Trails for everyone, forever
Our backcountry pro crew cleared many miles of trail this summer. And for the members of the crew, the season helped clear a new path forward, too. By Zack Sklar
We’re 10 miles deep in the backcountry when the Entiat River Trail empties into a treeless meadow and promptly vanishes. Just moments ago, Zach and I had been walking a clear path, and now there’s nothing but heather, grass and directionless sunlight. We wander a bit across the meadow and trace the far edge of trees, looking for any sign of the trail. Eventually, we find it. A strip of tread leads out of the forest, across the field and back to just past where we were standing before, just hidden from view by a few yards of reclaimed wilderness. We set down our packs and get to work scratching in a new connection.
When they told us we would be working as part of the Lost Trails Found campaign, I didn’t know they meant it so literally.
Later that evening, the six of us sit on stumps and bear canisters in a rough circle between our tents. The stars aren’t out yet, but the light is fading from the sky, and the horizon is a murky silhouette of snaggletoothed peaks. We scrape the last spoonfuls of rehydrated rice and beans from our pots and contemplate a game of cards. “If you could go back and change one decision you made in your life,” Kat asks us, “what would it be?”
When they told us we would be working as part of the Lost Trails Found campaign, I didn’t know they meant it so figuratively.
The reason we’re all out here, losing and finding the trail that snakes its way up the valley to the Entiat Glacier, is that we each signed up to be a part of WTA’s first pro crew, back in late spring. The primary task of the summer is to handle a backlog of projects in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest that the Forest Service hasn’t had the time or funding to take care of for quite a while. All summer, we’ve been cutting logs and fixing tread along trails like this one, that go into some of the state’s most incredible and remote locations but don’t get the love and upkeep they deserve.
Even in its current state of disrepair, however, the Entiat River Trail is easier to discern than most paths in life. For each member of the crew, the more figurative path has been especially winding lately, and often obscured by much thicker brambles than anything we’ve found in the alpine meadows of the North Cascades.
The pro crew consists of our leader, Zach Toliver, our assistant leader, Kathryn Connely, and four crew members: Anna Pree, Blake Harmon, Ginevra Moore and me. Some of the names might be familiar to those in the WTA community. Zach was a member of the inaugural Leadership and Inclusion (L&I) Crew last winter, a predecessor to the pro crew, specifically for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people. Blake and Kat were participants in WTA’s youth volunteer vacation program, and Anna is a former WTA youth ambassador.
Anna and Blake are the youngest members of the crew. When COVID hit in the spring of 2020, they were both just a few months away from finishing their senior year of high school. Just one year older, Kat was in her freshman year of college. All three are incredibly intelligent and motivated, and the next few years through college looked like they’d be a straight shot. Kat had turned a successful high school career into acceptance at a prestigious East Coast liberal arts school, and Anna and Blake were not far behind, with their own stacks of acceptance letters growing taller by the day.
But when all three were sent home from school, they suddenly found themselves without trail maps or sign posts and had to reevaluate their courses. Kat came back across the country to her parents’ house in Yakima, while Blake and Anna, in Seattle and Olympia respectively, spent a hurried spring of virtual finishing touches and socially distanced graduations. For the foreseeable future, school was to be a half-formed lesson plan of Zoom classes, constant audibles and cascading series of newer and newer normals.
So they found new trails. Blake decided not to start college under the current circumstances, and instead spent the winter in Salt Lake City, working at a ski area. Kat also decided not to go back to school virtually and took a summer trail work job with the Rocky Mountain Conservancy Conservation Corps. At the end of the summer, she kept the momentum rolling, getting another trail job in Bellingham. Anna decided to stay in state rather than take virtual Ivy League classes and accepted a spot at the University of Washington. However, given the circumstances, she gave up the classic freshman college dorm experience, and instead bought an old school bus, which she renovated into a home on wheels.
For the older half of the crew, the effects of COVID were slower, but no less disruptive. We weren’t forced to rework big life plans on the fly, but found that we had lost our trails nonetheless. Ginevra was in the midst of pursuing a PhD in geophysics at UW, and both Zach and I were employed as content writers. For each of us, the pandemic meant long days of working on laptops, and ample time to think about what fulfillment really looked like to us. As the pandemic dragged on through winter, each morning I dragged my feet a little more as I made my way to the coffee pot, and then to the computer and then later to bed, wondering if maybe I had taken a wrong turn somewhere at the last junction.
But then spring came, as it always does. And spring of 2021 was an especially hopeful one. The bleakness seemed to be receding, people were getting vaccinated and normalish life seemed to be just on the horizon. The brutally short winter days were a thing of the past and the sunshine through the windows made the computer screens almost impossible to see. So, like many people do in times of upheaval, we turned to the wilderness for answers.
Early on in the pandemic, Zach had put down the pen and picked up the shovel, joining the L&I Crew. A few months later, Ginevra decided to put her PhD program on hold. As another Rocky Mountain Conservancy alum, a return to trail work seemed like a natural place for her to regain some perspective. Around the same time, I gave in to my rose-tinted memories of summers spent fighting wildfires and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and decided to put my own professional career on pause while I spent the summer in the mountains. For Anna, Blake and Kat, a summer job working on backcountry trails seemed both a return to their roots and a transition into the future.
So in late May, the six of us met for the first time one foggy morning and hiked out into the wilderness to help lost trails refind themselves. And through smoke and sun and even a bit of snow, we hiked out again and again to the wilderness. For 8 days at a time, the pro crew would live out on the trail, leaving the concerns of our everyday lives back where the cell service ended. We sawed logs, cut brush and restored sections of tread. We woke up, did cartwheels, played cards, told jokes and talked about our futures. And then we went to sleep in tents beneath the stars and did it all again the next day. We found old trails, made new trails and scrambled up to peaks with no trails at all.
And by the end of the summer, we all really had found something that we needed. Our crew’s work helped to restore miles of backcountry access through the Entiat Valley, the Pasayten Wilderness, the Lake Chelan Basin, the Glacier Peak Wilderness and the heights of the North Cascades. But more than that, each of us found the next steps of our own personal journeys. Through our summer in the mountains, we all found a new drive to pursue paths of stewardship and connection with natural spaces. Kat decided not to go back to the East Coast, opting instead to stay in Bellingham and study environmental science at Western Washington University, closer to her family and the mountains we’d spent the summer exploring. Blake also changed course to stay near home, signing up to head to Western as well, rather than his previous plan of attending Montana State. Anna is going for her first in-person year at UW, pursuing a degree in environmental engineering. Ginevra decided she’s happier outside, and is going to continue working in the outdoor industry rather than going back to academia. Zach has never looked back since his first taste of trail work. He’s returning to lead the L&I Crew that he was a member of last winter. For me, the new start just sparked a hunger for more new starts. After the trails season is over, I’ll be starting down a new career path as an educator.
But we all still have some hiking to do. Trails lead to trails that lead to more trails, and you never really finish getting there. None of us know where it’s headed, or how many times we’ll lose it again, but this summer, we’ve gotten really good at refinding it. And no matter what, I know we’ll have some fun along the way.
By Zach Toliver
In less than a year, I went from a crew member on WTA’s first Leadership and Inclusion Crew to leading WTA’s first pro crew in the backcountry. It’s been a whirlwind. Now, after months in the backcountry, I have a moment to take a breath and celebrate the work we did — and the beauty of time on trail.
A backcountry job is hard — but it’s also powerful. I’d need all my fingers and toes to count how many times I stared into some beautiful valley or off the side of a serene alpine trail — crying tears of fulfillment. I often became overwhelmed with feeling so humbly thankful to have such a unique opportunity to work in these unforgettable places with equally unforgettable people.
Our backcountry crew became tight. We hang out with one another outside of work. We bring our jokes and tales of one another to our friends and family outside of the crew. Finding five new friends was one of my favorite part of this experience. Eight days in the backcountry with little entertainment, things quickly devolved into wacky inside jokes and obscure references.
Through all the goofiness, we managed to pull off some phenomenal work that will benefit outdoor junkies for years to come. I first learned of how much folks love WTA on the Leadership and Inclusion Crew when passing hikers would thank us profusely. In the backcountry — where people will quite literally get lost on poorly neglected trails — that appreciation filled me with vast joy. This season, we’ve cleared some 1,300 logs from burn zones and deep backcountry trails that haven’t been logged out for nearly a decade. We’ve brushed vegetation from notoriously overgrown trails such as Indian Creek, where the grass grows 8-feet high. We’ve fixed washouts, closed down social trails, and built new, sustainable trail up to the pristine Snowy Lakes.
After this season, I tip my blue hat to everyone who has ever filled the crew-lead role. I appreciate my L&I blue hats even more these days, now that I’ve led my own crew — with all the challenges and uncertainties it can bring.
Things will come full circle this year, as I plan to lead the next season of Leadership and Inclusion Crew members. Thanks to this unforgettable season, I’ll be more than ready. Day parties will feel like a breeze. The weight of the blue hat is now a little easier to withstand. I only hope that I can help show these new crew mates the same vibrant serenity that I myself found in trail work when I first wore the green hat.