surf warning in place or gross conditions which deter beachgoers. If you'd like to see an example of a sneaker wave, check this footage (warning: footage may cause anxiety). Everyone was fine in this video, but the urgency is real. This is definitely a force of nature you don't want to encounter, especially strapped into a loaded backpack. 

KRNCA was my first foray into hiking through an intertidal zone. The LCT (northern section) actually contains three intertidal zones. An intertidal zone is defined as the area where the ocean meets the land between high and low tides. Planning our entry into the intertidal zone ended up being a late day affair as our other option was embarking in the wee hours of the morning (like 3 am). After checking our tide charts once, twice and assessing the conditions, our volunteer group descended into the most southern intertidal zone (~4 miles). Despite being anxious beforehand, once we were down and moving, it was a very pleasurable and visually stunning experience. We decided to hike the entire zone (~4 miles) to the end as to reduce our next day's mileage. 

The KRNCA is a constant supply of fascinating sights, compelling views, and abstract moments. By doing our project in April we aligned with the wildflower season. We saw Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora), Inside-out Flower (Vancouveria planipetala), Cobweb Thistle (Cirsium occidentale), California Oat Grass (Danthonia caliornica), and much more. We listened to different birds (Scrub-Jays, American Robins) wake us up in the morning, coyotes exchanging stories in the dead of night, encountered huge black bear tracks in the intertidal zone, and sadly walked by a sickly Pacific Harbor seal. When exploring tide pools we came across Giant Green & Aggregate Anemone, Purple Sea Urchins, Ochre Sea & Leather Stars, Giant, Black, and Lined Chiton. Participating in this project was a 24/7 sensory delight and something I will never forget.

While a "beach hiking project" can come off as dreamy, the reality is that the KRNCA project is aptly labeled challenging. Although the daily mileages involved aren't really long and there's no real elevation gain or loss, hiking the LCT is a demanding but extremely rewarding journey. While a good portion of the LCT is on what you'd consider "normal trail", a good portion of it is on the beach. Hiking on the beach means negotiating what sacrifice you're willing to make: river rocks, tiny pebbles, or deep, dry sand. Each surface challenges a different part of your feet and legs; it can also aggravate any past or quietly lingering injuries. 

Additionally, the project takes the group through an intertidal zone which means the trail is only passable during certain times of the day. On most WV backpacks, you have an entire day dedicated to hiking to/from your basecamp. With KRNCA, unless you're planning to camp at a higher elevation overnight, there is a pressing sense of timely movement when in this zone. A final reason this is rated as such is that participants carry the food, commissary, and tools throughout their project. When you combine these factors you are asking a lot of your participant pool. Careful screening and plentiful information ensure everyone is able to safely participate and enjoy this project. 

I get it— if you've made it this far, you might be eager or reticent about this project. There are some definite adverse aspects participants agree to "manage" by signing up. I will say that we could not have such an unforgettable project in such a remote and challenging setting if we didn't make compromises and plan well. I can't tell you how lucky I felt and how often I felt it during and after the KRNCA project. To be picking up trash along the beach with emerald green mountains jutting up behind me: so lucky. To work and hike in a region that's powerful, dramatic and ever-changing: so lucky. To be reminded how tiny we truly are: so lucky. 

If that's not enough, snagging a permit to hike the Lost Coast Trail has become increasingly difficult each year. The popularity of this region and trail has grown in the backpacking and entry thru-hiking stratum. While day use is free and doesn't require a permit, during the high season (May 15-September 15) there are 60 permits. During the low season (September 16-May 14) there are only 30. These permits are for the entire King Range National Conservation area, in which there are plenty of other trails available for public recreation besides the LCT. Upon returning back to Flagstaff, I ran into a younger couple with a "Lost Coast Trail" sticker on their Nalgene. I told them I had just returned from working/hiking in that area and told them how much I loved it. They said they had lived outside Shelter Cove for over two years and could never snag a permit to backpack the LCT. We are... so lucky.

I truly believe the pictures from this project will do the talking. Please visit the KRNCA photo gallery! You can also visit the BLM's Flickr account which also has some sweet imagery! If you have any questions about this project, feel free to email me at aidalicia@wildernessvolunteers.org

A huge thank you to my lovely co-lead Amy, our awesome, cohesive, and inspiring group of volunteers, and our amazing KRNCA Ranger Devan! 

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

INTERN BLOG SERIES: Why Do We Volunteer?

Even after a long day of work it’s still just as easy for volunteers to crack a smile.

Why Do We Volunteer?
by Mary Sanders
Wilderness Volunteers 2018 Intern

These trips aren’t a walk in the park. There isn’t anything easy about waking before the sun, working all day, sleeping outside, and then getting to do it all over the next day. The real kicker? Volunteers pay for the experience.

There are several aspects of Wilderness Volunteers trips that I have found to be interesting. The volunteers are happy. They don’t complain. Each project is a lot of fun. Yet, this is all done while we sweat, and dig, and saw through the majority of the day.

Why do we volunteer? Well, there are actually a lot of things that go into the drive of Wilderness Volunteers. The environment, the people, the result. All combined, maybe they are the reason the difficult aspects of the project start to feel like background noise.

Left, our humble but equally delicious dinner. Right, riding back to camp with our tools.

During the trip we are placed in some of the most beautiful, interesting managed land areas. Waking up to the sun rising over the hills, coyotes crying in the distance. By the end of the project, volunteers know the land, treat it well, and have made it better. The wildlife you see, fresh air you breath, it’s like nothing else at home, and all the while, we’re helping to preserve it.

The greatest pride of this work is probably the end result. Going over the work at the end of the week, and being taken away at just how much got done. We also get to laugh with fellow volunteers about how stupidly hard it was to create that one drain, or how good that section of trail looks. The best part is when hikers, bikers, equestrians, whoever really, thank you for the work, and tell you how much of a difference it has made for them.

Left, an early morning at the project side. Right, my left hand by day two.

Lets not forget the volunteers themselves. Some of the best people out there if we’re being honest. Individuals who have taken the time out of their busy lives, paid for extra travel expenses, to get out there and work with complete strangers on public lands for a week. They work side by side cracking jokes, sharing stories, and maybe a few tips along the way whether it be how to hold an axe, or life advice. By the end they feel like family. Maybe you’ll get lucky and see them out in the field again, or visit while traveling through their state.

On one of the last days of the Weminuche Project I remember project leader Tom Labbs-Johnson, a twenty-plus year veteran of Wilderness Volunteers actually saying something so simple yet so true to what it’s like to complete a trip.

“Some years I think, god I’m done. But then a few months pass and I think… but man that was fun. You meet good people, do good work...”

The group packing in tools to the worksite

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


Hiking into a workday
Home Away From Home
by Mary Sanders
Wilderness Volunteers 2018 Intern

The smell of fresh air was the first thing that hit me getting out of the car. The Weminuche Wilderness, a pristine area within the Rio Grande National Forest, was the location of what would be my second Wilderness Volunteer project. Dragging my oversized backpack out of the car, I was reminded of how differently my life would move, being in the outdoors.

Though the wilderness is where humans have survived for the majority of our existence, it seems more like a distant memory today. Certain cues from our senses can remind us that we have natural instinct, but in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it’s often drowned out.

Left, plagued trees from the pine beetle. Right, the trailhead of our worksite.

This Wilderness Volunteer project was a chance to reconnect. As a society we’ve continued to become more and more separated from nature as populations fill up urban cities, and technology continues to advance. Any opportunity to put ourselves back into nature, though seemingly more foreign, is so important. 

Whether camping or backpacking, there is an increased appreciation for the little things. Our meals were simpler, hygiene a little more limited, and sleep more challenging. While this may sound negative, it’s the contrary. The environment was changing the group's mindset, recalibrating our brains.

It only took a few days to feel a sense of belonging outside. Under the starry sky, nights became more restful. The morning routine went with the rise of the sun. The trails, reservoir, wildlife, river, all familiar, like an old friend. Even the work made more sense. Knowing how to listen when to take a break, and when to push through under the hot summer sun.

Left, our humble tents. Right, taking a break.

Miles into the backcountry, perched on a rock in the shade, I was taking a break from my hike. It was our rest day, only half way into the project, and already it felt very different being there. My mind wasn’t as reactive to the noises around me, instead I was just able to relax and watch the birds moving through the trees. The wilderness didn’t feel like is was mine, but it also didn’t feel unfamiliar.

With these moments also comes an immense respect for the state of designated wilderness areas. Immersion into these areas creates a desire for these lands to say as pristine as they are. There is such a peacefulness to untouched land. How it flows, and feels completely interconnected. It’s when humans have stepped in, and unconsciously left scars and marks, that it’s no longer the same.

Big Meadows Reservoir, right by our campground.

By the end of the trip I was somber to be leaving the mountains. Upon walking into my first gas station after the trip, feeling the A/C, seeing all the neon packaging, that felt unnatural. It’s after the removal, that the benefits of being in the outdoors truly reveal itself. With it also brings appreciation. Appreciation towards your ability to experience and be in the outdoors. Appreciation towards your ability to truly enjoy the outdoors. To take part in it.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

INTERN BLOG SERIES: Why is Wilderness Stewardship So Important?

Why is Wilderness Stewardship So Important?
by Mary Sanders
Wilderness Volunteers 2018 Intern
The group moving one of two stringers into place with some extra hands from the Forest Service.

Taking in the distant mountains we’d soon be entering; project leader Ben Johnson and I began to address the looming project into the Never Summer Wilderness. After explaining the two other projects I was assigned to as a part of my internship, Ben simply stated that this was going to be by far my hardest project in regard to physical work. Being my first official WV project, and having very minimal trail maintenance experience prior, I was pretty intimidated. At over ten thousand feet of elevation our group would be working to complete four river crossings in the Never Summer Wilderness. Quite frankly, I had a right to be as intimidated as I was. Upon completing the trip, I struggled to recollect a time in my life I’d ever been so drained. At the end of it all however, I gained the knowledge that my work had made a much larger impact than what I had assumed before entering those mountains.

During the trip we stripped two large logs, cut them down to be walkable, and moved them to create a river crossing. Later in the week the group also created three other river crossings with the large rocks available nearby. Having only seven volunteers and one forest ranger, it was a lot of work, and we used up every single workday from start to finish. Our group being smaller than most Wilderness Volunteer groups, had to call in four more forest service workers on Friday to help with our final tasks. Through it all, we had many hikers pass us as we worked. I do not kid when I say that almost every single time someone walked by they would thank us for our work.

Crossings 1-4, starting top left.

At the midpoint of our project, we had our day off. The plan was to hike Bowers Pass, the site of where the Never Summer WV group from last year worked. The leaders from this year’s trip, Ben Johnson and Laura Sutherland, had also led that trip, and pointed out with ease as we hiked where the work had been done. The difference was amazing. Rock paths had been put into place where in years past hikers sank to their knees in mud. Fallen trees and branches that got in the way had been removed. Ben realized from walking the trail this year, their work took about an hour and a half of the hike.

Enjoying the views from Bower’s Pass.

Reflecting on the trip and the people we got to meet along the way, my perspective on trails has altered.  As the budgets for land management agencies continues to be cut, it has become more and more evident that the everyday person in turn, has more responsibility to give back. Things as little as staying on the designated trial, setting up within legal campsites, leave no trace, and obeying fire restrictions become so much more significant. When that’s not enough, because let's be honest, humans are far from perfect, this is where WV comes in. Now more than ever this work has become important, but now more than ever Wilderness Volunteers has been delivering on the job.