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

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.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Announcing the Winners of the 2018 WV Photo Contest

Wilderness Volunteers is pleased to announce the winners of the 2018 WV Photo Contest sponsored by: 


We received nearly 200 entries and there were so many great photos, picking a winner was not an easy job.

The grand prize winner for best photo is Rick Brickley. He has won a gift certificate for a free Wilderness Volunteers project good for the 2019 project season.

Rick took this breathtaking photo of hikers on the Glacier National Park service project.  

The Landscape photo winner is Kelly Randall. He has won a Patagonia Provisions Sampler donated by Patagonia, a coupon for 23% off one REI Co-op Brand Item or REI Outdoor School Class donated by REI, a REI Gift Certificate for $10 donated by Liz Lemon, and a Miir 16 oz vacuum insulated stainless steel food canister donated by Patagonia Provisions.    

Kelly took this photo of sunrise over the South Sister on the Three Sisters Wilderness service project in the Willamette National Forest.

The Wildlife photo winner is Eric Mak. He has won a Backpacker's Pantry Sampler donated by Backpacker's Pantry,  a coupon for 23% off one REI Co-op Brand Item or REI Outdoor School Class donated by REI, an REI Gift Certificate for $10 donated by Liz Lemon, and an Open Country 12-cup aluminum Camp Perk.

Eric took this photo of two mountain goats on the Wild and Scenic Salmon River service project in the Salmon-Challis National Forests. 

The Hard at Work photo winner is Randy Meier. He has won a Backpacker's Pantry Sampler donated by Backpacker's Pantry, a Coupon for 23% off one REI Co-op Brand Item or REI Outdoor School Class donated by REI, an REI Gift Certificate for $10 donated by Liz Lemon, and an Open Country 12-cup aluminum Camp Perk.

Randy took this photo of volunteers doing trail work on the Three Sisters Wilderness service project in the Willamette National Forest.

The On The Trail photo winner is Robert Hashioka. He has won an Patagonia Provisions Sampler donated by Patagonia, a Coupon for 23% off one REI Co-op Brand Item or REI Outdoor School Class donated by REI, a REI Gift Certificate for $10 donated by Liz Lemon and a 24oz stainless steel TriMax Triple Insulated EcoVessel donated by Patagonia Provisions.    

Bob took this photo of the hike in on the spring Dark Canyon service project in the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

You can see the rest of our great 2018 photo contest entries as well as photos from just about every 2018 service project online in the Wilderness Volunteers photo gallery.


Don't forget to bring your camera with you on your next service project so you're ready for the 2019 Wilderness Volunteers photo contest.