My four-day island vacation in the Columbia Gorge: behind the scenes at Trail Skills College

by Bob Arkes

Can this be Trail Skills weekend? It’s warm, sunny and not a cloud in sight. I feel like the dumbest guy in Cascade Locks. After years of camping in the rain I rented a room and volunteered for indoor duty. Go figure.

Location, location, location: the Marine Park has it. Add Thunder Island Brew Pub to the mix and maybe I should say location, location, location, location.

Not many people realize that putting on an event like this takes a whole committee. We start our regular meetings at least eight months in advance.  Typically, the committee puts in hundreds of hours in prep time before the weekend, arranging the facilities, figuring out the food, scouting work sites, and lining up instructors.


Photo by Shonda Feather

Thursday afternoon is committee day: tables up, chairs out, registration desk in order, the right handouts in the right place, enough duct tape for name badges.  Do we have projectors and electric cords? Dennis is unflappable at registration. Becky and her ‘cowboy’ cooking crew make feeding 150 people look easy, both seven-year veterans of a 7–year-old event.

Friday, 5:30 a.m. in the Pavilion: Leif has the coffee going, Curtis has the class list, Ryan has the right tools. Soon will come  “customers.”

Registration is a blur of activity. My duty: cutting duct tape, handing out hard-hats and selling raffle tickets. Not easy stuff. I decide to use yellow tape for the committee, red for the instructors, and grey for the students. Since the event is supported by raffle ticket sales, the committee feels I should top last year’s sales of $738. Ok, it seems like a good goal to beat.


Photo by Shonda Feather

Newbies, we love them and have loaded TSC with Intro-track courses. As our oldies get older the only way we can keep this gig going is by getting younger. I don’t think our oldies have found the fountain of youth so it is great to see so many new faces.

Steve from Eugene, Dave from Kent and Gwen from Lynwood all have different skill levels and different reasons for attending, but one common goal: giving back to our trails.  As trail workers get more experience and keep coming back to TSC, they take intermediate and advanced level courses that help them get down and dirty with a particular skill, such as building a rock crib wall, or leading a crew.  End result: the trails get better care.


Photo by Shonda Feather

I can be a morning person, not always by choice, but I somehow end up with the key to the pavilion. I could question this decision based on my fondness for Thunder Island Brew Pub, Dave and his beers. Thankfully they close early so I close early and meet Becky at 4 a.m. for breakfast and lunch setup. Now you can say with certainty that I’m the dumbest guy in Cascade Locks.

Not really. Helping Becky and her crew is highlight time. However, I do have a couple of questions. Is unclogging toilets part of my job description? Why do the back country horse ladies seem to do all the real work while the horsemen sit in the back of the tent? Actually, they did stand up and take a bow when thanked for preparing the meals, so maybe my question is not totally fair.

The horsemen intrigue me and the gear they have in the cook tent blows me away, especially the huge skillet and the pull-along cooking trailer. If you are interested in hosting a garden party, in charge of your class reunion or planning a wedding reception, I just might find you a good deal.


When things turn quiet they turn quiet. It is some time Saturday post breakfast. Classes are in the field and it seems like, well, a lot later than 9:30 a.m. Hopefully the food committee won’t figure out that I’m 20 percent of their coffee bill.

Tammy (the boss) Turner, our leader in absentia, calls to report she has gotten a complaint about a loud party on the island the night before. OK, I could be a suspect, but remember I’m bunking off campus and went to bed early. Dennis and I tell Tami (onsite boss) Keller-Sheets, that we will investigate. Good detectives that we are, Dennis and I quickly find a large tent surrounded by empty Jack Daniels bottles and empty Rainer beer cans. After meeting with Mayah Frank, our Port of Cascade Locks landlord, we determine the offender was not part of our TSC. Dennis and I already knew trail workers are well mannered people.


I count and recount the raffle pot and see we’ve topped last year’s $738. I even have tickets I’m holding for people that can’t be present for the drawing. I’ll promise anything to raise money for PCTA. Wow, I’m thinking I’ve done my job until Amazing Amy thinks we should go for a grand. We coax the crowd until we reach $1,002. Wow! The money will go a long way towards hosting the event next year.

The raffle, what fun, is supported each year by organizations and businesses that donate gifts and services, plus the fantastic support of all those buying raffle tickets. Amy romances the swag, I pull numbers and everyone has an hour of fun. Amy and I, emcees, especially have fun. How often do you have a chance to tease people and get by with it? Well, we were giving them stuff. Oh yes, one of the tickets I was monitoring won and I actually mailed the items to the winner.


As you can see, the committee works hard, but we have our fun, too.  On a serious note, Trail Skills College is important to the future of our trails, and that’s the real reason we all keep coming back to put on this event.  As I alluded to earlier we “oldsters” need to reinvent ourselves with “newsters,” not a real word, but a real need. TSC weekend allows trail lovers the opportunity to enhance stewardship of our trails and to pass on the passion.


What’s the line? Eat, sleep, repeat. Well Sunday is close. We have a few additional Sunday sign-ins and everyone heads to class. More quiet time, a lot like Thursday, but reverse order; tables down, chairs back, supplies boxed, floors mopped. Tami and I move outside because the day is beautiful and we want to keep the pavilion clean. We wait for boss Tammy and the classes to check in and everyone to head home.

Next year, you bet. See you on the Island.


Special thanks to everyone on the planning committee, representing multiple trail groups, who make TSC in Cascade Locks come together:

Tammy Turner, PCTA

Bob Arkes, PCTA

Dennis Beard, PCTA

Tami Keller-Sheets, PCTA

Becky Wolf, Back Country Horsemen of Oregon

Ryan Ojerio, Washington Trails Association

Curtis Smith, Trail Keepers of Oregon

Amy Tanska, Mount St. Helens Institute