Eating our way through the Northern Sierra at the 2016 Tahoe Trail Skills College

By Ben Barry, PCTA technical advisor

Every year, the Pacific Crest Trail Association offers a series of trail maintenance training events known as Trails Skills College. While many have told of the phenomenal instruction and potential for learning these events provide, few mention the potential for bloated stomachs and full bellies. This year’s Tahoe Trails Skills College was no exception. Donuts, Snickers bars and chili for all!

Ben Barry and fellow PCTA Technical Advisor, Connor Swift talk about building trails.

Ben Barry and fellow PCTA technical advisor, Connor Swift talk about building trails.

I’ve attended three Trails Skills College events and each has had a dedicated volunteer cook staff feeding folks with enough carbohydrates and protein to power them well through the weekend. Or in my case, they feed me enough candy to get me to teach these events with a whole lot of zip! Oh yes!

A good camp cooking breakfast gets us started.

A good camp breakfast gets us started.

Literally though, I’ve managed to eat enough sweets at these events to consistently make myself feel sick. Let’s run through my sordid history battling chocolate addiction on the trail. The 2015 Big Bend TSC came with an unreasonable amount of chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies, so much that I crawled into the back of my truck with a stomach ache. Volunteer camp cook Pebbles showed up to the 2015 Southern California TSC with four large trays of homemade brownies. Enough said. At this year’s Tahoe TSC I succumbed to a powerful amalgamation of candy bars, fudge and of course, more brownies.

Volunteers maintain the Pacific Crest Trail.

If an obligatory candy-induced stomach ache doesn’t appeal to you, know that if you show up at a PCTA volunteer event, the trusty camp cooks will be eager to feed you hearty meals like salad, sandwiches, BBQ, pasta, etc. But again, I recommend a steady stream of candy to keep you in a good mood and moving really, really fast! However, it should be noted that the vast majority of people attending these events come to learn about trail work and how they can help maintain the PCT. Still, don’t think even for a second that you could attend an event where I am present and not talk about food. My use of food analogies goes well beyond the classic “cake vs. toast” rock setting debate, and frankly, it’s unclear to me how anyone can talk about trail work without using food references.

Here’s just one example: Soil types vary greatly throughout the length of the trail but two types give tread more problems than others: andisols (volcanic soils) and aridisols (desert soils). These soil types act a lot like a cake baked without milk or eggs; they just crumble. Offered at this year’s Tahoe Trails Skills College was course 205: Tread Re-Construction. Tread reconstruction focuses on options to rebake that delicious tread cake into a stable, sustainable and delicious treat!

moving rocks to build a trail

Oftentimes, successful Tread Re-Construction students go on to take course 300: Rock Retaining Walls. Rock retention work can hold up eggless soil types for hundreds of years, but to build a proper wall you will need to set your foundation rocks via the ice cream method and build the subsequent tiers like a sandwich. (Preferably, a Rueben sandwich since those are universally known to be the best sandwiches ever and we want to build the best retaining walls along the PCT!)

digging a hole at the northern sierra trail skills college in 2016

Confused on ice cream and sandwich methodology? I don’t blame you. These skills are best taught in person, even better when led by experienced PCTA volunteers, staff, and partners. Take a look at the menu of upcoming volunteer projects and Trail Skills Colleges and grill your instructor on all the details.

using rock bars to move rocks on a trail